Non-stop women! In perpetual motion

As global circumnavigator Dee Caffari marks a third successful voyage, Emily Dugan celebrates those British females who just can't say no to a challenge
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It was just after eight in the morning last Wednesday when Dee Caffari's yacht propelled her across the finishing line in Barcelona and into the record books. With her arrival in Spain, the 38-year-old Briton became the only woman on earth to have sailed non-stop around the world three times.

Most would trumpet such an achievement. Caffari downplays the record as a happy coincidence. "I didn't sit and plan: 'OK, let's get another record and keep accumulating them', but I seem to be doing quite well regardless," she says. "I haven't got this compulsive disorder where I have to keep doing laps of the planet. I just wanted a challenge and it's amazing how quickly they add up."

She was the first woman to sail solo around the world the "wrong" way (against prevailing winds) in 2006, the first female to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in both directions, and skippered the fastest team ever to sail around Britain and Ireland in 2009.

She joins a distinguished band of women making history with feats of endurance. They include free diver Sara Campbell, who already has four world records for diving unaided to depths that most would fear even with an oxygen tank; Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb all of the world's 14 highest mountains; and Gladys Burrill, who, at 92 this year, became the oldest ever marathon runner.

"It's more accessible for women now," Caffari argues. "There have been some massively pioneering, inspirational women who have encouraged people like myself to follow in their footsteps.

"All the records before were set by the guys and the women didn't tend to do it. Now there's more confidence and the girls can think: 'yeah, let's go and do it', so the achievements are slowly coming in."

To put Caffari's latest finish into perspective, Dame Ellen MacArthur – still the better-known British sailor – completed only two non-stop navigations before retiring. Most round-the-world sailors have pre-organised stopovers to replenish supplies and mend their boats. Going without those stops meant more than three months of freeze-dried food and crusty clothes.

It took Caffari and her Spanish sailing partner, Anna Corbella, 102 days to complete the 28,000-mile course of the Barcelona World Race. They were the only female crew of 14, coming a respectable sixth.

Unlike MacArthur, Caffari did not always know she wanted to go to sea. "Everyone assumes I grew up in dinghies, but actually I grew up in ballet shoes and tap shoes. After that I played national league volleyball and was a dry-slope ski instructor."

She sailed her first dinghy while studying sports science at Leeds University, and worked for five years as a school PE teacher before leaving her job to retrain as a water sports instructor. It was after watching the start of the 2001 Global Challenge race that she set her heart on taking part, and by 2004 she had entered as a skipper.

Growing up in Hertfordshire, her only contact with water was on her father's motorboat, which the family kept moored on the Thames. But not all the Caffaris were won over by the charm of the water.

"My mum and my sister think I'm crazy. My mum is scared stiff of water. She doesn't even have a shower because she doesn't like water running over her head, so she has no idea how I can do what I do. She can't even swim."

It was her father's final advice that prompted her to leave teaching and take to the ocean. "Sadly, my dad passed away before I changed careers. When I was growing up I'd say: 'I'm going to sail in the summer and ski in the winter' and one of the last conversations I had with my dad was him asking: 'Are you going to do any of this or are you just going to talk about it?' He said: 'Soon you'll be too old' and I think that gave me the encouragement I needed because a couple of years after that I'd changed jobs and started doing all of this.

"My mum scattered his ashes at sea because he loved that environment so much, so I actually feel quite close to my dad when I'm doing these crazy things. And when things go wrong I'm like, 'Come on dad, give me a break! Sort it out with Neptune and make the sea flatter please'."

"Things going wrong" is something Caffari has become accustomed to. The worst scare on the latest race came in the Atlantic just three weeks before the finish. "I noticed one of the supports which stopped the front from flexing was cracked. I took a picture and sent it back and was told I had to do a repair or it would have been the end of the race, so the pressure was on."

She had never done boat building before, but in no-nonsense style she followed the manual, managing to complete the repair just in time.

While solitary figures such as MacArthur have become synonymous with the world of endurance sailing, Caffari comes from a different mould. "What confuses everybody is that I enjoy the interaction and the social side and I'm not a natural loner, whereas Ellen was always very driven from an early age and wanted to go and do it herself. I enjoy the challenge, but the first time I went out on my own the hardest thing I dealt with was the loneliness."

In the immediate future she is looking forward to returning to Southampton, where she lives with her boyfriend, Harry Spedding, who is also her project manager. "He spends his life waiting for me, but he's practised at it now. He's very understanding. I couldn't afford to lose him because there's no one else that I know that would put up with a relationship where you're away for three months, so I'm very lucky."

Not even her boyfriend can distract her from her next goal: getting sponsorship for another solo race, the Vendée Globe in 2012. "While I still feel like I'm learning and getting better I'd like to keep going," she says. "I want to progress to be competitive and among the best sailors in the world. I want to be pushing for the podium."


Dee Caffari is the only woman to have sailed non stop around the world three times.


Maya Gabeira rode the biggest ever wave surfed by a woman at Dungeons in South Africa (it was 45ft high).


Bonita Norris, at 22, became the youngest British woman to climb Mount Everest.


At 92, Gladys Burrill ('Gladyator') is the oldest person to complete a marathon.


Chrissie Wellington is the ultimate iron woman having just smashed her own world record for the triathlon.


Freediver Sara Campbell was the first woman to hit 90m depth while using only her monofin to descend.