Neal Petersen: Against All Odds
He’s a solo racing yachtsman who sailed into the history books and navigated through life’s adversity achieving the impossible.
His boat slammed into the roaring sea as waves crashed over him. Neal Petersen held fast the ropes and lowered the sails as best he could as the ocean recoiled and unleashed another round of fury. Sheer determination drowned any fear he must have had. Like the sirens call, every wave beckoned him to quit, but he refused to succumb. His red jacket flapping wildly in the wind, he was soaked and freezing. Hurricane force wind gusts measured 55 knots.The 38-foot sailboat was 300 miles from Cape Horn, the most southern tip of the Americas, and 200 miles from the coast of Chile.
“I was using such force that my fingers began to bleed, and the sail began to rip. I had a torn mainsail. My headsail was already shredding. Big challenges were coming up,” says Petersen in his autobiography, Journey of a Hope Merchant. He couldn’t leave the tiller, the wind vane needed help. By holding the rope and using all the strength he could muster, he would complete his journey against all odds and become the first black person of African heritage to sail around the world alone. As one of fewer than 300 in history to survive and complete that challenge, it was a real personal achievement for him, but it was not the only battle he won. Since the time of his birth, he has been battling a tide that raged against him.
Beating the Odds
The first storm he weathered was a social one. Born in 1967, Cape Town, South Africa, apartheid was in full force and threatened to discriminate and oppress the young Petersen. His skin color would not hold him back, however. The classification system in the country was designed to impoverish and hinder him. Born in a segregated area, he was raised in a working-class family — his father, a black security guard, and mother, a mixed-race schoolteacher. Despite his circumstances, he saw the world not as it was, but how it could be. This optimism motivated him to create a better future for himself. Another driving force was the courage instilled upon him by his mother.
A source of inspiration, his mother, at age 87, was awarded an honorary doctorate for her advances in education. She won scholarships and studied in universities both in Cape Town and the United States. This was a time when women, especially women of color, rarely graduated high school, much less a university. She was even offered a position in America but returned to South Africa. She wanted to work for the advancement of her own people. That powerful bravery and persistence are still present in her son.
“I disagree totally with the classification system. We’re all people. I’m an oppressed South African,” says Petersen in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
The second storm came in the form of a physical disability. Petersen was born without a left hip socket and spent much of his boyhood in recovery, having undergone three major surgeries. Perhaps his love of sailing was born out of his daunting physical therapy in a pool, or the days of boredom, living propped up in a box while reading sailing magazines. Today, he walks tall and proud.
“I grew up not having very much. And I couldn’t run and play like the other children. I was born without a hip socket and had to endure many operations. But still I could read and dream,” he says in an interview with Outside magazine.
Later, as an adult, Petersen worked on North Sea oil rigs for a time, where he gained experience roughing it on the high seas. Conditions on the offshore rigs proved to him how truly weak humans are compared to the unrelenting power of the sea. He also studied commercial diving and worked in underwater diamond mines. He worked to save money for a sailing vessel.
Sail Away, Sail Away
No one in his community had been a sailor. With a courageous heart, he went from yacht club to yacht club, asking to be taken sailing. He was showered with rejection, but all he needed was one yes. With that single boat ride, his education began and his dreams evolved into goals.
He could not afford a boat.
So, he built one!
Countless hours of research, study, and a steadfast persistence became the frame on which his vessel would be built. Critics blasted his 38-foot creation, calling it “a floating coffin.” But he signed up for the OSTAR race and completed the journey from England to Newport, Rhode Island where his inspiring finish earned him the key to the city.
In 1994, Petersen entered the BOC challenge, a 27,000-mile solo sailboat race around the world, in the smallest and least funded yacht. However, after being dismasted in the Southern Ocean by a fierce storm, he returned to Cape Town under jury-rig and, after installing a new mast, continued unofficially back to Charleston, South Carolina, where he currently lives. There, he began sharing his tale and lecturing to thousands of school children.
Once wasn’t enough. He circled the world yet again in 1999 in the Around Alone Race.
Telling the Sailor’s Tale
Beating the odds and becoming an inspirational force is not enough for Petersen. The key is to pass down knowledge and give those who follow the words they need to stand up and fight for what they believe in. For a time, Petersen lived in Ireland, where children inspired him to create the Pennies for Petersen fund. In his speeches to thousands of schoolchildren, he encourages them to follow their dreams.
Petersen has become an electrifying and powerful motivational speaker. Taking audiences all over the world on an adventure of hope, dreams, and overcoming prejudice. For a decade, he has been teaching audiences how to turn adversity on its head and make dreams a reality. Be it for children or multi-national corporations, he demonstrates what it takes to be successful. Using innovation, weighing the risk, and adapting to change, his talks create a guide to overcome any barrier that life puts before you.
Heartbreaking anecdotes of his life as well as inspirational stories of success can be found in his autobiography Journey of a Hope Merchant. Learn more about this inspiring man and his adventures by visiting no-barriers.com and nealpetersen.com or click here for our interview with him.