21 April 2006
South Africa evokes the image of the sea that bathes its coasts – on one side the south Atlantic, one the other the Indian Ocean. It was a precarious coast for many mariners, as evidenced by the names given it: the Skeleton or Savage Coast, and the evocative Danger Point.
The Cape: a mythical passage
Succeeding the Phoenician sailors by about 2000 years – if we trust the Greek historian Herodotus – the navigator Bartholomeu Dias reached the Cape of Storms in February 1488 aboard the caravel Sao-Cristovao.
The Cape was sailed again by Vasco da Gama in November 1497, five years after Christopher Columbus reached America.
The King of Portugal, Johannes II, preferred to name the rocky spur swept by howling winds the Cape of Good Hope, to mark his interest for this pathway to India and its wealth.
The new name did not prevent Dias from dying there 12 years later during an apocalyptic storm.
Many other adventurers, travellers and sailors met the same fate, because this Cape remains a place for shipwrecks, especially when the icy southeasterly wind, nicknamed the “Cape Doctor”, bursts out.
The history is such that yachtsmen of the world would shiver uncomfortably at the thought of the America’s Cup being sailed in the rough waters off Cape Town.
Return towards Europe
“We are not here to bring the America’s Cup to Africa. We are here to bring a part of Africa to Europe and the America’s Cup,” was the poetic explanation of Captain Salvatore Sarno when he introduced his Team Shosholoza to the America’s Cup world.
It was as if, five hundred years after the arrival of the Europeans at the Cape, the wheel of history had turned, with Africa coming to make a conquest (albeit peacefully) in Europe.
When announcing on 4 June 2004, under the Royal Cape Yacht Club banner, the first African challenge in the history of the America’s Cup, Sarno explained his team’s challenge as “an opportunity to show that all of South Africa’s citizens can work together, do well and have success together. In essence it is an opportunity to be part of the African renaissance.”
An Italian by birth and an enthusiastic resident of Durban, South Africa for more than 20 years, Sarno is the South Africa president of a maritime transport company and an able yachtsman himself.
He has been a tireless supporter and promoter of his adopted homeland, and with his friend Ian Ainslie (a South Africa yachting champion) has supported a sailing school for disadvantaged children in the Cape.
In fact, a handful of the team members on Shosholoza have risen through the ranks of the Izivunguvungu Foundation created by Ainslie in 2001, which trains young people in yachting as a way of instilling discipline, pride and teamwork.
It is another remarkable story arising out of the ashes of the difficult past in this country.
Shosholoza: forging ahead
“The Cup gives us the chance to present South Africa as a modern, dynamic, exciting country,” Sarno said. A country that forges ahead, as in the name of the team: “Shosholoza”.
Shosholoza, the folk song of migrant labourers on South Africa’s mines, became something of a second national anthem after the country won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
The Zulu word “shosholoza” means “go forward”, “make way for the next man”, or “make your road, forge ahead” – more than fitting for a South African team engaged in the 2007 America’s Cup.
“In the America’s Cup every team has its own story, but there is only one team who is the soul of sailing,” Sarno said.
And as if to prove this claim, in April 2004 Shosholoza became the first syndicate to launch a newly built version 5.0 ACC boat.
One month later, in Valencia, the magnificent Shosholoza (RSA-83), decorated by the graphics inspired by Zulu and Ndebele designs, was christened by the mayor of Valencia, Rita Barbera.
After a difficult debut in the Louis Vuitton Acts of 2004, the team struggled to open the 2005 season. But the progress of the team since has been nothing short of spectacular, as Shosholoza concluded the 2005 season with a fifth place finish in the fleet races in Trapani.
“The guys have been working hard and you can feel the hunger among the team,” was the assessment of one team member.
The spirit of the America’s Cup
The history of South Africa was darkened for a long time under the apartheid regime, and during these hard years South African yachting was isolated and underestimated.
Nevertheless, sailing in the country has a long history, and was popular as far back as the 1850s, when the yacht America was beginning the story of the America’s Cup in England.
In 1857, a local newspaper, the Natal Mercury, spoke of the regularly scheduled regattas organised by the Durban Regatta Club, which was succeeded in 1863 by the Royal Natal Yacht Club.
Further to the west, in Cape Town, the introduction of yachting came later. Founded in 1882, the Southern Cross Yacht Club disappeared in 1888.
Nevertheless, the Cape received occasional visits from some of the most prestigious navigators: Joshua Slocum with Spray in 1897 and, seven years later, Captain Voss with Tilikum.
It may have been visits like these that inspired the foundation of the Table Bay Yacht Club in 1905. In the same year, sailors on the Cape were momentarily inspired by a book of illustrations showing the races for the America’s Cup – but nothing came of this premature exposure.
In 1914, the Table Bay Yacht Club changed its name to the Cape Yacht Club and, on 28 May of the same year, the Royal Cape Yacht Club.
Prior to that, an eminent member of the Table Bay Yacht Club, Sir Pieter van Blommestein, a pioneer of the former Southern Cross Yacht Club, obtained from Sir Thomas Lipton the gift of a trophy known as the Lipton Cup. The first challenge was sailed in 1911.
In 2002, the Lipton Cup, now the most prestigious regatta in South Africa, was won by Salvatore Sarno’s L26 Class MSC Orion Donna Mia, skippered by Ian Ainslie.
On board was 21-year-old Golden Mgedeza, the first black sailor to win the Lipton Cup. Mgedeza is the bowman of Shosholoza, as sure a symbol as any of the new South Africa.