Dee Caffari Chats to Shirley Robertson – Sail+Leisure
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Dee Caffari Chats to Shirley Robertson

by Ingrid Hale
Dee Caffari podcasts

Dee Caffari is no stranger to the world of offshore sailing. Her start was in no way traditional in the sport, with a  background in teaching, she went on to being the first woman to sail solo around the world the wrong way. She chats to  Shirley Robertson about her career, her plans and the lessons learnt.

Episode 1

Her first job in yachting was with Mike Golding, the around the world sailor who won the BT Globe Challenge. She learnt from his campaign – how to deal with the sponsors, and attend to his racing needs. It was corporate sailing at it’s best.

2000 race was the one that set it off for her. After that race, Mike handed her the skipper role of the boat. After doing the Round Britain and Ireland race, she realised that the responsibility is massive: managing the campaign, the boat and the crew.

“I had no idea what sailing round the world meant, until I did it”, says Dee.

A race for rescue

Dee tells the story of a dramatic rescue during the BT Global Challenge of 2000, “I was sailing in the Southern Ocean for the first time, which in itself was challenging. It was very stormy and we were far south to avoid the worst of the weather. An older member of crew, Mike had fallen off his bunk – he had hurt his ankle, but it later turned out that he had also ruptured his bowl.  We were going to weather, so it was uncomfortable for him. Our medic was a GP, so he managed his treatment well. We had used up our 3 day supply of drugs so we had to do a drug transfer in the middle of the southern ocean, in big seas with one of the other competitors. We were racing towards Wellington, and soon had to another transfer when we ran out of drugs. This was during the time of the Tsunami of 2000, all the rescue boats from NZ were busy with rescue operations, so they couldn’t come and help us. Eventually an airdrop was offered, and we took it. We later learnt that it was the biggest southern ocean rescue ever done. We headed to the Chatham islands, which are situated close to the dateline. This was around New Years Eve – so conversations re dates and times were strange. There was no fuel on the islands, so a fuel plane, a rescue helicopter and a spotter plane had to fly out from New Zealand to assist us. Within the 200 mile range they sent a helicopter out to collect him.

The big decision was to carry on racing after he was rescued. We agreed that since our focus had been on treating, and then organising a rescue operation for Mike, we hadn’t been focussed on the race. So we felt we couldn’t really make up for the lost time, and set a course to Wellington”.

The next step

During the CT stopover of the BT Challenge, Chay Blythe inspired her by saying, “I have made my mark and now there is place for a woman to race around the world solo”.

She had to think about the changes that would need to be made to make it possible to sail the boat solo, after sailing with 17 crew.

Chay mentored her, backed her, and helped her find funds to support her solo campaign. She found her sponsor Aviva, during a random meeting on the water at Cowes, and 3 months later she started the race as a solo sailor.

A tough race

She had a struggle with a failing auto-pilot, breakages, and the awful weather. She learnt to be resourceful, she repaired the auto-pilot by taking her oven apart and using some of the parts. At that point in sailing there were no monitors to check on icebergs, or to look after a fleet, there were no resources. Her lowest point was when she saw icebergs at 58/59 degrees south. She was tired, stressed, hadn’t eaten and she was sailing around the world the wrong way. She had to dig deep to lift her spirits.

After 6 months at sea, 178 days – Dee was the first woman to sail solo the wrong way around the world. “You don’t realise the impact of what you’ve done while in your little bubble of a boat”.

The welcome was manic, Princess Anne was there and the Solent was full of boats – thousands and thousands of people were there to meet her. The boats joined her at The Needles to welcome her in. Mike Sanderson was sailing on ABN Amro in the Volvo Ocean Race at the time, and he was one of the first to congratulate her. The VOR was on, and they were in the same area when she crossed the finish line. At one stage there was a discussion that she may need to collect the crew on Movistar, which had to be abandoned due to sinking.

The lead up to the Vendee Globe 2008

She talks about how overwhelmed she was to be standing on the stage next to the solo sailing greats, including Mike Golding. She talks about how she had to adapt, in terms of pushing to the intensity needed to compete at that level.

There were 3 weeks of crowds, day after day, 100 000’s of people lining the dock. Police escorts were offered to get to the race start, there were that many people.

It was the roughest start to the race ever recorded with a forecast of 50 knots for that first night. Dee underestimated the transition of the psychological transition too – realising it was at a different level, and at a different intensity.

Dee Caffari Episode 1 – Dee Caffari

Episode 2

The Vendee Globe 2008

This race has such a huge attrition rate – 18 boats were forced to retire, with only 11 finishers. Dee tells how she was affected by the other competitors problems – worrying that the same things could happen to her. She’s now learnt to only focus on her boat and what she can control.

At Cape Horn, the race director told them to stop racing to wait for a storm to pass. Brian on Pindar saw 80 knots. They pushed through, and Dee managed to finish in 6th place, 99 days later with a main sail in tatters. She had to sail the Pacific with these delaminating sails – all the way from Australia to Cape Horn.

“You realise that the crowd was coming out just to see you – it was amazing”, says Dee.

Team SCA

Dee is very frank about her time on the Team SCA campaign, and the lessons learnt form it.

It was a well-funded team. “The same group of guys had been doing it for years, and we were trying to break into it”, she says. It was a female team managed by guys, which was an interesting dynamic too. It took Dee 18 months to trial for the team – they presumed that as a solo sailor she’d be wrong for the dynamic. “I was aware that the longer I was outside the team, the harder it would be to get in there”, said Dee.

The campaign was put together to fill certain criteria. Dee speaks out about how she thinks they could of better played to their strengths, feeling that a lot of the crew’s skills were under-utilised. I was frustrated that we didn’t really play to all our strengths, we had incredibly skilled sailors. I think a second lap would have shown a very different result and experience

VOR management wanted to have a separate rating for Team SCA for the in-port races as they felt the all women team would be at a disadvantage short-handed in the fast-paced races. “The irony is that we actually landed up 3rd in the in-port series overall”.

She says that the campaign wasn’t managed by the sailing team, but by the veterans of the race. Shirley commented that the first lap of the race didn’t look like it was owned by the sailors, and it wasn’t.

“For me, it was a 18 month project where I lost confidence, in my ability, and confidence in what I’d achieved in the past. The set-up was not one of camaraderie and support, but more like back-stabbing. The environment led to a lot of competition within the crew.  You never knew if you were on or off for the next leg, so that uncertainty was really uncomfortable. It created a culture I wasn’t comfortable in, or didn’t enjoy,” she says.

Women’s offshore sailing

What was the effect of the Team SCA campaign? Dee says, “If we hadn’t have done it then, our sport would have moved on without including women in the way that they have been involved today”.

Has sailing really moved on for women sailors? You decide. She’s done 6 laps of the planet, but only this year, was she invited to compete on a Superyacht at the Maxi Yacht World Champs.

“I don’t think things have moved on, we are still having to forge our own way….”, says Dee. “We want to be there on merit, not to fill a quota or tick a box”, she continues.

Turn the Tide on Plastic

This campaign was a culmination of everything that she is about: a mixed male/female crew, supporting environmental platforms, representing a diverse group of nationalities, and uplifting youth – 80% of the crew were under 30.

It was a mad rush to get to the start line – the green light was only given in June – and they had to be racing in August.

The leadership role is so much more than just racing around the planet,  the pressure was also being on the competitive platform of the VOR that so many people have an opinion on.

It was a skilled crew, each in their own fields, but she had to bring them altogether. Getting the right people for each role took some time.”The team I started with, were not the same as I finished with. They all grew so much”, says Dee.

The frustration was that we were in the mix, but the results don’t show it. I suffered with a bit of ‘imposter syndrome’, it was only at the end of the race that I had the confidence to speak out.

Moving on to double-handed sailing

“It’s reminded me that I can trim a sail and drive a boat, I gained my confidence again”, says Dee. She’s disappointed about the decision not to include the double-handed class in the Olympics.

Dee Caffari: Episode 2

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