The Saffa Who Makes Dreams Come True
When one imagines a lion, one would not necessarily place such king of the jungle on a shore, wandering into the bobbing waves. In fact, the lion and the seashore, for the most part, evoke wholly unrelated imagery separated by geography, convention and fable.
And yet, perhaps this is the most fitting place to start our story; with a lion and the sea. For if there’s one thing Captain Leeu wishes his viewers and readers to take away from “The Paper Boat Project”, it’s that possibilities emerge from the most unusual of circumstances, provided one allows it to. If you are not swayed by the purely emblematic power of lions and oceans, then perhaps a more structured tale suits your fancy…
Part 1: The man in the suit
A mere four years ago, Stefan Heiberg sat in the same chair you’re sitting in right now (perhaps not the same, but similar). Stifled in an expensive slate grey corporate suit with paperwork piled up and emails pinging at the minute, he wondered momentarily – as one does – what his desk will have looked like had he not chosen a career as an Investment specialist .
The tertiary qualifications he’d obtained stared ominously at him as he prepared for another shareholder meeting. And there, lurking behind the framed reminders of his educational prowess, a trinket of his youth – a paper boat. It reminded him of a time when things were simpler; a time when adventures lurked right beyond the cusp of the horizon. A time when dreams were less complex and more attainable. Moving the frames aside, he reached out to once more feel the energy of his youth surge beneath his finger now tracing the frayed pulp of the folded paper.
There comes a time in a man’s life where things become predictably settled. Habits are formed. One understands the limits of your abilities and the limits of your paycheck.
For those employed in the financial services sector, the default lifestyle is one which demands extensive planning – one must have a home, a car, a 9-to-5, a retirement fund, life insurance, a long-term relationship and wholesome hobbies to intersect the occasional expensive whiskey drinking evening afore the tele watching sports with friends. At some point; children. Further along, a second property; something small but inviting outside the reach of the tourist flock. You will set up educational trusts for the kids. Sell your fast car for something more practical and economical. Take up cycling and yoga. Once a year you will be invited to a hunting or fishing trip. You will mull over the morality of it given your vegan child’s insistence. You will learn to love the greys with grace and only wear that college band T-shirt on the odd occasions where you crack a joke at your kids’ now adult friends.
Stefan knew this, of course; it was the unwritten introduction to Financial Advisory 101. Things must run a course and the sooner you settle into this life – the more you plan – the easier the settling down will be.
In the next four years he would mull over this moment in time once in a blue moon as the spume wrapped his hair across his face and his tiny vessel buckled under the power of nature. A blue moon were a far more relevant metaphor at sea than on land he would come to learn; a blue moon truly impacted your circumstance. And despite the hint of angst which would creep up on him in the years at sea, Stefan would compare it with the angst at living an unfulfilling life and concluded that the latter far outweighed his fear and insecurity at no longer having a safety net.
On that day four years ago he walked out of his office with nothing in his pocket but a paper boat and a dream; and the unrelenting hope and conviction that the mirage he was envisioning in his mind would not be a mere pipe dream.
Part 2: Stefan Heiberg meets Captain Leeu
Much has changed since then. In addition to the new locks, Stefan had learned to put the fear aside – even the best broker will confess in the quiet of his own quarters that there is no such thing as certainty. Most of what is sold to the world is projection laced with fear; if there is one thing he’d transferred from his old life to the new, it’s that the only certainty in life is one’s attitude.
With no knowledge of sailing, no financial backing and no idea where his dream would lead, Stefan started his journey off in the Caribbean. An acquaintance had offered him a sailboat to live on – provided he could fix and manage the drifting thing on his own. With no knowledge of solar powered batteries, refrigeration systems and the other 1001 things it takes to live on a sailboat, the steep learning curve started. This boerseun from Pretoria in South Africa who’d hosted financial talk shows on the radio, featured on CNBC Africa each quarter and moved people through his motivational speaking would learn the hard way that talking only got you so far, and yet – it is in this solitary journey, starting life from scratch, that he would also acknowledge the unmitigated power of talk; of how your internal voice becomes your life’s story.
After almost 8 months of carefully studying every single system on the boat, reading manuals into the midnight hours, spending all other available hours reading and researching sailing techniques and world weather patterns, he was ready to set sail.
He set sail, alone on a 47-foot sailboat and reached the shores of uninhabited islands and countries he had never heard of before.
Sailing was now in his blood. He was elated by the newfound freedom and yet felt sorrow tug at his heart that the feeling could not be shared with others. Or could it? It was imperative that his experiences be shared with the world, others had to experience it. His passion for people would lead him to the next big step: he had to get his own boat. When he sailed into Puerto Rico after a 5-day passage and encountering the biggest storm of his life – ripping sails and testing character – he bought his sailboat.
In the nine months it took Stefan to fix the sailboat, he would face relentless ridicule by the locals. Growing up in the heart of South Africa, it was safe to say that he’d not grown any sea legs, and on the docks, suits were untrusted. He would think of the tale about Noah – another man with a vision who’d built an ark without knowledge of the trade – and in those moments where he whipped his brow with calloused hands, he would remind himself of his own mirth and the will to succeed would surpass the urge to give in.
Nine months in and three near-death experiences – and he was wobbling on tenuous sea legs; elated, invigorated and proud. He set sail from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. The Mona Passage needed to be conquered to get there. Many said this was probably not the wisest passage for an amateur. Many have lost their boats and their lives crossing these troubled waters. But Stefan did it anyway. Punta Cana, Dominican Republic would be his first port of call, but not his last.
Gaining a following as he sailed, his new friends and family scattered across the world endearingly dubbed him ‘Captain Leeu’; a moniker which combined his two personas – the proud South African and the drifting wayfarer. In his journey across the world’s oceans, he would become grounded. It was a fitting nickname.
Part 3: Full circle and the evolution of the dream
His journey would lead him to a love interest, a US woman whose dream had been similar. Stefan would later comment that the dream was not similar in the least sense, but at the time they had found kinship; a romance would blossom and they had imagined similar journeys. Though there is much he could share about the way in which the relationship unwound, he has decided instead to focus on what their oceanic adventure had taught him. Like the time they bought two boats for $1 and fixed them up. Or the people they’d met along the way. “You cannot learn sailing without storms. But at the end of the day you don’t fixate on the storm, you focus on what the journey has taught you.”
Though Stefan is not averse to discussing recent hardships, he is adamant that these things not become focal points in his life’s journey. He does not want to obscure the impediments or pain along the way – these are also catalysts for human connection – but he refuses back-pedaling. He wants to show people how to move onwards and upwards, “Life at sea teaches you that tempests don’t honour human whims or emotions. On the ocean, everything is fluid and progressive in a sense. You are always setting course for a new horizon and you can never quite return to the exact same place or circumstances – neither should you. I would be a poor specimen if I didn’t take the message I want to convey to the world to heart – if I don’t live this message with conviction the message itself would be moot.”
And what is this message?
Having travelled to over 40 different countries, picking up two more languages and with a YouTube channel which had engaged up to 1-million viewers per month, Stefan is starting again – but this time the dream he is living is no longer just his own, he wants to take others’ paper boats to sea. And he is launching the Paper Boat Project back home in South Africa – coming full circle to the place where it all began.
Part 4: Launching the Paper Boat
Stefan had engaged with many people over the years – others who had let their dreams wilt, or perhaps had no means to create their visions. Others who had gotten caught in life’s storms and forgotten to look up at the silver lining once the mist cleared.
He speaks of the girl from Oregon, whose lifelong dream to go on safari had been entrusted into his hands through a letter, and how he had set her paper boat a-sail on the savannas of Africa; giving the girl child a point-of-view (POV) insight into the origins of Captain Leeu; he had even recorded a pride’s live and harmonious roar to celebrate the realisation of a dream. Or what of the middle-eastern man who’d begged Captain Leeu for that first fishing trip? “Just the experience.” An experience his own father or family had never been able to give him. The man could certainly not have imagined meeting up with Captain Leeu, travelling to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town and catching his own fish for the first time in his middle-aged years.
His new project is being recorded for a documentary film which excites Stefan to no end. “The Paper Boat Project launches in January 2020. In the meantime I am meeting new people, making dreams come true and engaging with people who want to collaborate. Sometimes people just want to talk and share their own stories with me. It’s exhilarating to know that I can help them in some way” . Not only will the project inspire those who participate or send their suggestions, but the viral nature of the media will allow them to motivate others around the world for years to come; including those on home turf – the South Africa he loves.
Stefan’s backpack sits on the floor as we discuss the road ahead – a constant reminder of the vagrant life. Tomorrow he will realise the dreams of four people with Down’s Syndrome who had always wanted to sail; the crew from the restaurant Brownies and Downies in Cape Town CBD will set off with him for a day on the open water. Stefan recently completed a gruelling sailing course which now allows him to take others along on his journey with confidence – a captain in every sense of the word.
“People need hope. People need stepping stones to find courage in themselves to be their best selves. Through all my time alone, building my new dream in my thirties, I’d realised that in the very least I have the capacity to inspire. Though I’d undoubtedly been naïve in many things before starting life from scratch on the docks in a foreign country, it is my unbroken spirit which has carried me through all this and has made it possible to start and start again. I realised along the way that this spirit which I had always taken as a given is not such a straight-forward resource for all people. At the end of the day, I am not the greatest sailor in the world, I don’t have funds to offer those in need, my network doesn’t include the likes of Bill Gates or Elon Musk – but I can loan others my faith as they take that first step, I can show them how to live their dreams, and where that is impossible, I will find other ways to breathe life into their hopes.”
The past few years have been humbling for Captain Leeu, and also the most rewarding he could ever have imagined.
“A few years ago, if you’d told me I would take off that corporate suit, I’d have thought you mad.” Stefan reiterates that it’s not as if this part of his life had not been rewarding – but he questions whether it had ever been his own self. It had been a necessary phase, but not the destination. Perhaps it had been the person he’d wanted others to see; until the veneer of the corporate ladder and the draw of catered high-end events had worn off.
He underscores that he believes there is value in realising materialistic or ostentatious goals as well. Achievement and success could hardly ever be purely philanthropic or without ego, “We are human and our search for connection can be our undoing or our redemption. When we start off living our own lives, we want to prove something to others. There is nothing wrong with excelling as a means of showing your worth, there is nothing wrong with chasing simplistic dreams either – but at some point we need to look into ourselves and realise the chase for validation is over. And then the real living can start.”
Captain Leeu is also not ignorant of the cost implications of this shared dream he envisions. “I’d like to say that I can bring the Paper Boat Project to life without external input, but despite my unwavering optimism I am also a realist.” It will be hard work ahead, the smooth sailing will have to wait. But just as he aims to use his knowledge and platforms to enrich the lives of others, he believes that his project cannot grow without other people.
Following the Paper Boat…
We go on to discuss types of funding – corporate involvement, the ecotourism sector, partnering with charities, radio shows, motivational talks. Stefan however looks at me and says “All I need for now are the eyes and ears of ordinary people; others like me who are tired of the perpetual circulation of bad news and eager to make a difference. People who have waited too long for their dreams.”
He wants to reach South Africans and people across the world; people who need hope – those who want to tell their story through Stefan or engage with him. Those who want to set sail either literally or figuratively.
In the comfortable silences which fill the spaces in our casual interview my BS–meter registers no quandary. I, too, am aware of my strengths and weaknesses and though I can frame imagery in words, my circumstance does not allow for sailing, or jet setting, or speaking in front of crowds. I will not build a boat from scratch, but I can relate to the building of one’s own dream and the desire to add value to others’ lives. I can admire those who have a way with people and want to make a difference.
“Will you sail to the Galapagos for me?” The question on my mind begs asking as my paper boat sets its invisible course to find Darwin’s muse, but it hovers on my lips. What better way to experience life’s evolution than through the evolution of human experience? All at once the possibilities of sharing adventures with others becomes a far more tangible dream.
It is a novel and yet welcome vision to know that there is a dream-maker setting sail for those who can’t.
Get in touch…
If you want to connect with Stefan Heiberg or get involved with the Paper Boat Project, feel free to send him a mail on CaptainLeeu@gmail.com or follow him on Instagram @CaptainLeeu. The Paper Boat Project and its YouTube channel will go live in January 2020.
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