…How Lagos Yatch Club Has Survived For 90 Years

Infinity Tyres

…Why Many Nigerians Shy Away from Sailing

This year, the legendary Lagos Yatch Club, will be 90 years old. In an exclusive interview with Transport Day, the Commodore of the club, John Shidiak, spoke on its activities over the years and projections for the year amongst other issues. By Frank Kintum

Position As Commodore

Previously I was the Rear Commodore for five years. You know we have annual elections, members elect other members to represent them, so the term for Commodore is one year, but you can stand for re-election.

There is no term limit, as long as you are willing to. You know, it’s a non paid position; it is like a second job in many ways. How much time you can dedicate, if you are willing and if the membership keeps voting for you.

I see you have a membership strength of 300?

Yeah, more or less 300 families of various nationalities. These days, the single largest nationality is Nigeria. It is not always the case, but more and more Nigerians are interested in the water and are willing to do the minimum requirement that it takes to be a member of the Yacht Club. We are a sailing organisation; it’s all about sailing yachts. So, racing and sailing of Yachts which are non-motorised boats. We only use wind power to move our boats. To be a member of the club, you have to sail. We don’t have any social membership; you have to be a sailor if you want to be a member. There are minimum sailing requirements, i.e. you have to do a certain number of sails within some months of joining and then continuously over a certain period of time to show your commitment to sailing.

Because obviously, we have a very nice environment as well, which a lot of people like to enjoy, but the key purpose of the club is the sailing aspect.

Next year, your club turns 90. What are the plans, in terms?

90 is a big milestone, obviously. The club was founded in October 1932. So, in October 2022, we will be celebrating our 90th year. The COVID has obviously been a major disruption to a lot of planning and to a lot of these big events. We have tried to plan a lot of things in the last couple of years which, unfortunately, have had to be cancelled on short notice.

One of the main ones, for example, is that we have a very big event called Sail around the world, which is a social event, where we have food and drink stands from different countries of the world and music, and it goes on late.

Usually, we attract around a thousand people to this event. We haven’t been able to have it for the last two years because of COVID 19. So, it is difficult to plan, but typically, we will have a week-long celebration. We will have events, we will have a big party, our anniversary dinner will hold, and we will have sailing and racing events around the milestone. So, probably a special race and over that week, we will do a number of different events and functions to celebrate the club’s 90th year.

We have plans, and I will share one with you. We have books on the history of the club that have been published over the years, usually coinciding with some of the milestones. The major ones were done for the 50th and the 75th anniversary. We were thinking of doing an updated one for the 90th. I am not sure if we are going to be able to do that at this point because the person that was handling the project had to leave Nigeria on short notice. It might not happen, but we have already compiled a lot of things that would go into the next edition of the book when we do decide to publish.

Some interesting things about the club-we were founded, like I said, in 1932. As you realise, 1932 predates the formation of Nigeria as an independent country.

One of the interesting things about this club, unlike all the other clubs in Nigeria and in many other African countries, is that when this club was founded, it was open to all people. So, even indigenes and Africans were able to join the Lagos Yacht club, assuming that they were able to fulfil the requirements. So, unlike others that discriminated and that were only for expatriates, or were only for Brits, this club from the very beginning always open to everyone, as long as you fulfilled the sailing requirements.

The sailing requirements remains till today; it is a barrier on its own. Many people have learnt how to sail at the club, and of course, there are a lot of people that come with sailing experience and are immediately attracted to this place because in their home countries or wherever they schooled, they learnt how to sail and want to continue but most of us, myself included, learnt how to sail here at the Lagos Yacht Club. It is a lifelong skill that you can take with you, and you can sail anywhere in the world.

Do you have instructors?

It is something that we are working on, to have formal instructors and a training program. We have informal instructors. So, basically, we have a very close association with the Navy Sailing Club. As far as we know, we are the two  proper sailing clubs left in Nigeria. There used to be others around the country, but today, we are the only ones left that are active. We have Navy sailors that regularly participate in our activities and are working with us to provide basic introductory sailing lessons to new members.

A lot of people then learn on the water with other members. A lot of our members actually give up their time, up early in the morning before the race starts. Some of these Navy sailors have represented Nigeria at different levels, in different international competitions. We sail as a club; we race every Saturday.

Every single Saturday, we have a race. Some races are big races, like the one that was covered in your paper, some are just club races. Every single Saturday, if there is wind, we are sailing, and fortunately, it means that in Lagos, at least most Saturdays, we are sailing. We are working on a long term plan to have a formal training program and training school.

What time do you sail?

Typically, the race starts around 2 pm or 2:30 pm, and that is because usually, the wind picks up in the early afternoon towards the late afternoon. The wind gets impressively stronger during the day. Usually, it is quite calm in the morning, and the wind improves as the day goes on. The best time is around 5 O’clock , but obviously, you have to start early.

What challenges does the club normally face?

Run by members for members. Obviously, We have some full-time staff that run a lot of the operations of the club, but the management of the club is handled by a main committee of 9 people, who are all volunteer members, each one overseeing a department in the club.

We have two subcommittees; a sailing committee which is headed by the Vice Commodore and handles all the Sailing related activities, and a House committee which is headed by the Rear Commodore, which was my former position, which oversees all the non-sailing activities; social events, our kitchen, our bar, properties, our staff etc. and obviously, because it is voluntary, everyone that is on this committee also has another job that pays them outside of the Lagos yacht club, and they dedicate as much time as they can to the management of the club.

Being dependent on volunteers makes everything a little bit more longer, and it is a little bit more time for a project to become a reality.

The other limitation is that because we are a members club, it is open to only members and their guests, so our main revenue are the membership subscription that we receive from our members and whatever is spent by members in the club.

So we are limited. We are not open to the public, so that also limits what we can generate as revenue. We are reliant on what members spend and sponsorships that we receive from various organisations, who either sponsor a race or sponsor an event or are associated with the club, one way or the other.

I can see you have maintained a long-standing relationship with Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is one of our very big partners, they are not the only ones, but of course, we have a very long relationship with them. Every year, they throw a very big race at the club, the date varies, it is not always at the same time of the year. This year it was, I can’t remember exactly, I have to check when it was, but I think it was in September we had the race. They usually throw a very big event; it was very well attended. They do a regatta, which is three mini races on the same day, the winner of which gets a trophy.

Coca-Cola is one, Nigerian breweries is another that we work with and also have sponsored us very generously over the years and most recently we did have the Governor’s Cup and the Governor’s Cup was sponsored by MSC, you know Mediterranean shipping company and Tin can island Container Terminal, and I think those are people that are in your industry, and we have a lot of other complaints that sponsor us, they are usually associated with a member but not necessary.

What international affiliations does the club have?

We are a member of the RYC, which is the Royal Yachting Association, it’s like the British sailing association, and then we have different types of boats that we sail, which are international standard boats. The main two are the Lightning and the Hobbie Cats, and our fleet here belongs to the International Federation, so either the International Lightning Federation or the International Hobbie Fleets Association.

We have the third class of boats, which is called the tarpon, which is the wooden version of the Lightning boats. The tarpon is made in Nigeria. Basically, all of them date to the mid-1930s, and they have been refurbished obviously over the years because it is wood. Some of them have gone through major refurbishments, but as boats themselves, they have a legacy since the 1930s.

Do you still have boat builders here?

We do, so we have an in-house carpenter and fibre glass person who help keep the boats in shape. You know, with boats being on the water, there’s always something that needs to be repaired, something here, something there. Especially if you have a wooden boat, those ones require a lot more attention than the others. It’s coming up to now to six, seven years now that the tarpon fleet was majorly depleted and having been a bit kind of abandoned and one member, basically with the help of the carpenter, rebuilt the fleet over a number of years. I think two, three years ago, we finally had nine of them back on the water.

As Commodore, what is your personal vision for the club before you leave this position?

You know it is a member-run club, so it’s not about personal vision, and at the end of the day, the vision and the strategy is guided by the membership. So it is not that I want to have the special project, and it must happen because I am the Commodore. At the end of the day, all decisions are made by the committee and power that is given to the committee is given by the membership, so we regularly consult with members to know the direction that the membership wants us to go, and then we propose a budget, our strategies which are then approved by the membership in terms of where we want the club to go.

Obviously, this is a sailing club, so the most important is what happens on the water, keeping the culture going and getting people on the water, and is not a matter of doing the minimum number of sailing requirements and then just sitting back and enjoying the beautiful space we have here.It’s about continuing to sail and getting into the culture of sailing.

So I will say for me personally, what I would like to see is regarding this training school that I have mentioned because this will guarantee the future generation. Historically, we have always had Nigerians, but it’s always been a minority of the membership, and that, in my opinion, is due to too many reasons, and one is that many Nigerians, unfortunately, can’t swim, so they have a fear of the water, so when you tell them I’ll put you on a boat that doesn’t even have an engine, they start to go “oh wait, there’s no engine so how do I go? Only the wind. So obviously, there is that aspect.

Obviously, it is improving, this new generation, most people can swim, so there’s less of that fear, and the other thing is that Saturday is our main day and as you know Saturdays are very often a very busy day in Nigerian society. It is when you have a lot of social events.

I think family and social pressures means that in the past, it was difficult to attract Nigerians over a long period of time. Some people come, and they will be a member for some time, and then they will get married, and they will have other responsibilities etc.

We are seeing more and more people buying into the culture and giving as much time, and this is why involving the next generation, making sure that children are also involved. If this is something that I, as a father, can do with my child, and there is something here that can help to bring my child to the water, then it becomes a family event, not just one person event.

So we are very family-oriented, and this is something we need to continue to be, and we have a playpen here, which is reserved for the children. We are trying to get a training program geared towards children; our memberships are family memberships, so they include the spouse and the children automatically for no extra fee. So having a training school with proper training instructors would help to continue that for next generations and will help young Nigerians start very early then it becomes an addiction, like any other sport that you start when you’re very young. It is a passion and a love that will take your whole life, and you will never be able to get away from the water.

Have you thought of competitive yachting, the club discussing with the Sports Council?

I can’t answer that specifically. I know that during my time, we have never had any conversation with the sports council, but I can’t tell you that it has never been done before.

I know you know that there is a Yacht, Canoe and Rowing federation that was established less than ten years ago, and I know there was a lot of communication and some relationship building that was done there. It’s something that we are trying to re-establish.

Other than the Navy Sailing Club, there’s no other sailing club.

So it’s not like somebody has a boat in his house and can come and join, or there’s a school or university that has its own sailing academy that can come and join us. In the past, there were a few different sailing clubs around Nigeria and the records I have seen; there used to be in Port Harcourt, there used to be in Jos, on the lake, there used to be even in Kano on the lake.

So there were sailing clubs a little bit everywhere; unfortunately, a lot of them have gone away. So when we do have a competition, the only people from within Nigeria that we can invite and we do are the Navy Sailing Club.

In the past, we have had the Sailing club in Ghana come down, and we have been to them. Every year we have had national championships for each different class of boats, the winner is  the Nigerian national champion, and this person can go represent Nigeria at the International Competitions; the international lightning competition, the international hobbie class association. We have had a number of members go and represent Nigeria, flying the Nigerian flag at these different events.

We have one very famous event here, called the Badagry race, which is held every year, we had it this past November. So, it is a race to Badagry, but Badagry is pretty far, so it is not something you can do on the same day. It’s an overnight race, so they set out from here usually around 11am on Saturday, and they go, and it takes them about seven, maybe eight hours to get to Badagry, and at some point, they will sleep on the boat and then come back on the next day.

In most races, the first one to come back is the winner. In this race, it’s not the first one to come back, each one basically does a log of how much time he has been racing, so when you stop the boat for more than 1 hour, you can disregard that time. So the winner is usually the person that is the most strategic and most patient and is waiting for the tides to turn and for the wind to pick up etc.

There is a famous race in Tanzania that takes place every year, and we have people that go there. In terms of relationships, we also have reciprocity agreements with different sailing clubs around the world and around Africa. Where members of this club can go if they happen to be visiting that country, can enter the club as if they were members and those guys, if they are ever in Lagos, can come here, showing their card from their own place and they can walk in. We got a variety of clubs from around the world that we have this reciprocity relationship.

You have never had any security challenges?

Nigeria has changed a lot in the last 30 years ago, the club has been here for 90 years, but things have obviously changed. We have a very exposed waterfront, obviously, but we have the Navy in many places around us, and we have got the Army as our neighbours. It is a very strategic and visible location.

On the water, to be honest, up to now, these areas have been covered and well-protected, whether it is Marine Police or the Navy. You will see Marine Police here on the water because this is the main entrance to the Lagos harbour, so they have to be monitoring who is coming in, who is going out. So, there’s always a pretty large security presence, one of our main naval dockyard is right there, the Western naval command is right there.

The Navy, the Army have bases at Tarkwa bay. So, fortunately, for now, in these places, people have not ventured to try and do anything in these areas. Also, we sail during the day in full visibility.

When we are sailing, the harbour is working because ships are coming in, ships going out, which we also have to manage because the priority obviously is the shipping. It is not our racing or sailing that is the priority; at the end of the day, we sail at the pleasure of the Harbour Master of the Lagos Ports.

Hopefully, it stays that way, whether it is the Navy or the Marine Police or whoever is around can keep doing the good job that they are doing.

Whenever foreign navy vessels come to Nigeria visiting the Navy or patrolling the areas, we invite them, and they come. Very often, they don’t get the opportunity to go off their ships when they are visiting various places. This is one of the places they usually come to visit. If you see the wall, we have a lot of plaques from different ships that have visited over the years.

The most recent one was in September or October last year (2020). A British Navy ship was in town; they were just here doing training activities with the Nigerian Navy. We hosted them one night, and I was also invited to their ship along with the Navy people and other dignitaries.

The ownership of boats here, is it individual or club owned?

So we have both. We have boats that are owned by the club, most boats are owned by individuals, but very few boats ever leave the club. I, as an individual today, have a boat. If I was to leave Nigeria, most likely, I would sell that boat to another member within the club. Very few people take their  boat away, it happens once in a while, but most people don’t.

Every few years, we import some new boats which are usually purchased by some different members. So, yes, most of the boats stay in the club community.

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Sure, I am fifth generation Nigerian. My parents were both born here, so I grew up here in Lagos. I travelled, but I am back now. I work for a company called Bristol Scientific, we are in the laboratory supply chain, working with all sorts of laboratory, whether it is medical, quality control, factories, research and universities etc. So anything called laboratory is basically our space. I am the Managing Director of Bristol Scientific, which is my full-time job. This is my second job, even though it doesn’t pay me.

I am married with young children. My three and a half year old son sails, my daughter is not too interested, but my son is interested; he enjoys it. He is not sailing competitively; he is still a bit young.

So, yeah, in terms of me, this is my main hubby; obviously, it takes a lot of my free time, but we are giving back something that is 90 years old. What I like to say is that 90 years ago, there were people sitting here like you and me, doing this exact thing, in this exact spot, sailing in the exact same water, undisturbed in the same way for 90 years and you know, these are sailing boats, so they haven’t changed so dramatically in the last 90 years. It’s not like cars or motorboats that have improved; they are much faster.

Nigeria is one of the best places in the world to sail, and why I say that is because it is one of the only places in the world where you can sail every single day of the year.

In most places, sometimes it is too cold, sometimes the weather is not good, etcetera. Here, literally, you can sail every single day of the year and then here, we have a lot of different bodies of water where you can sail. You know, in most places you are limited to one type of sailing. Here, you can go offshore, out into the ocean and sail there, and you can go up the creek.

So there are different types of sailing, you get a lot of different currents here, it creates a lot of different sailing environment for people to enjoy.

This means if you learn how to sail in Lagos, there is very little or no place that you can go, and you won’t know how to sail there, and we are very fortunate. We look forward to more people embracing this passion for sailing and understanding the culture of sailing because it is a culture. Wherever you go in the world, you meet sailors, and they talk about the same things; they enjoy the same things.