Dee Caffari on her sailing achievements, The Americas Cup and life in Titchfield
PUBLISHED: 15:09 11 September 2015 | UPDATED: 15:09 11 September 2015
Walking her Springer along Titchfield’s leafy lanes, Dee Caffari reminisces about her huge sailing achievements… but insists she is not ready to retire yet and has her sights set on The Americas Cup says Peter White
Dee Caffari is already assured of an eternal place in sailing’s record books. When she circumnavigated the globe by boat the ‘wrong way’ – westward against the prevailing winds and currents – she became the first woman to do so, and was subsequently honoured with an MBE.
But Dee is not the sort to rest on her deck, and watch the world sail by. She went on to complete the gruelling Vendee Globe race, thus becoming the first woman to sail solo, non-stop, around the world in both directions. And she has since sailed round the planet three more times – once double handed and the others in a crew.
Even now, though, her thirst for adventure remains as strong as ever, and not just on the high seas. Having lived in Hampshire since 1999, she has more recently embarked on ‘voyages of discovery’ along leafy lands and open green spaces near her home in Titchfield – thanks to her dog Jack!
She smiled: “I love living in Hampshire, and don’t want to be anywhere else. It is vital I am near the water because of my work, but I have learned so much about the area since I got Jack, a Springer Spaniel who is now five years old. I now know so many walks that I didn’t even realise existed, and I can walk him off the lead to the beach in half an hour.
“There are not many places you can do that, and I have started to explore the area a lot more by having a dog. I am lucky where we live because we have great commuting abilities, be it motorways, airports, train stations or ferries - we’ve got great shopping facilities, and a lot of green within a busy built-up area.
“So we have the perfect balance. In my job it is very impractical having a dog at all, as my boyfriend keeps reminding me, but I love going out walking with him. Jack’s bonkers and has lots of energy, which is good for me because he makes me go out for an hour and a half every day. Dog walking is my therapy.”
Despite her epic trips through the fiercest and meanest oceans the world has to offer, Dee loves sailing as much as ever, and wants to achieve so much more. She explained: “I’ve always got ambitions, because when you are a sailor, no two days are ever the same. If you sail a different boat, or you’re with different people you learn things all the time. You always feel unfulfilled.
“Yes, I have been round the world, but I want to do it again because I think I could do it better. Whether it’s in a team in the Volvo Ocean Race or on my own in the Vendee Globe, I’m positive that if I could do any of them again I would be able to do them better.”
But she admitted: “I probably wouldn’t go round the world the wrong way again - I’ve ticked that box and once is enough! It was tough…six months on my own. I was clueless at the time and although I have no doubt I could do it better, I have no need to. Records are there to be broken, but I set the record, and will always be the first woman to do it. Someone will do it faster at some point, but I will still be the first.”
But as a stark reminder that ocean racing is far different from cruising round the Solent on a Sunday morning, she recalled: “I’ve had a few hairy moments, and they are wake-up calls that you are dealing with the forces of nature that you have no control over. So it’s about focusing on the things you can do something about, and not worry about the things you can’t control.
“The ocean and the wind out there have no agenda and will soon tell you who’s boss if you start to get complacent. The worst thing for me was on the ‘wrong way’ round the world voyage in the Southern Ocean. I started climbing the rig and got stuck. That was when I was quite an emotional, roller-coaster person, crying and smiling at the same time and not knowing what I was doing. There I was, stuck halfway up a 90ft rig, and the first reaction was to burst into tears. But that wasn’t going to be any good because there was no one there to help me. So I had to sort it out myself.
“I could see a weather front coming in, and it took me 90 minutes to sort myself out and get back down again. The worst thing was I didn’t get to the top and do the job I needed to do, so I still had to go back up there again and do it. It took me a few days to recover from that! I never had any ambition to sail around the world, but opportunities arise, and it’s about taking those opportunities.”
Dee, 42, was born and brought up in Hertfordshire, did her degree at Leeds Metropolitan University, and worked for five years as a PE teacher, first in Yorkshire before moving to an international college in Swanage, and settling in Dorset.
“Then after five years I suddenly changed careers,” she said. “I went on a diving and sailing holiday, met a dive master who had recently completed her training at UKSA in Cowes, and decided there and then to explore the possibilities.
“I loved my teaching job, but it was almost a case of the right job too soon. I still wanted to travel, and thought there was more to do before I settled into an enjoyable lifestyle. I thought sailing would be the answer, so went to an Open Day at UKSA, signed on the dotted line, and I haven’t looked back since. After training on the Isle of Wight, I was based out of Ocean Village in Southampton, then moved to Alverstoke, before settling in Titchfield.”
Dee enjoys sailing alone, as a pair, and in a team, but accepts the differences are massive. She said: “When you are on your own you have to do everything and be a master of all trades. You also have to have good communication because the team behind you is a remote team, and you can’t sit down and show them what you want all the time.
“When you come to an environment where you are in a team it requires clear and concise communication all the time. There’s good and bad that need to be addressed, and that’s another kind of man management skill. I think we all get better at tolerating and empathising with people to have a better working relationship when you are out on a boat together for weeks.
“I haven’t written off either sailing alone or in a team again, but you can see why double-handed is popular, because that is kind of the compromise. You get to sail on your own, but there’s another pair of hands when something goes wrong and you need some help. And you get to interact with someone, which is what you miss when you are all alone.
“In a team I enjoyed the intensity and camaraderie but I struggled a bit because I only had my job to do, and wasn’t allowed to do someone else’s. I found that a bit frustrating at times, because I come from an environment where I am used to doing everything.
“Sometimes there is also friction and politics that go with it, and that is where you become tolerant and learn about each other - develop each other’s strengths and work on the weaknesses, rather than just write people off.”
Dee is a great supporter of sailing charities, and in the near future hopes to become an ambassador for UKSA, where it all began. She was also an avid spectator when the America’s Cup boats dipped their foils into the Solent. She has not written off competing in the event herself one day, but accepts the enormity of the challenge, saying: “Women have taken part in the America’s Cup before, but it was way back when the boats were quite slow and controlled for the skill of match-racing.
“Now they are machines where all the hydraulics have been taken out, and all the work is physical and manual. So we are at that point where women are not able to sail them. There is a place in other classes that are multihulls and they are crying out for women to sail in those. But once you get foiling, and looking what the guys have to do, it is too physical for us. I have been lucky in my career that I have taken part in the Vendee Globe, which for me is the pinnacle of single-handed off-shore, around the world, and I have taken part in the Volvo Ocean Race which is the pinnacle of crew’s off-shore around the world. I have also sailed round Cape Horn five times from five attempts. Most people I know have never made it every single time. It is going to catch up with me and bite me on the backside sometime, of that I’m sure. But that is a good achievement, right up there, so I have been ticking the boxes at that level.
“The America’s Cup is right up there as the best of the rest, and I was inspired listening to Sir Ben Ainslie and (Australian yachtsman) Jimmy Spithill speaking about it. I felt I needed to get into the gym and be ready. I always want something to aim for - I don’t want to be considered as not being part of the new stuff that’s going on. I am not ready for retirement just yet!”
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