Jana Loubser is making waves in Gordon’s Bay as the Club’s first female head honcho

The Moordenaars Karoo is possibly the worst place in the world for sailing.  They say the air is so dry there it is as good as murder, hence the name.

If you see a sailboat in the Moordenaars Karoo you are either dreaming or already dead.

Which is why, one imagines, Jana Loubser was so completely smitten with a Huisgenoot centrefold picture of a tiny speck of a yacht drifting across the ocean.

In that instant Jana knew her life was destined to be led beyond the confines of her parents’ sheep farm in the scrubland hills between Sutherland and Laingsburg.

“I said to my mum, when I grow up I want to be there,” says Jana of the moment she spotted the sailboat.

Fast forward thirty years or so and Jana has not only completed the Cape to Rio, she is the Commodore of the Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club, wearing a summer dress and a sunhat.  You have to look deep into the twinkle of her eyes to still see the Moordenaars Karoo, but it is there.

So how did a blonde plaas meisie end up as the first female Commodore of the recreational sailing club in the Eastern corner of False Bay? It’s a question she may still be asking herself, judging by the broad smile when I invite her to share her life story over coffee in the Yacht Club restaurant. Jana sits beneath an oil painting of Gordon’s Bay, relaxed and informal, nothing at all like the archetypal commodore of days of yore. Her face is conspicuous in the lobby, a portrait photograph of the current commodore atop a pyramid of other commodore portraits, all men.

On first impressions Jana is, in a word, mysterious, as if some of those Karoo nights rubbed off on her. And surely they did.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” she insists, adding that her artist mother from Bellville and farming father were opposite sides of the congenital coin flip. “They said they were sorry that they couldn’t give us all of the other (material) things in the world. But they gave us so much more.”

In fact Jana is quick to point out an obvious connection between the depths of the Karoo and her sailing career. Both involve learning to rely on scarce resources. “We didn’t have electricity on our farm and grew up with paraffin lamps and a lister engine. We really had to look after our resources, and it is the same on a yacht. I think that is why sailing so appeals to me – it’s the same kind of lifestyle.”

The Karoo was formative in many other ways, not least because it catapulted Jana into an adventure story of Hollywood dimensions. She says her wanderlust was fuelled by  troubled years at school in Laingsburg where she didn’t fit in and was teased because of her appearance – for years she had to wear dental braces  “I had no confidence,” she recalls with calm assurance.

Her formative high school years also played out against the backdrop of tumultuous changes in the platteland, with racially segregated schools forced to amalgamate and find each other across a gaping divide.  “We were the first class to be integrated, standard eight. We stuck it out and I never regretted that because it has helped me a lot in the transformation process,” says Jana.

It was into this cultural melting pot that Jana set off after school, first as a volunteer for a Christian outreach group working in the rural areas of the Cape, then as a sports science student at Stellenbosch University. She then switched to palaeontology – another Karoo connection there, with the fossils of the Moordenaars Karoo – and ended up working at the West Coast Fossil Park. She concedes she identified more with the Indiana Jones-style scientific research than the laboratory number crunching: “I enjoyed working with the tourists much more than the actual academic work.”

By this time Jana already had a sense that destiny was pointing overseas. Needing to pay off her student loan she found carer work in the UK, and then in the US, teaching mountain biking. She and a friend conspired to buy an old car in Vermont and drove it 13 000km through the States, which was probably another first for a native of the Moordenaars Karoo.

At that point, in her mid-20s, she decided to come home but gravitated naturally towards the adventure industry, buoyed by her international travels. She worked summers in the pristine rivers, kloofs and canyons of the SA heartland, and winters guiding on overland trucks. In between she surfed. “I enjoyed it very much, but in the end your brain stars to stagnate,” she says. “I loved listening to people’s stories but I couldn’t see myself doing it for the rest of my life. I was sure there was something more out there.”

It seemed the perfect time to pursue her lifelong dream of boarding the white sailing speck she had spotted all those years before in the Huisgenoot. “I had saved to do my yacht masters and go to Spain, but instead I met my husband (Jakes) during an overland trip. Instead of spending the money on a Yacht Masters I spent it on a wedding. Sailing once again eluded me. Ultimately that changed the course of my life,” says Jana, pausing to reflect on it all.

She concedes she wasn’t a natural fit for married life, having spent so many years resolutely on the move, making up for her slow start. “I’m not so good with rules – I’m a free spirit,” she bristles with an air of defiance. “But with hindsight I think it was a good thing to get that stability.

A move to Grabouw followed where the newly-weds moved onto a plot of land with two other couples. They still live on the property, although Jana’s career has seen her swap her climbing harness for office wear. She is currently the logistics manager for massive UK agri company Haygrove Growing Systems, whose commercial activities include supplying locally licensed cannabis farmers with greenhouse tunnels.

No doubt the boere in the Karoo would have a few words to say about that, and Jana would love it.

It was at an agriculture show in around 2013 that Jana’s sailing career finally billowed into life. She and a work colleague teamed up to buy a bright yellow 25ft Flamenca, which became known as the yellow submarine. Her rite of passage came courtesy of local sailing legend Oom Coenie Thiart, who agreed to skipper the submarine from Saldanha to Royal Cape, and then around Cape Point to Gordon’s Bay. At that stage Jana knew more about sheep dip than sailing, and it didn’t help that Oom Coenie almost rammed into the Saldanha jetty upon departure.

Rounding Cape Point proved equally nerve-wracking. “I prayed to Buda, to Allah, to Neptune – I was convinced we were going to die. The waves and swell were coming through and we couldn’t see land — the weather was really bad. “

Not exactly a centrefold picture of calm blue ocean. But a step closer to Rio nevertheless, and Jana was hooked. “It was the best adrenaline rush I had had since my adrenaline sports days,” she recalls with a laugh.

“I remember Coenie telling me, if this didn’t break you then you are a sailor. I thought, OK, then I definitely want to be a sailor.”

With sailing experience firmly in her sights she then completed a day skipper course at Royal Cape, followed by a coastal skippers and yacht masters.  In February 2019 she finally got her chance – an invite to join her friend on the starting line of the 2020 Cape to Rio. Her parents were there to wave her goodbye.

“There were some scary moments,” she says, almost wistfully.

Jana’s obvious love of the unknown probably explains her new role at the Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club.  If she can round the Cape in a storm she can weather the inevitable squalls of internal politics that go with the territory.  She hopes to bring stability to the Club after the instability of the Covid pandemic. “I’m trying to make everybody feel welcome.” She gestures to a Club restaurant slowly filling up for lunch. “For my term I really want to bring community back into the Club. Covid just sent people into their little corners and it is so hard to get people to come back.”

To this end Jana has already helped set up a new Harbour Users Committee, and is encouraging Club members to partner with local fishermen to drive job creation. The Club is also setting up a sailing school and looking to partner with a local NPO to involve youth from the local community. “I want to be more inclusive – all colours of the rainbow,” explains Jana.

The Moordernaars Karoo is also famous for its shooting stars, and one of the brightest has landed in Gordon’s Bay.

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