She had to fight to get her shot — and made history when she got it

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 5/22/24

Cole Brauer, the first American woman to sail solo around the world, went from not being taken seriously to making history through sheer perseverance of will.

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She had to fight to get her shot — and made history when she got it


Introduced as “a beacon of change and a testament to power and perseverance,” Cole Brauer, the first American woman to race solo nonstop around the world, delivered a fun and candid address at Roger Williams University last Wednesday, May 15.

In her wide-ranging and honest remarks, she talked about her upbringing on the water in Long Island, where she enjoyed being out in nature learning the tides and currents — without actually opening up a book.

“I was not a book smart person,” she said, “but I always loved nature.”

Her journey took her from art school in Savannah to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she admits to fibbing her way onto the sailing team — much to the good fortune of the team, as it turned out. There, she was a member of three national championship-qualifying teams and was a two-time Intercollegiate Sailing Association Academic All-American Team member. The sailing team’s top scholar-athlete in 2016, she was also named the 2017 Jack Bonham Award winner, the most prestigious award in UH athletics, according to the university.

As a young woman, light and small of stature, Brauer shared the many challenges she faced when she decided she wanted to enter the world of offshore racing. Pulling her art background into the mix, she brought her camera down to the docks and offered her services as an onboard reporter. She found a group of guys who skeptically looked at her and said, “Well, yeah, okay, you can come, just don't touch anything.”

“And they didn't allow me to touch anything,” Brauer said. “But it didn't matter because what they didn't understand is that I was soaking up everything that I possibly could…and eventually at night, when you're sailing offshore, something goes wrong. You have to put down the camera when it’s all hands on deck. And that is how I ended up getting my first position working as a trimmer.”

From there she continued doing what she was doing, building her sailing resume, improving her skills, and taking on challenges — in spite of the doubts others imposed on her size and gender.

“People were actually starting to give me opportunities, while I was working my little tail off, racing as much as I possibly could.”

Then, she got her big break as captain of a Class 40 named Dragon, doing double-handed solo deliveries.

“I started working as much as humanly possible on this boat,” she said. “I had a feeling that if I could make this boat super sailable that maybe one day I would be a better sailor.”

The trouble with Dragon, however, is it was designed and built for the then-owner — a 6’5”, almost 300-pound man.

“So that entire boat was designed with him in mind…and so what I realized is that I needed to change this boat and make it easier for me to sail so I didn't have to break my back every time I wanted to change a sail.”

But then, Dragon was sold, and renamed First Light. About a week later, Brauer got an offer she couldn’t refuse from the new owners. “We bought the boat,” they wrote her in an email. “We don't want it to go to some mooring in Europe and die out there because it's a vintage Class 40, and so they asked if I would want to race it, take it over and make it my own.”
Yes, she did.

Ultimately, it was decided she would join the Global Solo Challenge, the only woman in the fleet of 16 sailors who competed in the inaugural edition of the race. She raced First Light, past Africa, Australia, and South America. Before the race even began in Alicante, Spain, she left Newport in September of last year and crossed the Atlantic alone. The race itself began in October. After sailing 30,000 miles and spending 130 days alone at sea, Brauer made history on March 7, sailing into A Coruna, Spain as the first American woman to race solo nonstop around the world – a feat that fewer than 200 people have accomplished…and she finished in second place.

It was an incredibly challenging 130 days at sea, and Brauer suffered her share of foul weather, equipment malfunctions, illness, injury, fear and loneliness.

“For an entire week [I was] hating my life and wondering why am I here? This is so dumb,” Brauer said. “Then I finally got a moment of beautiful sun, and then it started to come back to exactly why I was there. I finally was able to go downwind. I was doing eight knots in eight knots of breeze. It was amazing champagne sailing and I was able to read a book and enjoy my time.”

Following Brauer’s talk, audience members asked questions — and one was especially revealing.

“Now that you've tailored this boat designed for you, what happens next?” one man asked.

“So the so this is the funny part…my sponsors have given me the boat,” Brauer said. “The boat is my boat now.”

Her plan is to sell First Light and use it to finance her next campaign, whatever that may be. But for now this barrier-shattering athlete is just happy to be back in Newport.

“I love Rhode Island,” she said. “I have been traveling all over the world, what feels like all over the universe. And I am beyond happy to finally be back.”

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