You’re more likely to find record-setting yachtswoman Dee Caffari wearing Dubarry sailing boots than high fashion Jimmy Choo sandals. Despite her life on the open sea she’s a woman who is firmly grounded. She doesn’t mind the lack of glamour in her wardrobe and she jokes she spends half her time dressed in bright “Teletubby” colours having swapped life as a PE teacher for life as a sailor.
“I wanted to have adventures and go travelling and I thought, ‘If I don’t go now I won’t be able to get up and go when I’ve got commitments’,” she says of her decision to seek fresh challenges after five years in front of secondary school pupils.
She re-trained as a water sports instructor, then gained offshore sailing qualifications and worked in the yacht charter business. It was different from a day in the school gym or on a playing field, but how did she make the giant leap from the genteel world of the yacht charter business to becoming a round-the-world pioneer?
“It was a bit extreme,” admits Dee, explaining that she was working for Mike Golding Yacht Racing when it dawned on her that she could reach for a fresh high. Newly immersed in the sailing world she watched competitors returning from Sir Chay Blyth’s inspiring Global Challenge – a race between a fleet of matching yachts crewed by amateurs sailing the 29,000 nautical miles (54,000km) around the world, taking in Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean against the prevailing winds and currents.
“They were having a big party. I knew they were everyday people and I thought ‘That’s really cool’,” says Dee. “I wished there was a crowd of people celebrating my achievements.”
Four years later, having honed her skills further, Dee found herself part of the party crowd as the only female skipper in the race, supporting and being responsible for a crew of amateur sailors on the craft, Imagine It. Done. It was Chay Blyth himself who encouraged Dee to take on her next challenge – again sailing around the world “the wrong way” or “westabout” but this time non-stop and single-handed.
“When you get somebody like that, someone of that calibre and experience, suggesting things to you and saying, ‘Why don’t you go and do that?’ and, ‘You can achieve so much more,’ it gives you confidence in yourself to step outside your boundaries,” says Dee.
The way Dee describes it sounds so straightforward, yet she still had to manage the logistics of planning her record-setting attempt and overcome the not inconsiderable hurdle of funding her dream. She found a sponsor in insurance and investment giant Aviva and by November 20, 2005, she was setting off in a Challenge 72ft Class yacht, the same boat she had skippered just four months earlier in the Global Challenge. It speaks volumes about her charisma that Aviva had never before sponsored an individual endeavour of this kind.
“I became the first female to do it,” she says of the voyage that took her 178 days and put her name in the history books as well as the front page of most national newspapers. “But I wondered what else was possible, and I thought maybe I should go round the other way.” True to form, she signed up for the Vendee Globe, a round-the-world solo challenge that is known as the Everest of racing because it’s so hard to complete. Of the 30 yachts that started only 11 finished, with Dee coming home sixth, despite having trouble with her mainsail – the powerhouse of the boat.
“If anyone had offered me sixth place at the start I would have been delighted,” she says. “I learned so much along the way and I want to do it again. I’d like to compete in 2012 and finish on the podium, if I can find the sponsorship,” she says, adding that she will have gained more experience and know-how by that date. So does Dee consider herself tough, or extraordinary?
“I would not that long ago have said, ‘Not at all’,” she says, without a hint of false modesty.
“When I talk to my family and friends they tell me I have attributes and traits that I never felt I had as a kid,” she continues. “I went to ballet school and did tap dancing, and in my head I thought I was going to be a dancer. As I grew older I played more and more sport, particularly volleyball at quite a high level, and I was very happy teaching. I didn’t have a burning ambition as a youngster to be a record-breaking sailor,” she says.
When not out on the water competing she really enjoys time at home and maintains good links with her local community, particularly at St Mary’s Junior Sailing Club, in Alverstoke, Hampshire.
“It’s a privilege to have that ability to inspire and encourage,” Dee says. “I think sailing in itself is quite unique. You can push as hard as you feel comfortable doing. If your confidence grows you can challenge yourself a bit more and stretch your limits. If the worst that can happen is that you get a bit wet it’s not a bad way to learn,” says Dee. “At its worst being wet and cold can be a bit miserable, but you do get through it and you do get to good bits, the bad stuff doesn’t last forever.”
So what does she find the worst thing about her solo sailing challenges?
“I do miss the interaction with people. It’s a lonely environment but I’ve learnt all about myself, I’ve learnt to get on with myself,” she says.
Dee would like her feats to inspire other people, older, as well as young, and to give them the courage to try something they’ve always longed to do.
“When you meet someone who has done something quite extreme you do think, ‘Maybe I could do it. How could I manage, how could I get around things?’ I consider myself very lucky to work in the environment I do; to see oceans uninterrupted by land or humans and watch amazing sunsets and sunrises, or a whale or a dolphin and feel as if I’m intruding on their environment. In the Southern Ocean you see albatrosses and icebergs,” she adds.
Her idea of a relaxing break would be to go island-hopping in the Pacific. It’s hard to imagine Dee Caffari ever feeling like retiring, but she acknowledges that one day she may just hang up her Teletubby outfits.
“But for now all my focus is round-the-world sailing,” she says.
You can get news and information about Dee’s exploits at her website www.deecaffari.co.uk. She also has a Twitter account and Facebook page where she posts regular updates.
Facts about Dee
- October 2004 Sets off on the 10-month Global Challenge Race.
- November 2005 Starts her solo “westabout” non-stop voyage.
- May 2006 Completes her record-setting solo voyage
- April 2007 Completes the Flora London Marathon.
- June 2007 Awarded an MBE.
- September 2007 Publishes “Against the Flow” her autobiography.
- February 2009 Completes the Vendee Globe race becoming the first woman to sail solo, non-stop around the world in both directions.
- June 2009 Sets a new speed record for circumnavigating Britain and Ireland of 6 days 11 hours 30 minutes and 53 seconds, knocking 17 hours off the existing time.
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This article appears in the current issue of the MSSC Seafarer Magazine.