Sailor who spent time prepping boat on P.E.I. makes at-sea rescue

Kirsten Neuschäfer's 36-foot boat was rebuilt last summer by tradespeople on P.E.I. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)
Kirsten Neuschäfer's 36-foot boat was rebuilt last summer by tradespeople on P.E.I. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)

A South African sailor who had her boat rebuilt in P.E.I. last year made a heroic at-sea rescue on Saturday.

Kirsten Neuschäfer began competing in the Golden Globe Race in September aboard her 36-foot boat Minnehaha, which Island contractors had fitted out with a new fibreglass deck, a new oak rudder and a hand-crafted tiller hewn from local ash, among other things.

The Golden Globe is taking elite sailors around the world in a competition expected to last nearly nine months.

On Nov. 19, waves in the Indian Ocean were four metres high when Neuschäfer was alerted to a boat in distress. Finnish competitor Tapio Lehtinen's boat was sinking.

"Tapio describes simply hearing a loud bang, getting out of bed and realizing that his boat was full of water," Helen Fretter, editor of Yachting World, told CBC Island Morning host Laura Chapin.

Neuschäfer, in her 36-foot boat Minnehaha, was closest to Lehtinen's boat, which was about 450 miles off the eastern coast of South Africa.

Golden Globe site
Golden Globe site

Because the Golden Globe is a retro event meant to mimic the original 1968 race by the same name, the yachts are pretty low tech.

"They don't have loads of modern communication devices on all the time," said Fretter. "Compared to the modern race boats, where they're tweeting and sending live video and all that, they're quite off grid."

That's why "it took a little while for them to get Kirsten, and obviously she could've been sleeping or changing sails or something important as well," Fretter said.

'A cork bobbing around'

Once Neuschäfer was alerted to the situation, she wasted no time making her way to the last known location of Lehtinen, who was now in a life-raft.

"He took what's called a grab bag, so he had some communication devices," said Fretter. But he was missing his reading glasses to let him use them comfortably, and "he didn't have long supplies of water or food, [so] he needed picking up within about 24 hours, really."

Bertie Gregory
Bertie Gregory

The stranded Finnish sailor sent several messages to race officials while he was awaiting rescue, including "ADMIRIMG SUMSET&BIRDS," at 4:24 pm UTC and "2ALBATROSSES KISSING IN THE LEE OF THE RAFT!" a few hours later.

Fretter says that while the three- or four-metre high waves wouldn't have been a big deal in the yacht, they would have felt huge in a life-raft. "Pretty much you're a cork bobbing around," she said.

You are probably your competitor's nearest point of rescue, so you go. You don't worry about your race. — Helen Fretter 

Fretter said the South African likely had no hesitation about coming to the rescue.

"She diverted course, which is a really central tenet of ocean racing — but particularly single-handed ocean racing. You are probably your competitor's nearest point of rescue, so you go," she said. "You don't worry about your race, you just go."

Once Lehtinen was aboard the yacht, the duo shared a celebratory drink. "I think they had a tot of rum, which is a very traditional sailor thing to do."

No time lost

Neuschäfer transferred Lehtinen to a 230-metre bulk carrier in the area before returning to solo sailing. He's dropped out of the race, but the Minnehaha rejoined the competition with no time lost.

"There's a really well-established precedent, that if you do this you get what's called a time redress," Fretter said. "So effectively her position is reset, so the position between her and the leader will be the same as it was."

As of Tuesday, Neuschäfer is in second place of the nine racers who remain in contention, behind England's Simon Curwen.

"He's got a bit of an advantage," said Fretter. "He's led pretty much all the race, but this is a really really long race. They've got a lot of weather to get through, they've got a lot of maintenance on the boats to keep going, so she certainly still has every chance."

Neuschäfer and her retrofitted 1988 Cape George yacht are expected to complete the race sometime around June.

"Her boat is rapid and she knows how to get the most out of it," said Fretter. "So she's always certainly been one to watch, to see how she gets on in this race."