Minnehaha, Kirsten’s Cape George 36.

South African sailor and adventurer, Kirsten Neuschäfer earned worldwide acclaim for winning the “retro” Golden Globe Race around the world in 2023. She recently visited the Pacific Northwest, and gave a sold-out presentation in Port Townsend, where her boat was built. In this first portion of a two-part interview, 48° North Managing Editor Joe Cline and two-time R2AK-winning skipper, Jeanne Goussev, sat down with Kirsten to gain some insight into the sailor whose 235-day nonstop circumnavigation wowed the sailing world; but whose competence, temperament, and commitment to adventure make her accomplishment seem remarkably reasonable.

Joe Cline: You had a childhood dream of learning to sail. Would you elaborate on that?

Kirsten: I grew up inland, so I didn’t have that much access to water, but I loved water. On the odd occasion that I’d get to go sail on a dam because my parents had friends who had optimists or dabchicks, I knew I loved it. I also loved going down to the sea, and I loved traveling and exploring. Between that and reading stories about sailing and great explorers like Shackleton, I had this dream that it could be a cool thing to do someday.

What do you remember about your first experiences on those small singlehanded dinghies?

One very vivid memory is going out when we should not have been out. It was blowing 40 knots. I went out with my father and the whole bow was plowing into the waves. I remember just thinking, “This is the most amazing thing ever.” I could easily spend all day either in the water or on the water. It was just that feeling of moving with wind, of having fun. What’s cool about those boats is that you can send kids out without too much happening. As a kid you think, “Wow, this is up to me now, to figure it out, to get it moving.”

From those early experiences onward, what led you to want to do something like the Golden Globe Race?

It would pretty much be my whole sailing career (laughing). There was never a goal in my mind. I’ve always just been open to going and getting a job, enjoying it, going somewhere else, and finding a new challenge.

Looking back on it, everything I did in my later adult life in sailing was somehow part of the prep. I worked as a sailing instructor, delivery skipper, and as a charter skipper. All of those things, in their own way, contributed towards the experience to have the confidence to embark on the Golden Globe Race.

But what led me to it exactly, I can’t say, other than the inception of it in 2018 when it came back on the circuit. That’s what attracted my interest in it.

Jeanne Goussev: What was the big draw of the Golden Globe Race? Being on the water? Your relationship to the ocean? The boat?

It was a combination of everything. I love my job as a skipper, I love being on the water. I love sailing, the sport of it. I love that sailing is an adventurous thing, it’s a means of transport as well. For me, I had not been a racing sailor, I had been more of an exploratory sailor. So, one of the biggest draws was the challenge of it—after all the sailing I’ve done in my life, am I up for what seemed like the ultimate sailing challenge?

Jeanne: Is it finding your boundary? Seeing if you have a limit?

I think it’s pushing the limit. Or not even pushing the limit so much as pushing yourself to greater potential. I set a challenge because when I get too comfortable in a job, I want to do something new. A challenge like that is going to make you learn new things, new skills.

Joe: Speaking of those skills, on a race that allowed only late-60s technology—smaller boats, no GPS, no modern amenities like autopilots or sophisticated weather information—how much did your career prepare you for these more traditional skills of navigation and self-sufficiency?

A lot of my work entailed having an Ocean Master ticket, so you needed to have at least done a course in celestial navigation. But I’d never used it, so I did practice it before the race far more intensely than I would otherwise ever have done. That was another draw of this race, you’d be obliged to do it.

For the celestial, it was really a matter of ‘figure it out.’ I didn’t have anyone teach me. I had to just get out there and do it. However, a few of the old school sailors did tell me not to worry too much about it. Little words of encouragement that it’s actually not as complicated as it appears to be in the beginning were helpful.

Navigation without modern tools is a practice in discipline, and makes a sailor more observant.

I had spent a lot of time in the Southern Ocean, so I felt very comfortable with the idea of the weather patterns you will experience sailing down there. I felt very comfortable with self-sufficiency because of the work I had done where you needed to have stocked your boat properly and been pretty competent about fixing things.

I did learn new skills doing a really big refit that involved jobs I’d never done before, like major fiberglass work. Those weren’t necessarily things I knew I was going to have to learn, they were just the surprises along the way.

Having won the race, how do you think about the value of traditional skills in the modern cruising and sailing worlds?

We’ve got information at our fingertips all the time about weather and our position, whether it’s on land or at sea. A lot of people, including myself, can’t navigate through a city anymore without using Google Maps. So I think there’s actually a lot of value in trying to move away from it. Not cutting out the modern stuff, but it’s valuable to also feel like you can find your own way around the world without having an electronic device. It’s a really rewarding skill. It’s a good exercise in discipline, as well, and forces you to be more observant about what’s happening around you, rather than just having it all fed to you by way of the screen.

Your chosen boat for the race was a Cape George 36 that sailors here in the Pacific Northwest will be familiar with. How and why did you choose that as your vessel for the Golden Globe Race?

When I signed up, I really wanted to give it my absolute best to try and win the race. So, when I was choosing a boat, I did a lot of research and looked at various permitted designs and tried to figure out which boat I believed could be fast but could also be really, really strong. When the Cape George popped up on my radar, it seemed like I could have both those qualities. It could potentially be fast, although not everyone agreed with me on that point, because they said it’s a really heavy boat. But I like the idea of a heavy boat because when I was working down south and going to Antarctica, we did it on heavy boats. I knew the kind of seas you could encounter down there, and would be happy to be on quite a heavy boat in the Southern Ocean. And I just liked the idea of it being a different boat to any of the boats that people previously thought of for the Golden Globe Race. It seemed like people were fixated on the Rustler 36, thinking that would be the only boat that could competitively sail in that race. I like doing things my own way (laughing).

Other than it being heavy and capable, what attributes of the boat’s design made you think it would be fast?

Well, it was the longest on the waterline of all the boats in the fleet, which obviously makes it fast. And it also carries a lot of sail. It’s got a very tall mast and a very long boom, so the sail area can make up for the heavy displacement. What I really loved about it was that it has a really long bowsprit, which just seemed really cool for flying Code Zeros and spinnakers.

You mentioned your refit. What did that involve?

We stripped all the teak off the deck for one, because it looked like some of the bungs had popped out and there might have been leaks. We also did this to access the bulwarks, and we pulled those because they were rotten. Those were two really big jobs. We also put on external chainplates—really strong external chainplates with massive backing plates on the inside—to make the rig stronger. We changed it from having one backstay to having a double-backstay, again keeping in mind what will happen if the boat gets capsized.

We replaced the whole rig. I got Minnehaha with the original wooden rig, and we put an aluminum mast and spars on with new standing rigging and some new running rigging.

I redid a lot of the electronics, rerunning cables and redoing the terminals. We redid a bit of old plumbing. Then there were basic other things—putting on a liferaft bracket, repairs here and there, and certain things you had to do because the race required it, like putting in a watertight bulkhead. In all, it was one solid year of building and improving and fixing.

Jeanne: I loved your mast steps all the way up the mast. Were there other modifications because you were singlehanding?

Yeah, super useful when you’re on your own and you want to get up there quickly. One thing is that we didn’t want a kicker or a vang. We put in a permanent jibe preventer that also doubled as a kicker. That ran to the cockpit, so you never had to go rig a jibe preventer. It was just a matter of if you were going to put on the port or the starboard one. Little things like that made it easier, but otherwise it was standard slab reefing at the mast, and a lot of going to the deck for hoisting spinnakers or whatever.

Joe: When you were finally sailing Minnehaha, what were your first impressions?

Well, my first sail was a pretty rough one. It was out in the northern Atlantic in winter, so my first sail was in 50-plus knots. I remember being anxious going out in those conditions, and being pretty impressed with how well the boat handled it and what speeds she got. My first passage was from Canada to Cape Town, and I got into Cape Town much quicker than I expected. All around, I was just impressed with the boat.

Tell us about your sail inventory for the race?

If you had one mast, you were allowed 10 sails. If you had two, you could have 12. I was in the one-mast category. I had my three working sails, of course—the mainsail, staysail, and working jib. My working jib was quite special, it was a twin working jib. So it was on one roller furler system, but it was basically symmetrical wings, so you could haul them out in two directions. There were two 4oz sails, so if you were not using it poled out, you’d have one against the other like one sail with two sheets. And then I had a single sail as well, in case I didn’t want to use the double sail. This was a fortunate thing because I eventually broke one of my spinnaker poles and had to switch over to the single sail. In addition, I had a Code Zero, an asymmetrical spinnaker, a symmetrical spinnaker, a storm jib, and a trysail.

The double jib is interesting, did it have a single bolt rope?

Yes, from what I heard, separate bolt ropes pulling different directions can damage the foil. So with a single, you’d furl it simultaneously from the cockpit, which made it quite a nice rig to have in the Southern Ocean.

But the idea really came from the race rules, which said that you had to have two spinnaker poles—then you could use them to rig a jury rig if you lost your mast. Another rule was that if you had two sails that were stitched together, they’d count as one sail. When I was discussing it with the sailmaker in Cape Town, he was reading the rules and said, if you’ve got two poles, wouldn’t it make sense to be able to use them both simultaneously?

Until that spinnaker pole broke, what’s your guess about the percentage of time you were actually using it as a double sail?

In the Southern Ocean, I was actually using it a lot. If we forget the rest of the Atlantic, I was probably using it maybe 65-70% of the time. I had a lot of time to play around with it on a long race. Initially, the idea was just to use it with the poles and without the mainsail up. But, I could also use it with the mainsail with only the weather wing poled out—that’s something I figured out at some point and also worked quite well.

How did losing the pole affect your performance?

Firstly, that was a bad thing because, if you can’t pole both sides out, the twin jib becomes a problematic sail. You can’t just pole both wings out to one side, you’re risking breaking another pole by doing that. But you can’t have the other wing not poled because then it jibes and puts strain on your rig. So it was actually very frustrating. I ended up having to alter my course and sail a little more upwind and sail with the mainsail up as well. I wasn’t holding the course I wanted to hold, and I wasn’t holding the speed because I was furling more so that when I did jibe, it wasn’t putting too much strain on my rig. I had to wait for a lull and swap sails out. Even after I’d switched to the single jib and was sailing standard wing-on-wing, I really missed the twin rig because I couldn’t keep the same dead downwind course.

Secondly, the twin rig had high-cut clews, so even in the Southern Ocean’s big rolling swell, the poles never touched the water; but the Cape George has a really long boom, so when you have the boom right out, it touches the water quite easily, especially in those kinds of conditions. That’s always stressful, you worry about broaches or the boom breaking.

235 days at sea—I assume that’s the longest period of time that you’ve been on voyage? What was different about this length of time at sea?

Without stopping, for sure. My longest up until that point was 67 days. It wasn’t that different, because I mentally psyched myself about it. I kept on telling myself that you reach a point of being alone at sea beyond which it doesn’t matter anymore whether it’s two months or eight months. I think you can persuade yourself about things like that. The strangest thing was sailing to the Cape Town photo gate, and passing land really close, but not going into port. Getting to Cape Town was about as long as I’d ever spent at sea in one go. So then not sailing into port, especially it being my home, and people being out in RIBs to say hi—waving at them and keeping going—was really weird, a bit of a mind thing.

Kirsten sailed more than 15,000 solo ocean miles on Minnehaha before she even got to the starting line of the Golden Globe Race.

Jeanne: Are there ways that you set mini goals for yourself?

There weren’t that many big milestones. The photo gates were all milestones because you check the box of going through that gate. My other milestones were big—crossing the equator or getting to the next cape. Mentally, a huge thing is not to think about arriving. You’ve just left Les Sables-d’Olonne, and you don’t want to be focused on just getting back to Les Sables-d’Olonne, or else you’ll just want to turn around or not leave at all.

Joe: When you did leave Les Sables-d’Olonne and you’re actually racing, what was it like settling into the rhythm of ocean sailing without all of those modern amenities?

It was actually quite easy because I had already done 15,000 miles on Minnehaha before the race started—from Canada to Cape Town, and Cape Town back to France. I did have GPS running parallel on those trips, but I was doing it with celestial. The difference when I left for the race is I didn’t have a GPS to verify my position. In the beginning, that made me a little bit anxious, like, “What if I get it wrong?” Especially in the Bay of Biscay and heading towards the Spanish coastline where there’s still land and you do have to get it right. I guess you settle into it.

Click here to read Part Two and hear more of Kirsten’s stories of the Golden Globe Race around the world!

Joe Cline is the Managing Editor of 48° North.