Going it alone – Kay Cottee’s voyage aboard Blackmores First Lady

Blackmores First Lady surfing down a wave rounding Cape Horn. Painted by Jack Earl, 1988. ANMM Collection.

Blackmores First Lady surfing down a wave rounding Cape Horn.
Painted by Jack Earl, 1988. ANMM Collection.

“It’s what I do — I do the sea … To people it may seem dangerous, foolish even but, for me, it’s not a strange environment. It’s not alien to me, it’s where I’m happiest.”

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – (Still solo racing at 75)

Solo celebrating the milestones. Label reads   `Rounding Good Hope. Kay Cottee'.

Solo celebrating the milestones. Label reads `Rounding Good Hope. Kay Cottee’. ANMM Collection.

It has been 28 years now since Kay Cottee set out aboard Blackmores First Lady to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and unassisted. Much has happened and changed in the world of solo sailing in that time. While still attracting those quiet adventurers, solo sailing also attracts big money, big boats and big speed.

Since 1988, there have been older, younger and faster soloists, and those who used smaller boats, achieved more circumnavigations, or spent more lonely months at sea. Some have sailed with less equipment or greater physical challenges, or in different directions. But they do not diminish the huge achievement that was Kay Cottee’s voyage aboard Blackmores First Lady.

Cottee’s efforts started in 1987 as a very small scale, personal and hands-on endeavour. After selling many of her possessions and helped by family and a group of dedicated friends, Kay Cottee took on the world’s oceans in a Cavalier 37 and a belief that this was the last true challenge remaining for a woman in the world of sailing.

Face to face with humans fort he first time in 124off South-East Cape, Tasmania. 27 May, 1988. ANMM Collection.

First sighting of people in 124 days. Kay Cottee off South-East Cape, Tasmania. 27 May, 1988. ANMM Collection.

Even on her return, as the nation stopped and watched, Kay Cottee maintained that she was overwhelmed by the country’s interest in her achievement.

Although she was already a skilled boatbuilder and sailor, Cottee had to learn and master new skills in a relatively short time – skills that her survival would depend on. Not just navigational skills, but medical skills, electrical skills and safety skills that could be implemented in an instant and in the worse conditions imaginable. Communications at times were luxury rather than a guarantee, in an era before blogging, live streaming or emailing. She had to be totally self-reliant in every way.

Knitting project by Kay Cottee. ANMM Collection.

Knitting project by Kay Cottee.
ANMM Collection.

When asked in 1992 from a museum member "Is there an equivalent of 'Thank God it's Friday' on a solo voyage?" Kay replied, "Yes. At 5pm - gin and lemon cordial". The tonic was one of the things she forgot to take with her.

When asked in 1992 from a museum member “Is there an equivalent of ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ on a solo voyage?” Kay replied, “Yes. At 5pm – gin and lemon cordial”. The tonic was one of the things she forgot to take with her.

Sitting on board Blackmores First Lady today, safely housed in the Australian National Maritime Museum, it all seems relatively simple and low tech; cosy, even. Yet I imagine that most of us do not have what it takes to become a solo sailor. I certainly don’t. And even if I did, would I really want to do it, and spend months at sea alone? What would you take on board for six months? What would save your mind and soothe your worries? Looking around Blackmores First Lady, you wonder if it would be enough.

In her ‘down’ time, Kay Cottee read, listened to music, wrote, knitted and baked. Throughout it all, her deep and enduring love of the sea held firm and shone through her fear and doubt. She learnt to see the wild beauty in the mountainous waves that knocked her down and seemed grateful for the opportunity to experience it all. And that, in essence, is what solo sailing is all about.

Get a glimpse of life as a solo sailor on board Kay Cottee’s Blackmores First Lady, at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Tours available at selected times throughout the day.

Kay Cottee aboard Blackmores First Lady, ANMM collection.

Kay Cottee aboard Blackmores First Lady, ANMM collection.

One thought on “Going it alone – Kay Cottee’s voyage aboard Blackmores First Lady

  1. I remember it well. When she was sailing up the east coast of Tasmania, just days from finishing, some media people caught up with her in a small boat and were shouting questions across at her. She replied to them and then said: “Over” then realised she was not speaking by radio any more and cracked up laughing.

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