Christina Wolfe: Extreme Endurance

Christina Wolfe is no stranger to feats of endurance. An avid triathlon competitor and bike racer, Wolfe was the top female finisher in 12 triathlons inside of 12 months, according to Sailing World Magazine.

So when she discovered doublehanded offshore sailing, Wolfe felt right at home in a part of the sport that many consider to be the most extreme.

“There’s a lot of similarities when thinking about how to put together a competitive effort in a triathlon or bike race to a sailing race,” Wolfe told US Sailing. “Energy management and the mental game are a huge part of it.”

In the Rolex Middle Sea Race, a 660-nautical-mile race around points in the Mediterranean, Wolfe and her co-skipper (and husband) Justin completed the race in 30-minute shifts – for the entirety of the nearly five days it took to complete. The race is chocked full of action, with many turning points and sail changes keeping both sailors under strain for nearly entire race.

“For me personally, the more experience that I have, the easier it is to feel like, ‘I know that this is something I can get through. I’ve been through this.’ Once you’ve got that in your toolkit, knowing at one point you’ve gone through something as hard or something even harder, you find your happy place and you move through it.”

Wolfe began her sailing journey at the age of 16, when she was introduced to the sport on a friend’s Catalina 30. They spent the time cruising up into Canada from Washington State, where she considers home.

That got Wolfe hooked – she began racing keelboats shortly after and joined the sailing team at the University of Washington, where she got her undergraduate degree in Business and Finance.

After a dalliance in the 49er with her now-husband Justin, inspired by friend Jonathan McKee who later went on to win a bronze medal in that class at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, both Wolfes left the sport for a sabbatical to go to grad school and live abroad.

It was in 2012, with the purchase of their new-to-her J/120, that sailing came back into focus for Wolfe. She and her husband competed doublehanded in two editions of the Pacific Cup, a 2,070-nautical-mile race from San Francisco, California to Kaneohe, Hawaii. When they moved back to Wolfe’s home state of Washington in 2017, they joined the local racing circuit.

By 2021, Wolfe’s interest in doublehanded racing had grown to the point where she and her husband applied for – and were accepted to – the Mixed Offshore Doubles World Championship, where they went on to place sixth. For Wolfe, it was time to get serious.

In 2022, Wolfe and her husband Justin entered into a partnership with Jonathan McKee to buy Red Ruby(previously Gentoo), a Sunfast 3300. Together, each pair sails their own shorthanded races but helps the other pair prep the boat and debrief. The four sailors pool information, sharing insights and lessons learned that are easier deciphered with four heads rather than two.

The Red Ruby partnership allowed Wolfe to reach the level of the Europeans, especially the French and British, who are widely considered the dominant forces in the world of shorthanded offshore sailing. The boat is regularly kept in Europe, to take advantage of the high-caliber racing circuit there.

It was on Red Ruby that Wolfe won her crowning achievement of 2023 ­– first overall in ORC in the Rolex Middle Sea Race and doublehanded line honors, a victory that helped her secure the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year title. She was also the first female skipper overall in the Rolex Fastnet Race, another legendary offshore event.

In 2024, Wolfe was one of the first Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year to win the award for offshore achievements, an extremely male-dominated section of sailing.

Despite the reputation of the sports she loves, Wolfe believes offshore sailing, especially doublehanded offshore sailing, has the power to be the great equalizer. She points to the women in the IMOCA fleet – an elite, physical offshore boat which is featured in races like the Vendee Globe and the Ocean Race ­– who are keeping up or outperforming their male counterparts. She also recognizes Cole Brauer, who just finished second in the Global Solo Challenge as the youngest and only female competitor in the race.

“What they’re doing is showing that at this very, very high level of sailing in this very, very physical sport that women can compete against men, and they can do very well,” she notes.

In mixed doublehanded offshore, both sailors – male and female – must take on the responsibility of navigating, changing sails, helming, and more while the other partner is resting off-watch. So both male and female sailors must be well versed in all of those skills, capable of essentially sailing the boat singlehanded.

“Doublehanded offshore becomes the best way to show that gender doesn’t matter in offshore sailing because of the specifics of how we do it,” she said. “It’s much more about good decisions, endurance, strength; but it’s not so weighted on physical abilities, a place where men and women may have some differences.”

Wolfe’s outlook on the future of offshore sailing looks towards the French model of information sharing and group training in one design boats. French teams train together, have group debriefs, and make space for learning from each other. Once there are more opportunities for shorthanded offshore sailing in the US in general, Wolfe notes, there will be more opportunities for women as a result.

“I think that if we can build something, we will all come, men and women,” she says. “I think there will be a lot of women who are already out there putting in the work that would be attracted to something like this. With that female sailors can continue to make space for other women in sailing by supporting each other with sailing and learning opportunities.”

Wolfe’s advice to women and girls interested in offshore sailing? Get as much tiller time as you can.

“Don’t be afraid to take the helm,” Wolfe stressed. “Women tend to be very empathetic and notice people who are being left out. And sometimes it’s important to offer to hand over the tiller to somebody who’s not been driving that much. But it’s also important for her to step up and just say ‘I’m excited to drive right now and would love to practice this.’ You’ve just got to keep your goals in mind and marry that with trying to share.”