In November 2008, Zac Sunderland visited Mauritius half way through his successful bid to be the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the world single-handed. As reported in the Weekend newspaper he told children at the Grand Baie Youth Sailing Club: “I wish to see a Mauritian do better than me”. However, this seems an impossible dream since only a very few lucky Mauritians are taught how to sail dinghies and there is no formal training at all for offshore yachting.
But are there good reasons to try to make Zac's wish a reality? We believe there are, so how can we achieve it?
Our politicians often inspire us to follow the example of Singapore. So what is sailing like there? Singapore first sent sailors to compete in the Olympic Games in 1956. In 1987 they set up a national sailing scheme to enable primary school students access to the sport and to identify talent for more intensive training. Such was the success of this and subsequent programmes that the nation is now ranked number one in the whole of Asia, ahead of Korea, Japan and even China. Sailing has become a source of national pride for this island state.
While the Mauritian population enjoy days out at the beach, the number of leisure pursuits available to them are severely limited. For the few that can afford them, motorised activities are available, however they are not sustainable in that they consume resources and degrade and pollute the environment. Examples of these are big game fishing, water skiing, parasailing and scuba diving. Each of these requires significant quantities of fossil fuels, the exhaust of which pollutes the waters not to mention the impacts of noise, wake erosion and damage to corals due to physical contact.
Yachts and dinghies use the power of the wind and Mauritius is blessed with reliable trade winds for most of the year. Not only is this a valuable source of renewable energy for electricity generation, it can power a new leisure industry and add a valuable segment to the tourist sector. As people become more conscious of their impact on the environment, sports that do not consume fossil fuels will become more and more popular.
At various locations, most notably Grand Port, the lagoon is wide and deep enough for larger yachts to navigate. The proposed marina based IRS in Black River reveals that there is a Mauritius is an attractive destination for yachtsmen. Mauritius lacks facilities. Until now it is only the privileged few with beach front property or members of the exclusive Grand Baie Yacht Club who appreciate the exhilaration of off-shore sailing. A day trip by catamaran to the northern islands does not compare.
It is not just around the coast that Mauritius offers superb sailing conditions. Some of the island's inland waterways are just as attractive. With a small investment in infrastructure, Midlands dam could become a haven for sailing enthusiasts and has the benefit of being readily accessible from the main population areas. Indeed it could easily be developed to provide an alternative destination for Mauritian leisure-time to take pressure off our stressed beaches and lagoon.
We often hear complaints that Mauritius has no extractable resources. But the truth is our most valuable assets are renewable and sustainable: our beautiful waters, sun and wind. Sailing is a sport and leisure activity that utilises all three without polluting or degrading them. How soon before we have world-class sailors like Zac Sunderland?
When Hervé Laurent, world renowned French yachtsman, visited Mauritius at the end of 2009, he said much the same thing. He felt Mauritius had turned its back on the sea and that little had been realised of Mauritius' enormous potential in the realm of off-shore-sailing.