Introduction by Brett Lyall, McMichael Yacht Yards & Brokers
After winning the 2023 Bermuda One-Two at just 29 years old, Cole Brauer is back on the open ocean. She is one of five Americans on the roster of twenty skippers competing in the 2023 Global Solo Challenge. She is the only female sailor in the fleet, and if successful she will be the first American woman to have raced solo around the globe.
As Cole said, “I don’t notice myself being any different than the other competitors. There’s no gender when you’re alone on the ocean. You’re just a sailor who’s out there, who has to make it work.”
A year ago on the exact day I was told I was too short for the Southern Ocean after a tryout for the infamous Ocean Race. I sat there at that meeting after a two week tryout in France that they had flown me in for a job as a back up driver and trimmer for the race. I was so excited because it had been a dream of mine to race on an Ocean Race boat. The Volvo has spit out some of the best sailors to ever walk this planet. It was an honor even to be considered for a tryout on the basis of my sailing CV alone. They clearly didn’t know what I looked like before they flew me out from the USA. I arrived and there was this moment in the hotel the day before training started when I shook hands with the driver and met the boat captain and navigator all at once. They looked at me with disbelief. They looked me up and down and I could tell they didn’t want to shake my hand. I assumed probably because they had already made up their minds that I was cut. Even before I had even seen the boat.
Anyways, the next day we went down to the boat and I was fascinated by this beautiful Volvo 65. She had so many lines and halyard locks and reaching struts. The sails were on deck and they were the size of my van! We walked over, after seeing the boat, to a small office building in Cannes, France. We sat and chatted about what people were going to do on the boat for the day. I found it strange that all of this and we didn’t do any introductions of the 12 or so people that were sitting in that room other than the driver introducing himself and the navigator. I felt like, maybe, just maybe, if we could do an introduction I could tell this physically massive group of humans my experience so they would stop looking at me like a charity case.
Anywho we got back to the boat after the non-existent introductions, I was appointed to be a primary trimmer for the day and was given a back up trimmer who was 6’8’’. Still one of the nicest Swedes I have ever met. Found out later he had a gold medal at the Olympics! He followed me around cleaning up my mess of lines as I took lines off and on winches during each maneuver. Had I mentioned yet that I’ve never been on a Volvo 65 before that day?? Oh yeah that’s because the Driver didn’t want us to “learn” the boat he just wanted to see how we reacted to each other and worked as a team…I found this to be along the lines of walking into a manufacturing facility of some sort grabbing the biggest most dangerous machine and someone saying okay good luck I’ll see you at the end of the day! I was surprised by this.
Of course, I made mistakes. I fumbled around. Tried not to lose any fingers on the biggest winch that I had ever seen. By the end of the day I was exhausted but I got to drive the boat during a few maneuvers and I felt like my strengths were starting to be seen. The Driver then said, with a smirk, okay well let see if you can dock her. In Cannes, it’s Med Tie to a large rock bulkhead in between two multimillion-dollar motor yachts. I thought to myself, I think this guy actually wants me to fail.., however what he didn’t know is I am the queen of reverse! As my team knows very well, I back First Light down every channel because she has a turning radius of an American Mac Truck with a wind turbine on top. Anywho, I backed her in, and it was perfect. I was starting to feel like okay, I belong here. This is what I came here for…to show these people I am worthy of the Ocean Race Team.
I realized after about a day that the way I learn is different than most-I need to see and visualize every maneuver, feel the lines in my hands, draw out the piano of the pit and go over steps for each and every thing that could possibly happen on the boat. I showed up a few hours early every morning and drew out the entire boat in my notebook, I stayed late to study and go over each maneuver. “On the lock!” I would say under my breath as I would pretend I was putting the J2 on the lock. So if they called upon me to do pit out of nowhere I came in guns ablaze!
5 days in I was trimming on the starboard primary and we went for a tack, my normal grinder wasn’t there so I put the sheet in the self tailor and went to the coffee grinder, as I put my hands on the pedestal one of the grinders came barreling in and body checked me across the boat yelling “NOT YOUR JOB!” I picked myself up totally confused and dismayed that a teammate would do that. But I guess that’s just what tryouts for The Ocean Race are like… what did I know. All that I did know was I wasn’t going to let that happen again.
After the first week of the tryout we had a day off before the next week began. I went to a burger joint with that grinder to have a chat. We chatted about life and things and then I said, “You seem to have an issue on the boat with me?” He said, “Yeah, I just don’t think you can do it, and I don’t want to waste my time dealing with you if you just shouldn’t be here.” I looked at him, ate my food and then said, “You do understand I’m here not because of my size, or anything else, I am here because of my CV and maybe if you help me and be a teammate with me we, as a team can make this the best tryout of our lives, and if not…I’ll make your life a living hell on the boat.” This seemed to have resonated with him. From then on, we ran that show. If it had to do something with strength I went to him for help, if it had to do with tactics and driving he came to me. We became quite good friends actually.
By the end of the two weeks I was starting to feel confident. We had been recorded on the strip charts for our driving and trimming ability in relation to angle and boat speed (I.E VMG). The navigator had already told me my results were extremely strong. Check! I had the respect of the navigator! The right hand man of the Driver!
At my debrief at the end, I met with the Driver, I was called down to the cafe in the hotel and I was smiling. I felt good. Felt like there was a pretty decent chance to make the team, even if just as a back up. I knew my driving had been strong, I knew I could drive in super heavy air with a smile on my face, 15 feet up as the boat soared over waves.
The driver starts by tells me my driving and trimming was some of the best of the team, I said thank you very much. And then… the driver asks “what does it feel like being the only American on the team” I laughed and said “there really isn’t a difference, a sailor is a sailor.” He then said…and I will never forget this moment… “well you can’t truly believe that you could make this team. You know. You are just too short for the southern ocean. How would you see over the stack!” Whatever he said after that sentence I didn’t hear. I couldn’t. I was doing everything in my power not to cry. Of course the tears came anyways. I couldn’t hold back. I was crushed. The complaints that he had about me was not about my sailing ability it was about my nationality and my size. I was flown to Cannes. Canceled my paid racing. Pushed off my loyal clients to do this tryout only to be told something I already knew. I am small.
I thanked him for his time, I got up, walked up the stairs to my room in the hotel and collapsed in the staircase and screamed and cried like a dog that had been hit by a car. After a few mins I crawled up the rest of the way and managed to get to my room. I cried all night. And I still had to go to training the next morning with the entire team knowing I was off the team.
I showed up the next day, with the biggest smile on my face. I showed up early, got the boat completely rigged and ready, inventoried the sails and got things set for that day of training so all we had to do was throw lines and go to practice. At the end of practice, I called an Uber knowing I was getting on a plane, the Uber met me right behind the boat and I said my goodbyes to the lovely friends I had actually made over two weeks of pretty miserable conditions. I gave a hug to my new friend, the grinder. And a hug to one of the best young women I had met, at only 21 she was a force. Such a badass. I was happy she at least had made the team. She looked at me and I looked at her, I said I was going to miss her, she said the same. I told her as she looked at me with those sad, disappointed eyes, I said, don’t worry I guess I’ll just have to sail around the world alone.
And now. A year and a few weeks later I have made it to the Southern Ocean. Right now I look at my instruments as they say 31, 34, 35 knots of breeze. And I know I am exactly where I want to be. Everything from the good, the bad and the ugly has led me to this moment. Thank you to my team, my family, my support system. Without you picking me off the ground every damn tryout, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So very thankful for you all.
Thank you for reading my story if you actually made it all the way through!
The following Q&A with Cole is from the Global Solo Challenge website.
Where does your passion for sailing come from?
When I was a kid there weren’t many opportunities to sail, and when there were, they were either very expensive (yacht club prices) or the boats didn’t interest me because they were slow, bulky and the classes were rigid.
I grew up on a nature preserve, wandering through the tall grass of the creek and playing in the mud watching the tide come in. I spent a lot of time alone exploring nature. I was fascinated with clouds, animal bones, and watching the weather roll by. Pretending I was a fairy flying through the creek observing every movement, every puff that pushed the reeds one way or the other. When I moved to Hawaii for University, all I wanted was to get out on the water. Feel at home. Accessing the sailing community in Hawaii was the logical step. I had no idea that this entire community was going to take me under their wing the way they did and push me to pursue my wildest dreams.
What are the lessons you learned from sailing?
Sailing has taught me that I am never truly alone. I was in Hawaii away from my family on an island for so many years yet I was never homesick. The sailing community taught me everything there was to know about sailing and racing while also giving me life lessons throughout the way. For instance: to never forget that life is so incredibly short. You can work in an office for 40 years and come out and your body deteriorates and you can’t do the things you used to do. Yet if you take this time while you are young to make the most of it. Money will come. You may never have enough money to be “rich” but you will have enough to be content and secure. It’s all a mindset. This was taught to me by the sailing community.
What brought you to like single-handed sailing?
I was sitting having dinner with a mentor of mine, Tim Fetsch, in 2018 and we were talking about goals and what I wanted to accomplish in my sailing career. I was 24 years old at the time. And Tim asked me what do you want to do? I said the Volvo Ocean Race. He said “you really want to sail around the world?” I had just returned from a watch captain gig on a 7 person team in the Pacific Cup, a race from San Francisco to Hawaii. I said “of course!” He said “have you ever heard of Ellen McArther.” I said no (I hadn’t grown up sailing so I was lacking idols). He then sent me her book, ‘Taking on the World’. I read it in two days on a boat delivery. That was it. I was going to race solo around the world. I was going to do it as a 5’2’’ 100lb woman. Just like Ellen McArther. And the best part! I actually loved single-handed sailing more than fully crewed by a long shot! I had found my footing.
What prompted you to sign up for this event?
My co-skipper, Cat Chimney, recommended this race to me because it falls in line with the overall goal of being the First American Woman to Race Solo Around the World. While giving the team and I four years to prepare for the 2028 Vendee with a World Race under our belt.
How do you plan to prepare for this event?
I have a strong team behind me. I have been prepping some of these members of this team for years now. They have all known my goals and aspirations. I have written a timeline, schedule, estimated cost and communicated my expectations while also keeping the conversation honest and open with each one of my teammates. Without these teammates, I would not be able to do this race.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge will be making the starting line, since I and the team are coming into this event late to the game.
Tell us about your boat.
‘First Light’ is a Class40, she was formerly owned by Michael Hennessy and formally named Dragon. She has a strong pedigree and has been loved since her inception. I know the boat better than any other boat I have ever sailed. We have a strong understanding of each other.
Do you intend to link this personal challenge with a social message?
This goal has always been to be the First American Woman to Race Around the World. With this goal, I hope to show that this very male-dominated sport and community CAN become more open and less “traditional.” This is changing a mindset that has been set in stone by many boat clubs, yacht clubs, and people (women and men). I will be fighting against the constant sexual, verbal, and physical harassment for not just myself but for the Corinthian and Professional women sailors in this sport. As professional sailors, we have been fighting for many years for equal pay (we are paid significantly less than a man in the same position), we are harassed by teammates, owners, clients, race organizers, and many others in this community. Just as well as this community has built me up it has broken me and my fellow female teammates down. I am doing this race for them. Please follow safesail.org, this is an organization that is changing the world of sailing as we know it. It is giving people an opportunity to report harassment to listening ears in the sailing community.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to thank my team. Thank you for supporting me before and during this upcoming event! I can’t do this without them; I understand this very clearly. Thank you to the Day family, I love this boat so much and I’m so unbelievably happy I have the opportunity to sail her. I have said for a long time that if I am going to sail around the world I am going to do it on a boat I know, love, and trust. This is the one. Thank you to my immediate support team, FK and Linc Day, Philip Carlsson, Cat Chimney, Serena Village, Zach Mason, Jimmy Carolla, Kyle Wishart, Chelsea Freas, and James Tomlinson. I’m sure we will grab a lot more people as this process carries on but I will never forget the beginning squad and how much support you have already provided!!
Look for more updates from Cole in the WindCheck Ship’s Log.