Fanafikile Lephakha spent 45 days rowing across the Atlantic - here's what he learnt about isolation and himself


In 2018, South African adventurer Riaan Manser was joined on his seven-metre rowing boat by rowing rookie Fanafikile Lephakha on a 5 500km expedition from the Canary Islands to Barbados, which would last nearly two months.

With no water sports experience and without knowing how to swim, Fanafikile beat out 1 500 entrants to join Riaan on the expedition called "The Odyssey".

With their trip documented in the six-part reality doccie-series "The Odyssey", Channel24 talks to Fanafikile about his journey of self-discovery - spending 45 days on a 7m boat in isolation while rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

We speak to Fanafikile from his home in QwaQwa, Phuthaditjhaba, where he is in quarantine without his family, who are currently in Johannesburg. 

He admits that the hardest part of the national lockdown has been the loneliness. Still, he has been keeping his hands and mind busy with housework, reading and, as he jokingly says: "Doing the work that I usually wouldn't do, because I wanted someone else to do it for me."

The Oddessy


Asked how "The Odyssey" has shaped his mindset about the national lockdown, he explains that there are similarities and differences. 

"One thing that I got out of the expedition was that it taught me to always look for solutions and to be proactive. While in lockdown at home, I am in that same mindset and I ask myself: 'I am in the house and I can't go anywhere. So, what can I do and how can I use my time effectively'," he says.

"I am getting so much done. I was gardening this morning, and I harvested carrots. I've never planted carrots in my life, so this is a win for me. I'm reading books that I've bought, but haven't read. When we were on the boat, we had to focus on our immediate surroundings, what we could achieve with what we had, instead of concentrating on what we lost."

While "Fana" is practising self-isolation alone, many people are in lockdown with family members, friends or flatmates. During his time rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, Fana was isolated with Riaan for an extensive period, giving him unique insight into the circumstances of many are experiences under lockdown due to Covid-19.

"This was a whole new experience. I was essentially learning how to row in the middle of the ocean with a stranger, and it was overwhelming," he explains.

The Oddessy


"We hardly knew each other and, when you when you're in a space where you try to make friends or get to know someone new, you also try not to step on toes. So you tiptoe around specific issues, and you don't address certain things because you don't want to make the situation awkward or uncomfortable," he adds.

Unlike a fallout with a friend, who you can ignore for a couple of days while you cool off, on a 7m boat, there is nowhere to hide. 

"On the small boat, it had to be addressed on the spot. That was one of the challenges. You are learning how to live in an environment where you have to trust and depend on one another. Sometimes you don't want to take responsibility for something. But when you are in an isolated situation like that, you have to take charge and do the uncomfortable thing," he explains further. 

Similarly, as the goal to reach Barbados kept Fana motivated to see his mission through, he says South Africans need to stay focused on our goal to prevent to spread of the coronavirus.

The Oddessy


But when psychological and physical hurdles presented themselves, Fana reminded himself of his wife and twin girls at home. "I had to get home to my kids and my wife. Another big motivator was that participation in water sport isn't common in the black community, and I wanted to achieve it not just for myself, but for the people around me."

One of the biggest challenges Fana faced was when his mother died halfway through his expedition.

"It was just after we celebrated reaching our halfway mark, about 2 000-2 500km. I called my wife the next day to tell her that we reached the milestone, and she tells me that my mother died. It was the hardest thing I've ever experienced in my life, having to mourn alone with no one to relate to my situation, and my pain."

Fana explains that Riaan was his rock during that difficult time. After emerging from isolation, he had a newfound appreciation for his family. 

After overcoming many obstacles, both emotionally and physically, Fana says he now has more "guts" to try different things and open different doors for himself. "I am not afraid," he says.

The Oddessy


Fana says that he hopes, by following his journey on "The Odyssey" (episode 3 to 6 streaming on DStv Catch Up), people will gain a new perspective on isolation during challenging times. 

"I entered a water sports competition without knowing how to swim and I won, not because of my skill, but my character and willingness to learn and determination. I hope that people will take away from the show that you don't always need to have all the answers, and everything figured out. But the right character and determination can see you through."

"'The Odyssey' saw two strangers from different backgrounds work together to achieve one goal. As a country, we are sometimes stuck in our differences and lockdown has exposed that even more. And we forget about the bigger mission as a nation. Whatever differences Riaan and I had, we dealt with it head-on and worked on finding solutions. We had one goal, united, and what we learnt from each other, we learnt through those difficult times on the boat."

ALSO READ: SA adventurer Riaan Manser and his wife Vasti were stuck on a small boat together for 173 days – What they learnt could help you through lockdown  

(Photos: Supplied)

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