Imagine being at sea for 195 days, sailing 27 000 miles around the world. Alone, and in a boat you built yourself, with knowledge gleened from books borrowed from a library. It is precisely this that propelled Wynberg-born Neal Petersen into the record books in 1999 – at the age of 32 – when he crossed the finish line of the BOC Around Alone Challenge, becoming the first black person to race solo around the world.
My first encounter with Neal was in 1994, when he delivered a moving speech to pupils at Livingstone High School in Claremont, his alma mater. At the time, Neal was on a stop-over in Cape Town after having finished the first leg of his first attempt at the Around Alone Challenge. Shortly after the start of the second leg he had to abandon his efforts when a vicious storm capsized his boat, destroying his mast – and along with it, his hopes of completing the challenge.
It was five years later that he once again tackled the solo yacht race, going on to become a symbol of hope, of what can be achieved if you single-mindedly focus on achieving your dreams – and an inspiration to many.
But Neal didn’t always live a charmed life.
Born without one of his hip joints, young Neal spent much of his youth in hospital, alone, finding solace in reading books, many of them borrowed from Wynberg Library.
His mom, Stella, remembered as an iconic figure in the field of education, taught him the value of reading and learning while his dad, Eddie, taught him to love the water.
He went swimming at the Wynberg public pool, and fishing at Zeekoevlei. His dad taught him to snorkel at Kalk Bay harbour “with a face mask that used to leak” and they went spearfishing at Cape Point. But it was Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Around the World Alone, published in 1899, which would change Neal’s life forever. Inspired by Slocum’s tale, and determined to become a yachtsman, Neal started spending time at the Royal Cape Yacht Club, asking anyone who would pay him attention, for an opportunity to sail with them. Rejection after rejection didn’t dissuade Neal, and eventually someone gave him a chance.
At the yacht club, he recalled, “someone dropped something overboard – I don’t recall what it was – and offered me R5 to retrieve it. After an hour in the water, I thought ‘it’s getting really cold’, but kept looking and eventually found what had been dropped overboard – and got the R5.”
This got Neal thinking. He needed money to cover the cost of travelling from his home in Brentwood Road, Wynberg, to Cape Town and also needed money to pay his yacht club dues. So he started scrubbing the undersides of boats at the club, getting R15 for each hull he cleaned.
“I realised that I needed more money. But to earn more, I needed to be able to stay in the water for a longer time,” he says.
And so, Neal used some of his earnings to buy a wetsuit and an oxygen tank. His family later bought him fins.
“But I had to be wise,” he says. “I was a growing boy, and wouldn’t be able to buy another wetsuit when I outgrew this one, so I bought it a size too big and wore a jumper underneath when I went diving.”
When I mention to Neal that a fellow Livingstonian recalled him, on at least one occasion, coming to school in his wetsuit, he laughs.
With few opportunities for young brown boys to become world-class yachtsmen under the oppressive apartheid regime, however, Neal knew that if he were to realise his dreams, he would have to leave Cape Town. “I stopped living here in 1990. I realised that if I stayed, my sailing dream was going to die. But I’ll always be a boy from Cape Town,” he says.
But the boy from Cape Town was going to have to do something extraordinary to get into yacht racing. And that he did.
Working as a commercial diver to cover the costs of construction, he built his own boat, and set sail for Charleston, USA – with no sophisticated navigational equipment, “only a sextant and mathematical tables”, he recalls. En route, his vessel, which many back home had dubbed “the floating coffin” hit a submerged shipping container in the Azores. But with help from the Irish navy, he made it to the US where he started racing his vessel, with his sights set firmly on participating in the 1994/95 BOC Around Alone Challenge. But at 38ft, his boat was 2ft short of regulation length, so it had to be modified. After finishing the first leg of this race in Cape Town, he received a hero’s welcome from his countrymen, among them pupils from Livingstone High. But during the second leg he had to abandon the race, his boat having capsized in a storm which destroyed its mast.
In 1995 he returned to the USA and two years later, launched the No Barriers Foundation, which uses sailing to teach children essential life skills. The following year he launched his second attempt at the 1998/99 Around Alone Challenge. It was this race which was documented in No Barriers – the Neal Petersen story.
While many may by now have forgotten the significance of Neal Petersen having finished this race in 1999, and that he made history when he did so, the responsibility that came with this achievement is not lost on Neal. Now he travels the world sharing his story as a motivational and keynote speaker, delivering messages of hope. “It doesn’t mean that I’m successful, that the work stops,” he says. And reflecting on the camaraderie among yachties, which can also be applied to life, he points out: “There’s no race if there’s only one boat.”
* You can read more about Neal at www.no-barriers.com and in his award-winning book Journey of a Hope Merchant.