The first time he saw the ocean, Sibusiso Sizatu thought that, with all that water, it must have been a very large lake.
A couple of decades later, the former herd boy is getting ready to sail across that same ocean in an iconic race, helming an all-South African team that hopes to inspire a new generation of black yachtsmen.
“It’s gonna be an eye-opener for the youngsters out there,” Sizatu, 30, wearing a white polo shirt, told AFP standing on a Cape Town dock besides his boat, the Alexforbes ArchAngel.
The ArchAngel is to set sail for Rio de Janeiro on January 2, as part of the 50th edition of the Cape2Rio race.
It will be racing against more than a dozen other boats from five countries to cover the more than 6,000 kilometers of Atlantic waters separating the two cities.
Sizatu reckons his 10-meter sloop has a shot at victory, but being at the starting line is arguably already a success for the skipper and his four-strong crew.
“The first aim is to finish the race,” he said. “Winning it will be some extra bonus.”
The crew — four men and one woman — is the first all hailing from the Royal Cape Yacht Club sailing academy to take part in the race.
The academy was set up in 2012 to help youngsters from marginalized communities make it in a sport dominated by rich white people.
As a child Sizatu used to herd his family’s livestock in a rural part of the Eastern Cape province before moving to a Cape Town township at the age of nine.
There he started going to school and was first introduced to sailing by a friend.
He didn’t quite like it. Open waters didn’t inspire much confidence and sea-sickness was a hard sell.
He much preferred football and hoped to make it as a professional.
Sailing seemed a luxury pastime for wealthy retirees, a world away from life in the township, where drugs and violence abounded but money was in short supply.
On the first outing, he swam back to shore.
Things changed when his friend asked him to tag along for a yacht race and their boat won.
Sizatu said he realized sailing was “a sport” and not just “having fun in the water playing with the boat.”
“I saw an opportunity,” he said.
While chances to become a footballer were quite slim, with millions of others chasing the same dream, few young South Africans were trying their luck at sea.
“I was like ‘okay, this is where I can actually make myself something great out of’,” he said.
He grew to like the ocean and became very good at steering a boat over it.
“It’s very peaceful and calm when you’re out in the water, you forget about everything else,” he said.
Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. He often didn’t have money to travel to events or buy food to eat once he was there.
And until the age of 20, he had no ID documents, which made competing abroad quite tricky.
But Sizatu said he found a supportive community in the Cape Town sailing world that helped him out broadening his horizons along the way.
Now he is hoping to broaden those of the sport.
“I’d like to see more like diversity,” he said. “There are still some people that don’t see us as part of this, the racism is still out there.”
Challenging perceptions was one of the reasons that he has long dreamt of competing in the Cape2Rio with a crew which has shared a similar path to his.
Sizatu said his team stuck together even if many could have been tempted to join other boats looking for crew, while the ArchAngel searched for a sponsor to support the adventure.
Aged 21 to 30 — Sizatu is the oldest — the crew is young, motivated and skilled.
Yet only one of them has completed an ocean crossing before.
“This is gonna be a big stepping stone for all of us,” said Sizatu.