TEDx speaker shares story of triumph
January 31, 2014
Neal Petersen grew up with a love of the sea and a desire to sail. But he had problem — he was poor and black living in the racially divided Cape Town, South Africa.
Despite that, he said, "I never gave up on the dream."
The renown speaker, adventurer and author shared his story with students at Carson Montessori School on Thursday. Petersen was in Reno for the TEDx Talks, a local version of the TED Talks designed to spark new ideas and stimulate discussion, at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There, he met Carson Montessori teacher Racquel Abowd, who spoke about why she chose to become a teacher. The two organized a last-minute trip to the school before Petersen had to catch his flight out of town.
"He shares my philosophy of teaching," Abowd said. "Setting goals and not being told no. You will and you can and it's a choice."
Petersen told students how he became inspired by reading "Sailing Alone Around the World" when he was 11.
"I would sit in my tree house and read," he said. "This box became my imaginary ship, and I knew I needed to become a sailor."
He talked his father into taking him down to the yacht club, where he petitioned yacht owners to take him out. Over and over, the answer was no.
"The yachting community was white, and prejudice was a part of it," Petersen said. "The other part of it was I was a kid. And they were adults. Not all adults want to hang out with kids."
Although discouraged, he was not deterred.
"I kept knocking on hulls," he said. "Eventually somebody said yes."
He started earning money by retrieving items dropped off the dock by tourists. With his savings, he bought a wet suit so he could swim deeper into the Arctic waters and clean ships, earning a higher wage.
"I had a choice," he said. "I could buy sweets or I could buy toys, but I had a bigger vision. I wanted to buy a yacht."
When he'd saved enough, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles to attend school to become a commercial diver. After nine months of schooling, he got a job and then traveled the world on dive ships, even mining diamonds from the ocean floor.
All the while, he carried a red sailing jacket as a reminder of his goal to one day own his own boat.
He was making good money, he said, but he saw that buying a yacht still was beyond his means. So he enlisted the help of some friends to build one.
"Little by little, as I earned the money, I built the hull," he said. "Then I'd keep working and built the deck. We built it piece by piece. It took me two years."
He was 21 when he achieved his dream.
"I was one of the youngest people to own a yacht," he said.
Although he had to skimp on the luxuries, he didn't mind. With no bunk, he slept on his folded up sails.
"Sometimes my sails were wet, and that meant I got wet," he said. "Oh well, no big deal, I was living my dream."
And he made sure of one thing.
"When I climbed on board, I wore my red sailing jacket," he said.
He went on to complete a single-handed yacht race 27,000 miles around the world and fulfill his dream of living on the sea.
"Success doesn't happen because you want something," he said. "Success happens because of a process and you work really hard to get there."
As he and his wife homeschool their granddaughter while traveling on their yacht this year, he plans to keep in touch with Carson Montessori School via Skype.