Kirsten Neuschäfer, of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, is the 2022 recipient of the Rod Stephens Seamanship Trophy for playing a pivotal role in the successful rescue of a fellow 2022 Golden Globe Race competitor, Tapio Lehtinen. As of Jan. 3, 2022, Neuschäfer is continuing to race her 36-foot Minnehaha and is in contention for a podium position while passing south of New Zealand en route to the finish in Les Sables d’Olonne, France.
The Cruising Club of America (CCA) annually awards the Rod Stephens Seamanship Trophy to a sailor each year “for an act of seamanship which significantly contributes to the safety of a yacht, or one or more individuals at sea.”
On November 18th, a clear day with moderate winds, Tapio Lehtinen’s boat Asteria began taking on water rapidly and sank in 20 minutes, some 460 nautical miles southeast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. An experienced singlehanded sailor, who finished fifth in the same boat in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, Tapio scrambled to inflate his liferaft and abandon ship, setting off his EPIRB at 0654 UTC and his liferaft’s PLB (personal locator beacon) two hours later.
When Kirsten Neuschäfer, 105 nautical miles to the southwest, learned of Tapio’s plight, she suspended racing, changed course, and hand-steered Minnehaha to the rescue as quickly as possible, guided to Tapio’s position by the Golden Globe Crisis Team. At the same time, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Cape Town requested help from the nearest commercial vessel, Darya Gayatri, 250 nautical miles away.
Kirsten reached Tapio’s position at 0510 UTC the next morning but couldn’t see his raft and had only spotty VHF radio communications with Tapio. Conditions at the time were 20 knots of wind and swells of 2 to 3 meters (7 to 10 feet). The Golden Globe Crisis Team at headquarters back in France helped Kirsten home in on the GPS position of Tapio’s raft until she could see it. She was then able to bring him aboard Minnehaha at 0700 UTC.
Kirsten called race headquarters at 0805 UTC to confirm that she had retrieved Tapio and they had shared a glass of rum, by which time the Darya Gayatri had arrived to take Tapio aboard. “As I approached [the ship], they tossed us a line,” Kirsten said. “We caught it, tied it onto the raft and he got back into the raft. They pulled him to the ladder. He climbed the ladder and then they pulled the raft aboard the ship.”
During the Satphone call, Kirsten deflected the congratulations offered. “I’m just glad I could help him,” she said. “I’m full of adrenaline right now because it’s quite something to be so close to a ship while sailing at sea…I wouldn’t like to spend a night in a raft on the southern Indian Ocean. I tried to get there as quickly as I could. No need for congratulations. Anyone would do it for another sailor.”
Nonetheless, in a letter Tapio wrote a couple days later, he thanked Kirsten “…for your excellent seamanship in maneuvering Minnehaha next to the raft, getting me onboard and for the rum. And then in cooperation with Captain Naveen Kumar Mehrotra, getting Minnehaha safely in the lee of M/V Darya Gayatri and getting me safely onboard the ship.”
Kirsten Neuschäfer receives the Cruising Club of America’s Rod Stephens Trophy for Outstanding Seamanship for her adherence to the tradition of assisting fellow mariners in distress and for her excellent handling of her vessel in sizeable swells to conduct a liferaft rescue and then maneuver alongside the 750-foot bulk carrier Darya Gayatri.