Kay was born in Sans Souci, NSW, where the closeness to Botany Bay well catered to a family who loved boating. Her father built yachts and her interest in that field led to her commencement of ocean racing at 11 years of age. It was a natural progression for Kay to become a proficient boat builder and manage a yacht charter business after finishing school.
Kay built First Lady, the 11-metre yacht on which she would sail around the world from west to east. In 1987, at the age of 34, she set off on her 189 days, 22,000 nautical miles journey to sail solo and non-stop.
On this voyage Kay became the holder of the following records:
- the first woman to circumnavigate the world
- the longest time at sea by a woman
- the longest non-stop distance sailed by a woman
- the fastest time and speed for solo navigation by a woman
The voyage was completed without touching land, and without any form of outside aid apart from radio contact. She had no fresh food so for six months had to survive on dried food. She had to wake up every hour to check her course and watch for ships that may have been heading towards her.
At one stage Kay was flung into the sea off the African coast when First Lady was capsized by huge winds. Fortunately, the waves righted the vessel and Cottee seized control back on board.
Cottee and her major sponsor Blackmores Limited used the voyage to raise over 1 million dollars for the Rev. Ted Noffs’ Life Education Program. Cottee also undertook an 18-month national schools tour, speaking to over 40,000 senior high school students, imparting the message that “you can achieve your dreams if you work steadily towards them“.
Cottee is the author of two books. Her first book, First Lady, published in 1989. Her second book, All at Sea on Land, in 1998, about her life in the ten years since the voyage.
- In 1988, Cottee received the Australian of the Year Award.
- In January 1989, Cottee was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.
- Cottee is also the first Australian recipient of the Cutty Sark Medal presented by the Duke of Edinburgh
- Cottee was also made a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary and an International Honorary Zontion by Zonta International
- Inaugural inductee of the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame in 2017