The Redwood, by Lindani Mchunu

Today’s newsletter is a dedication to one of my very first mentors in this sailing community. Alex Cousins. Not only is Alex my first mentor he is also the man who taught me how to sail. In other words, Alex is the very reason why I am here. Alex to me is a Redwood tree.

“One might think that such a lofty being would require deep roots, but no. The roots only extend down six to twelve feet. But what they lack in-depth, they make up for in breadth. Extending up to 100 feet from the tree’s base, they intertwine with the roots of others, all holding on to each other, greatly increasing their stability”. –  Dana Poblete November 15, 2018

I arrived in Cape Town late 2012 after a bizarre encounter with a stranger on a train, who told me about sailing and yachts. I believe Alex must have been as amused as I was, encountering this 29 year old black guy from Johannesburg who wanted to sail. I had enrolled on an RYA competent crew course with Alex’s school, the link to the school having been forwarded to me by the stranger on the train.

Little did I know that encounter would lead me to a Towering Redwood that would change my life forever. What most people don’t know is that I struggled quite a lot with my sailing courses.  To the extent that I had to pass two practical exams by, at the insistence of Alex, who felt I was not ready.  Alex kept saying “I want you to know that you know it Lindani. I want you to be right and know that you are right”.

My training took place during summer in Cape Town. Nothing could have prepared me for the ferocity of the wind. Looking back I am glad I was ignorant, 40kts and doing man over boards seemed normal at the time. Docking in the same weather conditions also seemed just as normal. Everything pretty much went over my head, because I was just mesmerized half the time.

Alex and I would take drives together every Friday, coming back from Langebaan to Cape Town. On those drives he would say to me “Lindani, I don’t really think you’re going to be a great sailor, you came into the game too late and your mind wanders a lot while you’re on the boat.” Upon seeing my sad face he would then say “yet I am going to help you get your Yacht masters ticket, because I think that is what I have to do for you, I believe I have to play this part along your journey, but believe me when I tell you, this is just a part of your journey, more is coming.”

I never understood what he meant by that. But now I do. Alex taught me many things. Our conversations spanned the length and breadth of life.  He would tell me about his past and the foolishness of Apartheid. We connected and as we were both former pilots, he would explain how similar a sail is to a wing. He would always say to me “competence and confidence Lindani, those two things feed off each other” and “always do the task that nobody else wants to do”.

Over those couple of months Alex became almost a father to me. During my training I happened to be the only black person on the boat. From time to time I would get remarks from the other students, where they would make comments about black people and water.  Why was I even bothering with sailing, the yachting industry in Europe would never hire a black person?  Could I even swim? On one occasion I got fed up and told the guys where to get off, Alex heard the commotion and called all three of us below deck to the galley. He sat all three of us down and said the following, “all three of you may not be aware of this, but the world has changed.  Gone are the days where life and the pursuit of success is for the preserve of white people.  Lindani belongs here as much as we do.  If anyone on this boat, does not believe in that, then I will refund you your money and you can be on your way”.

No white man had stood up like that for me before, when it came to racism. Another thing that Alex did for me was to pay for part of my courses.  Towards the end of my training, when I missed my second practical exam, he said to me and my father, “Lindani is not ready to do his exam.  I know this will mean more costs for you guys, so I am willing to pay the remainder of his course.  I am doing this because I want Lindani to get on a boat and be absolutely confident of his abilities”.  When I heard that Alex passed away, I cried like a baby, my Redwood was gone. The man who convinced me to persevere no matter what.

After 2013 when I eventually qualified, life would send me around the world and Alex and I would lose contact. Then 4 years later, I returned to the very same yacht club where I met Alex for the first time. Only this time, I was going to open the door for many other black youth. He was happy to see me and even happier to see that I was still involved in sailing. If you go to Alex’s school, in the classroom by the parking area, you will see pictures of me on his wall, whilst I was doing my courses with him.

Alex used to have this thing of laughing a lot when he was a bit tipsy from wine, he would laugh out loud and say, “I feel sorry for you Lindani”, I would amusingly ask him why? And he would say “well I am 72 years old Lindani, this life thing is really hard and I am just happy that I have served my term and I believe I had a great innings.  You still have to bat Lindani, and you still have to run your race.”  You were right old man, this life thing is hard indeed and sure enough I still have a lot of innings to go, yet I have an advantage Alex. I got to meet you and man did you prepare me well….

“The story goes that once upon a time, all plants and animals were people. One of them was Coyote, who created the world from the top of Sonoma Mountain. His village elders became the redwoods – crimson colored to remind everyone that we are all of the same blood. One only had to look west to the coast redwoods to remember.” –   Dana Poblete November 15, 2018


R.I. P. Alex Cousins

24/7/1941 – 5/12/3030



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