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Born into a yachting family on 25 January 1954, Cottee grew up with three sisters in the southern Sydney suburb of Sans Souci. Weekends were spent racing her father’s self-built yacht on Sydney Harbour. Not that keen on school, she left in fifth form to attend secretarial college.
Over the next nine years, Cottee moved to Pittwater, north of Sydney, where she refitted one boat and built another, a 10.6-metre yacht she named Whimaway. She established a bareboat charter business that she later sold, but remained with the business while she built another yacht. This one was an 11.2-metre sloop which, in 1986, she raced in the Two Handed Trans-Tasman to New Zealand with her friend Linda Wayman. She then returned alone in the Solo Trans-Tasman, and it was this race that confirmed her passion for solo sailing.
On 29 November 1987, Cottee set off from Sydney Harbour on her attempt to sail around the world. Her yacht had been renamed Blackmore’s First Lady for the natural health brand that sponsored her. As well as aiming to be the first woman to achieve this feat, she hoped to raise money for Ted Noff’s Life Education Program.
Over the next 189 days, she experienced the incredible beauty, discomfort and terror of solo sailing in the Southern Ocean. Her yacht was knocked down several times, including once off the southern coast of Africa in 100-knot winds and 20-metre seas. Washed overboard, she was saved by two safety lines.
“I held my breath under the water until my lungs felt they would burst, willing my lovely Lady to right herself and praying that the two harness lines did not give way. She took her time, but true to form gracefully rose once again, this time with me dangling over the side”, Cottee wrote.
On 5 June 1988, Kay Cottee was greeted by more than 100,000 well-wishers as she sailed into Sydney Harbour. She had sailed 22,100 nautical miles at an average speed of 117 nautical miles per day (the fastest by a woman) and set seven world records. Kay was named the 1988 Australian of the Year and made an Officer of the Order of Australia.