Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Dee Caffari, British sailing superstar

British yachtswoman Dee Caffari is the first woman to have sailed single-handed and non-stop around the world in both directions and the only woman to have sailed non-stop around the world three times.
© Vincens Giménez 2010

When Dee Caffari attempted to become the first woman to sail solo and non-stop both ways around the world in the Vendée Globe yacht race in February, she experienced conditions which would make most people stay inside and draw the curtains. If you’re thinking of a calm sea and sunbathing on deck – think again.

Sleep is almost non-existent, showers are replaced by salty waves, and food is freeze-dried. That is the reality of sailing round the world.

To make matters worse, on the end of her journey , Dee Caffari’s mainsail was deteriorating so rapidly that there was every chance that it was going to stop her race before she got to the finish.

“There are always bad bits,” she says. “But what happens is that the bad bits are outweighed by the good bits, and the good bits make it all worthwhile, and you forget how bad things were – how cold you were, how wet you were. Suddenly it all fades into the distance because of a magical sunrise or a sunset or a beautiful day’s sailing. So I think a lot of people get put off, but I think it’s very important to go and have a good experience – because it will make you want to do it a little bit more.”

But adventure sometimes comes at a cost. The extreme conditions during the Vendée Globe, in which at least 19 of the 30 starters usually drop out, was literally life threatening for Caffari. Despite being trained as her own ‘doctor’, she needed more medical expertise.

“I had some possible blood poisoning in my knee and it swelled up and it was really painful,” she explains. “When it’s a kind of life and death thing like that, you’re kind of keen to get that medical expertise. But you also have to tell yourself that the bad stuff won’t last forever. You have to give yourself a little bit of encouragement and kind of ‘hang on for the ride’.”

In 2006, Caffari – a former PE teacher from Hertfordshire – was awarded an MBE for her solo circumnavigation against the “prevailing winds and currents” when sailing the ‘wrong’ way around the world in 178 days. And after she completed the Vendée Globe, despite a damaged mainsail and injuring her knee onboard her yacht Aviva, when she crossed the line off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, at 13:12 (GMT) on February 16th 2009, she also became the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world in both directions. Caffari finished sixth out of 30 starters – and this time it only took her 99 days.

A few months later, in June, she decided to do it all again – this time sailing 3,000 miles round Britain and Ireland in a team of five girls, including Samantha Davies, who raced against Caffari in the Vendée Globe. In many ways, some say, sailing around the British Isles can be more challenging.

“When you’re against the clock and going around coastal areas you not only have the hazards of tides and currents, but you can’t get away from obstacles like shipping, oil rigs and bad weather,” Caffari says. “But you have to keep going. It’s very stressful. The nice thing with a crew, though, is that there is guaranteed sleeping.”

Davies says there’s also the ‘coast factor’. “It’s pretty wild, rocky and dangerous and you’re as close to the coast as you can be to cover the shortest distance. And you’re sailing fully powered and on the edge – it’s not the ideal way to sail if you don’t want your heart going at 140 beats a minute.”

Listening is key

Using her teaching skills, Caffari says the biggest difference is to make sure that everybody listens to everybody. “You can’t have five different opinions, you actually need to agree on how to sail the boat.”

But there is no point saying the same thing over and over again, she says. “Because if it hasn’t got through to the person in the first or second time, it is not the way they are going to respond.

“So you actually need to say the same thing in several different ways and then you’re going to get through to everybody – and I think that’s when the training and the time together on the boat really helped because everybody reacts differently. And I think just appreciating different people’s strengths and knowing what makes them tick is a good investment.”

So their success, resulting in a new speed record, was down to the entire team, Caffari says. Whereas, for example, Miranda Merron’s speciality is weather and navigation, Cafarri was good at assigning jobs depending on her crew’s expertise. This way everybody felt they were able to contribute.

“It turned out to be a real textbook trip, no egos, no fighting for control, no tension – everybody was 100% behind it.”

So can anyone do what Caffari does?

“I’m not saying everyone should sail around the world but I think everyone has it within them to do whatever they want to do,” she says. “But there are a lot of people who say: ‘God, can I change careers? It’s a bit late – I’m quite established’. I think you can do, you just have to be prepared to start from the beginning again. And it’s very hard when you’re at a certain level to back to the bottom and work your way up again.”

It definitely has made Caffari a stronger person. She says she is more determined now than ever. “I face challenges when I’m on my own out sailing, but actually, now I’ve also found strengths within myself that I didn’t know existed.”

The Zone

“When the boat is sailing really well, very easily, and you’re just there enjoying it because it all comes together and it’s all working – the effort was worth it because that little bit was great. It’s the same if someone is on a beautiful horse and goes for a ride in the countryside in nice weather and everything feels right – it just clicks. Or when you’ve worked really hard in your garden and you sit down with a glass of wine and you look at all your hard work and it looks lovely, you know, when it all comes together.”

Caffari says the buzz you get from sailing is precisely why she made a career move – to follow her dream she decided to re-train as a water sports instructor and it all progressed from there. Her biggest inspiration was a conversation she had with her father, just before he died.

“It was just the two of us, a bit of a heart to heart before he past away. I was always a bit of a sucker for trying anything and wanting to do everything. I talked to him about skiing in the winter, sailing in the summer, and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a career where that could be involved?’

“He turned around to me and said: Are you going to talk about it or are you actually going to go and do it? Because otherwise you said you’ll be too old and no one will want you.’

Caffari says that kind of mantra has stuck with her, and in the back of her mind, that’s what keeps driving her forward.

“If I talk about anything now, or promise anybody anything – I damn sure make sure that I can deliver or work my hardest to deliver what I promised.

“You know, the world’s out there to go and get. You just have to put the effort in to get it.”

But, she says, times are tougher now and being in a recession has affected her too. Caffari’s sponsorship with the UK’s largest insurance group Aviva will end later this year.

“It’s very hard to present to people a multimillion campaign, but I’m confident because I delivered everything for Aviva, I proved that this campaign can deliver multimillion pound results so I’m confident with what I’m trying to give people – to get involved with and be passionate about the sport.

“And now when I’ve got a little bit more experience and confidence, I know that my performance will improve, no end. It’s just keeping my fingers crossed now and getting a partnership onboard to allow me to continue.”

To find out more about Dee Caffari visit: www.deecaffari.co.uk