Cole Brauer finishes second in the Global Solo Challenge, making history. Photo: James Tomlinson

Cole Brauer’s Record Solo Circumnavigation Inspires Women on the Bay and Beyond

Before this year, not too many casual boaters on the Bay had probably heard of the Global Solo Challenge, a single-handed, nonstop sailing race around the world by way of the three great capes. The skippers are almost always seasoned offshore sailors with decades of experience, but few would qualify as household names outside the sport of ocean racing.

Sometime after the Global Solo Challenge kicked off in late October, that changed. People outside the racing community began to pay attention. And what they were paying attention to was First Light skipper Cole Brauer.

Brauer defied the rest of the field of 16 starters, the majority of which were European men in their 50s and 60s. She was born in 1994, she was 5’2″, 100 pounds, and she was an American woman. If she completed the Global Solo Challenge, she would become the first American woman to sail solo nonstop around the world.

The goal would be daunting to most people, but Brauer, a New York native who got serious about sailing while she was in college in Hawaii, had a formidable team behind her. It included a professional sailing router who does work with the Olympic sailing team. And it also included a dedicated social media manager, something not often seen in single-handed offshore racing. The emphasis on social media during Brauer’s record circumnavigation would be the catalyst that brought the Global Solo Challenge into the mainstream.

Brauer recorded videos regularly updating Instagram followers of her trials and tribulations (an injured rib, dehydration that prompted her to administer her own IV with saline and fluids), her sailing moments of joy (sunsets, good boat speed), and even self-care days that included fitness training, painting her nails, and even concocting a facial scrub from coffee grounds and honey. She showed followers what she was reading, the stuffed animal she slept with at night, and what she made for breakfast in the morning.

The unprecedented access Brauer gave fans through her social media posts, paired with her approachable manner, caused people to become invested in her journey. Brauer’s Instagram followers swelled to 498,000 before the race was over.

Cole Brauer shares a triumphant moment with Instagram followers during her circumnavigation.

When Brauer made her way to the finish in A Coruna, Spain, she crossed the line in an impressive second place. Of the initial 16 starters, more than half had dropped out for reasons ranging from dismastings to collisions and equipment failures. Ronnie Simpson, a racer with ties to the Chesapeake Bay, had to abandon his vessel and drop out of the race. Race organizers say that only seven skippers are poised to complete their circumnavigation, including Brauer and race winner Philippe Delamare. The next finisher is expected at the end of this week, followed by four more, with the last not expected to finish until April.

Brauer finished the race on March 7, 2024 after 130 days at sea and 30,000 miles. Some fans flew in just to watch her finish. Others back in the United States set alarms to try and stay awake for a livestream of her late-night arrival in Spain. She had made history, reaching her goal to be first solo woman to sail nonstop around the world. News outlets like Inside Edition and the New York Post picked up the story.

From the beginning, Brauer had used her platform as a record-seeker to advocate for women in sailing. She wrote in her Solo Global Challenge skipper profile, “With this goal, I hope to show that this very male-dominated sport and community CAN become more open and less ‘traditional.’” She detailed her fight for equal pay and against “the constant sexual, verbal, and physical harassment” women can face in the sport of sailing.

Prior to sailing around the world, Brauer was one of the talented young women who received mentoring from the Magenta Project, an international organization that aims to make pathways for gender equity and inclusion in sailing. The Magenta Project is present in the Chesapeake Bay sailing community, and in last year’s Annapolis-to-Newport race, the organization raced an all-female boat.

Brauer participates in a Magenta Project training session aboard an IMOCA in 2023. Photo: Richard Mardens

Longtime junior sailing program director Jane Millman, an Annapolis resident, serves as a mentor for the Magenta Project. She tells us that support for female sailors (both young and old) is crucial.

Millman is on the national board of the Interscholastic Sailing Association for high school sailors, tasked with encouraging girls to start skippering boats more. She says that because girls are less likely to sail in middle school and because they are often slightly built compared to the boys, they tend to be put in the front of the boat as crew—not in the driver’s seat.

“We’ve got to stop pigeonholing girls into these certain positions on board,” Millman says, noting, “Cole has definitely shown that this should not be the case.”

Millman says for girls looking to advance in the sport, time on the water is everything. She points out that Cole Brauer had 50,000 miles sailed prior to taking on the Global Solo Challenge. Millman says it can be as simple as finding a sailing program to get involved in, meeting people, and taking advantage of resources like the Magenta Project.

When we interviewed Millman, she was running a women’s sailing clinic in St. Pete Beach, Florida. She noted that some of the participants had sailed but not raced, while some had been racing for years, and the average age of the women was 62. After getting off the water, the women were all talking about Cole Brauer, a sailor three decades younger than most of them.

“It’s not just young women, it’s all women in the sport of sailing that Cole has made an impact on,” Millman says, “giving them hope to say, ‘I can do this too.’ Her impact is wide, which is huge.”

Millman points out, “There are other women that have sailed around the world—multiple times in both directions—that are idols in the sport. They just don’t have the visibility that Cole has had, which has been incredible.”