An Interview with Neal Petersen, author of JOURNEY OF A HOPE MERCHANT:

What kind of upbringing did you have?
I grew up in what seemed to me to be a very traditional family, living with both of my parent and my older sister. Dad an alcoholic who was always broke, a diver who later became a factory security guard. Mom was a schoolteacher.

Was apartheid talked about among family and friends, or was it accepted as the norm?
Because my mom was educated in Syracuse, New York, and because she believed in the right to education, knowledge and free speech, she was classified as a terrorist, an enemy of the state. We lived in constant fear of the police showing up and hauling her away. The threat was always there. Most of our friends who were fighting apartheid were either in prison already or living in fear of arrest.

Where and how did you learn to sail?
Most of what I learned came from books initially. I would spend hours in my treehouse reading about the craft. Then, on the shores of Cape Town, I began asking folks to take me sailing so I could actually experience some of what I had read. I got a lot of rejections and someone joked they’d take me out, get me seasick, and I would never come back. But eventually, I began to find more willing instructors.

What gave you the idea that you could sail? Not only were you disabled, but you were poor and black. Sailing is generally thought of as an activity for wealthy white people. How did you break into that world?
I read Slocum’s book, Sailing the World Alone, and had heard Dad’s diving tales. I was boat mad! Once I heard someone was selling a stranded boat and I went rummaging through the glove box trying to see if I could find enough change to make an offer. I had such a burning desire to be out on the water that I never noticed the critics. My dream was all-consuming and it inspired me then, as it does now, to strive to overcome any obstacle.

What other activities did you do as a kid? Was your disability treated as a limiting handicap or were you taught that you could do anything?
I always wanted to play with the other boys, to run, kick a ball, and score a goal, but it’s hard to do all of that with a walking stick, unless you are trying to trip someone. Instead, I was told to play with the girls … so I did. I perfected playing with girls to the point that some (in Ireland) called me a “playboy.” I was never raised disabled, but I definitely knew I was different.

What is your race? How did your race affect your self-esteem?
I’m a mutt! I was classified as ‘colored,’ but under Apartheid we believed that if you did not have the vote, you were a black South African. I was raised to pity racists, to feel sorry for their blindness, and not to let their anger affect me. Still, it hurt getting thrown out of restaurants or off a beach, but Mom taught us never to lose our dignity. I learned to hold my head high, gain knowledge through opportunity, and to keep working to influence my own destiny.

What was it like for you to become a part of the yachting world as a disabled, black South African from a poor family? Were you welcomed or shunned?
I learned from those who gave me opportunities to sail that the sea did not distinguish between rich and poor or black and white. It made us equally as wet and would take any life just as quickly. On a boat in times of trouble, shipmates needed each other to survive, to finish races, and get to port. I’ve never experienced prejudice on the high seas. Under those conditions, a person is defined by ability, knowledge, courage, grace, and the traits that lead to survival and success. Color and status are far less important. Hardship makes us all one.

What other black sailors made inroads before you?
There are very few black sailors. Marion Cole in Cape Town and Bill Pinckney out of Chicago both made names for themselves, but not many others have yet.

What are the boundaries for race within the world of yacht racing in South Africa, in Ireland, in South Carolina, in the United States?
Unfortunately, all over the world there is prejudice. I have felt it in Ireland and in the States, but not like when growing up in Cape Town. There will always be those who will judge, but it’s all about how we react to those judgments and how we let them affect our core. In the yachting world, it’s not as much about race, but economic snobbishness and jealousy. One cannot let it be personal. I just feel sorry for such people.

You completed your trip in a homemade yacht. How did you learn to build your own yacht?
From books. I got them from the library since I couldn¹t afford to buy my own. I made mistakes at first and fixed those that I could. I never quite finished building; I just kept running out of money and time. But there comes a time one has to say, “Enough, let’s go!”.

A solo yacht race around the world must be a very solitary experience. Were you accustomed to such solitude?
It beat having a real job! The best adventures are often faced alone. And someone at the finish line always had ice cream waiting for me. Being alone was a small price to pay.

How did you end up in the American South, specifically South Carolina?
Ice tea, fried okra, and mosquitoes! I don’t like any of that. Yet in spite of this, Charleston grew on me from the very start and I have some great friends here who have tried to southernize me. They keep trying, so I stay.

Have you been back to South Africa?
My wife, Darlene, and I go back every now and again. We have a vacation home there, and family as well.

Do you still sail? What is your next voyage?
Sailing is in my blood too thick to stop. Soon, I hope to build a sixty-footer for the Vendee Globe and race non-stop solo around the world. Darlene and I are also planning to do some cruising in South America, Italy, and Portugal.

Your life serves as an inspiration. Who inspires you? Where do you get your strength?
I believe in a Higher Being, in the goodness of people, and the power of my own will and determination. My mother has always been my greatest inspiration and teacher, and the source of my confidence and faith.

You’re an example of someone who’s overcome much hardship. Do you now feel like you’re a role model for other black South Africans?
No, not just for black children. For all children! I have not been embraced by South Africa. It’s a sad loss. America is now my home and this is where I do most of my work.

What lessons learned at sea do you take with you now and teach to others?
The greatest lesson sailing has taught me is to appreciate opportunity to just live in the moment and take the risks that lead toward happiness. You just don’t know if a dream can be realized until you try.