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Round-the-world sailing 'a drug' for record-breaking yachtswoman

By Matt Majendie, for CNN
updated 8:35 AM EST, Fri November 28, 2014
Dee Caffari has joined Team SCA for leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi. Dee Caffari has joined Team SCA for leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi.
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
Dee Caffari sets off on latest adventure
  • Britain's Dee Caffari is one of the world's great sailors
  • The 41-year-old introduced to sailing by late father, but mother has water phobia
  • She was first woman to sail non-stop, single-handed around globe in both directions
  • Caffari currently heading all-female crew in Volvo Ocean round-the-world race

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(CNN) -- Dee Caffari did not seem born for a life on the high seas.

One of the greatest female sailors on the planet clearly did not take after her mother Barbara, whose fear of water is so strong she will not even take a shower.

So when Caffari announced she was quitting her job as a school teacher to pursue a career sailing some of the roughest oceans on the globe, unsurprisingly it sent shock waves through her mother.

"It's a bit beyond her as she's scared stiff of water, to the extent she won't shower as she doesn't like the sensation of water running over her," says Caffari of her mother.

"She has an understanding of what I do but, in genetics terms, I clearly have taken after my father."

Last week, Caffari set out from Cape Town with a course for Abu Dhabi and the 6,125 nautical miles in between as part of the all-female Team SCA on what will be her fifth yachting voyage around the world, this time in the Volvo Ocean Race.

Caffari is the first woman to have sailed single-handed, non-stop around the world in both directions.

"I never dreamt this would happen, I never dreamt I'd once sail around the world," admits Caffari, who was teaching physical education to 11 to 18-year-olds and loved the job, meaning she had no great urgency to leave.

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Her first voyages on water were on a boat on the Thames with her father, Peter who, in many ways, was the inspiration for her change of career -- the 41-year-old quit her job not long after his death 15 years ago.

"It's strange because I loved my job and had a lot of fun but I had a craving as an adventurer and to travel," says Caffari of her job teaching from a classroom on England's south coast where she regularly saw sailing boast pass by in the distance.

Water sports were the immediate calling -- first windsurfing and then scuba diving before she finally settled on her sport of choice, sailing, which she had, at least, done at university as part of her degree.

"I remember thinking 'this is something I could do'," she recalls. "I told my Mum I was going to take a break from teaching to go sailing and you should have seen her face. It was a picture -- her face just fell. I tried to reassure her by telling her I could go back to it if things didn't work out but thankfully they did.

"Now the only time I go back to school is to give talks, to hopefully inspire people and give them the confidence to dream."

As for Mum, her outlook has considerably shifted to one of pride, although still laced with a modicum of bemusement due to her own discomfort in water.

For Caffari, leg 2 of the Volvo Ocean Race will be her first of the race. The last of the 14-strong team to sign a contract in March, she sat out the opening leg, with only 12 competitors allowed on board to race at any one time. It is perhaps befitting for this latecomer to professional sailing to be a latecomer to this latest venture.

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She expects to add a fresh gusto to her teammates and is very clear what her role will be on board, one she hopes to keep right until the race finish next year.

"I think I'm the Mum of the group, a combination of experience with this being my fifth time around the world but also the fact I'm the oldest in the group," she says. "I'm hopefully the level-headed one so they can look to me for confidence, particularly as for many this will be their first time in the Southern Ocean.

"It's shell shock when you first go down there, it's the race's first big weather system and you realize how big the waves are and how cold it can be. But this is what I signed up for, this is the good stuff, when it's blowing 40 knots and icy -- that's fabulous."

Despite her positive outlook, like many other competitors in the race she too has her fears, in particular one of heights and another of fish, both of which she has to tackle head-on.

She recalls her time in the 2005 Aviva Challenge race when she was stuck up the mast of her boat for three hours being flung around like a rag doll or having to squeamishly scoop up flying fish that have landed aboard her vessel during the Vendee Globe.

But she has a remarkable aptitude for dealing with the harsh nature of the ocean from just 50 minutes sleep at a time during the Vendee Globe to being pumped up on painkillers after suffering a badly swollen knee but having to plough on in the race.

Plus there is the issue of solitude -- at one point during her solo circumnavigation, the closest human beings to her were the astronauts on the International Space Station.

On this journey, Team SCA currently lie in fourth place overall, defying critics who argued that an all-female team could not match their male counterparts in such a rigorous race.

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"The sport itself is still pretty male dominated," she explains, "but I think it's beginning to change that it doesn't matter whether you're male or female. We're all in the same boat doing the same stuff in the same conditions. Hopefully we're breaking down the stereotypes and I believe our peers see us as proper competitors.

"We used to be called the girls but that's changed, now we're all referred to as Team SCA. I like that, it shows we're being taken seriously."

This race is one of the few big outings left on Caffari's to-do list. It also doubles up as another chance to feed her wanderlust and travel the globe again.

"You could say that round-the-world sailing is a drug," she says. "When you're not on the water, you're pining to be back there. It's just no two days are ever the same. It's a fabulous place to be. The day I stop enjoying it is the day I stop."

On the eve of the competition starting for her, the great granddaughter of a Sicilian sea captain -- the only family maritime history she knows of -- she talked excitedly about getting out there, chomping at the bit to get going.

She is well-versed to the potential dangers but argues that "the more miles you do, the more confident you are." She is relishing the intensity and camaraderie of the team, a far cry from her solo venture.

She wants to bring fresh arms, fresh legs and a fresh mind to Team SCA. In her case, mum's the word.

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