After helping set the Chicago to Mackinac Course Record as crew aboard Areté in 2021, the 40-year-old is just getting started
289 nautical miles. 12 hours. Scream reaching 23 knots aboard a “three hulled rocket ship,” designed for speed over comfort, crossing the finish line in the dead of night.
It was under these conditions that James Cyigenza became the first African American to help set a World Sailing Speed Record. From escaping the Rwandan genocide to setting sailing speed records, the 40-year-old has come a long way since immigrating to the US.
A relative unknown in the world of high-performance offshore racers, Cyigenza was starting his professional sailing career when a friend gave his name to Rick Warner, who was looking to put together a team to set the Chicago-Mackinac course record aboard his ORMA 60 trimaran, Areté. The former Michigander was on his third attempt at the record, six years after bringing the boat to the Great Lakes.
The boat, whose name refers to “excellence of any kind, especially that which realizes one’s full potential,” serves as a billboard for Warner’s company Coastal 8, which created a “resiliency calculator” for businesses and coastal communities reminding communities that not only do people enjoy time on the water, but that it must be done in a way that is environmentally responsible.
The group of mostly local, Midwest sailors had skills across the sailing industry – sailmaking, boatbuilding, and more. While some people had doubts, Cyigenza felt that Warner had strong leadership, impressive multihull sailing talent, and a vision that could carry them across the finish line.
“I was in Mackinac Island months before the run, and I was talking to a sailor in one of the local bars,” recalled Cyigenza. “He asked me what I sailed on, and I let him know. I remember the guy saying, ‘You know what? You guys have been trying to do this for a while now, you’re never gonna pull it off.’ And months later, naturally, we do.”
“It was a great team… a lot of Midwest sailors, talented people, some of them unknown,” said Cyigenza. “It really took the right kind of leadership and skill to bring those people together.”
Cyigenza, an immigrant from Rwanda, had been interested in sailing since he arrived in Michigan at age 15. Cyigenza and his brother came to live in the States with an uncle after surviving the 1994 Rwandan Genocide – the only of their immediate family to make it out alive.
Coming to the US was a culture shock for Cyigenza – In America, everything was bigger, busier, louder; not to mention the language barrier and having to cope with the trauma of losing family.
“Everything was unlike the way I was raised, but I made a lot of good friends who helped me assimilate into the community,” Cyigenza recalled. “I quickly felt at home, which is something I’m especially grateful for, having experienced some of the hardships I’d been through.”
After moving to the US, he was introduced to the sport at a kids’ camp where he tried out sailing in kid-friendly dinghies. But it wasn’t until one of his friends, a member of a local yacht club in Muskegon invited Cyigenza to do bow on their Tartan 10 that he discovered racing and really fell in love with the sport.
“Sailing is kind of a multi-faceted thing,” Cyigenza remarked, thinking about what kept him coming back to the sport. “It teaches you a lot about life in general. For example, when you’re offshore, there are ups and downs, right? I’ve seen some of the best views in my life, I’ve experienced some of the more challenging aspects of sailing – whether it’s severe weather or whatever might come your way. I love the challenge, and I just really enjoy being on the water.”
From the Tartan 10, Cyigenza graduated to a J/35, then up to a Nelson Marek 43 in the Great Lakes area. He excelled as a pit- and bowman, learning all he could about racing, about the management and maintenance of racing boats and teams, and about himself.
“I was fascinated. I was just genuinely fascinated with the big boat racing, and I was fascinated with speed and competition. The key for me is I’ve become very comfortable in not knowing,” Cyigenza observed. “I’ve just accepted the fact that if I’m interested in something, I should push myself and educate myself the best that I can and just go for it. A lot of good things come out of that level of discomfort.”
His eagerness to learn and absorb led him to that record setting run in 2021.
The Chicago to Mackinac Race, at 289 nautical miles, is one of the premier offshore races in the US – considered so even though it is raced inland on Lake Michigan. Conditions are often tough on sailors and boats, with unpredictable and challenging weather.
Add to that the challenge of handling a boat like Areté: 60 feet of pure race boat, an ocean racer designed for speed rather than comfort or pleasure sailing. To beat the previous Chicago Mac course record – 17 hours, 59 minutes and 49 seconds – it was going to be all hands on deck.
Warner chose September 20, 2021, as the record attempt day (while Areté set the course record, it was not during the actual running of the race, which takes place in July). A strong southerly breeze launched the crew from their start at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse toward the finish in the Round Island Channel off Mackinac Island.
“It was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time,” recalled Cyigenza. “We were pushing the boat to its limits, and so the true race was making sure that we could push the boat without anything breaking!”
Once Areté reached the top of Lake Michigan and made the turn into the Mackinac Straight – the final stretch – Cyigenza realized that the record was within the crew’s grasp.
“It was super exciting. Being able to say I had a record setting run under my belt was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “I never thought that I could ever be part of a sailing world record until this man had a dream and brought us all together. I just want to express the gratitude really of having the opportunity to be part of something like that.”
That record-setting run opened Cyigenza’s eyes to the personal and professional possibilities in the sport, making him realize formerly lofty goals could become a reality.
“I’ve always wanted to sail around the world or do some type of circumnavigation, and so being able to do that on a boat that big and that fast inspired me to follow that dream, if possible,” said Cyigenza. “But I’ve always just wanted to be a part of sailing in any capacity.”
His good fortune with sailing and his professional career didn’t stop with Areté. Not long after, in the spring of 2022, Cyigenza was given the chance to fly to San Francisco and do a refit on Great Britain’s SailGP boat. Having just finished Team GBR skipper Ben Ainsle’s book, Close to the Wind, he was now standing beside the man, helping his racing team.
“Being able to help with a shore team was a dream come true,” said Cyigenza.
From there, he has continued his professional career in the industry, traversing the country helping teams with logistics, boat work, and more.
While Cyigenza acknowledges that he’s often the only Black sailor on a boat or in a room, he believes it’s not for a lack of compassion or friendliness within the sailing community, but a lack of exposure.
“I think often people are surprised when they see me in certain sailing environments, but I cannot say that I necessarily fault them. I don’t think it’s something that comes up out of hate or spite; there are just not very many people that look like me in the sailing world,” he noted.
Cyigenza points to programs and individuals that make a point to reach out to underrepresented communities as a catalyst for change. After all, it was friends who brought him into the sport that is now the passion of his personal and professional life.
“Central to me is the fact that somebody that looks like me realized that sailing is also an option for them, and no matter the lack of people of color in the sport, that it’s a welcoming sport,” he said. “I think sailors are friendly people and it’s an open world, and I feel like we as sailors have a responsibility to share that.”
“To that end, I feel like clubs have a responsibility to do some outreach and work with our community and try to involve people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so.”
But after his friend opened the door with an invitation to crew on the Tartan 10, Cyigenza recognizes that it has been his initiative and persistence that have taken him as far in the sailing community.
“I just made myself available as much as possible,” Cyigenza notes. “My calendar was always wide open, any time my phone rings and somebody needed help, I was there, and once the opportunities started presenting themselves, I was just ready to take anything on… Yeah, it’s been amazing. I still don’t understand it. It’s like I’m living the dream!”
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