THOMASTON – Over the summer I had been told about a woman who was interested in doing the upcoming Golden Globe Race, which is scheduled to start in September 2022. We finally connected and set up to meet in early October onboard the sailboat PELAGIC, which was on the hard at Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding Co. in Thomaston. PELAGIC is no ordinary cruising sailboat, one could tell she was built for serious offshore sailing and living on board was Kirsten Neuschafer, a native of South Africa, who’s hope is to sail round the world in a vintage sailboat.
Kirsten was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. Because her father was German, she went to a German school there. Later, they would move to the coast, East London, and this is where she still calls home. Living away from the water is not how many people become interested in sailing. However, Kirsten’s father was an avid sailor and she added, “He used to take us sailing on dams, because we do not have a lot of lakes in South Africa. That is where they do recreational sailing and it was mainly dinghy sailing. I started sailing Optimists, Dabchicks and Hobie cats and then began working as a sailing instructor in East London. When I began to make a career out of it, I went over to your standard small cruising boats. I ran the sailing school there for quite a while and then I went over to doing coastal deliveries mainly on the boats that no one wanted to move. Owners had to move them for whatever reason, but don’t want to do it. I would usually spend a couple of weeks fixing them up, doing what they needed to get them moveable from one coastal town to the next. Living in East London is quite a strategic point, because between Durban and East London is 260 miles of wild coast. There’s no ports of refuge, no anchorages. Anyone sailing along that stretch of coastline usually starts in East London to wait for the next best weather window to get to Durban or coming from Durban they would wait in East London. I got to meet a lot sailors and some of them would do offshore deliveries. I decided that kind of sounds like a good thing to do and I got a foot in the door delivering catamarans they build in Cape Town.
The company building the catamarans is Robertson & Caine and the models are known as Leopard and are offered in sizes from 39 to 54 feet. “At the time, I think they probably were building about 50 a year which was really huge for South Africa,” explained Kirsten, “but they are now building probably 170 a year. Most of the boats go to the charter fleets like Moorings and Sunsail. At the time, there was a huge demand to get skippers and crew to take boats to wherever the destination was, but nowadays they actually ship them because they have such large shipments so they load them onto a cargo ship. It was a great job while it lasted because I went everywhere – Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, South America, North America, the Mediterranean, and France. You name it, it got me all over the world.”
“I did two deliveries where I went as first mate,” continued Kirsten. “I said, ‘Well, I feel confident that I know what needs to be done so I’d like to go as skipper,’ because obviously the salary is a huge jump. I skippered for many years. I did back to back to back deliveries where literally I’d get to Cape Town I’d get on the boat I’d spend a couple of weeks preparing it and testing it because the boats were brand new out of the factory and they often had teething problems, little faults that you had to find and get the factory to repair, and then we’d take them across. I’d get to the destination and we would spend a few days cleaning up the boat and doing a bit of sightseeing then fly back to Cape Town and skip straight onto the next boat.”
After a while Kirsten stopped doing the back to back deliveries and went back to school to study oceanography and did deliveries in her spare time. After finishing her first year Kirsten was in a real bad bicycle accident. “A couple of weeks into the second year I had a bicycle accident, which incapacitated me quite badly,” explained Kirsten. “I actually had a head on collision with a car, where the car turned in front of me. Fortunately, I put my arms up so most of the impact went through my arms otherwise I might have broken my skull or neck or something, but I broke my wrist, crushed both my elbows, broke my collar bone and I had a concussion. I could not use my arms so I could not go back. Then about two months down the line I was dying to do something again so I went back to sea. I took another delivery, which to me was the best physical therapy I could have ever hoped for. It really cheered me up and I got back into deliveries and working at sea and I didn’t go back to the university.”
“I had a very interesting delivery coming up just after that first delivery after the accident,” said Kirsten. “Just before I left on that delivery a friend of mine in East London said he had his boat in Portugal, which he cruised with his family on. They left the boat there and they had flown home because they wanted a little break and then he and his wife both got really good jobs. Four years later the boat was still in Portugal and he said, ‘The boat is costing us money we need to get it home.’ He asked me would I be willing to do the delivery at a reasonable price. I said to him, ‘I would but on the condition that I can do it alone. I want to solo sail a long distance. He said, ‘You can do whatever you want and take as much time as you want just get my boat back in one piece.’ So, I sailed on one of the catamarans with a crew to France then I went from France to Portugal and worked on his boat about six weeks getting it ready. I sailed across to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Brazil stopped everywhere went surfing, went sightseeing, had a great time and then eventually got the boat back to South Africa. It was an amazing experience, it was a really labor intensive boat because the sails were shot and kept on tearing and the engine was like an old fishing boat engine from the ‘70s and it didn’t work so I was really reliant on sailing. It had only a windvane, no fancy electronics. It was a really cool experience and I really like singlehanding.”
Leopard catamarans, which were sold in the Far East, Australia, or New Zealand, were sent on their own bottoms through the Panama Canal due to insurance issues. However, just after the accident they changed their policy and wanted to sail their catamarans on their own bottom to the east. Kirsten added, “One day they came to me and said ‘Would you be interested in taking a boat to Australia by the Indian Ocean?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have been waiting to sail that ocean for a long time. It is the pinnacle of sailing because it is such a vast, rough ocean. If you get down there you need to be on the right kind of boat and you need to know what you are doing. Just the idea of storm and heavy weather sailing really appealed to me because I kind of liked to be in the elements.”
Living in South Africa Kirsten had heard and read about the big ocean races, such as the Whitbread, BOC, and Vendee Globe. “I guess that was all for me really fascinating,” she said. “I knew of Skip Novak, the owner of this boat and his sailing to Antarctica, because Antarctica is another point of fascination for me since childhood. I had actually seen Skip Novak doing a slideshow presentation at the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town. I just thought if I get an opportunity to get onto one of his boats one day that would be another pinnacle in my sailing career. I first did the southern Indian Ocean trips and we got to these little islands, like St. Paul, and experienced some serious weather on catamarans that were actually built for the tropics. I finally managed to make contact with the skipper who was running this boat at the time for Skip Novak. I said, ‘I really want to crew on the boat’ and he said if there is a gap for you to come as a voluntary crew and you don’t mind paying for your own flights to join the boat and working for free, we will feed you but you have to work. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I will work if that gets me to South Georgia’ so that is actually what happened. He phoned me and said, ‘We have got a charter with four kayakers and if you want to come with us as the third voluntary crew be here on such and such date.’ I did and I ended up working three months voluntarily on this boat and loved it. I worked a season on PELAGIC AUSTRALIS and then I came back to this boat in 2015.”
The 54-foot PELAGIC was built for Skip Novak in England out of scrap metal in the mid-80s. She was designed for sailing in high latitudes and able to withstand ice conditions. She has a very strong rig, lifting keel and rudder and every inch of available space is utilizes for storage, mainly spare parts for everything on board. Over the five years Kirsten has sailed her to South Georgia, Falklands, Patagonia, Beagle Channel, Chile, Elephant Island, South Shetland Islands and Antarctica. “Last year in April we left Falklands on PELAGIC,” said Kirsten, “and we sailed by Bermuda to Maine and did a circumnavigation of Newfoundland. This year we were going to go back to Newfoundland and sail onto Greenland and then go to Baffin Island with a dive charter with archeologists, but because of Covid I have been on the dock in Thomaston all summer.”
It is obvious that Kirsten loves a challenge and thus became interested in competing in the Golden Globe Race when it was held in 2018. The first Golden Globe Race, a singlehanded non-stop race round the world, was held in 1968. Nine competitors were on the line and the winner, after 312 days at sea, was Sir Robin Knox Johnston in the 32-foot ketch SUHAILI. He was the only finisher, however one other after rounding Cape Horn continued onto the Southern Ocean and landed in Tahiti, rather than return to civilization. All the others retired for various reason, but the one most noted was Donald Crowhurst, who committed suicide after faking his voyage by sailing circles in the Atlantic Ocean.
First, Kirsten needed to locate a boat that would qualify under the rules for the race. She said, “I bought it in Newfoundland before the pandemic broke out. I did quite of bit of research with Knight’s (Coolidge) help. I tried to find a boat that would be permitted in the race, that would be both seaworthy and fast. In the last race I think there were six Rustler 36s in the race, three of them capsized including the winner but he didn’t lose his rig. First, second and third were all Rustler 36s. We actually found a boat that wasn’t pre-approved, but it met all the requirements and it’s a Cape George 36 that was designed by Ed Monk and built by the Cape George Boat Yard in Port Townsend in Washington. It’s an old design and they built a whole series of these boats, actually the boat yard still exists and they still build Cape George 31s right up to 36. Looking at the numbers she is probably the heaviest displacement boat of all the pre-approved boats, has the longest waterline, but it’s got a lot of sail area to make up for its displacement. It’s probably going to be a physical boat to sail, but all the reports are that it’s fast.”
All boats in this race must be a design that pre-dates 1988. They have to have been a production model with more than 20 of them built. No racers, cruisers, fiberglass, which sports a full keel with the rudder on the trailing edge. You can modify the boat, but only regarding strength, not speed. Kirsten added, “In terms of the participants none of them are necessarily racing sailors, like myself. I like racing, I like sailing competitively and getting a boat sailing as fast as it can. But, in my sailing career, doing deliveries and working on Pelagic boats, the emphasis has always been do not let anything break because it’s safety, safety and more safety. I am going to have to push myself a lot harder than I would ordinarily so I have got to find a good balance of being conservative in my choices and pushing the boat too hard so that I can actually survive the race and be fast enough to have a winning chance.”
The boat is still in Newfoundland but has been launched with the hope of getting her across the border to the State of Maine. However, the pandemic has created a major hurdle to overcome. Trying to navigate the rules and regulations imposed because of the virus has been challenging, but the hope is to sail her to the coast and make a transfer. Once the boat is here in Maine the focus will then be finding a yard to do the refit. Kirsten said, “My refit is going to be a function of money because I am obviously going to need sponsorship to get to the start line. I have quite a comprehensive refit list and what really needs to be done as a race requirement by the organizers. You need to have a collision compartment so I would rip out the bunks in the fore peak and turn that whole fore peak into a watertight collision compartment. One thing I didn’t like about the boat is it has ply deck with teak over it. I think the decks are in very good condition, but if I had the time and the money I’d rip that teak off and just glass it over so I could make sure that the deck are solid everywhere. I would like to change the way its rigged. It’s got the chain plates, they are long, flat strips of metal that are bolted onto the bulwarks and then the cap shrouds are attached to that. I would not trust that. I would change it to external chain plates even though it changes the aesthetics, but I think that would be a much securer shroud attachment. I’d put two roller furler units on it because it is cutter-rigged. I would replace the spars because my boat has wooden spars which are heavier and, they are not brand new so they are not in the best condition. I would want aluminum spars.”
After going over every inch of the boat to make sure it is solid and safe there is the addition of solar panels and the minimal electronics allowed by the rules of the race.
Like anything we do this all comes with a price tag, which Kirsten feels would be about $260,000. She said, “I have got quite a comprehensive budget optimized with refit work and equipment and everything down to flights. If I had $260,000 then I could do it comfortably and I would not have to cut corners.”
The race starts at Les Sables d’Olonne, France in September 2022, which is less than two years away. That allows adequate time for the refit and then long, long sea trials to get to know the boat as well as doing the 2,000 nautical mile qualifier. Kirsten certainly has the experience and ability to be competitive, as does the boat she chose, now the real challenge is raising the funds to do it.