Sailing: Pioneer Caffari in her element even when the whole world goes wrong

Former PE teacher learnt harsh lessons going the 'other way' round the globe but it did not deter her. By Nick Townsend

Somewhere in the Southern Ocean, and Dee Caffari was faced with the inevitable. Nothing for it but to confront her fears and what she describes as a sailor's "worst-case scenario". Climb the mast, over 90 feet of it. "I'm not very good at heights, but we all have to go up the mast at some point to fix something," she says, recalling the moment when she experienced the true loneliness, and terror, of the long-distance sailor during her attempt to become the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world "the wrong way", against the prevailing winds and currents.

"It's horrendous, you're swinging around and get bruised and battered," Caffari adds. "It feels as though you've done 10 rounds. But you just have to get on and do it. You try and pick good weather. But the boat doesn't always agree with you, and you just have to fix whatever it is, right now."

That is how she found herself in a jam, with an ominous looming presence on the horizon. "I couldn't go up or down. I just looked up and remember seeing this line of cloud, and thought, 'My god, that's the next front'." Inevitably accompanied by pitiless winds and all-consuming seas? She nods. "Then you look down, and there's the boat below, with nobody on it to help you.

"My first thought was, 'Please keep sailing how I set you up'. My second was, 'What am I going to do?' I just wanted to burst into tears. But then the sensible side of me took over. I thought, 'That isn't going to help'. It's not very productive. It took me an hour and a half to get out of the problem. As soon as I got down, I did burst into tears. It did me good. But it was then I realised how vulnerable I actually was. If I couldn't have got down, there was absolutely nothing anybody could have done for me."

That, stresses the 35-year-old, is about as bad as it gets; the time she began seriously to question her own mortality. Yet such recollections do not deter her from the perils which could confront her this year. Her successful completion of the Aviva Challenge in 2006, all 29,100 miles of it, took 178 days. On 9 November Caffari sets out to complete the voyage in reverse, this time racing against the elite in the business in her new £2.5m 60-footer Aviva, when she takes part in the Vendée Globe. It will be somewhat quicker. She expects to be away for three months, unless the seas or elements defeat her first. She can take inspiration from the fact that Ellen MacArthur finished second in the race in 2001.

Before that she participates in the Artemis Transat, a race from Plymouth to Boston in the US, from 11 May, a qualifying event for the Vendée Globe. She is one of three British entrants and one of only two women participating. In the circumnavigational world of Dee Caffari, it is no more than a "a short sprint". That said, she adds: "The weather can be pretty harsh and it's upwind. It's not nice. At least the trip home is downwind, which is where the boats excel. So that makes it worth the pain of getting there".

There is seemingly a masochistic side to her. She readily trades the constant perils and the spartan lifestyle – "no toilet and your best friends are baby wipes, showering in the rain or with buckets of seawater, and freeze-dried food" – to succeed in the challenges she undertakes; ones which yield her a rare view of nature. "An albatross is a stunning sight in the Southern Ocean. If you mix that with an iceberg, you're probably one of the few people who've ever seen that sight," she says. "You get a dolphin with your boat, or a whale, and you almost get blasé about it. It makes you very humble to be in this environment. It's those magical days which compensate for the bad storms and make it worth going back there."

Life has altered radically for Caffari since 2006. For a woman who copes admirably with her own company at sea, she is gregarious, in a delightful jolly-hockey-sticks way, back on land. She was once a PE teacher. Now she does public speaking, frequently to corporate audiences. There are similarities with her former life. "The difference is now that I get to speak to people and the audience actually listens to me, because they want to hear me. At school, I couldn't always guarantee that!"

Caffari, whose extended family on her late father Peter's side is Maltese, is originally from very much landlocked Hertfordshire, and a family whose only contact with water was aboard her father's powerboat during holidays. She did not sail until she went to Leeds University to study sports science. Sailing was part of her course, but sheinsists: "I didn't start out with this great dream to sail round the world. I couldn't even have told you who Chay Blyth or Robin Knox-Johnston were when I was at school. I was more interested in ballet lessons."

Today, as she puts it, "I've earned my street cred amongst sailors. It's just amazing." Her round-the-world feat has won her many distinctions, including an MBE last October. "A lot of people doubted what I wanted to do. Because I was the first woman ever to do it, they would say, 'But you've never even sailed on your own'. I said, 'It can't be that hard'. Also I'm very much 'let me prove that I can't do it before you say I can't. If I can do it, we don't even have to have this conversation'."

Negativity is not part of her psyche. Yet she concedes: "Of course you experience fear, like anyone else. You know what may happen. The weather can be horrendous and you're in the most hostile ocean in the world, two weeks from any rescue. The unknown can be scary. You don't go out to risk your life and be silly about it. But each storm you get a little bit braver. You come through the other side, you think, 'I'm still here, I can survive this'. So the next one can't be too bad."

She adds: "It's strange how the mind works. I can be in tears on the phone [usually to her boyfriend and campaign manager, Harry Spedding, one of a back-up team of nine ], saying, 'This is awful. I haven't slept. I'm really scared'. And two days later I can be sailing in a glorious sunset, the boat's moving like a dream and it's like, 'This is brilliant. You should be here'. This emotional roller-coaster is so severe. But your mind has an amazing ability to put the bad stuff in a box, and you put it away. You forget it almost instantly. If you dwell in all the negative all the time, life's pretty miserable."

How do the couple hold together a relationship when they are apart for so much of the time? "It's actually probably what's kept us together," Caffari says wryly. "We don't get to that bickering stage. We get used to living on our own, and then have to get used to coming together again. We're both very independent and, if anything, we have to allow ourselves back into each other's lives. But it helps that he understands what I'm doing, and why. Basically I go away all the time. Anyone else would probably be thinking that he was doing something wrong." Spedding knows only too well what drives this remarkable woman.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Beverley James: Accounts Payable

£22,000 - £23,000: Beverley James: Are you looking for the opportunity to work...

Beverley James: Accounts Assistant

£30,000: Beverley James: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a person looki...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower