Dee Caffari: The Tide Turner

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Dee Caffari is the first woman to sail solo, non-stop, around the world against the prevailing winds and currents. We asked Dee to share her highlights and some of the lessons she learned along the way

Heading out on my first solo, non-stop round the world voyage was a culmination of so many dreams and so much hard work. There I was casting off the lines knowing I wouldn't touch land again until I had (hopefully) sailed around the planet. Taking on a voyage that only four men and no other woman had completed was intimidating, but I had a great support team behind me. 

These are some of the highlights from my adventures and the lessons I learned along the way.

'it’s better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.'

Offshore solo sailing is different to sailing as part of a crew because you have to be everything onboard: mechanic, cook, navigator, sailor, medic. It means you have to be much more aware and balance risk and reward more carefully. I’m not sure I gave it much thought before setting off as I was so busy preparing everything. It wasn’t until I crossed the start line that the enormity of the challenge ahead hit me.

It’s always difficult to say goodbye to family and friends. Tough conversations are a reality when you’re heading offshore on your own and it’s better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I felt well prepared and that gave me confidence, but you soon accept that you can’t control everything and certainly not the elements or nature!

Offshore sailing puts you in an unpredictable environment for long periods of time. The nearest help is often days away and while the risks you take are calculated, there is still risk. All it takes is a miscalculation or an error made when tired for things to go wrong very quickly.

'Control what you can and don’t waste energy worrying about what you can’t.'

I got stuck up the mast while in the Southern Ocean. The realisation that if I could not get down this was where it all ended was a frightening and sobering moment. It focused my mind and made me realise how vulnerable I was out there. 

My greatest fear is being powerless. But I know that in most instances that feeling is just a state of mind I can overcome. Control what you can and don’t waste energy worrying about what you can’t. Eliminate any potential risk that is within your control and then follow best practice whenever possible.

Nothing compares to the exhilaration of racing downwind at 30 knots in the Southern Ocean. It’s simultaneously scary and awesome. Some of my other greatest moments have been beautiful sunsets and sunrises in amazing places where I felt like I was the only person on the planet. Uninterrupted horizons and nature in its natural environment allows you to see spectacular sights.

'When sailing alone I probably average around five hours sleep in a 24-hour period.'

Sailing solo the risks I’m prepared to take are different to the ones I would consider taking when part of a crew. There’s a different level of responsibility when leading a crew and risk-taking has to become more collaborative. Having the confidence that you’re sailing a well prepared boat allows you to push as hard as possible but sometimes luck does play a part – hitting a wave at slightly the wrong angle or having a collision can happen to anyone at any time. 

It only takes a second to make a potentially fatal mistake. I was caught out taking a sail forwards to hoist and being washed down the deck with the sail and realising I hadn't assessed the risk appropriately and made sure I was clipped on.

It’s incredible how little sleep you can survive on and still perform. When I’m sailing, sleep is taken in short bursts at the nav station. It is likely to be anything from a 10 or 20-minute cat nap to a 90-minute ‘lie in’! When sailing alone I probably average around five hours sleep in a 24-hour period, with some days better than others depending on the weather and hazards encountered. When I first get home, I can probably only sleep for a maximum of around four hours because my body is used to so much less

'I’ve headed into my fair share of severe storms where all I could do is prepare for what’s to come and hope the boat doesn’t suffer too much damage.'

A ‘wrong way round’ circumnavigation is against the winds and the currents and takes around twice as long to complete. You cover much more distance to get where you want to go so not only are you dealing with challenging conditions on your own, you’re at sea for much longer than a ‘right way round’ voyage. You spend most of your time zig-zagging around the world, tacking, and generally sailing in the wrong direction which can be demoralising. 

The most challenging conditions are when you get extremes. The stretch in the Southern Ocean is brutal and I’ve headed into my fair share of severe storms where all I could do is prepare for what’s to come and hope the boat doesn’t suffer too much damage. 

Being at sea changes the way I exist when back home. I never waste fresh water as it’s a precious commodity when at sea and has to be made with a desalinator. I have to take all my waste around the world with me, which encourages only using or taking exactly what I need. It’s great to see that being more conscious to avoid excess is becoming more commonplace because our planet cannot cope with the current consumption combined with the increasing population.

I use my platform to raise issues around environmental issues affecting our oceans. If you’re reading this and want to campaign for something you believe in, my advice is to be tenacious. Find your voice and target an audience that you believe can be positively influenced. Be consistent in your message and, above all, practice what you preach. It is important to be authentic. Every person can make a difference so if you can change just one persons’ behaviour for the better that's a victory.

Dee recently led Turn the Tide on Plastic in the Volvo Ocean Race to raise awareness around environmental sustainability. It was the first mixed gender youth team to compete. Off the water, Dee continues to highlight the vital importance of reducing our dependence on single-use plastics.

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