CommentCrimson flares dyed the evening sky a blazing red as Kirsten Neuschafer guided her sailboat into the French port of Les Sables-d’Olonne on April 27. Eight months earlier, she had left this harbor as the lone woman in a 16-entrant, around-the-world race in which solo competitors were required to use 54-year-old technology and prohibited from making stops.
During 235 days at sea, Neuschafer had only a vague knowledge of her place in the standings of the Golden Globe Race. When told by event organizers that she had won, all she could do was stare in surprise and blurt, “Really?”
Since leaving her family farm outside Pretoria, South Africa, as a teenager, Neuschafer, 41, has led a life of endless adventure: hitchhiking on ships to the Arctic, training huskies in the icy wilderness, bicycling across Africa and leading sailing expeditions to the bottom of the globe. But she had never done anything quite like the Golden Globe Race. Very few have.
This was only the second Golden Globe Race since it was revived in 2018 as a replica of the famous 1968 venture by the same name during which nine men attempted to circle the planet in sailboats. (Only one completed the circuit, and another was declared dead by suicide.) It’s less a competition and more a fight to keep mind and boat intact while sailing with only instruments and communication devices available in 1968.
Following the course that headed south after leaving France, before heading east to sail past the southern tip of Africa and continuing south of Australia and South America and finally turning back north to return, competitors paused at just four designated spots to check in with race officials in nearby boats. Even then, the sailors aren’t allowed to leave their boats and can’t take on supplies, relying instead on whatever they packed before the trip. Aside from satellite phones used for emergencies, they are essentially on their own.
“These people are f—— crazy,” Neuschafer’s friend Alicia Biggart said.
When Neuschafer first heard about the Golden Globe Race in 2019, her first thought was “that it seems kind of cool.” But that was before she set off last Sept. 4 in a 36-foot boat she helped rebuild.
Her friends worried she would return feral with wild eyes and ragged hair. Instead, she glowed in her fiery welcome at the finish line tooting a small plastic vuvuzela and seemed very much like a woman at peace.
“It was actually nine out of 10 times quite enjoyable,” she said by phone from Les Sables-d’Olonne, where she has been recovering from the trip. “I really enjoyed the last few months being one with the ocean.”
Neuschafer’s friends have long been amazed by her ability to spend weeks alone on her many excursions and then return as happy as when she left. They love her curiosity. They are amazed at her fluency in English, Afrikaans, German and French and deep understanding of several more languages, including some they had never heard of. Mostly, though, they are dazzled by her stories of adventure, most of which have to be solicited because she never brings them up herself.
Such as how, at 19, while on a visit to Finland, she was struck by a desire to see the Arctic and went around the local port offering to peel potatoes in exchange for a ride north.
Or how she stayed for two years in northern Finland, working as a wilderness guide, carrying a gun in case a polar bear pushed its way into her tent.
Or how, at 22, while traveling in Portugal, she decided to bicycle home to South Africa, crossing from Spain to Morocco by ferry and cycling down back roads with little more than a small tent, a water purifier, a portable stove and a pocket knife.
Or how people in the remote villages along the way rushed to see her, intrigued, she said, “by the White woman bicycling across Africa.” Or how in one particularly hidden part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, she contracted malaria and slept for three weeks in a hut with a family whose father, on the day she left, called her “my White daughter.”
Or how she spent the next several years working for a sailboat charter company, leading film crews on wildlife excursions around South Georgia Island and Antarctica.
“She’s just very uplifting,” said Erin Ranney, a photographer and videographer who spent a month with Neuschafer on one of those trips. “She would walk me through so many things and help me to realize I could do them.”
Neuschafer first heard of the Golden Globe Race in 2019, when she took one of the charter company’s boats to Maine for repairs. She initially hesitated about entering. She didn’t own a boat, and the cost of buying and preparing one for such an ordeal would be more than $300,000. She wasn’t independently wealthy like many of the Golden Globe Race entrants who sent their boats to expensive repair yards to be refitted.
It took urging from a group of friends in Maine, including Biggart, who offered to help her find sponsors and donors before Neuschafer finally signed up. She spent weeks looking for the right boat, falling in love with a Cape George Cutter 36 in Newfoundland named Minnehaha, after the wife of the Native American adventurer Hiawatha in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”
The name seemed to fit. She bought Minnehaha in late 2020 and hoped to sail somewhere warm to begin the restoration when winter weather forced her to stop on the north shore of Prince Edward Island in January 2021. Trapped there as the harbor froze over, her friend network put her in touch with Eddie Arsenault, a local boat builder, who pulled Minnehaha from the water and took her by lobster boat trailer to a repair garage on his property.
Neuschafer told Arsenault about her around-the-world race. He told her it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and said he would help her refurbish Minnehaha.
“She had a long list of things to do,” Arsenault said. “But soon it doubled and tripled.”
They installed new deck flooring and strengthened the mast, creating contingencies in case something broke during the race. They remade cabinets to gain extra storage space and replaced nearly every bolt and hook.
“Each time we did one thing, it was like opening a can of worms,” Arsenault said.
The work took almost all of 2021, and at times Neuschafer felt deflated because there was so much to do. But years sailing the rough southern seas had shown her the advantages of having a strong, heavy boat as opposed to the lighter, faster boats of her competitors. She saved space for 100 jars of premade meals donated by French chef Jean-Louis LeClerc and for nearly 100 books.
And when she and Arsenault finished, she knew every piece of her redone boat in detail. When something broke on Minnehaha, she would know how to fix it.
It would be months into the race before Neuschafer realized how much those efforts had paid off. One by one, the other skippers gave up, their boats damaged. Two quit with broken self-steering systems; one left with rigging problems; another broke his bowsprit. Alone, with scant contact and few indications from the race directors, Neuschafer sailed along, oblivious to the others’ troubles.
“I was enjoying my solitude,” she said.
She fell into what she called her “routine,” rising early to watch the sunrise and set her direction with the position of the morning sun. She walked the boat looking for signs of scuffing, she adjusted her sails, she napped in the afternoons and kept watch for cargo ships in the evenings.
She never felt alone. She knew her friends were tracking her progress on the race’s website. That gave her peace.
Mostly, though, she read.
She read historical novels written in Afrikaans by Dalene Matthee. She read “The Bookseller of Kabul” in English and a Spanish translation of “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Wanting to learn Xhosa, a language spoken primarily along South Africa’s southern and east coasts, she brought Xhosa lesson books and a Xhosa dictionary.
When a day seemed particularly bleak, she found calm in reading chapters from “The Long Way,” a book written by Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the original 1968 Golden Globe Race who took to yoga as a means of coping with the trip’s loneliness.
Neuschafer also read, in Finnish, a book written by another competitor, 65-year-old Tapio Lehtinen, about his odyssey in the 2018 Golden Globe race. That familiarity made it even more shocking when, three months into the race, a series of alerts came across her satellite phone saying Lehtinen’s boat had sunk and he was floating on a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Contacting race organizers, Neuschafer learned she was the closest entrant to Lehtinen. Temporarily abandoning the race, she unsealed her phone, activated the GPS and turned on Minnehaha’s engines, sailing all night without sleep to reach him.
“You have no idea how difficult it is to find a life raft in the ocean,” she said.
Fortunately, Lehtinen spotted Minnehaha’s sails. Once Neuschafer helped him on board, they drank glasses of rum and toasted his survival. Soon after, Lehtinen was transferred to a cargo ship, which also had rerouted in search of him, and Neuschafer resumed her journey.
As 2022 turned to 2023, Minnehaha held strong. Competitors kept dropping out until she was one of just three remaining. As she neared the end, she hit windless doldrums near the equator and sat for almost two weeks. She was distraught, certain the others had passed her. To cope, she took long swims away from Minnehaha until the boat was a speck in the distance, before turning back.
When the winds finally picked up, she sailed on for France, determined at least to finish. That’s when she received the surprising news that she had won.
The first few days after race’s end in Les Sables d’Olonne were like one long party. So many of the people she had come to know from South Africa and Maine and Prince Edward Island and everywhere else had gathered to see her. At first, she was overjoyed, but after a week, she fell sick with the coronavirus. Eight months alone at sea had diminished her immunity.
As she recovered, she contemplated her trip and was struck by a sense of emptiness.
“It’s funny, what a strange feel time gets when you do something like this,” she said. “It’s been an all-consuming project since 2019 to getting across the finish line. I don’t think it’s hit me yet that it’s all over.”
She wants to go home to South Africa. She wants to see her father, who has been ill. She wants, too, to work on Minnehaha, replacing all the pieces that had worn during the journey. Then, she will part with the boat that became her friend on the empty ocean. She will not do the Golden Globe Race again. The second time would never be the same.
“I guess I will have to sell her,” Neuschaefer said of Minnehaha, a tinge of sadness in her voice. “That was the thing all along, wasn’t it? Once you have the privilege of owning her, it’s time to pass her along to someone else.”
She knows the boat, once repaired, will be worth more than the $65,000 she paid for it, especially with the prestige that will come with having been the winning vessel of the Golden Globe Race.
“She had the ultimate sea trial!” Neuschafer said, with the laugh of one of the few people on the planet who could understand.