Kirsten Neuschäfer Wins the Golden Globe Sailing Race, Dubbed a Voyage for Mad Men
Neuschäfer made history this week, becoming the first woman and third person to win the Golden Globe, an impossibly challenging sailing race
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On the evening of April 27, as the sky darkened over the Atlantic coast of France, a 36-foot sailboat drifted slowly on a windless sea. South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer, 40, stood alone at the helm of Minnehaha, whose once-white hull had gone dingy with algae. An entourage of rubber Zodiacs, motorized crafts, and other sailboats surrounded her as a welcome into the Les Sable d’Olonne harbor. Their occupants were the first people she’d seen in months. She hadn’t stepped off her sailboat in 235 days.
The leisurely pace of the fleet belied the magnitude of the feat Neuschäfer had just accomplished. When she finally crossed the finish in the full dark of night, she became the first South African to win a round-the-world sailing event, and the first woman to win a circumnavigation race via the three great capes, crewed or solo.
And the Golden Globe is no average sailing race.
Where modern circumnavigation races like the Vendee Globe, BOC Challenge, and Whitbread Round-the World involve expensive, high-tech boats that race at high speeds and can evoke an elitist image of sail racing, the Golden Globe has only been held three times, and hearkens back to a simpler era. Competitors sail small boats, navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, hand-write their logs, communicate by radio, and cannot accept outside assistance. The original race was run in 1968 when nine men vied to be the first to sail solo, without stopping, around the world. No one even knew if a boat could survive 30,000 miles straight at sea, or what might happen to the mind of a sailor alone for so long.
Only one man finished. Twenty-nine-year-old Robin Knox-Johnston sailed back into Falmouth Harbor, in southern England, nearly a year after he’d left it. Along the journey, his water tanks polluted, the sails tore, and the self-steering broke. The radio malfunctioned a month and a half in, and his only contact was sightings from other ships to confirm he was still racing. The other eight competitors sank or abandoned the journey, most in spectacular fashion. Bernard Moitessier, the favored winner, slingshot a message onto the deck of a passing ship that he was abandoning the Western world for Tahiti. Donald Crowhurst sailed in circles while transmitting fake radio reports to fool the world into believing he was winning, then slipped into the ocean in an apparent suicide. The Golden Globe was deemed a voyage for madmen and it was not repeated.
It was only revived in 2018, and it’s a retro race in every way. The course follows the same dangerous route as the original race: from Europe down the coast of Africa, under the three great capes where the infamously violent Southern Ocean roils unobstructed by land, before returning northward along South America. Racers stop at a series of three gates along the way–Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Cape Town in South Africa, Storm Bay in Tasmania–to drop film. But they don’t leave their boats, making the race nonstop over the course of several months. Many in the marine community call it the greatest challenge in sailing. The 2018 race delivered its share of adventure: daring rescues of fellow competitors dismasted in a cyclone, a massive rogue wave that somersaulted one boat and left it slowly sinking three days’ voyage from the nearest help.
Neuschäfer finished sixth place to the first race gate in Lanzarote, The Canary Islands. But she soon cruised into the leading fleet to arrive second to the Cape Town, South Africa, gate. By day 164 of the race, 12 of the 16 entrants had dropped out or been forced to quit due to equipment failures, and Neuschäfer was first to make it around Cape Horn. She outran a storm and was barely able to speak through frozen lips on her weekly check-in call with race headquarters. Even after she sailed 100 miles through the night to rescue fellow racer Tapio Lenin, from Finland, who radioed for help after his boat suddenly sank in the Southern Ocean, Neuschäfer retained the lead. Over the last days of the race, Indian Abhilash Tomy tailed Neuschäfer in a tossup for first, until it became apparent on April 26 that Tomy would be unable to close the gap.
Throughout the race, Neuschäfer appeared uninterested in spotlighting her performance. Her communications were terse; competitors were required to send daily text messages for race media, and Neuschäfer’s often read only: Text. When race founder Don McIntyre asked her how she felt at having become the first woman to win a nonstop circumnavigation race, she said, “I entered as a sailor, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m a woman so… great,” and trailed off, appearing at a loss for more to say about it.
Jean-Luc Van den Heede, the 76-year-old French sailor who won the 2018 Golden Globe, says that such a challenge doesn’t discriminate on gender. The fact that a woman had yet to win it is largely due to the fact that women in sail racing are still rare; consider that throughout the vast majority of history, women were barred from working on sea ships at all. Van den Heede was on hand to welcome Neuschäfer to Les Sable d’Olonne. “In this kind of race,” he told me, “there’s no difference to me between a man and woman.”
Neuschäfer is no newcomer to improbable solo pursuits. When she was 22 years old, she cycled the full length of Africa: over 9,000 miles through jungles and the Sahara Desert. She’s an experienced Southern Ocean sailor who’s taken National Geographic and BBC film crews to wildly remote South Georgia Island—the lonely landmass that Ernest Shackleton sailed to, then famously crossed on foot to secure aid for his stranded men after his ship Endurance was crushed in sea ice. She says that, while solo sailing in the calm water of the tropics, she’ll sometimes drop sail and jump into the ocean, swimming away from the boat “to get that feeling of vastness, that sense of eternity.” Golden Globe race organizers have called her a “real loner, reminiscent of Bernard Moitessier”, the sailor from the first Golden Globe who abandoned the race for the tropics
Neuschäfer’s not the first groundbreaking female in solo sailing or racing. In 1988, Australian Kay Cottee was the first to circumnavigate solo, nonstop, and unassisted via the Southern Ocean. The following year, Tracy Edwards assembled the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race also via the capes. In 2005, Brit Ellen MacArthur became the fastest person to sail solo nonstop around the world, and in 2012 at 16 years old, Laura Dekker was the youngest person to circumnavigate alone.
And in 2018, at 29, Brit Susie Goodall became the first woman to race the Golden Globe. Goodall’s well-publicized status as the only woman took a mental toll on her, particularly when the circumstances of her rescue after her boat was pitchpoled in the Southern Ocean abruptly flipped the public narrative around her from lone heroine to damsel in distress. The situation also highlighted the few roles women have traditionally been allowed to occupy in cultural narratives.
Of Neuschafer’s win, Goodall says, “She’s made history. And that’s amazing. But what she’s done also speaks for itself. The sea doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman. Anyone finishing a race like that is amazing.”
Some would argue that we’re past the point of needing to label female accomplishments and firsts; that rather than leveling the existing playing field, such emphasis only serves to create a separate one. And as women’s accomplishments stack up, it can seem as though barriers to entry and skewed participation levels for women in the outdoors have been all but eliminated.
But just in February, French sailor Clarisse Cremer, who holds the current record for fastest woman to sail solo around the world, was dropped by her sponsor in her 2024 bid for the Vendee Globe circumnavigation race after she gave birth to her first child, and “after race organizers introduced a rule change that penalized her for taking maternity leave,” The Times reported.
Katie Gaut, a sailor out of Bellingham, Washington who’s had her captain’s license for twenty years and teaches women to sail, watched the progress of the Golden Globe in 2018 particularly to follow Goodall and did the same with Neuschäfer. “I’ve been in the marine and sailing industry practically my whole adult life,” Gaut said. “It’s so male-dominated and there are very few women in boating, much less sailing. I know how hard it is just to get a sailing job locally. So watching those women do what they do at that level… I can’t imagine how many obstacles they had to surpass to get where they’re at.”
Gaut watched the live feed of Neuschäfer crossing the finish line. It brought her to tears. “It’s empowering for myself, for every little girl, for everyone out there that of course women are capable, and they can beat the guys. We’ve just never gotten the chance because there are too many hurdles to even get to the start line.”