Brave Durban woman makes around-the-world sailing history

Crew member Vuyisile Jaca has sailed around the world on board the Maiden, the all-women crewed yacht that won the Ocean Globe Race. | KAIA BINT

Crew member Vuyisile Jaca has sailed around the world on board the Maiden, the all-women crewed yacht that won the Ocean Globe Race. | KAIA BINT

Published Apr 28, 2024


Durban — A KwaMashu woman has made sailing history as part of a women’s-only crew who won the famous around-the-world Ocean Globe Race in an equally iconic vessel.

Vuyisile (Hlongwa) Jaca, 25, was among the all-women crew on Maiden, the 20m yacht that took overall honours in the Ocean Globe Race (OGR) last week.

It was the first time in the race’s 50-year history that a women’s-only team won the event, which started in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race. The OGR began on September 10 in Southampton which also provided the race’s finish line.

Jaca also became the first black African woman to sail around the Cape Horn headland (Chile) and circumnavigate the world.

Antigua’s Junella King, 23, and Maryama Seck, 33, of France, also part of Maiden’s crew, achieved the same historical honours for their homelands.

For Jaca, the win and the outpouring of congratulations, especially on social media, from fans, family and friends in South Africa, has been an exciting experience.

“It is unbelievable that I’ve sailed around the world. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so excited about our huge achievement as an all-female crew.”

Jaca said she was honoured to be representing KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa. She looks forward to returning home this week, after being away for more than a year.

Best of all was the inspiration and encouragement the win had already instilled in women facing daunting tasks, stereotypes and male dominance.

“I’ve seen social media comments. So many positive things are being said. People are fired up by our achievement.”

She said they sailed the traditional way in the “flyer class”, just as they did in Whitbread races, with no electronic devices like phones, GPS gadgets and weather routing.

“We were allowed compasses, sextants and other traditional instruments for navigation.”

Jaca said crews usually comprised men with at least one woman.

“Maiden was the exception of being all girls. That’s because when Maiden did the initial race, it was with an all-female crew.”

Seafarers Jackie de Fin, left, Amanda Gasa, Vuyisile Jaca, Nicolene Henkeman celebrate Maiden’s win. Picture: Supplied

She said Tracey Edwards MBE was the first female skipper of Maiden in the 1988/89 race and had the first all-female crew in the race.

“Tracy made history. They didn’t win overall, but won a few stages and she was named ‘yachtsman of the year’.”

Jaca said they didn’t want to disappoint Edwards and aimed to win some legs to emulate her, but secured overall honours instead.

Jaca was born in Umzinto on KZN’s South Coast, but she and her brother were still in school when they moved to KwaMashu to live with relatives after the death of their parents.

One of the subjects she did at the JG Zuma High School was nautical science, but after matric she didn’t have money to study further.

“I had nothing to do, I tried finding a job, Most of my friends went to varsity and I was stressed being at home.”

Having had interactions with Sail Africa, an NPO committed to the development of the sport, during her school days, she visited them with the hopes of sailing.

Vuyisile Jaca skippering a Sail Africa vessel. Picture: Supplied

Sail Africa’s operation’s director Jackie de Fin agreed and Jaca learnt to swim, handle a dinghy and took any other opportunities to sail.

“I kept upgrading myself.”

She joined their all-girl team and continued to excel, getting the chance to sail in the Vasco Da Gama race between Durban and East London in 2021.

“We were the first all-black team to do the Vasco in its 50-year history and we won.”

Based on her efforts in the Vasco, in 2022 De Fin suggested she should apply for an open crewing position on Maiden for the OGR.

“I said to myself, as a KZN girl, I didn’t stand a chance to join a team from England where there would be people with a long list of achievements.”

All Jaca had was “heart” and a day skipper’s licence.

She landed a virtual interview with Maiden’s handlers and accepted an invitation to sail as an intern with the yacht’s crew from Senegal to Cape Town in December 2022.

Edwards invited her to do more sailing on Maiden and last year they sailed from Cape Town to Santos, Brazil, and then to the UK where Edwards told her she had made the final OGR team.

She remained in the UK to prepare for the big one.

On deck, Jaca said, “everyone does everything”. Below deck, she worked as the second engineer, checking the engines, water converting machine and other equipment. She also spent some time as first engineer.

Jaca said it was a bit harrowing in the latter stages of the race because their inverter stopped working and they were short of water and still a fair distance from the UK.

“We remained positive and encouraged each other. This win was all about teamwork.

“As much as I don’t have a varsity qualification, to sail around the world is not something you wake up one morning and do. It will remain my lifelong memory, it’s like I’ve achieved a degree and nobody can take that from me,” she said.

De Fin said: “We are so proud of her. She overcame her own cultural barriers associated with water. In the words of Tracy Edwards MBE, she is the perfect crew,” said De Fin.

Nikki Henkeman, who also came through Sail Africa’s ranks and had previously sailed with Jaca, said she was “one of the best crew members I ever had”.

Maiden’s winning team in the Ocean Globe Race. Picture: Kaia Bint

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