SSL TEAM SOUTH AFRICA: “OUR DIVERSITY IS OUR STRENGTH” (PART 2)

 

In the first section of this two-parter, we looked at how Ian Ainslie was convinced to bring together a South African crew to compete in the SSL Gold Cup this season. Ainslie was passionate and insisted on bringing young black sailors on to the team. It’s a passion for inclusion that goes back more than 20 years.

It was not long after Ainslie had just come back from competing at the Sydney Games in the Finn singlehander and was scratching his head about what to do next with his life. “I hadn’t thought beyond the Olympics, which wasn’t a great idea,”  he recalls.  “But I was stopped at some traffic lights in Cape Town and there was a kid standing at the lights, begging for money. And he looked so bad, and you don’t actually feel too much empathy, because he and his mates are kind of aggressively knocking on your window and whatever. And I said, ‘Hey, you guys want to come sailing? Next week, be at these traffic lights, at this time, and I’ll pick you up and we’ll go sailing.”

Not an offer that these kids would have heard on a typical afternoon in one of the dodgier parts of Cape Town. Ainslie didn’t expect anything would come of his out-of-the-blue offer. “I thought, no way that guy will remember, they’re full of drugs and whatever. And then, to my surprise, the following week, there was a whole crowd of kids. So I put them into my car, we went off to Simonstown. And the first thing I do, I line them up on the water and push them all into the water, because they’re all high, and they’re quite stinky, because, you know, obviously they live on the street.”

Meanwhile Ainslie had gained access to some Bosun dinghies owned by the South African Navy, and the Admiral at the Simonstown Naval Base liked the crazy proposition that Ainslie was putting forward. To get poor, young black kids off the streets and into some boats. And so the Izivunguvungu Sailing Club was born.

Izivunguvungu is a Zulu word meaning ‘wind storm’, and it did turn out to be a barnstorming success. Working alongside his co-founder Matthew Mentz, Ainslie discovered a passion in his new recruits that took him by surprise. The kids learned to sail, to fix the boats when they were broken, to swim, to find direction in their lives. “We started with streetkids who were homeless and then we started attracting kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.” Some of those kids went to on to sail with Shosholoza in the America’s Cup, and Asenathi Jim’s talent and tenacity turned him into one of the best small boat sailors in the country. “Asenathi actually said to when he was just eight or nine, ‘I’m going to go to the Olympics!’ And he did, twice,”  says Ainslie.

Yet even today Asenathi Jim struggles to make a living in South Africa. For all of his success at the highest levels of the sport, he finds it hard to break free from the streets of Cape Town. Ainslie believes Jim has so much more to offer the sport, and so he was an obvious pick for the SSL Gold Cup crew.

In September 2021, the South African came to Switzerland to take part in one of the early SSL Gold Cup Test Event. The newly-formed Team Ubuntu won the Qualifier against some mighty teams, including SSL Team France. “Some of our guys had never raced a keelboat before,” says Ainslie. “Asenathi was steering with a wheel for the first time, but the crew came together really well. It was a bit surprising how good they were because these boats are not easy to sail. 

“The onboard collaboration between the team was amazing and the communication between the professional sailors on the crew, Paul Willcox and tactics and Gareth Blanckenburg on mainsheet, was really impressive. It’s really exciting to see how they develop this season. That first qualifier was great, although it probably helped us out that the wind wasn’t too strong. But that doesn’t take away from how well they sailed to beat seven other teams including France, Malaysia and Thailand.”

Despite their early success, Ainslie is not placing any great expectations on Team Ubuntu. “Our first step will be to get through the group stages against India and Malaysia, and that won’t be at all easy.”

For Ainslie the result in this year’s SSL Gold Cup comes a distant second in importance compared with what opportunities might come the way of the crew.  “My country has a history of struggles, of people being denied opportunities. Now there is an opportunity for a few guys to really do something special with their lives. My experience, from what I’ve seen is that the people with the least are going to take that opportunity further than everyone else. So this project is ideal for countries in Africa, that would never have an opportunity to come and campaign a keelboat in Europe. This is a chance for these guys to see what’s possible, to see how far they can go with their potential.”