An email conversation with yachtswoman Dee Caffari: 'I jumped up to see the mast going over the side – oh my God'

Rescue by a real life Father Christmas; How bacon sandwich relieved a crisis; Blessed by an oceanic guardian angel
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The Independent Online

What have you been doing in New Zealand these last few weeks? After a brief but quiet Christmas at home in Hampshire, we hopped on to a plane and came to Wellington to launch the new Open 60. The first sail aboard the Aviva 222 on 2 January was amazing. She is lighter and the technology generally with these types of boat has moved on considerably. If you had told me a few years ago one day I would be racing on one of these machines as the skipper I would have thought you mad. After a hectic two weeks getting acquainted with the new Aviva we will take her apart this week and ship her back to Europe.

What has been the highlight of your stay Down Under? Obviously, meeting and getting to know the new yacht has been the highlight, but this has been topped off by Dave Greenberg of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter team agreeing to bless Aviva. It was three years ago that Dave and his team came to the rescue when one of my crew on the Global Challenge Round the World Race had to be airlifted to receive medical help that saved his life. It was one of the largest rescues carried out by New Zealand Rescue and, since then, we have remained firm friends. It was fitting Dave blessed the yacht as this time next year I will be passing to the south of New Zealand in the Vendée Globe Race. Aviva now has a guardian angel for this stretch of water.

You had an eventful run-up to Christmas when you were in a single-handed 4,300-mile race from Brazil to France. What happened? "Eventful" is the word. It had been a hard race anyway even until the week before Christmas. I had become stuck in a wind hole on the Bay of Biscay for a few days so I was already panicking about not being back in time when disaster struck on the Wednesday [19 December]. It was around 6am and I was sat in the cuddy, wearing all my gear and harness, travelling upwind at around nine knots with three reefs in and a staysail as the weather was so severe. Aviva fell off a wave, landed with a massive crash, then shuddered. I jumped up on deck to see the mast going over the port side and just thought: "Oh my God". The mast was banging against the side of the hull and I needed to act quickly to cut it free and avoid serious damage.

How afraid were you? In a situation like that, adrenalin kicks in and you just deal with what you have to without considering whether you are scared. It took nearly two hours to cut the rig away, during which time the dagger board and rudder had been damaged. I was adrift in around 48 knots of wind with some huge waves all around me. Once I had sorted Aviva out, I had time to gather my thoughts and did begin to get the shakes.

How did you cope? In terms of being frightened, it's a close second to being stuck up the mast on the Aviva Challenge. On that occasion, I had no way to alert anyone to my predicament and, even if they knew I was swinging about up there, I was in the Southern Ocean and the nearest people to me were on a space station and spoke Russian! In some ways I was "lucky" the dismasting happened in the dark. If I had seen the size of the waves while I was working on the boat, I would have been petrified.

Why were you not airlifted off the boat? I was reluctant as the integrity of the boat was still intact (ie I wasn't sinking!) but, as the hours ticked by and there was still no confirmation of a tow, it was close to becoming a safety issue. There is only so long you can physically go without sleep when you have to keep watch for other shipping that may have hit me. We don't want to leave our boats unless we absolutely have to, they are our partners out there. We look after them and they look after us.

What was it like when the Royal Navy turned up? When I received the email from HMS Northumberland saying, "On our way to help", it was fantastic. I was dreading spending the night alone out there and they allowed me to get some sleep. My first words to them were, "It is sure good to see you guys. You are like a real life Father Christmas delivering me an early present." They circled me overnight and shone lights on Aviva to protect us. I had reached the point of being so exhausted, cold and afraid that I must admit that their offer to come aboard their vessel was tempting. But I was not going to leave Aviva so they settled for lobbing a bacon sandwich across to me for breakfast.

In 2006 you became the first woman to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world, against the prevailing winds and currents, but you said in an email conversation last year that the Brazil to France race would be a step up. What positives have you taken out of it? The lessons learnt. We were able to test a crisis operation plan that you hope you are never going to use and I feel I have another experience under my belt. My goals for this race were to feel confident in solo ocean racing and the dismasting has probably strengthened belief in my ability.

Did you have many messages when you were on board? Formula One driver Mark Webber sent me a great message to shift my mental state to a more positive one. Many people sent messages when I was in trouble and I cannot thank them enough – it makes you feel less alone.

To follow Caffari progress and to find out more about the Aviva Ocean Racing campaign please go to www.avivaoceanracing.com

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* Born 1973, Hertfordshire. Begins career as PE teacher, but gives it up to complete yachting qualifications.

* 2004 While skippering and managing Formula One Sailing's Farr 65s is offered a job as a professional skipper in Global Challenge fleet by Sir Chay Blyth. As the only female skipper in the Global Challenge 2004-05, she leads 17 amateur yachtsmen around the world.

* November 2005 Leaves Portsmouth to circumnavigate the globe, non-stop, west about. * May 2006 178 days later, becomes first woman to sail solo, non-stop around the world against the prevailing winds and currents, and only the fifth person to do so.

* January 2007 announces participation in the Vendée Globe 2008-09 single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. June Awarded MBE in Queen's Birthday Honours List.

* Lives on South Coast with partner/coach Harry Spedding.

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