When an “old-school” mariner rolled into Durban this week talking about her ocean odysseys, the news brought ripples of excitement to the local sailing community.
Given Kirsten Neuschäfer’s accomplishments at sea, she was understandably well-received at the Point Yacht Club on Friday as she shared tales of her voyage.
Fresh from receiving a string of awards in November, Neuschäfer’s address happened at the Point Yacht Club’s premises.
Most significant of the awards she bagged was being named female 2023 Rolex World Sailor of the Year and landing a Standard Bank Top Women Award 2023, ahead of some of the country’s leading sportswomen.
Neuschäfer burst onto the world sporting stage when she won the 2022 Golden Globe Race, the first woman to win a solo round-the-world event. No other woman had completed this yacht race before.
It also made her the first solo-sailing South African to win an around-the-world regatta.
What also set the victory apart was participants had to skipper their vessels minus modern-day technology and assistance, and sail non-stop, just as Sir Robin Knox Johnson did in winning the original race in 1968.
Golden Globe Races occur every four years. The only other occasion competitors sailed this event old-school style since Johnson’s triumph was in 2018.
“I’m very happy to have won,” she said. “I didn’t think much about being a woman. I just wanted to be an equal with the other 15 competitors and not in my own category.”
The race began and ended in France, and she finished 234 days later on April 27 this year.
“That was the greatest moment of my life, crossing the finish line on Freedom Day, waving the SA flag.”
Neuschäfer said sailing the old way meant using older boats and only 1968 technology. Electronically controlled devices and mapping systems were barred.
“It could take up to 10 months to complete this race in older boats (11 metres long) that have to be restored to handle stormy conditions, and they are slower. They are also less likely to outrun intense weather systems as modern boats do.”
Neuschäfer did the restoration and repairs on her yacht herself.
“It was a learning curve that gave me confidence because I knew I hadn’t cut corners in the build. Also, I felt assured I could fix breakages.”
Her extensive experience sailing solo left Neuschäfer feeling comfortable with the solitude the race brought.
However, it was disconcerting when there was no wind for two weeks.
“I couldn’t move the yacht. There was nothing I could do, not even fire up my engine. I was in the doldrums around the equator. That was mentally challenging.”
While Neuschäfer enjoyed the exhilaration of sailing the bigger high-tech boats, she preferred the “old way” because of the ethos and philosophy of recycling old yachts, and doing away with computer screens and technology.
“There is something incredibly rewarding about getting around the world without switching on a screen for assistance and eventually seeing land where you expect it to be, just by measuring the angle between the sun and horizon and studying your compass.”
Neuschäfer, who has transported news crews from broadcasters like National Geographic and the BBC, hoped sharing her experiences and accomplishments would inspire others.
Independent on Saturday