“I left a banking job in South Africa to start a career in sailing before becoming the first African woman to sail the Arctic.”
Lungi Mchunu, who despite previously being afraid of the ocean, became the first African woman to sail the Arctic, talks to us about breaking down barriers to chase your dreams.
“Growing up, I had only experienced the ocean through school trips on little tow boats, societal conditioning had enforced a belief that the ocean is dangerous, that black people shouldn’t be on the water. As a youngster, I was told story after story about why I shouldn’t be in the sea, and what might be in there. I grew up with fears that were not actual fears, just imposed by others. It was on me to break out of the cycle and get to know myself.
“The ocean was seen as ‘white space’ by fellow black Africans and something only white people would enjoy.” It stems from a legacy of apartheid when black South Africans were ‘forcibly removed from their ocean-facing homes’ and only given access to dangerous beaches with treacherous rip tides, this teamed with finances restricting many Africans from accessing the water made it harder for Lungi to go against the grain and follow her love of the ocean.
Lungi fell in love with sailing in 2017 after deciding to try something new and feeling inspired by round the world yachtswoman and UKSA Youth and Mental Health Ambassador, Dee Caffari MBE’s biography. With no sailing experience, Lungi booked a five-day competent crew sailing course in Bretagne, France. Following this trip, she went to France every three months from South Africa to gain her status as a day skipper.
“Since I was a teenager, I’ve always served my community and once I’d found my passion in sailing, I wanted to find a way to marry them up. I came across a social media post which was looking for a member of crew to sail to the Arctic on a research expedition and despite not knowing the importance of polar regions at this point, it was the perfect way for me to learn and impart the knowledge during preparation and the expedition itself.” It was on this trip, Lungi became the first African woman to sail the Arctic.
Lungi returned to her banking job in September 2018 and started to implement her learnings from the expedition into finance. This included championing sustainability finance which was still in its infancy, partnering with a local NGO Atlegangbana Foundation to tutor and share localised educational content and being invited to the UN SDG Global Festival in May 2019 to share lessons and network with changemakers.
That summer, Lungi was made redundant from her banking role and grabbed the opportunity with both hands to finish her sail training and moved to the UK to enrol with maritime youth charity, UKSA on its Professional Yachtmaster Offshore course.
“Joining the UKSA family was incredible for me, my mother had a stroke in South Africa while I was in the UK and the support shown to me at such a difficult time was amazing. The team helped me book flights to spend just four hours with my mother in Johannesburg before flying back with the team having arranged for the boat to meet me immediately. When you’re a sailor there will always be times when you’ll be offshore and emergencies happen and you can’t get to your family, so although I did manage to visit my mother, it was a lesson to mentally prepare for situations like this and learn how to manage them.”
UKSA’s Professional Yachtmaster Offshore course is an all-inclusive training package providing students with the skills needed to start a career in the maritime industry. It includes 16 weeks training, 70 days afloat, 2,500 tidal miles covered as well as training in navigation, radar, engineering and safety. Students stay at UKSA’s Cowes headquarters with all their meals included as well as dedicated support and use of the charity’s swimming pool and gym.
As Lungi did not know anyone in sailing, she approached Tracy Edwards MBE who led the famous all-female crewed Maiden yacht, to gain support and guidance as a woman in sailing. She built up a relationship during her time at UKSA and was subsequently offered a place on Maiden’s next world tour, which continues to represent the empowerment of women, the strength of women, and what women are capable of.
The tour was postponed due to the pandemic but Lungi used the time to reflect. “The pandemic allowed me some time out from sailing, I contracted for another bank to provide income but during this time also embarked on a leadership programme by Homeward Bound with a cohort of women in STEMM leading to me becoming a Citizen Scientist.” Then it was Lungi’s time to join the crew onboard the historic Maiden.
In 2022, the 58ft Maiden which began life in 1979, was embarking on its next world tour and Lungi’s spot was secured, flying to Newport, USA and joining as an apprentice on board last September.
“I spent four months at sea with Maiden which included sailing into Africa for the first time and the added emotion of my mother seeing me sailing for the first time when we came into Cape Town which was pretty special. It was here that it really hit me how far I’ve come on the sailing journey, when I’m out there on the ocean, I’m home.”
During Lungi’s time with UKSA, she was able to take advantage of Dee’s role at the charity and talk to her about overcoming the challenges faced at sea, particularly when solo sailing. The charity, which has dedicated welfare officers and provides mental health first aid training to other organisations positions its students’ wellbeing on a par with achieving their qualifications.
Maiden is currently undergoing some maintenance before its world tour will resume in April with Lungi onboard. Alongside being part of the Maiden crew, Lungi was selected to join the judging panel for the World Sailing Sustainability Award. She is also working on completing Pole to Pole (sailing from the North to the South Pole) and hopes to compete in the toughest solo sailing race, the Vendée Globe.
Lungi Mchunu is a Sailor, Polar Explorer and Citizen Scientist. After a year of facing her childhood fear of open seas, she wrote her name in history by being the first African woman to sail to the Arctic in 2018 on a voluntary climate change and plastic pollution expedition to the North Pole, all whilst working a 9 to 5 corporate job.