4 February 2005
Team Shosholoza have not only changed the landscape of South African yachting, they have also turned the 153-year-old America’s Cup on its head.
The South African team have held their own against the most expensive yachts in the world, despite racing in a far older craft – at the same time shattering the image of yachting as a white man’s sport.
Throughout the history of the America’s Cup there have been very few black competitors. Team Shosholoza has bucked that long tradition, with seven of the yacht’s 24 crew being black. And as Ian Ainslie, a three-time Olympian and the team’s strategist, points out, those seven are there on merit.
‘They’ve risen to the occasion’
There were plenty of sceptics at first, says Ainslie, who reckoned the team’s black sailors wouldn’t make the grade; but they were wrong. “They’ve risen to the occasion”, Ainslie says.
Ainslie’s involvement with sailors from previously disadvantaged backgrounds began after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. On returning from the Games, he took up teaching mathematics, geography and maritime studies in Simon’s Town, which is home to a South African naval base, in Cape Town.
At the school he met two 15-year-olds from KwaThema in Johannesburg. Golden Mgedeza and Solomon Dipeere were studying in Simon’s Town because they had earned scholarships.
Both youngsters had been naval cadets at their former school in KwaThema, but their experience on the water was very limited until they met Ainslie. They made good progress under the Olympic sailor, and Ainslie responded by asking sailors at the local yacht club to use the two as crewmen during weekend races.
Sailing classes for township kids
Then, in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, Ainslie began offering sailing classes to black youngsters from the poor townships surrounding Simon’s Town.
It was “for fun”, he says, “one day a week”.
Word quickly spread, and soon large numbers of eager youngsters were flocking to Ainslie’s classes.
Marcello Burricks lives across the Peninsula from Simon’s Town, but he heard about Ainslie’s lessons and managed to get into a class for 15-year-old sailors. He was just 12 at the time.
He was the most eager participant of all, remembers Ainslie. The biggest problem was persuading him to do his schoolwork, and not just sail all the time.
Then Salvatore Sarno stepped in. The founder of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second-largest container carrier, he annually sponsored regattas in Durban at which young sailors were accommodated at his expense. They included Golden Mgedeza, Solomon Dipeere, and Marcello Burricks.
Sarno took on the three, plus two other teenagers from Cape Town, Sieraj Jacobs and Ashton Simpson, to crew on his own boat. The effect it had on the five was huge.
In 2002, Mgedeza became the first black crewman to win the Lipton Cup, the most coveted yachting title in South Africa. Sailing Magazine named him Yachtsman of the Year.
As the five built up experience, sailing in the Cape to Rio race, in Newport, Rhode Island, and off Mozambique, Sarno started to dream. He had visions of competing in the America’s Cup, something that no yacht from Africa had ever done before.
Ainslie thought Sarno was crazy. There wasn’t the kind of money they needed to compete at that level in South Africa. He believed Sarno’s aims should be more humble. Sarno was undeterred.
The shipping magnate spoke to his black crewmen. He explained that crewing in the America’s Cup would not be about money. However, it would get them to Valencia in 2007. And it would make South Africans sit up and take notice.
“One day President Mbeki will look in your eye, shake your hand and say, ‘South Africa is proud of you'”, he said.
In 2004, Team Shosholoza faced up to the best teams and yachts in the world in the Louis Vuitton Regatta, including defending America’s Cup champions Team Alinghi, off Marseille and Valencia. With a yacht that couldn’t make the grade two Cups previously, Team Shosholoza surprised all by finishing as high as fourth.
That drew the interest of giant German company T-Systems. The result was a massive sponsorship of R100-million over three years, and now Team Shosholoza is having two new yachts built, which should improve their challenge immeasurably.
Can Team Shosholoza pull off a miracle and win the 32nd America’s Cup? As Michael Wines writes in a recent New York Times article, however they fare in Valencia in 2007, their accomplishments “are pretty miraculous already.
“They have shattered the image of yachting as the preserve of hyper-rich CEOs and lily-white sailing crews. They have raised the delicious prospect, however remote, that billionaires who lavish $100-million and more on America’s Cup challenges can be humbled by a rival with one-quarter the budget and a 19-year-old sailor with scars from old knife fights.
“They have attracted a corporate sponsor, a huge German company that pumped some $17-million into Team Shosholoza this month just as money was running out.
“Then there is the biggest accomplishment of all: taking a handful of young men with cloudy futures and showing them that they, too, can take on the world’s best.”