The OSTAR 2009

How an adventure at 22 has shaped my life
by Katie Miller

In the spring of 2009, at the age of 22, I embarked on a journey that would not only test my limits but also stretch the boundaries of what I thought was possible. I participated in the OSTAR (Original Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race), a gruelling solo sailing competition that spans 3000 miles of the North Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island.

How it all started

When I crossed the start line, I was a 22-year-old with a deep passion for sailing—a passion that had ignited just eight years earlier. My first glimpse into the world of solo sailing came during a family sailing holiday, around the same time I saw Dame Ellen MacArthur finish the Vendee Globe on TV. These experiences sowed the seeds of what would become my OSTAR sailing campaign. Inspired by sailors like Clare Francis, I dived into books on solo sailing adventures, dreaming of the self-sufficiency and adventure that crossing the Atlantic solo could offer.

Photo by: Katie Miller

I was hooked on the idea of taking on such a challenge but knew I needed to amass as much sailing experience as I could.  Sailing wasn’t part of our family lifestyle when I was young (they have since fallen in love with sailing!), so I didn’t rise up through the usual Optimist dinghy development pathway.  Not having these early experiences on the water made the challenge all the harder, but the rewards greater.  At 14, and whilst living with my parents in Birmingham, I joined the Sea Cadets and started sailing dinghies at my local sailing club.  I took every opportunity that was given to me to spend time out on the water, working hard to increase my knowledge whilst at the same time getting experience on boats of all shapes and sizes.

By 2006, age 19, I was ready for my first solo challenge.  A solo circumnavigation of the UK to raise money for the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust.  Being alone on a boat, having to trust your own decisions – it felt incredible!  The OSTAR was on!  I then spent the next few seasons sailing double-handed with Jerry Freeman, an experienced solo yachtsman, from whom I learnt an immeasurable amount, and also racing with Simon Curwen in the winter and spring series which provided my first real taste of full-crew racing.  My preparations for the OSTAR were in full swing and culminated in the bluQube 1000 solo race in 2008.  With this race, I had fulfilled the rigorous qualifying criteria for the OSTAR.  I was good to go.

The boat

My boat of choice was a 33ft Beneteau Figaro II called bluQube. Although not ideal for an upwind race like the OSTAR, she was designed for offshore and single-handed sailing and had a water ballast system.  It turned out that the 2009 race actually required a lot of off the wind sailing, which was unusual, and played to the strengths of the boat.  Favourable weather conditions meant there were going to be some fast times set.  In fact, fellow competitor, Hannah Tuckwell (nee White), who also sailed a 33ft Beneteau Figaro II finished in 20 days and 22 mins, narrowly missing Mary Falk’s 1996 record of 19 days, 22 hours and 57 minutes – a record that still stands today.

Photo by: Katie Miller

Photo by: Katie Miller


Solo sailing is the ultimate test of independence. Every decision, from navigation to managing boat repairs, was mine alone.  Luckily the physical and mental preparations for such a solo endeavour were intertwined with my youth – my age instilled a fearless belief in my capabilities!  I’m definitely more risk adverse now! Physically, I benefited from a regimented training program provided by Southampton Solent University, which sponsored my campaign. Mentally, I consulted an academic at Portsmouth University who advised me to plan for the worst, and all possible outcomes, and have a contingency plan for all of them.  A strategy that I have taken with me into the rest of my life.

The start line

The hardest part of the race was undoubtedly reaching the start line. The logistical and financial preparations were immense, compounded by the need to finish my university exams.  It wasn’t only me that found it a challenge.  Of the 67 entrants for the OSTAR 2009, only 31 boats actually made it to the start line – although this is still a vast number compared to this year’s race which only had 3 boats cross the start line.  With 31 competitors come a vast number of supporters and even some spectators, so there was a relatively large crowd gathered to wish us well.

Naturally, I was a bundle of nerves and excitement when I got to the start line, but relieved to finally set sail after last-minute preparations.  The previous 24 hours had been busy with last minute installation of various bits of kit – not quite the mental and physical pre-race preparation I had had in mind!  The race began with a bang, literally, as the late Duke of Edinburgh ordered the two Vendèe skippers Mike Golding and Dee Caffari to fire the start guns.  The peace that followed as I sailed toward the horizon was stark in contrast but welcome after the pressure of the preceding months!  There was nothing else I could do to prepare either myself or the boat but I was confident that I could overcome anything that I encountered – not least because I didn’t have a choice!

Photo by: Katie Miller

Photo by: Katie Miller

The race

The race went largely according to plan.  I slept (20 minutes at a time), I ate (freeze dried food and yazoo milkshakes!) and I enjoyed myself! I encountered gale force weather and calms – which were a lot less fun than the adrenalin rush of sailing a boat in bad weather!  It was in one of these storms that, unbeknown to me, my EPIRB accidentally activated itself as a result of how wet the inside of the boat was.  Unfortunately, the storm had also obscured Sat phone reception so no one could contact me to check I was OK, which lead to a fraught 14 hours for my mother who had visions of me getting tossed about in a liferaft.  I still feel guilty about what my Mum must have been through during that time!  Luckily both the boat and I came through the storms relatively unscathed, that was until I hit something, no doubt a submerged container, about 6 days out from the finish and which severed my port rudder in half.  I suppose I was lucky that it didn’t cause more damage, although I could have done without the constant routine of bailing out the water from the slow leak whilst the boat was on that tack!

Decision wise, I didn’t sail a tactically sound race. My objective was to finish rather than to break any records.  If I’m honest, I was scared about the fog of the Newfoundland banks and encountering fishing boats and icebergs. I decided to give it a miss and sail further south.  It meant a longer distance sailed but I stayed true to my ambition to finish. Perhaps I was more risk averse in my twenties than I remember!

The finish

Crossing the finish line was a mix of excitement and sadness. It was dark, and I nearly mistook the brightly lit Newport bridge for a cruise ship! I hadn’t had much contact with the outside world during the race – sat phone credit was extortionate back then, so I was really looking forward to seeing my family.  Although a part of me was sad to leave the routine I had established behind, as well as the slightly deflated feeling you get when something that has ruled your waking life for the last few years comes to an end! I had had enough of freeze dried food though, and was craving, above all things, an egg sandwich!  My target time was 21 days… and I managed that, coming in after 21 days, 18 hours and 53 minutes, and finishing in 9th place out of 22 boats to cross the finish line.  In the process I became the youngest woman to have finished the race – a record which still holds I believe.

Photo by: Billy Black

Photo by: Billy Black

Looking back

The race gave me a real appreciation for nature – the sunsets, sun rises, weather and sea life were just so special. That’s something I still appreciate when sailing – the closeness to nature. I think the race also gave me a real understanding of self-sufficiency and solitude, and there were occasionally moments of loneliness.  But the solitude of the ocean was also empowering,  and taught me to trust my instincts and make decisions swiftly and effectively.  There were times when I was tired or scared and I had to dig deep and have the mental strength to just get things done – this applies just as much in everyday life as it does to crossing the Atlantic single handed!

It also really built my appreciation of community. The solo sailing cohort of 2007-2009 was very close and supportive, and that ethos of support and generosity is something I seek in my day to day life now.

Looking back, I can now appreciate the huge personal learning curve that I went through preparing and sailing in the OSTAR.  But it has served me well and I can safely say that I loved it for the adventure. I do look back at some of the video and interviews and find I have a lot of compassion for my younger self. I had a lot of self-induced pressure to succeed and I was terrified of failure. I’ve only very recently processed that aspect of my experience. I felt like an imposter at the time as I had very limited sailing experience compared to some sailors but I was also proud of my route to the start line. I still have complex feelings about it now.

But overall completing that race has given me the confidence to back myself across a variety of aspects of my life.  I was very fortunate in time, space, social privilege to have sailed that race. Sure, it was all my effort, but there are plenty of people without that access who also have the commitment and ability to complete feats such as that. The nice thing about the OSTAR is its Corinthian ethos and that you can compete even on the tightest of budgets. You don’t need the latest, highest performance yacht. In fact, I think it’s more in keeping with the OSTAR to compete in a yacht of the 1970’s than a modern one design – there are other races for that.

Photo by: Billy Black

My sailing has taken a different turn these days.  I sail with the Army and the adventurous training programme is ideal as it’s challenging and arduous sailing, but I can use my experience to support soldiers who have never been sailing before. My last trip was from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Greenland, and I did sail across the foggy Newfoundland Banks, albeit it was on a 72ft steel yacht with a full crew!  I still track the OSTAR start dates…. I don’t think the solo sailing bug ever leaves you!  Perhaps one day I’ll have another go!  Watch this space….

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