Kirsten Neuschafer has plenty of Southern Ocean experience, which she hopes will be an advantage as she takes part in the 2022 Golden Globe Race

Having learned to sail off the Eastern Cape of South Africa, crossed oceans solo and sailed extensively in the Antarctic Peninsula, Kirsten Neuschafer is one of the most experienced skippers in the 2022 Golden Globe Race.

She also has one of the fastest boats. Her Cape George 36 cutter, Minnehaha carries 806 sq feet of sail, and was chosen to stand up to the heavy weather of the Southern Ocean.

She carried out most of the refit work on her boat herself in Prince Edward Island, where she became trapped during the COVID-19 pandemic, having sailed the yacht from Newfoudland. Her previous experience repairing and moving abandoned boats from the Indian Ocean port of East London in South Africa proved invaluable.

An aerial view of a Cape George 36 cutter yacht

Kirsten Neuschafer’s Cape George 36 cutter was launched in 1988 and was built at the Cape George yard in Washington. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer/GGR

Minnehaha comes to the race with a new mast and reinforcement plates around the spreaders and cap shrouds, chainplates, a new deck, hull fittings and bulwarks.

The 39-year-old also sailed the yacht singlehanded across the Atlantic from Canada to South Africa, before making her way up the coast to the race start at Les Sables d’Olonne, allowing her to carry out a proper shakedown sail and hone her storm tactics.

Before entering the race, Neuschafer worked for Skip Novak preparing and sailing his Pelagic Australis, to South Georgia, The Antarctic Peninsula, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands.

Prior to that we worked as a sailing instructor before becoming a delivery skipper for Leopard Catamarans in Cape Town, delivering boats to the Caribbean, North America, South America, Europe, the Mediterranean, Union Island, New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. This has also given her valuable experience of the Agulhas Current.

Kirsten Neuschafer enjoys the solitude of sailing singlehanded, and is looking forward to time alone on the ocean. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Kirsten Neuschafer enjoys the solitude of sailing singlehanded, and is looking forward to time alone on the ocean. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Why do the 2022 Golden Globe Race?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I didn’t know the 2018 race was happening until after it started.

Some of the seasons when working on Pelagic Australis could be 8-10 months, where you are underway most of the time and you have limited internet.

When the 2018 race was underway I was actually on a trip to South Georgia and one of the crew onboard kept on talking about the race; the more she was talking about it, the more inspiring I found it.

I had never really thought much about racing before because I thought it would be a pretty difficult industry to get into, especially hi-tech racing, and also extremely expensive.

When this race came up, which is quite different, it seemed like something I could attain if I wanted to, and I really liked the fact that it is a retro race.

The retro aspect is what appeals most to me.

What did you learn from the 2018 Golden Globe Race?

Kirsten Neuschafer: It was interesting watching the fleet start together and then all choose their own directions and routes.

It seemed to me Jean Luc Van Den Heede sailed a longer distance than anyone else which told me that getting the weather right is exceptionally important.

Sailor Kirsten Neuschafer up the mast of her boat

Kirsten Neuschafer has spent years preparing and sailing boats for the Southern Ocean, working for Skip Novak. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer/GGR

2018 was also dramatic with lots of capsizings, so for me the big focus was to be really well prepared, and focus on how you prepare your boat, how you reinforce your boat and what storm tactics you intend to use which will have to be tailor-made for your boat.

I’ve been in plenty of big seas and heavy weather with Pelagic Australis, but these boats are built for heavy weather conditions so when 60 knots come through thats ok.

With a cruising boat, which hasn’t been built for the Southern Ocean, a lot of thought has to go into strengthening [the boat] and storm tactics.

Once I have the boat back in the water, I will be going out to do some heavy weather sailing so I can see how this boat will react best in storm conditions.

What storm tactics do you plan to use?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I have certain ideas to test. In the past, I delivered a 32ft ferro-cement boat from Portugal to South Africa and one of those legs was from Brazil down to South Africa going into the Southern Ocean.

I left quite late from Brazil so it was going into winter and it was getting pretty stormy; I did a lot of heaving-to on that boat. That boat hove-to really well.

Before I went into the Southern Ocean, I practiced a whole lot of heaving-to techniques where you might have a trysail or a deep reefed mainsail up with a storm jib that is backed.

That didn’t work well for me, and then I read a lot about heaving-to. Some of the techniques you can do is to just heave-to with the main or with a storm jib, which you hank onto your backstay so you don’t ever move forwards.

Kirsten Neuschafer's longest solo passage to date was a 67 day delivering trip from Portugal to South Africa, with only windvane self-steering on an old and maintenance-intensive 32 foot ferro-cement sloop.

One of Kirsten’s longest solo passage was a 67 day delivering trip from Portugal to South Africa, with only windvane self-steering on an old 32 foot ferro-cement sloop. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer

The theory behind this is that you create a slick to weather on your boat, and this slick causes an interference pattern on the water which actually breaks the force of the wave, so when the waves come to hit you they are not as bad as they would be. They’ll break heavily off the bow and off the stern, but right on the beam they might not be quite as bad.

I practiced that technique and then used it on that Southern Ocean leg.

It was quite amazing because I would be down below at times, battened down and hoved-to and it would feel relatively comfortable, so that is definitely a technique that I think would work well on my boat, as it works particularly well on long keel boats.

That could be a really good technique for headwinds when the winds are not in your favour.

Sailor Kirsten Neuschafe up her mast with Table Mountain in the background

Kirsten Neuschafer learnt to sail off South Africa, giving her an advantage for tackling the Agulhas Current while approaching the Cape Town photo gate during the Golden Globe Race. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer/GGR

But in the Southern Ocean, the winds will be strong and in your favour, so it would be better to be able to ride those storms out and make headway with it, as it is a race and one wants to win.

I might consider using a Jordon Series drogue but at this stage, I almost prefer very, very long lengths of warp, with both ends coming off either side of the stern and with a very long bight.

There is a lot of testing and research and tweaking to do.

How are you preparing the boat?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I believe the Cape George 36 to be a good design for this race, which was why I was willing to take the risk of buying a boat that needed work.

We’ve stripped all the teak from the deck and there were certain deck leaks which we’ve now fixed. We’ve rebuilt the entire top level of the deck with plywood and then glassed the whole deck over. I know now the deck is now extremely solid.

We rebuilt the bulwarks so they are as solid as they come. When the Cape George 36 was built, the bulwarks were made out of wood and over the years, there would be water ingress into the wood, and the wood would start to swell.

A Cape George 36 cutter sailing at sea

Her Cape George 36 cutter is one of the fastest boats in the fleet, with 806 sq ft of sail area. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

This caused the bolts which bolted the bulwarks to the hull to start popping off and cracks would develop, which was the case with Minnehaha.

We’ve replaced the through-hull fittings, re-wired and re-plumbed.

The big strengthening work we’ve done is to remove all the narrow chainplates, which were bolted onto the inside of the bulwarks, and replace them with 10 external, over-specced chainplates, with massive backing plates on the inside of the hull.

We’ve changed the rig from a single backstay to a tandem backstay.

Golden Globe race skipper Kirsten Neuschafer wearing a green tshirt

For Kirsten Neuschafer the race is about the journey – enjoying the highs and the lows – and not just about finishing. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

We have done away with the 35-year-old wooden mast and now have an aluminium spar.

We had naval architects calculate the righting moment for the boat to determine what spar the boat could take. It is bigger than the original mast as, being aluminium it isn’t as heavy, but it is still in the range of what the boat was designed to take.

We are making all our own tangs and putting in reinforcement plates around the spreaders and the cap shrouds, so the focus is to make the rig as strong as possible.

For this race there will be no HAM radio transmissions allowed only registered, licensed maritime-approved HF Single Side Band (SSB) Radio, with discussions limited to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) weather. Weather Fax will be allowed for the race. Some of the 2018 Golden Globe Race skippers raised concerns about picking up GMDSS in the Southern Ocean. Do you share these concerns?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I am a bit concerned but I guess I have accepted that weather information will be very limited.

I will be making decisions based on what I know of the historic weather patterns and, if I get lucky, I might get a weather fax transmission every now and then. The rest of it will be a game of judgement and choices and luck. Luck is a really big factor.

The 2022 race has the Cape Town film gate drop.

A group of people standing on a ponton

Kirsten Neuschafer with her team ahead of the race start. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

I know Cape Town like the back of my hand and at that time of year, you can have three to four weeks of solid 30-40knot southeasters, which will be totally against you. There are also currents off the continental shelf around Cape Town.

If it wasn’t for the film gate drop, I would have avoided that coastline like the plague unless I intended to make landfall.

It really will be a question of luck. If you get there and there is a bit of a southwester, you are going to get around the cape after the film gate drop and you will be on your way.

But if you get there in a southeaster, you will be heaving-to or have to go back in a westerly direction to get away from the currents and weather.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede consulted meteorologists and studied the weather to choose the best route which helped him make early gains in the 2018 race.  Do you plan to do this?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I’ve already been looking at the weather quite closely for the legs and I will definitely be studying the historic data. I will also get professional routing ahead of time.

Once I have worked out the polars for my boat, I will give that data to a professional, probably Stan Honey, so he can work out the optimal routing.

Kirsten Neuschafer has made no secret of her plans to win the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: JOHN SNYDER/MARINEMEDIA.BIZ

Kirsten Neuschafer has made no secret of her plans to win the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: JOHN SNYDER/MARINEMEDIA.BIZ

I have got a weather fax and I will try and link it to the SSB antenna and see how well I can get weather information.

I guess that is the interesting thing about this race, there is a very large element of luck!

Are you confident that you will be on the start line in 2022?

Kirsten Neuschafer: Yes. I still lack a lot of funding as I’ve had minimal sponsorship. At this stage I only have one corporate sponsor, CPO which came at a critical moment.

But, it is not anywhere near the budget for this race so, at this stage, I have made a lot of debt, and I am willing to keep making debt to get to the start line.

Although I don’t have the funds I need to get to the start line, I am extremely confident that I will get there as I don’t believe I won’t make it.

COVID has made it extremely difficult [to get sponsorship] but I am very lucky that I’ve had a massive amount of private support via my Go Fund Me page.

Without this support, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Kirsten Neuschafer has carried out most of the refit work on her Cape George 36 cutter herself. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Kirsten Neuschafer has carried out most of the refit work on her Cape George 36 cutter herself. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Are you looking to win or get round?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I am looking to win through and through.

From the outset it wasn’t a question of taking any boat that was available and in my price range; it was to choose a boat that I believe can win and can survive the Southern Ocean, and then get that boat at any cost, no matter how much work.

Everything I do now is towards winning.

The only issue I have is I’ve lost so much precious time, but that is not deterring me from the fact that whatever I do onwards is towards winning the race.

Whether I can or can’t is a totally different question.

What self steering set up are you planning to use?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I have got a new Hydrovane, which was paid for by a private supporter.

Most of the windvane steering I’ve done before has been with windvanes that work with a servo-pendulum, which steers the boat with its own rudder, while the Hydrovane steers the boat with the auxiliary rudder.

It also has less moving parts which means there is less stuff which can break, which is a huge consideration.

Two women hugging on a deck of a boat in Cape Town

With her mother in Cape Town, while sailing to the start of the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer

The Hydrovane fared pretty well in the 2018 race.

The boat design I have is reputed for holding a course really well, so it tracks exceptionally if you balance it properly under sail.

Just in the five weeks I spent sailing the boat, I could tell that it is pretty light on its rudder and it really holds its course well ,so I thought an auxiliary rudder would be able to steer the boat.

What antifouling will you be using?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I have not decided yet but I am limited to the products available in Canada, probably one of the Interlux products.

I want to put a couple of layers of antifouling on now and then re-antifoul the boat just before the race.

I plan to use an antifoul which will be compatible with whatever product I choose for the final antifouling, which will have to be done in France.

Golden Globe Race skipper Kirsten Neuschafer on stage

Kirsten Neuschafer will have to sail around the world without the benefit of modern technology, like GPS and chartplotters. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

How is your celestial navigation going?

Kirsten Neuschafer: It is not something I am excessively concerned about.

I need to practice it, as it is only something I’ve done while I’ve been at sea, with time to kill and it interested me. I’ve never had to rely on it.

I feel it is just a question of getting into the routine of doing astronav so it becomes second nature.

You have plenty of solo experience. Is isolation something you can cope with?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I am not worried about isolation. The longest I’ve spent at sea alone is 67 days, but it didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel I was craving company.

I found ways to deal with that solitude and one of the ways was to read, because you are reading someone else’s thoughts.

It is almost like having a dialogue except you are not talking but reading what someone else has to say. I also wrote.

Minnehaha has been fitted with Hydrovane self-steering. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Minnehaha has been fitted with Hydrovane self-steering. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

When I have been on my own at sea, I write people I know a letter so you are still expressing yourself, you still feel like you are communicating with people even though they will only read the letter in six months.

I am quite a solitary person.

Previously you’ve cycled across Africa alone, do you enjoy a challenge?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I do and that was one of the reasons for doing the Golden Globe Race because it is a massive challenge, and I like to put myself in a position where I am obliged to challenge myself more.

I have never been extremely competitive with other people.

My biggest challenge is challenging myself,  but I like the fact this is a competitive race as it forces you to push yourself more to a higher potential.

How do you cope when things go wrong?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I remember when I was sailing solo in the Southern Atlantic I had a worn headsail which tore from the foot to the head.

I spent at least a week stitching that headsail.

For downwind sailing, I used the staysail that I had hoisted the wrong way round, with the head as the foot and the foot on top of the sail, so I could put the spinnaker pole out at an angle.

2022 Golden Globe skipper Kirsten Neuschafer with a miccrophone in her hand

Kirsten Neuschafer has worked for years as a professional skipper. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

You just have to get on with the job.

You also don’t have a choice, you have to deal with it which makes you find the capability that you didn’t know you had.

Everything is a matter of doing it step-by-step otherwise the task might seem overwhelming. You just aim for little milestones.

What treat will you be taking?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so I will take chocolate, biscuits and other sweet treats.

I will not be short changing myself on food, so I will be taking food I enjoy and that is healthy, like nuts and dried fruits.

What one thing will you miss while racing?

Kirsten Neuschafer: It would have been nice to have been allowed to take digital music, as you would be able to take such a vast selection.

Music for me is a nice way to deal with isolation and helps me de-stress. I don’t have a lot of cassettes and the cassettes I do manage to find might not be my favourite music.

Golden Globe race 2022 skipper Kirsten Neuschafer working on her boat

Kirsten Neuschafer has looked at historical weather data to try and plan the best route during the race. Credit: Kirsten Neuschafer/GGR

I like a vast array of music from rock and roll to classical, so it would have been nice to have the whole repertoire with me as I could put on music which fits the mood.

I’ve recently been enjoying the music of Lennie Gallant who lives on Prince Edward Island, and he’s promised to give me a few cassettes of his early recordings.

I am sure there are times that I will miss a GPS!

GGR 2018 was a celebration of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. The GGR 2022 is a celebration of Bernard Moitessier. What words of wisdom from Moitessier will you be following in the race?

Kirsten Neuschafer: I recently watched a documentary about Moitessier, and he was out there sailing and looked like he was at peace and enjoying it.

For him it was about the journey, not about finishing the trip which is something that struck me when I listened to an interview with Jean Luc Van Den Heede.

He was asked the question: ‘What are you most looking forward to?’ And he said: ‘Arriving at the end’

What I would like to take from Moitessier is that it is not about arriving, but about the journey.

I want to enjoy being out there; I want to enjoy the beautiful calm moments, the good sailing moments, the stressful moments, the storms, the elements.

I want to be out there and just enjoy it so at the end I can say ‘this was a wholesome trip’.

I guess that was the crux for Moitessier; he was enjoying it so much that he didn’t come back.