University of South Carolina Press

Hardcover, 201 pages, $24.99

Making those dreams come true

This is a book about dreams and dreamers. It’s the story of a young mixed-race South African, Neal Petersen, who aspires to become a yacht-racing sailor. As dreams go, this one was particularly implausible at a time when non-white South Africans weren’t allowed to participate in the life of their country except as laborers or servants. But encouraged by his mother, Petersen persisted, clawing his way upward through a world where the very idea of a black or mixed-race person on the dock of a yacht club or the deck of a sailboat was difficult to imagine. And he succeeded: in 1999 he completed the Around Alone race, becoming the first black man to sail alone around the world.

The obstacles Petersen recounts in his book go well beyond race: as a kid he’d barely seen a sailboat, let alone had the opportunity to race one singlehanded. But his mother encouraged him to read, and he found his life’s passion in books about sailing. “From the time I was the age of twelve on,” he writes, “the solo sailors Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, and Francis Chichester and the diver Jacques Cousteau were my idols.”

¬†Around the same time he learned how to snorkel, and (again encouraged by his mother) he began asking sailors at a nearby yacht club if they’d take him out.

“I asked all day, ‘will you take me sailing?’ Dozens of boats and no luck,” Petersen writes. Three Sundays later, “a skipper said yes-I was told to sit in the middle of the boat and stay very still. I paid close attention to what the others were doing. The fourth Sunday was race day. Crewmen were needed, and suddenly I became a ‘sailor’.” All this at a time when Apartheid was still the rule in South Africa, although the Soweto riots had taken place and things were beginning to change. An optimist like Neal Petersen could make the most of this fluid environment.

Next, Petersen parlayed skills he’d learned as a deep-sea diver into a job in California working on oil platforms. He saved his money, collected a bonus and headed back to South Africa to begin building the offshore sailboat he’d been dreaming about. “In 1988 I commissioned a dream-filled would-be designer-Dutch mathematician Marinus Goolouze-to formulate the hull shape for an oceangoing sailboat,” Petersen writes. The result was a cold-molded hull he named Stella R. Eventually, with help from a couple of sail and rigging company executives he’d met at boat shows, Petersen launched, rigged and sailed the boat from South Africa to Ireland by way of the Azores-nearly dying along the way, and actually being towed on the final leg. The month-long adventure might have been enough for most tyro sailors, but for Petersen it seems to have been only the beginning.

As I said, this is a book about dreams and dreamers. It was in Ireland, following that first long solo run, that Petersen began honing his skills as a speaker. “Soon after my arrival I’d begun to speak in the Irish schools and also in the prisons, the universities and the yacht clubs,” he writes. “I never turned down an engagement, and through world-of-mouth advertising I did stay busy.”

Today, a few shipwrecks, solo voyages, relationships and other life experiences later, Petersen makes his living as a motivational speaker. His Web site (www.no-barriers.com) lists his many clients; by all reports (including a friend-of-a-friend who heard him) he’s a gifted lecturer. His book reflects the optimism and drive, imagination and willingness to dream, that have brought Petersen all the way from Apartheid-bound South Africa to South Carolina, where he lives today with his wife. If you’d like to be inspired by one man’s story, try this book.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.