Feb. 2/2023: I’ve been waiting since the 1990s, when I developed a crush of sorts on Isabelle Autissier, for a woman to win an around-the-world solo sailing race. A tantalizing prospect! This is the toughest, most extreme sport there is, but it is also that great rarity—a sport where women and men compete against each other on entirely equal terms. I have always figured it is only a matter of time before a woman prevails in one of these events.
And that time may be coming. As of a couple of days ago, Kirsten Neuschäfer, a 39-year-old South African woman, has taken the lead in Don McIntyre’s Golden Globe Race (GGR), a “retro” non-stop race around the world intended to mimic the original 1968-69 Golden Globe. This comes as a result of attrition, as race leader Simon Curwen—a Brit, age 62, who was a good distance ahead in Clara, his Biscay 36—has suffered irreparable damage to his Hydrovane self-steering gear. He has been forced to abandon the race and is now making for the coast of South America.
Just prior to this, Kirsten, sailing a Cape George 36 named Minnehaha, and who has from the beginning been very determined to win this race, was bemoaning her fate. As the front-runners raced across the Southern Ocean between Tasmania and Cape Horn, Curwen’s lead seemed insurmountable, and an exclusion zone dictated by race management was preventing Kirsten from tracking further south in search of better breeze.
Positions as of this morning. Simon Curwen, in red, is headed for Chile to make repairs. Kirsten, in brown, is now the race leader. The orange box, lower left, is the east end of the exclusion zone stretching across most of the Southern Ocean. This is a race feature negotiated between GGR management and the International Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, to keep competitors within reasonable distances of SAR assets, in case of trouble. For much of the race across the Southern Ocean this year, unfortunately, the best breeze has been in the zone, and thus off limits
Simon aboard Clara, with the now defunct Hydrovane in plain view. It was damaged in a knockdown, and Simon was unable to get the boat to steer herself reliably downwind. By heading to shore for repairs he has demoted himself to the race’s Chichester Class, for those unable to complete the course non-stop
Kirsten aboard Minnehaha off Cape Town
So now Kirsten finds herself with just one other competitor to worry about. She has been neck and neck with Abilash Tomy, age 43, from India, for much of the race, but has now tweaked out a small advantage. Tomy raced in the last GGR and suffered a severe back injury when his boat was rolled and dismasted. He was trapped aboard for three and a half days, unable to move his legs, before he was rescued by a French vessel. Racing again this time in a Rustler 36 named Bayanat, Abilash recently reinjured his back and has been forced to sail more conservatively.
Abilash Tomy aboard Thuriya, the boat he sailed in the 2018-19 GGR. This was a replica of Suhaili, the ketch in which Robin Knox-Johnston won the original Golden Globe Race
Kirsten of course has a very long way to go to reach Les Sables d’Olonne in France, where the race started over 150 days ago. It may seem somewhat uncool that she now leads only because of Simon’s misfortune, but that is very much the nature of this game. Attrition rules. Of the 16 sailors who started this race, nine have dropped out entirely, two have been reduced to Chichester status, and only four are left fully in the hunt. One of the sailors forced to drop out, Tapio Lehtinen, of Finland, was in fact rescued by Kirsten after his boat, Asteria, sank in just five minutes. (Tapio was transferred to a cargo vessel, and Kirsten resumed racing.)
And I do seem to recall that my old heroine Isabelle, the first woman ever to compete in a solo around-the-world race, had a hefty five-day lead in the 1994-95 BOC Challenge when she was dismasted some 1,200 miles southeast of Cape Town. And she was vying for the lead, in and out of the top spot, racing hard against Christophe Auguin, when she lost a rudder in 1996-97 Vendée Globe and was forced into Cape Town for repairs. She was, arguably, the most gifted and most competitive solo sailor of her time, but also the unluckiest. It broke my heart that she was never able to win one of the big races.
Isabelle, back in the day, aboard PRB, the Open 60 she raced in ’96-’97 Vendée Globe
The next woman closest to the top podium step in one of these races was, of course, Ellen MacArthur. She finished second in the 2000-01 Vendée Globe, and for a while there, as they rounded Cape Horn and turned into the home stretch up the Atlantic, it looked like she just might overtake Michel Desjoyeaux.
And now… maybe, just maybe, fingers crossed… Kirsten will finish the job and come home first in her great race.
For more on Kirsten’s past experience as a sailor (it is impressive!) check out this link here. (All pix, except the last one, are courtesy of the GGR)