Dee Caffari – sailing beyond boundaries

Dee Caffari

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.

Click here to view the full magazine article in pdf form Dee Caffari magazine pdf

This article appears in the current issue of the MSSC Seafarer Magazine.

The young adventurer

Here’s a recent interview I did with Mike Perham for Seafarer Magazine.

In common with most lads his age, Mike Perham is studying and has homework to fit into his schedule. Unlike most 17-year-olds, he has distinguished himself as a headline-grabbing world-class solo yachtsman, not once, but twice, before being old enough to vote.

“I do fit it all in because I have to fit it in,” he explains, though one suspects his college tutors are happy to give him an extension on a late essay when he’s setting world records.

If you’ve heard of Mike or watched internet video clips of him preparing to climb a mast in an approaching squall while telling the camera that he hates heights, you’ve probably wondered what makes him tick. The fact is, Mike’s an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary passion for sailing and that has meant, when facing the latest worst-case scenario he could have imagined, he’s just had to get on with it to succeed – or, possibly, to survive.

It’s a testament to Mike’s courage, determination and skill, that though none of the unfortunate events that beset his solo round-the-world record last year were unimagined, he set out anyway. If something could go wrong, Mike and his team of supporters had thought about how it could be dealt with. If the first watchword of being a record-breaking yachtsman is determination, the second is surely preparation. So how did Mike start sailing?
“I think I got into sailing when I was about six or seven. I loved it. My dad ran a boat building business and seeing them design and build a boat, then launch it into the water gave me a great understanding of boats,” explains Mike.

Sailing is all things to this youngster, who lives in Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, and who is studying for a Sports Performance and Excellence Diploma at Oaklands College Athletics Academy in St Albans.

“I love the freedom of sailing. I love the freedom of getting away from everything. I love being in control,” he says.
To an outsider, the “being in control” Mike has in mind might be a loose term, since on his round-the-world challenge Mike faced 50ft waves in 50-knot winds. His yacht TotallyMoney.com was knocked over, battered and damaged and Mike had to overcome months of sleep deprivation, keeping himself focussed and eating 5000 calories a day to maintain his strength. He also had to dive under the boat to free up a rudder as well as the aforementioned climb up the mast to replace a torn sail – a little different to sitting in front of an X-Box.

“You do question why on earth you’re there a lot of the time,” admits Mike, “but I’ve always had a positive attitude… I set out knowing that it wasn’t going to be easy.”

So what does sailing, even something as relatively safe as sailing around the harbour with your local club, do for your life-skills?
“It teaches you perseverance, it makes you self-sufficient,” says Mike, who adds that it also teaches you patience and enables you to meet and befriend a broad spectrum of people from all age-groups and backgrounds.
Mike’s father Peter has been his champion and support, along with his mum Heather. They have sometimes been criticised by well-meaning parent groups who at best have seen their encouragement as misplaced, at worst, reckless and irresponsible. Not everyone thinks it is a good idea to allow a young teenager to take on vast challenges, as a recent court case involving Dutch youngster Laura Dekker has shown. Aged 14, she was barred from attempting to beat Mike’s round-the-world record, despite being backed by her father, Dick Dekker.
Mike remains diplomatic about the wisdom of allowing, or banning, such dreams to become reality, saying only that there are three pre-requisites for sailing solo under such circumstances, physical strength, technical know-how and mental toughness. Mike recognises his own development as he has become older and he expects to continue on his path of self-knowledge and expertise throughout his sailing career. Though sailing is his future, he also has a plan to go to university and study film production, an idea fired by the the film he pitched for Channel 4’s “Cutting Edge” documentary series. “Dangerous Seas For Boys” followed Mike’s struggle at sea and his family and friends’ lives at home throughout last year, with Mike shooting the footage on the boat.

“That’s quite different, of course,” he says, “but I really enjoyed making the documentary.”

So what other events is Mike looking forward to now he’s had his eighteenth birthday?
“I’d love to go to the Polynesian Islands,” he says. “I want to see Tahiti, that would be great fun.”
He may get his wish sooner, rather than later. It’s not even a year since Mike triumphantly crossed the round-the-world finish line, accompanied by Royal Navy’s Fishery Patrol Vehicle HMS Mersey and a Royal Navy helicopter, yet already he is on the brink of his next challenge. On April 28th, 221 years to the day since Captain William Bligh was cast adrift after the mutiny on the Bounty, Mike is scheduled to set sail and emulate the historic voyage. Along with Australian Don MacIntyre and two other adventurers, they will sail 4000 miles in an open boat, with no charts and not enough food, making their way from Tonga to Timor to raise funds for research into Motor Neurone Diisease at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN). As a recently-appointed ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, Mike hopes his exploits will inspire other youngsters to try sailing.
“It gives you a sense of adventure while you’re having fun,” he says.

Michael Perham Facts and Figures.

  • Born March 16th, 1992.
  • Sailed the Atlantic Ocean single-handed in January 2007, the youngest person to make the 3,500-mile journey – he was 14 years old.
  • Sailed single-handed around the world, finishing on August 27, 2009, making him the youngest person to complete the 30,000 nautical mile journey solo. He had his 17th birthday during the voyage.
  • Invited to become a Prince’s Trust Ambassador, September 28, 2009.
  • You can follow Mike’s further adventures here. www.challengemike.com

This interview appears in the Summer 2010 edition of Seafarer Magazine, published for The Marine Society & Sea Cadets.

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