Sailing: Caffari proves woman for all seasons in single-handed quest to rule the waves

The Briton is relishing the prospect of the unique test that is the Vendée Globe, writes Stuart Alexander
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The Independent Online

The rain is doing its best to be hail, hammering down from boiling clouds with an intensity that is pure malice, but, almost like a computer-generated image, dancing towards the huddled group of cowering guests is a thin, horizontal flash of bright light. It is the smile of Dee Caffari, shining out of a wind-burned face, walking down the pontoon to go sailing.

This is not how the script was meant to be. This is in what should be sunny Portugal, in Cascais, outside Lisbon, where her training camp has been set up since the start of 2008 and which will serve up an even more difficult test than when she became the first woman to sail solo, non-stop round the world the "wrong way" against the prevailing winds and tides. That took 178 days. Going the "right" way in half the time is going to be much harder.

Sitting on the dock is the new Caffari steed, a 60-foot £6m exuberance of yellow and blue emblazoned with the palindromic name of her sponsor, Aviva, a major insurance group which trades under the Norwich Union name in the UK. But its Caribbean optimism is being stamped on by a grey sky and any thought of a smooth ride out towards the Atlantic is a long-abandoned dream.

The wind is gusting up to a gale-plus 40 knots and the swell at the end of its transatlantic journey is creating steep-sided waves that crash on to the rocky shore. From the safe viewpoint of their hotel windows, the golfers are frantically trying to find early flights home, but Caffari, her crew, and her guests are going sailing.

After leaving the swanky Cascais Marina, home last year to the world championships of sailing and yet another triumphal progress by Britain's Olympic squad, the decision is to put up only a small amount of sail. Wise.

Even so, the boat is crashing up and down and spray hits unwary forward-looking faces like a power shower. "Salt water is good for the skin," quips Caffari in full Joyce Grenfell determinedly optimistic mode.

The old hands have made a territorial leap for safety under the protective cover which leads to the sleeping and, much more importantly, navigatorium below. It might have been poor form to take refuge down there.

Even in this tempest there was still a smile on the 35-year old Caffari's face, or at least it looked like a smile, but could have been taking on a hint of grimace. At the wheel the new boat captain, Joff Brown, decides that beating a long way uphill has limited appeal, the clouds overhead hurry away further inland, replaced by something blue and a bright yellow thing.

Time to turn around and the boat takes off. The average cruising sailor is used to allowing about an hour to cover six miles and if ever the boat reaches double figures is boasting about it for a month after. This machine, designed by the Owen-Clarke partnership in Hamble, even with so little sail, powers rapidly to 17 knots.

Brown, who built the boat in New Zealand, can now guide it smoothly down the waves. Life has taken on a new meaning and the trippers emerge, shaking water off bulky oilskins and stretching in the new freedom of being able to stand up.

Promotional events are all part of a sportsman's life in a world where media exploitation of branding is as important to the sponsors as success on the field of play, but Caffari, who, like her sponsor has the accent on the second syllable of her name, is caught up in a pressure of her own called lack of time.

She can cope with good humour when asked by a French journalist how she looks after her hair – "of course I try to sort out the salt-water matted mess on my head if I want to look better for the sponsor, but if I can't I can always wear a hat." Questions on make-up elicit only a look of incredulity and when pressed on her sex life – "my readers are very interested in that" – had to say that, as a single-handed sailor, sex did not figure very highly.

Ashore, she is every inch a woman and has, in Harry Spedding, son of the late, great and glorious Spud, a partner whose main worry is if she gives up after this winter's Vendée Globe. This is a challenge like no other and it was after coming second in this race that Ellen MacArthur moved from the sports pages of the serious newspapers to the front half of the popular press.

Caffari is already prepared to contemplate a second Vendée – "otherwise I might buy a puppy". Apparently a chocolate Labrador would be the preferred variety. First there are a lot of miles to cover. The team have only been together since 2006 when, after skippering a paying crew in the now defunct Global Challenge race she completed the first solo circumnavigation in the same boat.

A second-hand racing machine saw her do the double-handed Jacques Vabre transatlantic race last year and a solo return to France, while the new boat, a sistership to Mike Golding's Ecover, was being built.

On Monday she is due to sail the boat alone to Plymouth for the single-handed Transat to Boston starting 11 May. Then she will sail it back and have a new keel fitted, Golding's having cracked and failed.

Then in November comes the Vendée. "One of the hardest things to deal with is the competitive environment," she says, knowing she will be up against the world's best. Although physically strong, one of the areas under intensive study is meteorology and tactics.

"At least I know I can deal with the horrible conditions," she says. "And this time, although it may be cold in the middle, I know it will warm up a lot more quickly."

From the gym to the gybe: Career switch that made Caffari a queen of the seas

Before taking to the waves, Hertfordshire-born DeeCaffari was a PE teacher, first at a grammar school in Halifax and then in Swanage.

She had been a keen dancer, but her first introduction to the water was in a motorboat with father Peter, mother Barbara, and elder sister Jane.

It was the death of her father that prompted a major directional change which saw her add sailing qualifications and then, after some travelling, her appointment by Mike Golding as skipper, both racing and corporate, of his 67ft deep water yacht.

She then skippered Unysis, in the 2004-05 Global Challenge before doing her solo epic round the world. This was followed by buying Golding's old Open 60. In December, HMS Northumberland, a Royal Navy frigate, diverted its course to provide assistance after Caffari was dismasted in the Bay of Biscay. Caffari, who was heading for the finish of the Transat Ecover race from Brazil to Brest, eventually reached port unaided.

Caffari now has a new boat of her own in Aviva.