Siya Vato doesn’t know if he’s the first. He’s not that interested in finding out either.
Glancing back at the history of the Cape2Rio Yacht Race, originally inspired by a boat named Voortrekker in the late 1960s, you’d assume that being thought to be the first black skipper of a vessel competing in the event would be of particular significance. But Vato is slightly conflicted when the question is put to him.
“I’m sort of two ways about it. So what if I am the first black skipper? I think it’s an honour, but at the same time I don’t think it should be a thing. I’m a sailor like everyone else. I enjoy the sport like everyone else.
“But then the other part of it is that you’re held accountable because now you have people looking up to you and people looking at you to set an example, and people that have invested in you to be a success,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing is accountability. It’s not just about you anymore, it’s not just about this dream that you have. There are people who want to see you be a success and there’s obviously the opposite as well, the people that don’t want you to be. I think that’s the name of the game when you get in this sort of position.
“But if I am the first, I pray we make it a success and that we can motivate people of all backgrounds, not just black or people of colour, that anything is possible.”
Vato has experienced the treacherous Atlantic waters between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro before, having been part of the crew on Ray of Light in 2017. But this will be the first time he’s in charge, skippering Zulu Girl – powered by Mazi Asset Management – with the crew of Clarence Hendricks, Theo Yon, Daniel Agulhas, Joweal Klaase, Le-Roy Rudolf and Peter Marsh.
More than that, he’s not only breaking new ground with the transformative make-up of the crew but they also have a real shot at winning the race, which sets off from the Mother City on Saturday 11 January.
“I’m feeling really positive about the race. We’re getting a lot of support from friends in the industry, which is really positive,” said the 26-year-old, who has gained valuable experience sailing the hugely competitive TP52 circuit. “They think we’ve got a really good shot at winning this. I think it’s also good motivation that guys that have done it in the past and have won it are saying that we’ve got a shot at getting this. So we’re feeling really motivated.”
Falling in love with sailing
Racing a yacht across the Atlantic is a world away from what Vato might have imagined for himself, growing up in the Durban township of Chesterville.
“Sailing was definitely not part of my plans growing up. I was introduced when I was in grade 9 by my geography teacher, who was part of the running of an organisation called Sail Africa in Durban. Since then, I’ve been hooked and received many amazing opportunities. The first was probably coming down here to Cape Town and racing the Lipton Cup in my second year of sailing, and then from there growing from strength to strength.
“Definitely, growing up, it’s not what I envisioned. But I think God’s got it all handled, so it’s been a real roller coaster, splitting my sailing life with my family life, because my family don’t do this. The situation is not the same as where the whole family does it as a sport. So I’m sort of lone wolfing it out here. Luckily, I have really good friends on my side supporting me, so it’s been really good.”
An ocean-sized chasm still stands between Vato and his extended family when it comes to the sport. His younger brother is the only one who understands his passion, having followed in his sibling’s footsteps. But for the others, it’s a world away.
“At the time, obviously it was a foreign sport to my family, as these sports are to most families of colour. There was, I guess, shock at first. But as they saw me getting excited, I suppose it also deviated my mind from things that were happening in the neighbourhood, that my peers were getting up to.
“So at first it was an unknown. But as time went by and I was spending more time sailing, they saw the beauty in it and how I enjoyed it. I think because it took me away from what some of my peers were doing, they loved the sport for that. So, it was a blessing.”
That blessing came at a cost, however, as Vato found that to get further in the sport he had to make many sacrifices, including time with his family.
“It’s been amazing, but you always have sacrifices and something you give up. It’s been very difficult because both my parents have passed away and I just have my younger brother and I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like. Also, it was very difficult because just before the last Cape2Rio, I couldn’t afford a ticket to go back to Durban to spend Christmas with my mother. We didn’t know then, obviously, but it was her last Christmas with us here on Earth.
“Fast-forward three years now, it was her unveiling and now I’m a captain of a boat and I couldn’t go to her unveiling, which is very heartbreaking for me. It just shows the level of sacrifices that one does for this sport. When you have seven people’s lives in your hands, seven breadwinners of their families, it becomes a whole other ball game. It’s not just about you. So as selfish as it is to some people, I have to make sure the boat is safe and make sure that it doesn’t become a coffin. I have to answer to seven families.
“I have to give it my all. I owe it to the sponsor and I owe it to the boat owner. He’s generously offered us his boat. And I obviously owe it to the crew’s families, to make sure that everyone comes back in one piece.
“Some of my friends think it’s really unfair that I put my family second. But I’ve been stuck in these situations and I know this is what my mother would love. She sacrificed a hell of a lot for me to be here, so I sacrificed everything for something and I pray it works out.”
Becoming a leader
Vato has done everything in his power to give his crew the best possible shot at success. His first Cape2Rio campaign was with Cape Town sailor Michael Kavanagh, who has acted as Vato’s mentor.
“I ended up doing a Cape2Rio with Michael and his family. He’s a great thinker and we’ve always spoken about stuff. I was very involved in the prep for the last race so I learnt a lot from him. I still learn a lot from him.”
Kavanagh noticed Vato’s talent and exceptional work ethic early on and, when explaining some background to the current campaign, said: “When he approached me with a view to putting a campaign together for the 2020 Cape2Rio, it was super exciting.
“Although I offered him my boat, he was looking for something more high-performance. We put our heads together and decided to approach Stuart Ritchie, the owner of the yacht CFM in Durban. Siya grew up and learned his sailing skills in Durban under the watchful eye of Jackie Barnard, and I sailed with Stuart and his crew in a Maputo to Durban race. Stuart generously made the boat available free of charge.
“I first introduced Siya to Malungelo Zilimbola and Francois Olivier from Mazi Asset Management two or three years ago. Siya is an ambitious young man and Mazi Asset Management an outstanding money manager, with significant growth ambitions. It seemed like a great match, looking for a project. We agreed that there was potential and to come back to Mazi once we had a good project. With the boat secured, we approached Malungelo and Francois. Siya did the pitch and the rest is history.”
Vato was determined to acknowledge his roots when it came to naming the boat for the campaign.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own campaign and name it Zulu Girl because obviously Zulu represents where I come from and girl would be the boat as they’re referred to as females. I think it rolls nicely off the tongue,” he said.
“I just wanted to be an inspiration to my younger brother and show him that despite the things that we’ve been through, or kids like us have been through, we can do something like this. And it’s obviously not possible without a little bit of help, but then we can definitely do it.
“I’m confident going in. I think we’ve got the right boat and the right people. We’ve just got to stay safe but at the same time push hard. I’ve been on that boat in a storm and in heavy weather, and I’m confident in her strength and the crew. The guys I’m with have sailed in some pretty hectic stuff so it’s all left to us, just to make the right and smart decisions all the time and not to do anything stupid.
“So that’s where I’m at and I think we can win it, for sure. As long as we put our minds to it and make the right decisions, we can achieve anything.”