Kirsten Neuschafer is an adventurer through and through.
Best known as a sailor, she’s just won the latest Golden Globe Race – a back to basics solo circumnavigation of the world, stripped of all technology.
She became not just the first woman to cross the start line, but the first woman to win.
Yet she’s also completed many other adventures: cycling home to South Africa from Europe when she was just 22 (15,000km, taking roughly a year), extensive travels throughout Northwest and Central Africa, not to mention her work at the helm of sailing vessels in the Antarctic, enabling film crews to observe ecosystems and animal behaviour in the Polar wilderness.
In October, she joins us on the Main Stage at Blue Earth Summit to talk about her latest adventure. We caught up with her in Les Sables d’Olonnes this week for a glimpse of what’s to come.
“Nothing can prepare you for what’s ahead – because there’s no way of knowing what will happen. That’s as true for life as it is for the Golden Globe itself. I went into the race fearing breakages and strong weather but found the biggest challenge in the mental strain of being becalmed. I guess it showed me there really is no value in worry – sometimes what you fear most doesn’t even show up. Yet those days with no wind required huge strength of mind to navigate the frustration and hopelessness of my situation.
I found great comfort in observing other wildlife. It took eight months to complete the Golden Globe race and that’s a lot of solitude. Luckily I like my own company but sometimes it can be hard not to have someone to share the ups and downs of each day. In those moments there was such solace in watching birds and animals and realising that you are not the only living creature whiling away the days. Each day at sea is different and even in the wildest moments, you have to appreciate the power and beauty of the elements. Then when you watch an albatross, completely at home in 50 knots of wind, you realise every creature has its place in the world, and start to appreciate how important it is to protect them.
When you take away the noise of the modern world you realise how detached we’ve become from reality. Although every day was a challenge and I was racing to win, the experience was so much more peaceful than ordinary life. The only stress was real – based on practical necessities like preparing the boat for a storm. It makes you realise that for most of us our pressure comes from demands that have no actual threat attached to them. It made me realise that modern stress is fabricated by a society that has evolved to have demands far from our evolutionary roots.
Over my career at sea I’ve definitely seen the planet change: fewer fish, changes in currents, bigger masses of Sargassum seaweed – all signs of human impact on the world. It always makes me a bit sad when I see the beauty of the whales, dolphins or albatross and think of what we’ve done to these species over the centuries. We’re so numerous on this planet and yet we’ve been living in a way that does so much harm. It’s impossible not to remember that we’re sharing the planet with lots of beautiful species but not taking very good care of it.
In my industry, materials are letting us down. So many boats are made of glass reinforced plastic, which can’t be separated for recycling. The key is to recycle and refit old boats and keep them afloat as a source of joy and inspiration – but we do need to think about what to do when they come to the end of their lives. Equally, we need to consider better materials for building new boats and to ensure we sail with responsibility – no polluting the seas with sewage, fuel or rubbish.
I wish policy makers and industry could be a little more long sighted rather than looking to immediate profits. Everyone is in the rat race to make as much as they can as soon as they can – it’s so inward looking. I’d really recommend people try to spend a bit of time in nature to re-root themselves with what’s real. You don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to find it – just take a moment in the park, by the side of the road, in the garden. But it’s not all bad. I do believe there’s a real shift in human consciousness to want to do as little harm as possible moving forward and that is a wonderful thing. I’m looking forward to telling the story of my adventure at this year’s Blue Earth Summit and hope it helps people choose to reconnect with nature again. I also can’t wait to listen, network and be inspired by others to put climate consciousness first and foremost on the global agenda.”
You can catch Kirsten’s inspirational story on the Main Stage at 1030 on Thursday 12 October, 2023 at the PropYard, Bristol.