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Team Shosholoza

The South African Challenge

At the end of the second day’s racing in the Louis Vuitton Act 10, in Valencia, I spent a very pleasant evening withTeam Shosholoza, enjoying an informal barbeque in the roof garden of the team headquarters, and took the opportunity to chat to three of the key players in this South African Challenge.

One of the things I was eager to find out was how the idea of a South African America’s Cup Challenge first arose.

It was a question I put to “The Boss”, Captain Salvatore Sarno. His laughing response, “Crazy idea!”, was not entirely unexpected, because this man looks and acts more like one of the crew than a typical head of an America’s Cup syndicate.

”So when and how had this “Crazy idea” come to him?” I asked. “Around 2002, but not from me,’ said Sarno, “it came from a few young black sailors, who helped with my little J105 that we were racing. These young people started to come good and we started to win races and then, for the tenth anniversary of the new government, I thought ‘What can I do for this country, to show the new face of this country to the world?’ Then I thought of the America’s Cup! Why? Because I love sailing, I am a sailor; well, actually, I’m a seaman not really a sailor. Anyway, I thought about the America’s Cup and everybody said I was crazy.”

“The finance; how did you kick that off?” was my next question. “From my own pocket, because I had nobody - not even MSC - at that stage. It was really difficult in the beginning, then my company MSC - I work for MSC I am not the owner, I am a director of the shipping company - got involved. MSC has always has projects for under privileged people and, once again, it has been on my side for this crazy idea.”

The notion of starting off an America’s Cup Team with a small budget is very much at odds with the theories of the top teams, who see having a large budget, established at the beginning, as a major key to the sort of development flow that brings success. I put this to Sarno, who told me. “We don’t have any problems. We could have been where we are now sooner, if we had not had the back luck of a broken mast, which delayed our project. There are two ways to make things, happen; the American way and the MSC way, the Mediterranean Shipping Company way. The American way is to start big with big money, big project, big test and to do nothing. The MSC way is to start little, with a lot of patience, a lot of love, a lot of brains, a lot of inventiveness to go ahead and that is Shosholoza. You can see here, in the Port of Valencia, that 60% of the containers are yellow containers with our logo on them. The Mediterranean Shipping Company started 30 years ago and has become the second largest shipping company in the world. I was there from day one, so I know what it means to start poor against the biggest and to win against them. We, Shosholoza and the Mediterranean Shipping Company, want to win the America’s Cup.

My last question was about that name “Shosholoza”, which some still don’t know how to pronounce. “What did it signify?” “It means that we go forward and we progress.” said Sarno. “It is a song that the people living in the countryside sang, when they were going to work in Johannesburg, in the mines. They sang this song of hope, a song for a better life. They say the word ’Shosholoza’ means pushing and pulling together, as one.”

Shosholoza had suffered two defeats that day, but skipper & strategist, Mark Sadler, was not downhearted.

“Well we got a penalty in the pre-start, against BMW Oracle, which was a mistake on our part, but from there on it went pretty well. We managed to keep it fairly tight and we gained up to the first beat.”

“What was good is that the crew work on our boat has come a long way and I am really happy with our performance, even though we lost the two matches today. We were actually expecting to lose to those guys.

I asked Mark what the boat’s best point was and whether there was anything he would like to change on the boat, to enhance its winning chances?

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Our boat is very fast to windward.” Mark said “We wouldn’t want to change anything right now, because we have actually changed quite a lot to date. We have got a new mast and we have designed new, more powerful, sails and, for our team, it has been a big learning curve over the last years. We started very low base, with not very much experience whatsoever. We are sky rocketing our experience right now and I think any changes will be very little ones, to change gear in terms of speed. As a whole everything on the boat right now is working very well.”

“So what about the crew” I asked “has it reached the stage of a team acting as one without any thought?” ”The crew has been together during these two years, almost the same team.” Mark explained. “We have had guys onboard all along, some guys have left but only one or two and it’s grown from the beginning. Most of us, all the South Africans onboard, which is the majority, did not have any America’s Cup experience whatsoever and we’ve been gaining in the last years and it’s been very good. It’s getting to the stage where they are really working seamlessly together, it’s coming to that. For sure, we have to work on little areas to be smoother and that’s why today was a success for us. We really were working as a unit, which is what we have been aiming at for a long time.”

“What about tomorrow?” Mark said “Hopefully, it’s going to go as well as it did today, within the boat and, if we can get some better starts and good calls up the first beat, I think we are in with a chance. We need to keep it simple and get even starts, that’s what we really look forward to tomorrow.”

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I’m not a match racing man, so I was glad to get a chance to chat with Shosholoza’s navigator Marc Lagesse and ask him just what rôle a navigator played in a race that was in sight of land and with no obstacles on the course.

I had other questions too, about how much real seamanship was involved in sailing these ultra high-tech yachts and how they decided on what sails to take out.

As our chat went on, I asked Marc - not really expecting an answer - where he really expected Shosholoza to finish, when the America’s Cup proper came around, in 2007.

Marc laughed when I put my question about the rôle of an America’s Cup yacht navigator. “Good question; I ‘m not a Columbus type navigator. My job is basically to keep track of where we are on the race course. You can, generally, see all the buoys anyway, but just where we are relative to the other boat and relative to the corners or the lay lines. Then also try to keep track of wind and what wind is required and how it will affect us relative to the other boats. So, I just sit there and compute the numbers and give the numbers to the tactician who then makes the decision on when to tack and not to tack.”

“So did old fashioned seamanship and feel for what’s happening, come into it, or was it all down to the electronics?” Marc said “I think, to be perfectly honest, if they banned all the electronics the end result would still be the same. I just think electronics make it easier and it gives you more options, whereas without electronics you would do more serious hand stuff. Ultimately, you still have to look at the wind up the course, see where the wind is and decide where to go. It just makes it a bit easier, as it gives you the numbers versus what you see, so you can make decisions accordingly. When they stop working I am the first one to hear about it, so they are important especially when you are trying to decide between you fast or slow . A small fraction of a knot is quite difficult to feel, but to see the numbers it is quite easy. It makes sense to be able to see you are performing 100%.”

Assuming that, as in ocean racing, a navigator’s rôle would include meteorology, I asked “What is the weather looking like for tomorrow?” “To be perfectly honest I have no idea.” said Marc. “We have the weather department for that, so I honestly don’t know . Tomorrow, we will come in and get a full weather briefing and we take it from there.”

Do you have a physical duty on the boat, as well as the navigation? “ “Primarily it is navigation, but I do assist with the runners especially downwind.” said Marc “So I pull a bit of rope, do a bit of grinding. If the game gets tough and its quite windy I help the grinders, I rotate with one of them to give him a breather, but generally its navigation; head in the box crunching numbers and looking on and looking out.”

“When do you decide which sails you’ll take?” I asked. “We take almost all the sails every day” said Marc “and then we decide, based on the weather forecast, what we put on the boat and, obviously, which ones to use, but we have pretty much 80% of our inventory on the water all the time as all the teams do. If we expect light airs, we will take maybe 4 jibs, 2 light air 2 medium air type jibs and 4 spinnakers and, if we don’t know what it is, we take one of each, medium, light, heavy. If we expect to be heavy we will take 4 heavies and so we juggle it. The sails are all slightly different, some are flat water some for rough water, so depending on the conditions we choose sails accordingly.”

“What lessons have you learnt today you might that may help tomorrow?” was my next question “The bottom line is that we were only fair for the start. New Zealand set a little trap for us and we walked into it, knowing it was trap, but we thought we could maybe slide out of it and get the upper hand, but we didn’t so we lost the race on the start. To be fair on us, their new boat seems quite fast, so that’s quite good news for them I’m sure and they were quite brutal, they didn’t give us any space until they had a comfortable margin. They sailed a text book race I guess. So, today’s big lesson was to get off the start line cleanly. We know our boat’s fast, our crew works good, it’s likely to be very smooth, very comfortable, so tomorrow is a big day for us. Both competitors are beatable and should be beaten. I will stick my neck out, if we can get one of the two we will be happy, but I would like to get both you know. It will make up for today.

Marc has been sailing for 23 years. “My Dad had a little Hobie, but before long my brother went multihull and I went monohull, starting with a Vanderstadt 23 on the Voldam, in Johannesburg, in South Africa. Johannesburg is a thousand kilometres from the coast, so to say you started sailing there is quite unusual. It was a little 23 foot keel boat and I was around about thirteen. When I did my National Service, with the navy, I was the sailing instructor, which was quite nice and, after that I went professional for three years and then I came back and became a computer nerd, for five or six years. Then I went sailing again and have been sailing full time ever since then.”

My last question was “How do you rate your chances in the Cup?” Marc laughed “You are asking all the hard question, aren’t you? I deeply believe that, if the cards fall correctly, we will make the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton. If they don’t fall correctly, anything worse than sixth place and I will be deeply disappointed. That’s putting my neck out isn’t it.

I wished them all the best of luck for the next day, but I didn’t bring them any!

Aldous Grenville-Crowther

Photos A G-C/BYM News

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