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Cape Town daredevil seeks to become first person of colour in Africa to row the Atlantic Ocean alone

Cape Town-born adventure seeker Ryan Jacobs will make this boat his home for more than 100 days at sea. Supplied image.

Cape Town-born adventure seeker Ryan Jacobs will make this boat his home for more than 100 days at sea. Supplied image.

Published Dec 11, 2021


Johannesburg - Ryan Jacobs isn’t your average guy.

Over the span of his 35 years, Jacobs has built a reputation for being a risk-taker.

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He’s spent years working as a photographer in war-torn countries such as Syria and Libya and even climbed the famous El Capitan mountain in California in the US, a mountain regarded as the most difficult and dangerous climb.

But even for an adventurer like Jacobs, the prospect of his next challenge admittedly terrifies him.

“I'm terrified, but that's why I chose it, this life. If it doesn't scare you, what's the point in even doing it?” says Jacobs.

In a year's time, the Cape Town-born adventure seeker will head out on a daunting adventure that will see him spending more than 100 days at sea in a bid to become the first African person of colour to row the Atlantic Ocean, solo.

Jacobs intends to row from Cape Town to the Caribbean for over 5 000 nautical miles in a custom locally made ocean rowing boat named “Dala”.

For more than 100 days at sea, this will be his home.

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During his journey in December 2022, Jacobs will face numerous risks, such as sleep deprivation, 30-foot waves, salt sores, solitude for months on end, mental and physical fatigue and burn-out, and even the prospect of ships or whales crushing his boat.

So it’s understandable that Jacobs has some fear.

“I choose it because it's hard. Making history is difficult, becoming the man I want to be is difficult. I accept it. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. And, my experiences have shown me that I have what it takes to operate on the edge. Even thrive. Again, there’s only one way to find out.”

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His expedition, he says, has two aims: one is for pure adventure, and the other is to address the huge lack of representation and diversity in the outdoor space.

Cape Town-born adventure seeker Ryan Jacobs will head out on a daunting adventure that will see him spending more than 100 days at sea in a bid to become the first African person of colour to row the Atlantic Ocean, solo. Supplied image.

In order to get there, Jacobs plans to raise R500 000 through crowdfunding to have his epoxy ocean-rowing boat built by ocean rower and master yacht builder Wayne Robertson.

Jacobs, who grew up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town in Punts Estate, said he was excited about his upcoming adventure.

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“First, the power of representation is all around us and the continued need for it in South Africa and abroad is evident. I am incredibly excited, I don't really know what I'm doing. I've never tried to have a boat built or had an expedition of such magnitude, but I'm ready for it. I was born for this.

“More than anything, I want to make history. I want to be first, and by doing so I know I will be able to inspire and make at least one more adventurer, maybe 10, who knows. I'll be the first, but I will ensure that I won't be the last.”

Jacobs says as a person of colour, it was incredibly important that he took on such a challenge, and is determined to change the narrative.

“The power of possibility is only increased when we see people like us doing extraordinary things. Look at the four-minute mile. Before that barrier was overcome, it was seen as impossible. After, it became the norm.

“In South Africa, in adventure sports to name just one sphere, I don't see myself represented. Not in bookstores, barely on social media feeds of outdoor brands (and not token or model representation). Why are multibillion-rand industries only advertising to a small percentage of the population? That's 'weird'.

“Fair and equitable representation is not only important for young people of colour and black people to see what they can do, but it is also important for other different people to see what we can do. The narrative is one-sided, and I'm not okay with that. The outdoors is used by and benefits everyone. For too long people of colour have been excluded or ignored.

“You can't ignore me, that's why I'm choosing adventures of great enough magnitude to call it out. I don't like the narrative of outdoor activities, adventure sports and exploration, so I'm going to change it.”

He says he hopes his adventure will help to inspire people of colour to chase their dreams.

“Nothing is impossible, and when one sees it, they can do it. Even better. That's why I want to go further and longer than any South African before me.”

Cape Town-born adventure seeker Ryan Jacobs will head out on a daunting adventure that will see him spending more than 100 days at sea in a bid to become the first African person of colour to row the Atlantic Ocean, solo. Supplied image.

“It's why I'm also officially going after the Guinness World Record. I don't only want to beat the SA record, I want the world record. There is a massive gap in this country and this particular industry. I think it will be powerful to have a short brown dude with a boat named ’Dala’ at the top.”

He says aside from inspiring people of colour and changing the narrative, as an adventurer, rowing the Atlantic solo was something he felt like he really needed to do.

“Adventure is something I do. However, in the past, they were always brief and at times, mistaken. Rowing the Atlantic isn't the grand sum of my ambitions, but it is how I get there. I've come to realise based on my experiences in combat, climbing, and lately with this pandemic, that I only have one life to live.

“I definitely am going to die one day, so I need to make the most of it. I need to live my best life, even if it kills me. I need to push. I know I was born for this. Why wait? There's only one way to find out.”

An image taken by Ryan Jacobs during his time as a photographer in a war-torn country. Supplied image.

While the challenge is certainly a huge one, Jacobs is confident he can achieve his goal of rowing across the Atlantic.

“It's a big challenge, but I wouldn't say daunting. I've seen the world, travelled to 50 countries, war, mountains, sailing. I know what I'm capable of, and I know I can go even further than I think I can.

“So, again, there's this challenge… now I need to see how far I can go. And hopefully, that happens to be further than anyone has ever been on the Atlantic in a rowboat.”

But Jacobs isn’t oblivious to the harsh challenges he will face at sea.

“There are all kinds of risks. However, the biggest will be my mind, that's why mental health is so important to me. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD will all be challenging. But with that risk, danger and adversity, I think I will find the person I am supposed to be.

“At some point in those thousands and thousands of miles, I will want to give up. And if the weakness triumphs, I will maybe even die. But, at that same point, the other guy could take over. I'm dying to meet that man. I will rise to the challenge, or I won't.

“I've done it before on El Capitan and under fire, now it's just bigger. The next level.”

He says he also isn’t too worried about what lurks under the deep blue seas, such as sharks and whales.

“I don't have any concerns about sharks or anything like that. If anything, what an amazing story it will make.Telling my grandkids how that one time Pa fought a killer whale. I want history and a great story, those concerns I think will be worth it.”

Jacobs says he will be undergoing intensive training to prepare for his upcoming adventure.

“I don't take training lightly at all. I train as though my life depends on it, and it does. I need to be as strong as possible. For this, I go to the gym six days a week with my long-time friend, trainer and first supporter Grant Hartzenberg at Atlantic Fitness in Bo-Kaap. I run about 10km every day and I generally seek discomfort. I love physically suffering.

“I'll probably need to gain 8–10kg over the next year to counter wasting away behind the oars. I weigh 60kg, I can't afford to lose the 12kg ocean rowers lose on average when crossing the Atlantic.

“My mental health is as important as my physical strength, and I've had to seek therapy to deal with things from my past and present but also to seek alternatives in problem-solving.

“This is also why my fund-raiser for my boat is important. The sooner I get the funds, the sooner I have my boat and the sooner I can get to training on it. I need to know that boat inside and out and learn to master it and my abilities. I want to make history, I can’t f**k around.”

Asked how his family felt about his latest upcoming adventure, Jacobs says: “I'm sure my family are nervous, but that's honestly not my problem. I love them tremendously, but this is my life and I will live it however I see fit. If they have a problem with it, they shouldn't have filled my head with these dreams as a child and taught me to believe I can achieve anything.”

He says it will take a tremendous effort to survive for more than 100 days at sea.

“First off, the water maker is the most vital piece of equipment. If it fails, I fail. It is also the most expensive piece of gear after the boat itself. Honestly though, I need to make sure my mental game is on fire. I have no doubt I will have low points, but I'm trying really hard to build the ability to climb out of those holes, no matter how big.”

In terms of food, Jacobs will survive on freeze-dried foods and supplements.

“Even the water, after filtration, will be dead. I’ll probably have to consume around 6 000 calories a day. The food will have to be nutritious, tasty and practical.”

He will also have to deal with unpredictable weather conditions.

“The South Atlantic can be nasty. I could have 40-foot waves, howling wind where it's impossible to row, or becalmed and have to row even more. I find the most challenging thing when sailing the Atlantic before was how I responded mentally and emotionally to not seeing the sun for days or weeks on end.

“But yes, I'm sure those storms will be terrible. That's why, again, I need ’Dala’ (my boat) to train off the Cape of Storms and be as prepared as possible.”

He says he hopes his previous adventures will help him navigate through the risk during his row.

“I do think that climbing and working in conflict zones has given me an ability to understand risk and manage myself accordingly. I know the difference between what is stupid and what is possible for me. But also, out on the edge where that danger exists, there's also an ability to thrive. To be more present than ever.”

Jacobs says he hopes that his upcoming row will be the start of bigger and better adventures for him.

“For me, it is important because it’s the start of me realising my ambition and absolutely going after my best life. If I can do this, and when I do it I feel it will open doors to the other things I want to do. I first need to get on the playing field. It's the start of the big leagues.”

To help Jacobs reach his dream, visit his website.

The Saturday Star

Related Topics:

Cape TownRowing