South African sailor wins solo round-the-world race in P.E.I.-refitted boat

Thursday was a historic day for South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer, who crossed the finish line to win the 2022 Golden Globe Race. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)
Thursday was a historic day for South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer, who crossed the finish line to win the 2022 Golden Globe Race. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)

Kirsten Neuschäfer, the South African sailor who had her fibreglass boat rebuilt in Prince Edward Island two years ago, has sailed it to victory in the 2022 Golden Globe Race, making her the first woman to win a solo around-the-world event.

After 235 days at sea, Thursday saw her hit the shore of Les Sables d'Olonne, France, the start and finish port for the competition.

Neuschäfer began competing last September aboard her 36-foot Minnehaha, which she had spent months refurbishing at harbour in Summerside with the help of Island contractors and suppliers.

On Thursday night, a couple of dozen Islanders gathered in Summerside to watch her win.

Among them was P.E.I. musician Lennie Gallant, who met and became friends with the South African sailor after she arrived on the Island. He wrote a song titled On the Minnehaha, dedicated to her and her boat.

Submitted by Kirsten Neuschäfer
Submitted by Kirsten Neuschäfer

"When she crossed the finish line, the place erupted and we had champagne, and we were all so excited," Gallant said.

"I believe — and a lot of people believe — a big reason that she won was all the work that people put into that boat."

  • LISTEN | Lennie Gallant's On the Minnehaha:

At a press conference Thursday in Les Sables d'Olonne, Neuschäfer thanked those who helped get the Minnehaha ready for the race, particularly local carpenter and mechanic Eddie Arsenault in the P.E.I. community of Baltic.

"I learned a lot from Eddie because he taught me a lot. He taught me how to fix things," she told reporters. "Without him, … the boat wouldn't have been what it is."

CBC News reached out to Neuschäfer's team, but was unable to get an interview due to the large number of media requests she's receiving at the moment.

Darren Cousins is seeing first-hand how the sailor has been overwhelmed by attention since she won the race. Cousins, who runs Twin Shores Campground with his wife Susan Cousins in Darnley, P.E.I., is in Les Sables d'Olonne and was among those watching her cross the finish line yesterday.

Back in 2021, he offered Neuschäfer a space to refit her boat. She soon became friends with the family, having meals together most days. Towards the end of her time on the Island, she was staying in the family's spare room.

"She's basically become our adopted daughter over all this time span," Susan Cousins told CBC's Maritime Noon on Friday. "She's a part of the family for sure."

Submitted by Kirsten Neuschäfer
Submitted by Kirsten Neuschäfer

Cousins was at the news conference when Neuschäfer told reporters about coming back to the Island at some point.

"She's on record … saying that it's very important to come back to P.E.I. to see her," he said.

This version of the Golden Globe Race was first held in 2018. It's a retro event meant to mimic the original 1968 race by the same name.

The non-stop race prohibits the use of GPS, cellphones or any automatic identification systems. (They are allowed a satellite phone for safety reasons.) Sailors rely on traditional navigational tools — charts and sextant — to find their way.

The race started out last fall with 16 skippers, but when Neuschäfer was close to the finish line, she was among the three sailors still remaining in competition. Behind her were India's Abhilash Tomy and Austria's Michael Guggenberger.

At one point during the race, Neuschäfer made a heroic at-sea rescue. In November, she deviated from her course to save Finnish competitor Tapio Lehtinen, whose boat was sinking due to high waves in the Indian Ocean.

Because the detour was for the purposing of helping another sailor, the incident gave Neuschäfer some bonus hours that could have guaranteed her first place even if she were not first to cross the finish line in France.