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October/November 2011

Sailing ahead ...

Sailing as a mass participation sport? Maybe not quite. Yet. But a lot is being done to get bums on boats and teens from informal settlements are already making their mark in international sailing. Coupled with the excitement of the Royal Cape Yacht Club hosting the likes of the Volvo Ocean Race and sports brands like Puma throwing their weight behind the sport, sailing is becoming a sport that retailers should keep an eye on as a new stock option

Sailing is not exactly a mass participation sport in SA. Not like in Europe where learning to sail is as natural as riding a bicycle or in the UK where about 8 500 sailors await the annual Cowes Week regatta in great anticipation.

Yet, the Royal Cape Yacht Club (RCYC) in the Cape Town Waterfront has hosted many of the world’s top yachts — and had been invited to participate in many elite international events. Prestigious races like the Cape to Rio (or to Bahia) and the Volvo Ocean Race, transform the yacht basin into an exciting multi-language hub.

Despite the small pool of participants, some big names in sailing come from SA — think of Bruce Dalling, Ian Ainslie, Geoff Meek … and the best known two names that stir the imagination with images of daring solo battles against hostile elements and lifting trophies in numerous events: RCYC Commodore John Martin and his friend and mentor, the late Bertie Reed.

But, it will not be long before other South African names are known to the international yachting world. Names like Wadi Xayimpi, Handsome Mantasane, Marchello Burricks, Asenathi Jim, Ashwynn Daniels, and many others, are already being mentioned in international race reports.

They have all been trained at the Izivunguvungu Sailing Academy in Simon’s Town, founded by Ian Ainslie and instructor Matthew Mentz in 2001 and supported by the navy and the RCYC. Here, every year 170 disadvantaged youngsters from townships and informal settlements are taught seafaring skills that can also provide employment as crew members, eventually skippers, or boat builders. A major American boat builder now builds all their catamarans in Cape Town.

Sailing has always been associated with the white upper-classes who could afford the luxury of a yacht. The ultimate picture of privilege is a beautiful sleek yacht cruising past the Atlantic Seaboard, the people on board lifting their glasses in a toast against the setting sun, nibbling on caviar-covered canapés.

But, here are five different mind-pictures:

It’s 2009 and a crew of dedicated youngsters are deftly handling the sails on the 40-year old Voortrekker, which they helped to refurbish, plotting routes with their very basic navigation equipment, discussing tactics on how to beat some of the hi-tech boats competing in the Cape to Bahia (Salvador) Trans-Atlantic boat race. The crew members, all trained at Izivunguvungu, not only bring the Voortrekker, made famous by Bertie Reed and John Martin, back to Cape Town, but are placed fourth in the race, beating state of the art boats equipped at ten times their budget.

PICTURE a group of learners, many of them with parents struggling to pay school fees, leaving school to participate in extra-mural sport … but instead of heading for the rugby or cricket field, they are on their way to the yacht basin where they are being trained to sail 420 dinghies as their school sport.

The SailPro programme was started in 2009 by Markus Progli and Andrea Giovanni — who currently teach about 90 learners from nine participating schools per term (280 per year) — with the aim of eventually teaching 3 000 learners per year to sail and getting sailing accepted as a school sport by most schools. Sponsored by the RCYC and Central Boating, SailPro also assists some learners with bursaries or transport fees.

PICTURE the sun setting over Table Bay harbour and a crowd of 700-odd people of all ages and backgrounds converging on the RCYC to launch dinghies and boats of all sizes in the popular Wednesday evening Twilight Racing — there’s plenty of fun and laughter, even some serious racing, and newcomers are welcomed and found places on boats as everybody is keen to get more bums on boats.

PICTURE a fleet of 98 dinghies in the 420 class fiercely competing in the 2011 Open 420 Worlds in Haifa, Israel. Among them are Ashwynn Daniels and Asenathi Jim, introduced to sailing at the Izivunguvungu development academy in Simon’s Town, their skills honed in the RaceAhead programme where the crème de la crème are trained to compete internationally. They are competing against some of the best young sailors in the world … and come fifth. Earlier this year, they had come 9th in the Youth Worlds in Turkey, where they competed against the top teams that qualified.

FINAL PICTURE: it’s the send-off for the RCYC team that are among the 22 entries from top yacht clubs representing 16 nations from 6 different continents invited to participate in the prestigious New York Invitational Regatta held in Newport. Some of the yacht hulls reflected in the still blue water of the basin bear the names of major sportswear brands like Puma and New Balance. The involvement of these brands (and also Crocs, who sponsors the Summer Regatta) shows that sports brands in SA are taking a serious look at sailing, with spin-offs for retailers, as this can help stimulate a demand for sailing-related merchandise.

Puma is recognised as a major player in international sailing (see above). They also supply the RCYC team’s clothing and the owners of the catamaran Puma Unleashed, Ingrid and Hylton Hale, are not only promoting the brand among Cape Town yachties, but are also developing a young professional sailing team.

Martin introduces the new naming rights sponsor for the New York racing team: wholly black owned financing company African Access Holdings. CEO Shaun Battleman, whose impeccable credentials stretch all the way to the president’s educational trust, says they decided to sponsor the RCYC sailing team because of the development projects the club supports. He says it is to support youngsters like crew member Wadi Xayimpi, who joined the Izivunguvungu academy with no birth certificate, no ID documents and therefore no hope of finding a job. Xayimpi is still living in a shack in the Redhill informal settlement, but he is now a role model, who deservedly takes his place amongst the seasoned sailors in this prestigious race.

Some Rainbow Nation magic is indeed being woven among the white yachts and blue waters of the RCYC.

Martin is visibly touched when he talks about the changing face and growth of the sport and his own decision, in 2000, to give something back to the sport that not only brought him fame, but also provided him with a living. He was the first to take a development crew member on board and have sailed two transatlantic races with youngsters from disadvantaged communities. In 2006, when the Cape to Rio became the Cape to Bahia (Salvador) race, Martin did the unachievable by sailing the oldest boat in the race with a navy development crew, and finished fourth.

He first took to the water in a wooden boat built by his father when he was eight years old. “I come from a modest family,” says Martin. “A Mr. Jafta taught my brother and me to row the boat.”

After school he joined the navy, where he came to the attention of the late Bertie Reed. For many years they sailed together and among their many achievements are the record they set for the Round Britain and Ireland race in 1982 on Voortrekker 1.

Martin’s list of accolades is long: nine times Springbok, twice State President Award winner, five times SANDF Sportsman of the Year and SA Navy Sportsman of the Year, three times winner of the Gordon Burn Wood Trophy, to name a few. But it is the third Yachtsman of the Year title he won for his contribution to the sport by facilitating sponsorship for the Cape to Rio race that stands out for him.

That meant he could indeed look back and say: I did it. I did turn my life around. Martin’s dramatic Southern Ocean rescue by Reed after his yacht — the frontrunner in the 1992 solo round the world race — hit an iceberg, is a daring adventure recounted in many books that was even considered as a topic for a Hollywood movie starring Kevin Costner (Martin) and Robin Williams (Reed). But, the reality was much different. “I was a champion sailor. I earned a lot as a professional sailor. I had a share in a boat. And then I lost a boat — it changed my financial position, and five very hard years followed. I had to re-evaluate my life, and turn my life around.”

He now sees his role as contributing to the sport by making the local and international waters as attractive as possible to newcomers, especially young people. RCYC membership among U30’s has increased about three-fold over the last few years, with good growth among women and people with smaller boats. The Wednesday night fun sailing has helped to introduce many newcomers to the sport, and despite the economic recession the RCYC is one of the few yacht clubs that had no attrition rate. Martin has been commodore for the past four years.

“I can facilitate by organising boats, sponsors and events,” he says. “By facilitating the transfer of skills, I can help with job creation, as qualified young sailors can earn money by delivering yachts to South America etc. or by qualifying as skippers or first mates, who are paid for their services.”

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