The first African woman to sail to the Arctic, a citizen scientist and climate change activist, Lungi Mchunu has dared to dream and believes there are no limits to what we can achieve.


When Lungi Mchunu sailed off on a voluntary expedition to the North Pole in 2018, she made history as the first African woman to sail to the Arctic.

Raised in a single-parent household in South Africa, she was encouraged by her mother to challenge herself and to pursue her passions.

Now she is a citizen scientist, climate change activist, part of The Maiden Factor charity to promote girls’ education around the world and has plans to compete in the Vendée Globe

Lungi climbing the yacht's mast. Someone on deck watches Lungi

Lungi climbs the mast. Photo: Lungi Mchunu

‘It was during a debrief with mariner of 40 years Captain Geoff Evans in Genoa that he told me he had met and trained many aspiring sailors but he was yet to meet one with such raw love and passion.

He declared it really special and confirmed it would aid me on my journey.

‘So, I think in pursuit of the unknown, I grew to recognise moments and feelings along the way that fuelled my passion and served as confirmation that I was on the right path.

And that path was sailing.

Capping a trip with polar bears

‘Ahead of the Arctic opportunity, I flew to Bilbao for the Sail IN Festival, showcasing the very best sailing films.

A truly mind-blowing experience for me with two films standing out: Guirec Soudée’s Greenland Exploration and Untold Odyssey: The Man Who Sails with the Stars.

Lungi Mchunu on a yacht, wearing a lifejacket and looking happy. The weather is overcast

Lungi Mchunu the first African woman to sail to the Arctic, a citizen scientist and climate change activist. Photo: Lungi Mchunu

‘A few months later, I was gifted a ticket to a talk Mike Horn was giving in Lausanne.

My only thought at the time was that it was great to meet a fellow South African sailor; nothing relating to his polar regions work appealed to me.

However, little did I know that two months later, I’d come across a Twitter post for voluntary crew to join a sailing research expedition to monitor the ice caps and before I knew it, I was onboard Meloria.

‘There were many stand-out moments from my time in the Arctic. Sailing through the fjords was the most magical and picturesque experience.

Crossing the Arctic Circle was a big achievement, and we had prepared signage and snacks to celebrate as a team, so that was a special moment. This was topped off by spotting a polar bear and her cub.’ 

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The wind beneath my wings

‘When I look back at my time with the UK Sailing Academy (UKSA), as an organisation it has been the “wind beneath my wings” from the moment I arrived in Cowes until today.

I still recall our first session with our course manager where “career support” was mentioned.

I didn’t realise that meant students were supported during and post course. 

‘I had so many special moments at UKSA; my birthday was one of them and at the time my mom was hospitalised in South Africa and my fellow crew had organised a series of surprises, which was so thoughtful – this included asking children from a London youth choir to sing at breakfast.

Lungu standing at the helm, wrapped up. She's enjoying her time and another person steers with her. To the far left is another person smiling at the other two.It looks like a beautiful evening

Lungi enjoying being at the helm during a crossing. Photo: Lungi Mchunu

During one of our training sessions, Alex Thomson was out on the water at the same time and we attempted to race against him. We didn’t have the speed but it was great fun trying!

We also experienced some serious fog on the English Channel which lasted for hours but it was really important as part of our training.

‘One of my instructors, Nick, said something that will always stay in my head and is now part of my reflection process in any situation. “Stop, assess, plan, execute.”

I am currently in my assessment phase of the process whilst trying to ensure all I do is aligned with my personal values and goals.

As I continue to navigate my journey, I’m grateful for UKSA’s support and for the continued support of my instructors.’

Sailing for girls in STEMM

‘Being a part of the The Maiden Factor team was a dream come true and was my official debut into pro sailing, which came with many achievements including Transatlantic and equator crossings.

10 Maiden crew members posing on deck in t-shirts. It's sunny

The crew aboard Maiden departing Dakar, Senegal and heading for Cape Town. Photo: Lungi Mchunu

My biggest takeaway was truly witnessing what it means to ‘walk the walk’.

Onshore, “Maidens” tirelessly raised funds for girls’ education in STEMM, and I had the honour to be part of the team that gave away the money raised.

The work of both the shore team and crew is unmatched and is truly inspirational.

‘My time aboard Maiden brought with it my first experience of hurricane season while we were in Newport, ahead of preparing Maiden to sail to the Azores.

The transatlantic and equator crossing was a first for me as well so that felt like a special achievement to me.

A great high for me was visiting different charities and schools in Senegal and Cape Town with the opportunity to speak to them and encourage our future leaders to pursue their dreams – that was really heartwarming.

Tracy Edwards' yacht, Maiden, sailing in overcast weather, with crew members present on board

Tracy Edwards’ yacht, Maiden, on which she led the first all-female crew in the 1989 Whitbread, leaving the Hamble at the start of her 2018 world tour. Photo: Nic Compton / Alamy Stock Photo

‘From the beginning of my sailing journey, I’ve only ever had one goal in mind which is to sail around the world solo.

I devised a plan to help me get to my goal which has been really helpful.

However, even with a plan and the best of intentions, I still felt a little lost and I’ve come to understand that was because I was starting to get swayed and almost lost sight of my “why”.

Now I’m in a position where I am grateful for a chance to continue in pursuit of my unknown with an incredible support system and network, and it’s far less daunting now.’

Lungi Mchunu’s Sailing Timeline

Lungi and James Stevens are smiling below deck

James Stevens, author of the prescribed Yachtmaster books, pictured with Lungi. ‘He was the first person I told that I passed my practical; he invited me onboard and we celebrated. That was a beautiful moment to meet the author of a book that I loved,’ said Lungi. Photo: Lungi Mchunu

I fell in love with sailing in early 2017 during a Competent Crew week in Vannes, Brittany, France. I returned to France every three months until I passed the Day Skipper exam in June.

Since my teens, I have served my community and I was looking to find a way to marry my new passion to my community service.

I responded to a tweet from the World Arctic Fund looking for crew, becoming a watch officer on the North Pole Expedition in 2018

On my return in September 2018, Mark Smith, CRO of Standard Chartered Bank, asked me how I would implement the lessons from the expedition into finance.

I started by creating climate change educational content and later ended up advocating sustainable finance, which was then in its infancy.

I partnered with a local NGO Atlegang Bana Foundation to be a tutor and also to share the localised educational content.

In May 2019, I was invited to the United Nations SDG Global Festival to share what I had learned and to network with like-minded change makers.

In June 2019, Standard Chartered bank issued retrenchment letters to close the department I worked in which was a great opportunity for me to complete sailing training.

During July 2019 I enrolled at the United Kingdom Sailing Academy (UKSA) for the Professional Yachtmaster Course.

2020-2021 I joined a leadership programme by Homeward Bound in Australia alongside a cohort of women with STEMM backgrounds.

I became a citizen scientist focused on climate change and educating younger generations who will witness the greatest impact. 

2022-present I joined The Maiden Factor, the iconic all-women sailing charity that followed the success of Tracy Edwards MBE in the 1989 Whitbread Around the World Race, and embarked on a world tour to raise funds for girls’ education.

I also sat on the panel to judge the World Sailing Sustainability Awards in 2022, and I continue to assist unofficially.

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