The list of world firsts is dwindling but Lisa Blair is doing her best to try to tick a few off.
The Australian is looking to become the first woman to sail solo around Australia later this year and in 2020 the first person to circumnavigate the Artic solo, non-stop and unassisted.
She’s already the first woman and third person ever to sail solo around Antarctica.
Consider that for a moment. That meant sailing through the Southern Ocean for more than 100 days as she battled up to 80 knots, 15m waves and blizzards. Oh, and she also dismasted in a severe storm 1000 nautical miles from the nearest help.
Blair is touring New Zealand over the next couple of weeks to talk about her experiences and try to raise money for her next challenge. It’s a fascinating tale, not least of all because she didn’t learn to sail until she was 20 when working as a cook and cleaner on a charter yacht in the Whitsundays.
Just six years later she was competing in the 2011/12 Clipper round the world yacht race and soon after conceived the idea of trying to become the first woman to sail around Antarctica solo.
She needed a big challenge to try to make a name for herself and, ultimately, grab enough attention to attract sponsors. But she also had a love of the Southern Ocean.
“I’m fascinated by the Southern Ocean,” she says. “It was always my favourite place to sail. It’s rough as guts but it’s absolutely beautiful, breathtaking, and an incredible part of the world.”
The first 72 days were largely uneventful – as much as they can be when sailing in the most brutal conditions on the globe – before Blair’s world, or at least her mast, came crashing down.
She had been on the homeward stretch, four weeks from home, and was ahead of schedule to break the record of 102 days.
She had been resting in bed during a violent storm when a loud bang like a gunshot startled Blair. She raced on deck to see a piece of rigging wire had snapped and her boat in perilous danger.
“When I looked forward, all I could see was my mast dancing like a hula girl, bending and flexing like crazy,” she says. “The mast was unsupported so broke and came down in 7-8m swell and 40 knots of wind. It was like a 22m long spear attached to the boat. The biggest risk was that it would get pulled off the deck of the boat in the next wave and puncture the hull so it was a race against time to try to get rid of it fast enough to save the boat.
“I had 30 seconds when I was completely frozen and couldn’t do anything and my mind caught up and I went into action mode. I was in shock at the time so was shaking like a leaf trying to knock out split pins. I was shaking so hard I was hitting myself with the hammer.
“My situation went from, ‘I’m on my way home’ to ‘am I going to survive the night?’ That situation could have gone from bad to horrible very quickly. It would have taken only one wave to puncture the boat and sink it and I was 1000 miles from land. If my boat had sunk, I was dead.”
It took four hours to cut away the mast, by which time she was shaking uncontrollably due to hypothermia – she had got soaked when initially assessing the damage and had little time to change.
A container ship took three days to intercept her boat Climate Action Now and she took on enough fuel to motor to Cape Town. Many thought that would be the end of her journey but Blair had other ideas and acquired another mast and set off a couple of months later to sail back to where she was dismasted to finish her journey.
Many tried to talk her out of it, largely because it was now winter in the Southern Ocean, but Blair reasoned she had already withstood the most severe storms she would face and nothing was going to stop her, not even periods of self-doubt.
Australia is next on the list which, paradoxically, presents even more challenges than Antarctica. One of the biggest is traffic considering that, apart from the container ship that came to her aid, she saw only one blip on her radar throughout her entire journey. Add in reefs, rocks and constant changes in wind direction (the Southern Ocean is largely downwind sailing the whole time) and sleep is going to be a luxury.
“Then I have plans to try to become the first person to sail solo non-stop and unassisted around the Arctic,” Blair explains. “Why not?”
Why not, indeed.
Lisa Blair tour (all starting at 6.45pm)
May 11: The Little Ships of Canterbury, Christchurch
May 13: Waikawa Boating Club, Picton
May 14: Tasman Bay Cruising Club, Nelson
May 15: Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, Wellington
May 16: Napier Sailing Club, Napier
May 18: Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat Club, Tauranga
May 20: Opua Cruising Club, Opua
May 21: Ponsonby Cruising Club, Auckland