Dee Caffari has already conquered many of sailing’s greatest peaks. In 2006, she became the first woman to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world ‘the wrong way’; westward against the prevailing winds and currents. Three years later, Caffari knocked off ‘sailing’s Everest’, the Vendee Globe, becoming in the process the first woman to sail solo, non-stop around the world in both directions. She remains the only woman ever to have sailed non-stop around the world a total of three times. When you consider that more people have summited Everest than have sailed solo around the world, you begin to appreciate what rarefied company she keeps.
In terms of ocean sailing, Caffari has been there, done it, and got the T-shirt. Apart from one.
It did not make headlines, but a couple of weeks ago Caffari was selected by the Royal Yachting Association to be GB’s representative for the EUROSAF mixed offshore European championships, which take place in Italy next month. Caffari will sail alongside James Harayda, a 22 year-old graduate of the British Keelboat Academy.
That may all sound rather dry, but it is the first step in what Caffari and Harayda hope will eventually lead to selection for the 2024 Paris Olympics, where mixed double-handed offshore sailing is set to make its debut.
It would be some story if she could do it. Caffari is a well-known figure in professional sailing where her experience and capabilities are highly regarded. But without putting too fine a point on it, she will be 51 by the time the Paris Olympics roll around. Hardly the typical age of an Olympic sailor.
“Ahem,” she says, laughing, when asked about her ‘veteran’ status. “Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I tell you what, even if I look back at my last Volvo Ocean Race [Caffari was skipper on Turn the Tide on Plastic in 2017-18], where 80 per cent of my crew were under 30, I kept saying I couldn’t decide whether they made me feel old, or kept me feeling young. I’m going with the ‘keeping me feeling young’.”
Caffari can draw inspiration from other 'golden oldies' who have represented Britain down the years such as Nick Skelton who won showjumping gold for Britain aged 58 in Rio four years ago. More pertinently, she could look to Argentine sailor Santiago Lange, who won gold in the mixed Nacra class at the same Games at the age of 54.
The Mixed Offshore Euros, which will be held in Genoa, will consist of a single, 45-hour offshore race in identical L30 yachts supplied by the regatta organisers. Caffari believes she has the fitness, but more importantly the discipline and focus, to succeed. “Sailing with [a younger sailor like] James keeps you on your toes,” she says. “It makes you want to work harder for it. But I think this discipline is interesting in the way it is not just about physical fitness. That combination of a bit of experience, resilience, tenacity… that counts for a lot. There isn’t much that fazes me any more.
“I’m probably working harder now because I’m aware of that barrier, that perception of age. But actually, I am adapting. I’m probably doing a little bit more yoga, you know those peripheral subjects… I used to just be in the gym lifting heavy things, now I’m a little bit more aware of the full rounded aspects of fitness and making sure I don’t cut any corners. I don’t bounce back from injury quite as quickly so I need to make sure I’m better at it really. Ultimately it’s about being able to deliver on the water, both mentally and physically.”
Caffari and Harayda have their work cut out next month. They only met a few weeks ago. Caffari had been thinking about launching an Olympic campaign ever since the changes to the Paris programme were announced (the mixed offshore class is effectively replacing the Finn heavyweight dinghy). But lockdown had put all plans on hold until she received an email from Harayda out of the blue.
“He was wanting some help with setting up his new boat,” she explains. “And I kind of said that due to lockdown my plans had all changed and I was now more available. So we just kind of went sailing together and it evolved. It’s been rather fortuitous.” Caffari denies that the 25-year age difference necessarily makes her ‘the boss’ on board. “No, it’s been really interesting because obviously I’ve got the experience and the age. But he owns the boat! So actually it’s kind of nice. He said: ‘This isn’t a skipper and crew, or owner and crew. This is us together sailing the boat as fast as we can.’”
The pair have already achieved some modest success together. They competed in an event in France in July called the Dhream Cup, finishing second. The following day they got an email from the RYA saying they had been selected to represent Britain at the Europeans.
“Talk about lastminute.com," Caffari says. “But we’re really excited. There’s an awful long way to go [to Paris] and there will be plenty of people coming into the [selection] process I’m sure. But it’s a great chance to show what we can do. It’s definitely one I’m going to grab with both hands.”