From high school drop-out in a poor community to skipper in the prestigious Cape to Rio yacht race, Theo Yon knows what it means to pursue a dream and succeed against the odds.
Theo grew up in a poor part of Hout Bay, Cape Town, called Hangberg, where unemployment and poverty are the norm and gangs and Tik are a constant presence. Hope is in short supply for young people growing up in this community. Many who can’t find work in the local fishing industry resort to poaching to survive or escape into alcohol and drug abuse. Making something great of yourself remains a distant dream for most. “If anyone tries to build something of their lives they have to get out of the community because it has a way of holding you back. People are always saying you’re not going to go far in life”.
Growing up as the eldest of three brothers with both of his parents in the fishing industry, Theo had always been fascinated by the ocean. “I would often look out of my bedroom window at the yachts sailing by and wonder how they could float so effortlessly on the water. I started dreaming about one day being on one of those boats and learning how to sail. But I knew that sailing was basically a wealthy person’s sport and I had no idea how it could ever happen.” Opportunity knocked at the age of twelve when The Hout Bay Youth Sailing Development Trust came to his school and offered those who were interested, a chance to learn how to sail.
This was to be a life-changing event for Theo. He threw himself into the programme and over the next few years developed into a skilled yachtsman. The Trust acquired a yacht which they called Phoenix to represent rising from the ashes. Theo with a crew of other young sailors from disadvantaged communities started competing in local yacht races. Against expectations, they started doing very well, winning some races and making a name for themselves. The Trust entered them into races further afield in places like Port Elizabeth and Durban. When this motley crew from various disadvantaged communities around Cape Town, in a sponsored boat, came second in the Lipton Cup, Theo realized that they had the talent and drive to go further.
Hope is in short supply for young people growing up in this community.
He approached the Trust with the idea of entering the prestigious Cape to Rio race and started looking for a boat. With the help of sponsors, they bought a boat which they renamed Griffon after the mythical creature who was half man half beast. A lot of work had to be done on the boat to make it race ready but the day finally came and they set out on the epic crossing. Of the crew of eight, which Theo skippered, seven had come from disadvantaged communities and been trained by the Development Trust. Before they even started, it was a triumph of overcoming adversity.
The race was tough, with strong winds and many obstacles to overcome. As skipper, Theo had to make all the difficult calls and keep the crew calm and cool under pressure. It was a big responsibility for a man who had come a long way from dropping out of school. In the 19 day journey the crew had a maximum of four hours of sleep at a time, working shifts to keep the yacht moving. 160 nautical miles from the finish they lost their rudder and had to steer with buckets, a spinnaker pole and floorboards. But nothing was going to stop this determined crew from finishing, they had come too far to give up now. Two days later, they crossed the finishing line, fifth in their category and with a sense that nothing you put your mind to is impossible.
For Theo, sailing is a lifeline that he does not take for granted. “Sailing has changed my life. It has given me hope, passion, and fulfillment”. He has aspirations of taking part in more of the world’s elite races, such as the Volvo Ocean Race, which is a yacht race around the world. With the kind of passion and courage that Theo has, there is no doubt that he will sail across many more seas. In an effort to pay it forward, Theo has taken it upon himself to create the same opportunities he had for other young people in his community. His advice to readers is “never give up. If you have a dream, follow it. It’s not going to happen overnight. Put in the blood sweat and tears. Make the sacrifice. It’s worth it”.
Nothing was going to stop this determined crew from finishing.