Upbeat RCYC youth sailing director says he hopes to bridge the gap between industry and government

Lindani Mchunu still laughs at the thought of it: a black skipper and two salty Cape Verdean fishermen aboard a brand rand new Jeaneau Sun Odyssey 54, cruising into one of the world’s swankiest marinas.

“All the Europeans thought the yacht must be stolen,” he chuckles. “You just saw custom’s officials rushing to the boat.”

A black man behind the wheel of an expensive yacht is evidently still shocking enough to get steeple bells sounding the alarm in some towns on the route between Cape Verde and Malta, as Mchunu was to discover several times during his 6000-mile epic voyage.  “They would want all paperwork, blood type and DNA,” he scoffs. “It was their first time to see young black guy coming in on a Jeanneau with two fishermen.”

“They thought I was a pirate.”

That was just three years ago, a strange introduction to the ethnic mono-culture across much of the sailing world. Ever the diplomat Mchunu took the inquisition in his stride, testimony to his affable nature and positive mindset. By the time he left each mooring on that trip he had gone from pirate to liberator, with many new friends and well-wishers.  “Everybody would be my friend, it was interesting.”

Mchunu can laugh about it now but the story could well have happened in South Africa, which is exactly why he is excited about his appointment to the board of the South African Boat Builders Export Council (SABBEX). Breaking barriers and bridging the cultural divide is already a driving force behind his work as head of the Royal Cape Yacht Club Development Sailing Academy, and he will do the same for the broader industry, no matter the rather daunting challenges.

Fortunately Mchunu is not averse to navigating troubled waters; where some might see only fear and prejudice,  he sees opportunity, as in the case of his Cap Verde to Malta odyssey. He says inasmuch as the trip revealed people’s ignorance, it showed their fundamental good nature and ability to rise above narrow preconceptions.  A case in point was his brief ‘detention’ in Madeira where after four hours he was delivered to the gruff-looking chief of police, who as it turned out came from Benoni. A short while later they were sharing jokes about biltong and Bakkies Botha and revelling in the surprising sweetness of the world sometimes when you are caught in the crosswinds northwest of nowhere.

That’s not to say Mchunu plans to gloss over some of more worrying aspects of the maritime world, particularly in the current South African economic context. He talks candidly about the distrust within government towards a boat building sector that is struggling to attract new entrants and scarce skills. He says government remains largely unaware of the boat building success stories and the potential for many more. He sees his role within SABBEX as that of industry reformer and persuader: on the one hand a relative newcomer come to give things a shake-up; on the other hand an enabler primed to spread the good word about yards like Southern Wind and Robertson and Caine which are already superstars on the global boat building stage.  Says Mchunu: “What I have found is that government knows very very little as to what it is that we do in the boating industry. A lot of them don’t know where the Southern Wind Yard is, or haven’t heard about the Jacobs brothers which is such an amazing story.”

“That is probably where I come in. I will introduce government to the globally renowned South African boat building industry, as my contribution to the Ocean Economy, which President Ramaphosa mentioned in his SONA speech in February this year.”

In this regard he hopes to build on several new industry-backed initiatives and forums initiated over the past few years, some of which are beginning to bear fruit. He is also mindful of the frustrations and how dialogue quickly becomes an echo chamber if not translated into action.

Government would do well to examine Mchunu’s own life story for inspiration. Although quick to dismiss the tag of previously disadvantaged – “I had a very middle class upbringing” – Mchunu says he was nevertheless victim to a profound disinterest in maritime matters which was partly an Apartheid legacy. He references a ‘standing joke’ with his father, who likes to tease him about his chosen profession: “When people wonder why black people appear to be afraid of water and the ocean, my father and I always joke and say it is because that is where the slave ships come from — we are genetically coded to be afraid of the ocean because after they came it was mayhem!”

In fact it was a chance meeting on the Gautrain that led Mchunu to Cape Town and the yachting scene. He was invited to come sailing by a stranger seated opposite him. Naturally curious, Mchunu accepted the offer and set in motion a series of events that defined the course of his life. Just a few weeks later he found himself cruising beyond the breakwater with his new friend. “He switched off the engines and gave me the helm. I fell in love.”

“I was 27 and had travelled extensively and had a wide network. But it took a random white gent to burst my bubble and say, hey, there is yachting.”

The introductory sail led relatively quickly to a job with Robertson & Caine, which in turn led to a stint in the offshore charter industry.

The rest, as they say, is history, with Mchunu now perfectly positioned to help return the favour once extended to him by introducing others to the industry he loves.

Said Mchunu: “I think what is missing from our industry is that there is not enough exposure to the boating industry and to what it is we do. We need to get the message out there. That is the work I’m doing now, to spread the message that it is open for all. People mustn’t think it is a just white space without investigating that white space. “

“That is what I’m trying to do.”

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