Remember White Dove – Pt 1

James writes…  In 1999 we had just started the business and like all of the best stories about entrepreneurs, ours saw us going through difficult, exciting times. We had just been maliciously sued  for 1 million Rand (about 3 times our annual turnover at that stage) and we really had no idea what the future of the business looked like.

Cathy won us a project in Mossel Bay,  certainly, it was the largest project we’d had until then and it went off the rails a little when the unions became upset about some of the details.   I went down to this generally quite sleepy seaside town to work with Union leaders and management to work out the issues and for 3 weeks I was typically able to finish work by around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. After I returned to the hotel I’d go walking by myself – my favourite walk was along the cliffs away from the town, with the sea pounding up against the ancients rocks and around me wild hillsides and sandstone outcroppings.

I’m not shy to admit how afraid I’ve been in the business at various times. Never, was my fear being about the actual work we do, I know that between me and Cathy, and now our partners,  we’ll find solutions to every problem that we’re ever faced with.  My fear has always been around the  bigger issues of cash flow and funding and debt.   nothing original, just the stuff that every new business faces!

My time in Mossel Bay was one of these times;  it was great to be busy during the day and it was wonderful to walk in the wild open air in the afternoon,  but with walking came time to think and given who I am, time to worry.  Maddy was almost two years old and although she’s never caused me real concern, the thought of making sure that she was well looked after, added more depth to my free-floating anxiety.

About an hour into one of my walks, I stood facing the sea on a very narrow single footpath, with my back against the sandstone and the waves pounding about 30 m below me and I had a completely transporting experience.  I stood there probably for half an hour,  thinking about nothing but in sort of prayerful half-light.  Through this contemplative half light I saw a boat coming into the open water just beyond the breakers.   Like the spectral helmsman of the Pinta who sailed Joshua Slocum safely through his storm, my boat existed only in my mind but it has had more impact on my life than almost any other boat I’ve ever stood on or sailed in since.

The boat coming in had a very solid oak mast, probably it had a diameter of 15 inches and it was being tossed around on the waves, but yet kept coming steadily into the space just short of the breakers. As clearly as could be, I could was aware of a voice that calmly said to me – “James all I want you to do is tie yourself to the mast. Just be present, tie yourself on and let me steer the ship”.

I’m amazed at how close  Cathy is to God and how easily she is able to hear what he says. I don’t claim that same intimacy but there are times when I have heard him indisputably. That day, on the cliffs of the Eastern Cape, I heard God without melodrama and with no question.

My encounter with God that afternoon led to a few very practical decisions that were somehow sparked by the wash of emotions and insights I experienced.  Firstly I realised that God was asking to be the chairman of our business and was telling me that he would be there, all I had to do was to show up and do my best every day.  To  be in the business.  Somehow he would guide us to make the right decisions or perhaps more accurately to make decisions which then would in hindsight turn out to have been right.

The second insight was that everything in our lives was to be vulnerable to our changing fortunes – every mortgage we had was in its service, cars would come and go as its fortunes expanded or contracted, all of the money we started with was sunk deep into it and to all intents had disappeared;  but somehow I knew now I needed to create a space that was protected from the ebbs and flows of our entrepreneurial well-being. We needed a safe haven, a place to rest.  Six months later, we bought a weekend  cottage in Deneysville, an hour from Johannesburg and a place of wonderful memories for me where I spent so many childhood weekends and holidays learning to sail and play.

Soon after we  bought our weekend place we bought a 26 foot sailing boat,  the same model that my mum and dad had had a half share in years earlier.   We called our boat White Dove,  Maddy, then around two years old, claimed the naming rights.  The boat and the cottage were bought in a newly formed family trust, set up specifically to protect them for Maddy,  protect them from what ever ups and downs might have lain in our financial future.

For the next 10 years White Dove and the cottage were profoundly important to us as places of refuge and places for us to reconnect with each other;  wonderful sails, wonderful days.

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