Skill, endurance, and determination: Kirsten Neuschäfer shares life lessons from the Golden Globe Race.


The keynote speaker for CHRO Awards 2023 shared her incredible story of the power of the human spirit and the pursuit of dreams against all odds.

South African Kirsten Neuschäfer, the first woman to win the historic Golden Globe Race, imparted a few life lessons to CHROs and HR directors as the keynote speaker at the annual CHRO Awards on 14 November 2023, where the HR profession and the people who make it shine are acknowledged.

Kirsten’s story is of one woman’s ascent from male-dominated beginnings to becoming victorious in what others deem the ultimate human race. She was the only woman against 15 other competitors, all men.

The Golden Globe Race is a solo, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation. This retro race is based on the first solo circumnavigation race that took place in 1968. In order to stay true to the original circumnavigation, boats are all older designs, no bigger than 36 foot, and modern navigational technology, like GPS, is not permitted.

The route for the race began in France, down the Atlantic, east-about the Southern Ocean, and back up the Atlantic to France, and can take anywhere from seven to nine months or more at sea. Kirsten crossed the finish line with an official time of 233 days, 20 hours, 43 minutes and 47 seconds.

The race, known for its gruelling conditions and unpredictable weather patterns, demands not just sailing prowess, but also mental fortitude and adaptability. Kirsten says she spent years honing her skills, participating in various sailing competitions, and undertaking extensive training to prepare herself for the ultimate test – the solo circumnavigation of the globe.

“On 27 April this year, which happened to be Freedom Day in South Africa. I sailed over the finish line of the Golden Globe race, and my proudest moment was to be waving the South African flag. I wanted to win, not as a woman. I didn’t want to be in a separate category, but to compete on equal terms with all the skippers.”

Kirsten says in hindsight she was glad to have embarked on the competition. “I experienced this infinitely enriching experience. And I stood staring out to sea thinking, wow, I’m glad I acted upon my dream.”

From the relentless storms of the Southern Ocean to the calm, lonely stretches where time seemed to stand still, every leg of the journey presented its own set of challenges. As the race progressed and other competitors faced setbacks, it was her strategic approach and unwavering focus propelled her steadily forward, she says.

“You have to know what pace to carry on board, how to keep sane, create a routine of sorts and know what you are living on, because in the end it will be what will carry your life. So, one of the things I did when I had enough time, was that I dropped the sails, I’d jump overboard and I would swim, and I’d swim a nice little distance away from the boat. The boat would get a little bit smaller and look at it from a little bit of a distance, and then swim back to the boat and be happy that I was back on the boat, because of course you realise the boat is carrying your life. Just that physical exercise was a great thing.”

Another lesson learnt in her time at sea, she says, was the importance of remaining positive despite the circumstances you find yourself in.

“At times when I got into a negative thought pattern of – I’m losing now, I’m not going to catch up to the others – was just to shut it down right there and then say, stop thinking like that. Let’s just get through today. So, when the time was hard and the going was tough, it really was a question of just getting through the day and seeing what comes the next day and breaking up the trip into little milestones rather than always envisaging the end, because it’s a long trip.”

In the end, not only did Kirsten win, but during the race the South African diverted from her path to rescue fellow competitor Tapio Lehtinen. She reminded the audience that humanity is also important in the business world.

“After being stranded for over 24 hours in a lifeboat, Tapio was still so gracious and even joked about not invading my privacy. It was a great lesson to see him being so positive despite his circumstances. We drank a rum together and then we sent him on his merry way. There really was no congratulations needed for the rescue; anyone would do the same for another sailor and human.”

In conclusion, Kirsten reminded the audience that life is also like a race and one needs to constantly prepare for the journey.

“In the end, you have to do everything from this moment onwards towards winning in life. And that’s what I did.”

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