Kirsten receives the Blue Water Medal from the Cruising Club of America at the New York Yacht Club in New York City.

ROUND POND – Last spring at this time there were lots of people following the progress of South African Kirsten Neuschafer, who was sailing MINNEHAHA in the Golden Globe Race, which is a singlehanded, non-stop race around the world. This race was first run in 1968 when eight competitors headed out from England with just one finishing, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. When the race was restarted several years ago the rules said that you needed a production boat no newer than 1988 and that you could only use technology that was available in 1968.

        As the competitors headed around Cape Horn and headed up the Atlantic, Kirsten was leading the fleet of just three boats. Two others had stopped for assistance but were still racing in the Chichester Class and 11 had been forced to retire. Kirsten’s lead was just 62 miles with 2,049 miles to go. She would hit the doldrums, slow to almost a stop for a couple of days, and without updates on the other two racers, she had no idea what her position was.

        Kirsten added, “I knew I was in the lead at the Horn. At the Falklands it was still okay. I got into a bit of a storm and I had to heave to for a little while and then I kept going and once I got probably about 4° south of the equator, I got stuck without wind for a long time. That’s when I did not really know anymore where I was in terms of the rest of the fleet.”

        When she came toward the finish line she still did not know where in the fleet she was, but when she crossed, she was told she was first to finish. “It was quite a shock because I had been stuck for so long in the doldrums, I did not think I stood a chance at all of winning anymore. As I was approaching the finish line, I saw a boat with a blue spinnaker and I thought it was Abhilash Tomy the Indian competitor and I thought that he is just ahead of me. Then I found out that it was just some random boat, fortunately. That was obviously one of the highlights, coming in and being told that I won.”

        What were some of the other highlights of the race? Kirsten added, “There were a lot of highlights so it is a difficult question, but one of them was definitely crossing Cape Horn. That was pretty special, especially talking to the lighthouse keeper of the Horn and him telling me I was in the lead. That was a pretty special moment.”

        Another was the rescue of Tapio Lehtinen on board ASTERIA 460 nm southeast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Kirsten said, “That was quite a different kind of thing that happened in the race. It broke the routine of it all up, I have to admit. When they told me that he was in distress and that I was the closest to him at that point in time, I had to break all of the rules that otherwise applied in the race. I opened up my grab bag to get my handheld GPS out and if there was no wind, I switched on the engine, because they said do whatever you need to do to get to him as quickly as possible. I spent all night on the helm and when I got to him out there in the middle of the ocean it was amazing because he was so incredibly positive. I had a GPS position for him, but it is actually amazing how difficult it is to see a little raft. Also, I was sailing towards the east and approaching his position around sunrise. The light was just behind him and I just could not see. He could see me, so he was on the VHF and he kept saying alter your course in this and that direction. It was maybe an optical illusion, as he was sometimes leading me off course a little bit. He even fired off two flares. I could not see either of the flares. The parachute flares are just not a benefit in the daytime. The smoke flares, which he did not have, would have been probably more effective. We were laughing about it and saying, I guess one has to just stick with a GPS position at the end of the day.

        “At the end I found him,” continued Kirsten, “and he was ready. He had a line to throw over. I did not have to do anything. He got a line across to me and I could pull him alongside and that was kind of the most critical part.”

        Kirsten became good friends with Tapio, saying, “He was one of the people I would probably get along with, of all of the people in the race. He was also one of the first people I approached, just to say that I had entered the race because he was a previous competitor in 2018. The first thing he said was, ‘I will send you my book,’ which he did. I really admired how positive he was. He is actually a better person than anyone realizes, unless you get to see him under those circumstances. He was joking, laughing, and smiling. There was nothing about self-pity or he was a victim because his boat sank or he is depressed because he is out of the race. No, nothing, he was just incredibly positive.”

        What was the cause of the sinking? Kirsten asked Tapio “Did you collide with an object or something? He said no because the water had come in from the back. He had been lying in his bunk with a net over him to prevent himself getting flung out of his bunk when he heard what sounded like a big crack, and the water came in like a flood from the stern. He said he was finding his way out from underneath the netting and by the time that he was standing on the cabin sole, the water was already up to his knees and rising really quickly. He just had enough time to grab his grab bag and get his survival suit on and out.”

        Kirsten added, “They don’t know exactly what happened. He had a watertight bulkhead in the stern and thought that maybe one of the thru hulls had been leaking and filled up that compartment. That compartment wasn’t full of foam or anything. Then eventually the pressure was just too much for the bulkhead and it had given. Later on, they felt that he might have been lifted onto an object by a wave and it struck at the back. There is another theory that his hull might have sprung a huge crack because he had a new rig that was extremely strong, very tight. He was doing well; I mean he was moving really fast. So obviously he was pushing the boat and that maybe there was just so much pressure, something gave in the hull.”

        Tapio had a second grab bag, but where it was placed behind the head, he could not reach it due to the level of the water. “He told me when he was on board for the hour or whatever before the ship came,” continued Kirsten, “I better move mine to a more assessable place. I already had mine in sort of a quarter berth, very close to the companionway, but over time it had been wedged in by other things. I got it to the top again, so if I did have to grab something they would be the first things to grab.”

        Kirsten did not suffer any major issues with her boat. She said, “No major problems. I broke a spinnaker pole and I kind of knew that was a possibility. I had two spinnaker poles when I left Canada and I broke one between Canada and Cape Town. I replaced it, but kept the original, and that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. If I had not broken that spinnaker pole, I would have been hitting full speed in the best direction down to Cape Horn and I would have gotten into a really bad storm. Instead, the pole broke and I ended up going on a different course and slowing down altogether. So, it was a good thing that broke.

        “In one of the storms,” continued Kirsten, “I had relatively big waves coming over the stern. I was dragging a wrap behind the boat, just to slow down a little bit and I had the wind bent briefly and the rudder got completely rotated. It was a blessing that it rotated rather than broke. I could realign it and then my hydrogenator broke on that same wave. I could fix those and then the only other problem I had was my bowsprit, the cross-iron in front was starting to eat into the wood below. What most people say is that I got 45,000 miles sailing that boat really hard with that bowsprit and in the end, it wasn’t going to go anywhere. When we took that cross-iron off in Les Sables d’Olonne we needed two 5-ton jacks, sledgehammers, and all sorts of things to get it off.”

        Kirsten was extremely pleased with the work that had been done getting the boat ready for the race on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Kirsten added, “Most of the success I can credit to that work that we did there because we really worked hard. As most refits tend to be, this one turned out to be much bigger than what we thought. We took no shortcuts. We spared no expenses. We use the best materials we could and thanks to those at Prince Edward Island, strength was our main focus rather than speed and making the boat lighter.”

        Kirsten rather be at sea all alone for months without any contact. It is a way of life that others have trouble overcoming in a race of this duration. This way of life came to a crashing halt when she crossed the finish line and won one of the most prestigious ocean races against 15 other competitors. “It was definitely quite a shock to the system,” said Kirsten, “because I never thought beyond the finish of the race. What happens if I do win? I had not thought of any of that. When I got to the end of eight months of solitude at sea, I suddenly had a whole lot of people around me. I am not a limelight person. I am actually quite a private, anonymous person in my normal life. It has calmed down a little. I am getting to a point where I am really sort of yearning back to those days of solitude out at sea, but on the same token, I do remind myself of how positive it has been. All the feedback, all of the encouragement and support, and everything else. I had so many people help me get to the starting line so it is a little bit of payback time and people are interested in hearing the story.”

        It was interesting from a media aspect that almost all the sailing publications and major newspapers did not cover the race until it looked as though Kirsten had a good chance to win. When I first met and interviewed Kirsten in 2020, I knew when I left that she had the ability and mindset to win this race. Some enter races such as this just to be in it, but others are in it to win. It is all about the mindset and that needs to start when you enter so no stone is left unturned. Kirsten added, “I was really in it to win it. It helped to have someone like Knight [Coolidge] to say if you are going to be entering a race, you are going to do it to win. I wished I would have had more time for him to school me on racing, but he definitely schooled me into the attitude. Like from the word go, you are going to talk like you are going to win it, like you are capable of winning. That was a good thing, because that affects your own mind at the end of the day. If you are in it to win it is going to affect every step from now onwards, what boat you choose and if the boat you choose is more expensive and might have more work that needs to be done. Whatever it is, you will do the extra work, you will raise the extra funds and buy the boat that you want to. You are not going to buy just whatever is on your doorstep and affordable. That is how my mindset ended up being.”

        With the end of the race came a financial issue like most sailors’ face at the end of such an event if not fully sponsored when they set off. Kirsten did owe some debt and said, “I am still in debt, but I had an incredible amount of support from GoFundMe. All of those people would privately make small or big donations and that was immense because that meant coming back into the real world. I had some money to start off with. The other thing is the debt is private, so it is not like I have anyone holding a gun to my head to pay it off with heavy interest. I should really be selling the boat and paying off the debt, but I am still holding onto it. The idea is to lease the boat to someone who wants to do the next GGR. It would be fun to see that boat go around again.”

        This would give her the funds needed to pay off the debts.

        Winning one of the most prestigious singlehanded yacht races and adding in the rescue, came a number of awards. Kirsten was named the Yachtswoman of the Year, won the Rod Stevens Award for the rescue, and while she was here in the State of Maine, the Cruising Club of America gave her the Blue Medal Award at the New York Yacht Club on 12 March. She has also won a couple of awards in Europe.

        When asked would she do it again, “I don’t think so, because I set out to win it and I have achieved that goal,” said Kirsten. “Now I feel like I could move on to something else. I am not really inherently a racer; I am actually more adventurous. I am not saying that I will never do other races again, but it is not really foremost in my mind. I would love to do the Northwest Passage. If I didn’t have some debts and I did not have responsibilities. If I didn’t have to go back home, I would jump onto MINNEHAHA and cruise over from Europe via the Faore Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Then I’d do another little refit here, just install some heating, and then go through the Northwest Passage. I remember from my days down in the Southern Ocean in MINNEHAHA without heating. It wasn’t so much the cold as the damp and the mold that I would really like a heater for.”

        So, now it’s back home and catch up with things there. Her father is ailing and she has a home that needs some attention. She also said that she has written down some of her experiences. She had a few publishers contact her but has not committed. She said, “I would like to work on a potential book project. One of the other reasons why I did not sell MINNEHAHA immediately is that I thought that if there is a potential documentary to be made, it might be nice to have her to recreate some of the footage. I have been speaking to a couple of producers and who knows maybe something will go forward with that as well.”

        One can bet that it will not be long before she is back on MINNEHAHA and heading out onto the ocean for a long, peaceful cruise.