African sailors are breaking frontiers

Sailing is a growing sport in Africa, with the elite winning global races

In Summary

• South African Kirsten Neuschafer's victory in Golden Globe shows Africa's potential

Some of the sailors on a boat
Some of the sailors on a boat

The recent Golden Globe Race victory by South African solo skipper Kirsten Neuschafer is a shot in the arm for African sailing. Neuschafer made history by becoming the first woman and the third person to win the round-the-world voyage competition.

The event, which describes itself as the race for "madmen" and "sailing as if it is 1968", is a solo round-the-world race that eschews the use of new technologies, relying on manual navigation techniques like using a sextant rather than modern digital communications.

After covering a record 30,290 nautical miles, Neuschafer crossed the finish line at Les Sables d'Olonne in France, some 233 days, 18 hours and 43 minutes after she left Port Elizabeth.

Her achievement is a testament to the opportunities for African sailors in the fast-growing sport of sailboat racing on the continent.

While sailing competitions are not new in Africa, with major competitions organised across the continent, the combination of extensive coastlines and advanced technology is ushering in a new era of sailing, providing African sailors with exciting opportunities to showcase their expertise.

In Kenya, sailing is being advanced by a number of yacht clubs across the country, both at the Coast and at lakes like Naivasha and Lake Victoria. Clubs and sailing schools like 3 Degrees South, the Naivasha Yacht Club, Kisumu Sailing School and the Victoria Nyanza Sailing Club target young members and provide training.

Ben Otieno, an instructor at Kisumu Sailing School in Kenya, explained that children are a promising target group when looking to create a lasting impact.

"Once you have their interest, you can be sure they will attend sessions to the very end. That way, we are grooming lifetime sailors," he said.

Across the continent, Eric Koizah, a Cameroonian coaching and sports enthusiast, pointed out that increasing education and awareness among younger generations "transforms their mentality".

"Sport sailing opens up other sports avenues other than focusing on football, basketball, volleyball and handball," he said.

While in-shore sailing has been growing, there are also strong offshore sailing traditions to be found from Cairo to Cape Town. The Cape to Rio Yacht Race is one example. The race is an annual trans-Atlantic sailing race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (although other South American locations have also been used as finish lines in the past).

Another major race that passes through Cape Town is the Ocean Race, previously known as the Volvo Ocean Race, and which sees the teams involved dock in Cape Town on their way around the world.

Calling itself the "toughest test of a team in sport", the Ocean Race consists of multiple legs hosted in nine ports along the route. The competition includes local races while the teams are in port. In the 2022-2023 race, Leg 3 of the race spans 12,750 nautical miles from Cape Town, South Africa to Itajai, Brazil.

Advancements in technological innovation have also brought vibrancy and re-ignited sailing sports.

The 2022-23  Ocean Race edition features two fleets of high-performance ocean-going racing yachts, the IMOCA Class and VO65. These can cover 600 nautical miles (about 1100km) or more in just 24 hours when operating in optimal conditions, and the race is broadcast continuously thanks to on-board streaming devices, including handheld cameras, remote cameras and drones.

According to Richard Brisius, co-founder of Atlant Ocean Racing, the company that hosts the competition, technological developments signal the sport's promising future.

"We are determined that the race will go from strength to strength as a sustainable international sporting event," he said in a statement.

South Africa has been a central grooming hub for off-shore sailing in the continent, and not only provides regular crew and skippers for racing and recreational sailboats worldwide but is also a significant manufacturing hub for sailboats.

Other hubs are also progressing, with North Africa's long sailing history developing into a modern sailing trend.

Morocco's approximate 2,500km coastline has made the country an attractive sea sailing hub, with windsurfing and kitesurfing along the Coast highly popular thanks to the regular winds, while in neighbouring Egypt, yacht races are being strategically used to attract sports tourists, leveraging the country's Red Sea coastline and the Nile River.

In June 2022, Egypt launched the inaugural Red Sea Regatta, just the latest in numerous sailing events hosted in the country.

Beyond the high seas and transcontinental waters, relatively small but equally disruptive in-shore sports sailing in smaller lakes, large rivers and artificial waters are also on the rise.

"We need to dream big," Koizah said.

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