Meet SA’s newest superstar Kirsten Neuschäfer, world sailing sensation

South African sailor, Kirsten Neuschäfer emerged victorious in the prestigious Golden Globe round-the-world race, renowned as the sailing world’s ultimate test of endurance.  Notably, this extraordinary race forbids the use of modern technology for navigation, demanding participants to rely solely on paper charts and sextants. In an impressive display of skill and determination, Neuschäfer not only clinched the coveted victory, but she also crossed the finish line a full day ahead of her closest rival and undertook a rescue mission to save fellow competitor Tapio Lehtinen when his boat sank. Pretoria-born Neuschäfer’s talents extends beyond her sailing prowess. Previously she traversed Africa on a bicycle and she devoted her leisure time on the vessel learning the Xhosa language and reading books by Dalene Mathee and Dostoevsky. Hailing from Pretoria, Neuschäfer fittingly embodies the qualities of an “Outlier” as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful book. – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

A history of tackling challenges, adventure and wanting more

Kirsten Neuschäfer
Kirsten Neuschäfer

I did cycle from north to south through the length of Africa, from Morocco down to Cape Town when I was 22 and that was part of the great love for the outdoors and adventure that’s been part of my life ever since childhood. Every time I’ve tackled a thing like that, I’ve obviously encountered obstacles and there’ve been some really difficult moments where you ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Why don’t I just live a normal life like someone else? I could cut out a lot of stress out of my life, but then I don’t really know if that’s true, because if I was living a normal life, there’d probably be a lot of other stress factors and every time you do actually achieve your goal, it kind of becomes an addictive thing. It’s like, that was amazing, I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’ve tackled the challenges. I’ve learnt loads from having undertaken the challenge and you just want to keep going and do more.

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Rescuing a competitor

A lot of people have said to me, ‘that’s fantastic that you did it at all’, but anyone would. It’s kind of unwritten and maybe it is even a written law of the sea that you help anyone who’s in distress. In fact, I think you’re obliged to. I didn’t do it out of obligation. I was just happy that I was in a position to help and anyone would have done that for anyone. When you’ve been out at sea and you’ve seen how scary things can get, it’s good to know that there are other people out there that will come to your rescue if you ever need it. Of course, there was no doubt in my mind when I was informed by the race organisation that the organisers that Tapio Lehtinen’s boat had sunk and he was in the southern Indian Ocean on a life raft, it was obvious to me that I was going to do everything I could to get to him as quickly as possible. 

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A single-minded focus on winning

I had a very interesting conversation right at the start with someone, a racing sailor, who said to me, ‘Why are you doing this race?  I said, don’t you do a race because you want to win and he said, ‘No.’ People have all their own reasons for doing a race like this and some of them don’t care about winning, they just want to finish the circuit. But if you want to win, everything you do from the word go, is going to be focused towards winning. So, you’ll choose the right boat. You won’t buy a boat because it’s readily available and it’s cheap and you can afford it. You have to get the boat you believe will win and if it’s more expensive it is going to mean that you have to work much harder and raise more funds and all the rest. You have to do everything from this moment onwards towards winning. And that’s what I did. 

If you asked any of my friends or my family in the years from signing up for the race officially up until getting to the start line, I didn’t take a holiday. I’d hardly even take a weekend. It was all I ever spoke about.  I’m sure it tired out my friends and family but all I ever spoke about was the race and the boat and what I had to do and blah, blah, blah. So it really was an obsession and I knew I would be until the day I got across the start line and I was underway sailing. 

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Overcoming the Doldrums and breaking up challenges into little milestones

Certain factors did help me through it and one of them was, all that frustration of wanting to move and get wind and keep going,I could get rid of this by doing some sort of exercise, physical exercise. So, one of the things I did when I had enough, was that I dropped the sails, I’d jump overboard and I would swim, and I’d swim a nice little distance away from the boat. The boat would get a little bit smaller and look at it from a little bit of a distance and then swim back to the boat and be happy that I’m back on the boat because of course you realise the boat is carrying my life.  Just that physical exercise was a great thing. Then another thing is, instead of sitting around in the doldrums and envisaging the end and the finish line and how I’m falling back, the moment I got into a negative thought pattern of I’m losing now, I’m not going to catch up to the others is just to shut it down right there and then say, stop thinking like that. Let’s just get through today and tomorrow the wind might come back and then when the wind comes back, you’re going to feel different anyway. You’re going to be back doing what you want to do and that is moving and sailing and seeing the boat perform. So, when the time was hard and the going was tough, it really was a question of just getting through the day and seeing what comes the next day and breaking up the trip into little milestones rather than always envisaging the end, because it’s a long trip. It can feel daunting, but saying I will just have to get there. I just have to get through the doldrums. I just have to get past the next task – that makes things a lot more manageable. 

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