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Never say Never to adventure: Dee Caffari

By Isabelle Lepine. Part of perspectives WOW* series.

A pioneering woman in her field, an admirable advocate for cleaning up our oceans and a champion against adversity: Caffari shares her passion for adventure with Perspectives.

Dee Caffari MBE, British sailor, became the first woman to solo-circumnavigate the globe non-stop, “the wrong way”; westward against the prevailing winds and currents, in 2006. She now holds three world records, and has completed six laps around the world in total; with a ‘never say never’ attitude towards what the future may bring.

Growing up, Dee reaped the benefits of her dad’s motor boat, sharing fond memories of doing water sports, “It was our mobile holiday home. I learnt a lot of my seamanship skills from my dad: safety, navigation and general competence.” Despite her early introduction to the water, it wasn’t until university that Dee began to explore sailing more.

Early in Dee’s career, she worked as a physical education secondary teacher. “I was happy, but I just wasn’t fulfilled”, “I still had the urge to travel and adventure and it was just too settled. It felt like the right job, but too early in my life. I used to come back with lots of ideas and I was always so open to external stimulation. I remember vividly one of the last conversations I had with my dad, before he passed away. He said, ‘are you going to talk about it, or are you going to do it?’ That, for me, was a catalyst to understanding that there was more out there and I began to see that there was a whole new world, if you are willing to take the initial step.”

Altering her career pathway was far from straight forward. After a holiday in Zimbabwe, where she allowed herself time to process how she was feeling. Dee made the decision to leave her job. “I came back and had that really difficult conversation with my mum. From there I went to UK sail on the Isle of Wight, where I learned to sail.” “It was always on the back burner, and I eventually found a way to get it into my career.”

Due to coming to the sport later than most, Caffari acknowledged her age difference to the others. Despite the initial set back, she found her passion in yachting: “that was where I saw the longevity and I absolutely loved being out on the water, with no two days the same. The whole challenge of balancing everything you’ve learnt with mother nature is really something special.”

Even now, having completed a total of six laps around the planet, and holding three world records, Caffari shared her desire to keep improving her skills. “I think to a certain extent you make your own opportunities; you create your fate, but then there is also an element of luck, instruction and timing. Because you’re with mother nature, you are never in control. There is always some element of change and so you are constantly learning.”

On her 2006 world record breaking trip, Dee continuously encountered some unexpected challenges. “I knew where I was going and how I was going to do it. But what I had no preparation for was the psychological impact. I hadn’t even lived on my own, so to suddenly spend 24 hours a day with yourself is quite hard work.”

When asked about fear factor, she responded pragmatically, with an evident unspoken, unimaginable wealth of understanding for the topic. “The fear bit is funny, because you quickly realise you’re the only one there, so as much as you want to cry it doesn’t actually help anything: you’ve still got to deal with it.” “Fear is reflective on what you have already achieved, so you begin to think, ‘this storm isn’t as bad as the last and I survived that, so I will manage this one too’. As long as I could remain in one piece and keep the boat intact, I was pretty confident that it was going to happen somehow.” “I do think there are elements in sailors of tenacity and resilience, because if it were easy, everyone would do it, but if it was too dangerous, no one would dare.”

Despite her strength of character and unfailing determination, the transition back into normal life was more challenging than everyone had anticipated. After spending 178 days on her own, mundane activities like supermarket shopping and driving provided a sensory overload. “All that time alone, and you suddenly have an audience to interact with: I didn’t stop! I was so used to not sleeping and was always fuelled with adrenaline , so I wanted to share every moment I had experienced over the last six months.” “I realised then that I understood the true value of face to face conversation. I had been missing all the nonverbal cues and facial expressions.”

The 2006 world record break gave Caffari a platform to share her experience and inspire others to unlock their potential. She spoke with great excitement about the Vendee Globe challenge - arguably the most high-profile solo race around the world.

According to Dee, the atmosphere and attitude towards sailing in France differs greatly from the UK, holding captive an incredibly strong following for the sport. “Thousands of people come out, no matter where you finish, day or night, just to welcome you in. You feel like a hero, whether you’re first or last, or anywhere in between. To them, everyone’s just completed something amazing.”

The joyful memories continued, as Dee shared openly, what she described as her ‘proudest moment’ and the catalyst for her incessant passion for cleaning our oceans. The 2017-2018 edition of the Volvo Ocean race allowed Dee the opportunity to lead a mixed, youth focused team, with a strong sustainability message ‘Turn the tide on plastic’. Caffari built a multinational, 50-50 male-female squad, who alongside their goal of promoting ocean health, also spread messages of inclusivity in age and gender, throughout the campaign.

“For me being in the position to enable them to take a major step in their careers was really cool, and I think that harps back to my background of being a teacher. It was such a wonderful synergy of everything in my life coming together.”

With this last project, Dee described how her eyes were opened to the horrors and realities of the destruction plastic causes to our oceans. “We saw it out on the ocean: the repercussions. You see the big bits of plastic: rope, crates, food packaging and helium balloons. But we also did the science analysis of the water, and so we understood about micro-plastics and how these are confused by fish for food and then inadvertently end up in our food chain, which is having unprecedented consequences.” “Understanding that, it changes your life, and you can never go back. We would rather go thirsty than buy a plastic bottle of water.”

Caffari continues to use her platform for ocean advocacy, promoting small, simple changes that we can all adapt incredibly quickly too. As well as this, she works tirelessly to encourage the next generation of sailors: “I think sailing is one of those very unique sports that is multi-disciplinary.”

She openly encourages people to expose themselves to the opportunities that the oceans provide and discover what their passion is. “People from all the walks can compete on a level playing field because it crosses so many demographic boundaries.” “But basically, being on the water doing any kind of sport is a really good place to be for your mental wellbeing and your physicality.”

Photo by sam Greenfield.

*Words of Wisdom

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