Kirsten Neuschäfer took guests on a gripping adventure at the 2023 CFO Awards

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During her keynote address at this year’s CFO Awards, 2022 Golden Globe Race Kirsten Neuschäfer illuminated the parallels between the seemingly disparate worlds of sailing and finance.

In many ways, CFOs are the sailors, responsible for navigating their organisations through the toughest conditions to realise new futures of opportunity. Just like captains, finance executives have to use numbers and unique data from the circumstances around them to make quick decisions that could ultimately lead to them sinking or sailing.

During the 10th Annual CFO Awards, which took place on 16 November at the Polo Room in Sandton, South Africa’s top corporate sailors were recognised for their remarkable achievements over the last year.

Complementing their achievements, keynote speaker Kirsten Neuschäfer took to the stage to deliver the riveting tale of how she became the 2022 Golden Globe Race winner.

With vivid detail, Kirsten recounted her extraordinary solo journey covering 30,000 nautical miles, starting with where it all began.

“I love adventure,” she said. “When I was 22 years old, I decided I’d love to travel from the north to the south of Africa on a bicycle. Everyone thought I was ridiculous, but I knew I had to try.”

A year later, she completed the trip and it became a catalyst for many more great adventures.

“My next dream was to become a sailor, so I worked my way up through the ‘decks’ and I eventually started delivering catamarans to buyers overseas. This meant I had to sailboats all over the world, and it gave me a lot of experience,” Kirsten told guests.


Learning to steer

One day, she stopped on Saint Paul Island in the middle of the Southern Indian Ocean, which is a rough sea. They sailed into a volcanic crater that was nice and calm, offering a break from the surrounding waters.

“It was the first time I had ever experienced something so remote, and I wanted to have more of it.”

Kirsten started working on her first boat. “It was an amazing experience. It taught me how to be really self-sufficient, because you had to know what spares, food or medical supplies you had to take on board. You had to take care of your crew and all of your passengers, and above all your vessel.”

In 2018, a replica of the original 1968 Golden Globe Race came onto the sailing circuit. “Nine people started the race back then, and only one person finished. One had died, some people had to give up because their boats broke, and one person had such a good time they did one and a half turns around the world,” Kirsten said.

She signed up for the race, which started in France. Contestants had to sail down the Atlantic, around Antarctica by way of the three great Capes, and then back up to France.

“You could only use the technology that existed in 1968, so no GPS and no modern weather information. You did have satellite communication, but you were only allowed to use it in the case of an emergency and when you were speaking to the race organisers,” she explained.

The boats also had to be similar to the winning boat of 1968, which was a long keel, cruising boat.


Intervening before a critical state

Once out on the water, Kirsten’s routine revolved around celestial navigation. She explained that, In order to navigate and get accurate positioning, you need accurate time, but all she had was a mechanical wristwatch. “The first thing I did in the morning was get a time signal. I then take a morning sight and a noon sight, and get a page full of calculations from that, with roughly one relevantly accurate position a day.”

The other thing she had to do was maintenance. “Every morning I would walk on the deck and check that there weren’t any chafing or damages so that I could intervene before it got to a critical state.”

Kirsten told the captivated audience how difficult it was sailing into Table Bay in Cape Town, because her family was only meters away in a rubber ducky and the only thing she could do was wave because she wasn’t allowed to stop. “We were allowed to write letters and could hand them over to race organisers at these stops to share with our families. We could not receive any letters, however.”

Getting out of Cape Town wasn’t easy either, because at that time of the year, the sailors were going against the winds and the Agulhas current.

However, Kirsten explained that once she made it through those rough waters and back into the westerly winds, she would just glide through the water with the winds and tides behind her. “These conditions allowed the boat to break the speed record for the race.”


Harping in the middle of the ocean

It was when she was 500 miles off Cape Town that Kirsten received satellite communication from the race organisers to say that a fellow competitor from Finland, Tapio Lehtinen, was stuck at sea. “I rushed to him as quickly as I could, because anyone that’s been at sea would know how unpleasant it is to be harping in a tiny little raft in the middle of the ocean.”

She got to him 22 hours later and was already quite worried because he had lost his whole boat and everything in it to the 3,000-meter depths of water below.

“I thought he would be in a state of trauma, but he was incredibly positive. And it’s a lesson I carry with me until today.”

Once Tapio had reached safety (a cargo ship had diverted its course to pick him up), Kirsten was back in the race.

She shared some of the other challenges she faced on her journey. “Sometimes you would only see the fog for days on end, which means you have to deduce your position based on your compass course and your best guess of what your speed is. So your area of navigation is very big and uncertain.”

Because the race was so long, contestants would also get growth on the hulls of their ships which would slow them down. “Another competitor had to stop at a harbour to clean it because the growth had gotten so bad, eliminating him from the non-stop category,” Kirsten said.

She explained that she also had growth, but she didn’t want to fall out of the category, so she had to dive. “In the South Pacific, the water is cold, so I would spend about two hours in the water until I got near hypothermia and then come up again. In the end, I spent a total of four, two-hour stints underwater cleaning the hull.”

But it was worth it, she said, because once the hull was clean she could feel the boat performing better again.

All of her hard work also paid off at Cape Horn, when a lighthouse keeper who had been watching the race let her know that she was the first to round the “horn”.


Crossing the finish line

During her last leg home, Kirsten also encountered storms, as well as no wind or waves to move her for days at a time – both equally mentally challenging. “You learn different sailing techniques to keep the boat above water in any type of weather,” she said, likening it to the daily role of CFOs in using strategies to navigate organisations through difficult times.

“On the 27th of April, Freedom Day in South Africa, I sailed over the finish line. One of my proudest moments was waving the South African flag while doing so,” Kirsten told the country’s leading finance executives gathered in front of her.

Of the 16 people who competed, only three made it to the finish. Kirsten came first.

“It takes good preparation and resilience, but it was so worth it,” she concluded about her 235 days at sea.

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