The record-setting female sailor tells us what it’s like onboard a Volvo Ocean Race boat, and what she craves most when she hits the dock.
Dee Caffari is the acclaimed female skipper leading the Turn the Tide on Plastic entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, a round-the-world regatta known as the “Mount Everest” of yacht racing. If you are unfamiliar, the VOR is true extreme sailing, a grueling eight-month test of will with exciting sailing, and beautiful, exotic stopovers but danger, too. VOR sailors face dramatic weather conditions, sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, and the chance to hit a wayward object hidden under the dark water, which could cripple or even sink a sailboat hundreds of miles offshore.
As the first women to sail non-stop around the world “the wrong way” (westward against prevailing winds and currents) and also to set new solo sailing records in the Vendee Globe, non-stop around the world, Caffari is well qualified to meet the challenge.
This beautiful Briton descended from a Maltese sea captain has now set her sights on yacht racing’s most demanding prize this year with her youth-oriented, mixed 50/50 male-female team with a powerful sustainability message.
I love how she embodies all that we at Sail Couture aspire to with her sailing skill, bravery, strength, and beauty. We caught up with her as she races Leg 4 from Melbourne to Hong Kong to learn more about her, ocean health, and why she put together one of the youngest crews in the Volvo Ocean Race.
Sail Couture: You started your career as a teacher, and then made a major jump to professional sailing. What skill base did you have to make that jump, and what skills did you need to acquire?
Dee Caffari: I had a certain level of tenacity and resilience, and that certainly helps when offshore sailing, but otherwise I had to acquire all the new skills as you would in any new sport. Not only, the skills of actually physically sailing but also the peripheral skills like weather understanding and the electronics and mechanics and all the support you need to manage a boat.
SC: What is it like sailing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race, especially compared to sailing around the world singlehanded?
DC: I would say the biggest difference is when you have a team, the boat the boat is sailing at 100%, 24 hours a day. When you are single-handed, you can’t maintain that—there is always a period of downtime at certain points whether you need a rest or something is damaged or broken. The Volvo Ocean Race is full on, and I think that’s why I’m attracted to it.
SC: The guiding mission of Turn the Tide on Plastic is to bring awareness to sustainability issues, specifically regarding of ocean health. What is the most important takeaway you’d like to pass on to the public?
DC: I think the biggest thing for me is the very simple things everyone can do, and if we all do the simple things together, we will make a huge impact. So we’re looking at single-use plastics and how we can eliminate people using straws in their drinks or buying plastic water bottles and using refillable bottles instead. Making an impact on suppliers and manufacturers will have the greatest overall effect.
SC: You’re racing under the UN flag—is that an important message?
DC: For me it’s important. We consist of 10 nationalities in our crew, so we are a floating example of the United Nations. Luckily for me, the common language is English. But it’s important to understand that everybody’s working in a second language and people’s attitudes and behaviors are all slightly different. Accepting that and acknowledging that allows us to get the best of each other.
SC: You were part of the all-female Team SCA in the last edition of the VOR. This time around Turn the Tide on Plastic is a mixed crew (half women, half men). How is the experience different racing for extended periods offshore with a mixed crew than racing with all women?
DC: For me, the majority of my racing actually has been done in a mixed crew, so I find this experience more normal than a fully female team. I’d say the balance is more comfortable. The boys bring out the best in the girls, and the girls bring out the best in the boys. I don’t really see it as an issue. So for me, this is a more natural way to be. It’s a bit more reflective of a boardroom of a corporation as well. You get males and females together, and you have the right people in the jobs in the right roles.
SC: Presumably you assume quite a lot of additional responsibility as skipper. Is that something you enjoy?
DC: I think so. I don’t think I would have taken the job if I hadn’t. If I think of all the things I’ve done in my career, it’s all led up to me taking on this role. It’s certainly a challenge and a responsibility, but the way I’ve set the team up, I’ve seen them grow and mature in front of me and almost put myself out of a job, so I must be doing it right.
SC: You have the most women onboard and one of the youngest crews overall. Is that a handicap or an advantage?
DC: I’d say it’s an advantage. I’m really enjoying sailing with the crew. They think differently, and they’re not stuck in their ways. They are open to suggestions, they’re keen as mustard, and they are enjoying every day out here. So for me, I get a buzz out of that and I’m definitely enjoying it, and I see it as an advantage.
SC: What has been the most challenging moment so far in the race?
DC: Well I’m sure there’s lots to come, but taking the crew into the Southern Ocean for the first time was a huge responsibility. That was a bit of a challenge seeing them tackle that kind of weather. And this leg, from going from leading the fleet to being behind. It was a real test of emotional resilience and seeing if I had the strength of character to bring the team with me—so far so good.
SC: As the saying goes, there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing, and gear is, of course, paramount for an ocean racer. What are some of your favorite pieces and why?
DC: It’s a tough environment for any clothing manufacturer to manage. We are under torrents of water all the time. But there are some firm favorites. I’d say either Gore-Tex socks or Sealskinz waterproof socks because your feet are never dry, the boots are never dry, and that stops your feet getting wet in soggy boots. The winter hat, or the duck hat, is a winner because it’s waterproof and it keeps you dry, and it’s nice and cozy. Items against your skin are really important, and my Runderwear is wicking and seam free, making it comfortable and ideal for this environment where you do not change your clothes for several days. The last essential is sunscreen and lip salve. I love Lucas’ Pawpaw Ointment.
SC: Off the water, how would you describe the lifestyle of a Grand Prix sailor? Is your lifestyle similar or different than that of the guys?
DC: I’d love to know what the lifestyle of a Grand Prix sailor is like, but my lifestyle is pretty basic for sure. It’s the same as everybody else you would know in terms of what I do in my day-to-day living, and I don’t think the guys are any different. We all appreciate time with friends and family and loved ones because we’re away so much. We live a quiet simplistic lifestyle afloat, and that probably is carried over to our behavior ashore as well.
What’s on your VOR playlist? I’m too scared to listen to any music because I need to listen to what’s going on on the boat, so I don’t even have a playlist. If I did, it would have The Red Hot Chili Peppers because that is our team song as well.
Favorite port of call? Auckland, the city of sails. They understand sailing, they get a real buzz out of it, and we also get an extended time free there. It’s good to recharge the batteries, especially when you are halfway around the world.
Favorite item in your shore bag? I’ve probably got two: normal underwear—that feels like a treat wearing proper underwear as opposed to sports-based underwear—and moisturizer. You have a shower and can feel like you can pamper yourself.
What’s the first meal you crave when you hit the dock? Pizza and Diet Coke.
Favorite designer for getting dressed up? I don’t have much experience with designers, so if anyone wants to give me some tester stuff I’d appreciate that! My prize-giving dress is currently a Ted Baker dress.
Favorite vacation spot? In the hills with my dog.
Eat in or dine out? Eat in.
Wine or cocktail? Wine.
Follow Dee and her crew as she races around the world.