BWS takes a safari through South Africa’s boat building country and discovers the home of big cruising cats (Published Winter 2011)
Last fall, Rosa and I joined our friends at the South African Boat Builders Export Council (SABBEX) for a tour of the boat building scene in Cape Town and along the Eastern Cape to Durban. It was our first trip to South Africa—a country we had long wanted to visit—and since we started MQ two years ago, a journey to one of the world’s leading multihull building countries was in order. By our count, 23 companies in South Africa are building sail and power cats from 18 feet all the way up to 90 feet. Most of the companies are small shops run by their founders that produce three to five semi- or truly custom boats a year.
The multihull phenomenon has caught on completely in South Africa. Because multihulls need to be light, as a rule, builders have adopted innovative and advanced building techniques that involve exotic coring materials, epoxy resins, carbon fiber, Kevlar and advanced tri-axial fiberglass cloth.
Some of the brand names coming from South Africa are well known—like Leopard, Gunboat, St. Francis, Voyage and Dean—but there are many that have not yet made strong inroads into North America.
This February at Strictly Sail Miami during the huge Miami Boat Show (February 17-21), a contingent of South African-built boats will be on display. Those attending the show will have an opportunity to see well-known boats as well as craftsmanship from lesser-known builders like Royal Cape Yachts, Matrix, Knysna and Tag.
Strictly Sail Miami is a huge multihull show, so MQ readers who want to see what the world’s largest builders of cats—Lagoon, Leopard, Seawind, Fontaine-Pajot and others—are building these days and meet new-to-America builders from South Africa will want to plan to attend.
When you think of South African sailing, you probably think of Cape Town, one of the most famous voyaging destinations worldwide. Multiple round the world races stop here, and many cruisers have used the small coastal city under the broad shoulders of Table Mountain as a staging port for voyages into the Southern Ocean or northward to the Caribbean and Europe.
But Cape Town is also one of the premier boat building and marine industry cities in the world, rivaled only by towns like Auckland, New Zealand, Southampton, England and La Rochelle, France.
Lying just northwest of the Cape of Good Hope and with Table Bay to its west and False Bay behind Table Mountain to the east, Cape Town is a sea-born city subject to the wild and woolly elements of the deep South Atlantic. To get an idea of just how potent the weather can be, the Velux 5 Oceans fleet of Open 60s were recently forced by weather to delay the start of leg two of their race around the world.
Table Mountain is a giant weather indicator that stands over the city. Often, as the easterly breeze begins to pick up (meaning a cold blustery wind and maybe worse), clouds build on the mountaintop and begin to cascade down the sheer rock faces like a living, breathing fog.
The Benguela and Agulhas Currents that flow down each side of Africa bring warm water to the cold South Atlantic Current that flows easterly just south of the Cape. The sea is alive with life and prone to sudden weather changes, squalls and storms. In spring you will often see whales in Table Bay, where they come to breed.
The city’s waterfront is the country’s major port in the Atlantic. Cranes, dry docks and container terminals stretch along the waterfront for two miles or more and the entire working port is enclosed in an elaborate and massive jetty system that keeps the storm-driven oceanic rollers at bay. Through the port flow the raw materials the country exports to the world and the manufactured goods that come in from China and everywhere else. South Africa is a land rich in natural resources, valuable minerals and entrepreneurial spirit. There are a lot of self-made men in Cape Town, a surprising number of whom have turned to boat building. And fully two-thirds of the cruising cats that are built in South Africa sail away to owners elsewhere around the world.
THE BIG LEOPARD
At the end of December 2010, Robertson & Caine (R&C) delivered their 770th cruising catamaran and 100th cat of the year. The largest boat builder in South Africa by a factor of about five, R&C builds cruising cats from 38 to 46 feet for private owners and for TUI Marine, which owns The Moorings, Sunsail and Footloose charter companies. In fact, R&C builds exclusively for TUI because the travel and charter company has worldwide rights to retail the boats.
We spent half a day at the R&C factory near the port and got a guided tour of how the well-known cruising cats are built. The new designs are from the team at Morrelli & Melvin in California, so the hulls are modern and fast. The boats are designed to be built in series production, so the engineers at R&C have created a build cycle and quality control functionality that allows the crew to turn out a new boat every three or four days. Next year, the company plans to increase production to meet the increasing needs of the charter fleets and the wide private sales operations that TUI has in place worldwide.
Virtually all of the Leopards are destined for owners or charter fleets outside of South Africa all around the world, and all of them get there on their own bottoms. Boats headed to the Seychelles or Asia will sail across the Indian Ocean, while boats destined for the Caribbean or Med will head north up the Atlantic. Interestingly, boats headed to South Pacific destinations like Tonga, New Zealand and French Polynesia will take the tropical route to the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal.
The upshot is that the boats arrive shaken down and well proven. Over the years, this process has helped R&C eliminate as many kinks from the boats as possible. During our factory visit we met several of the team leaders who started out with the company delivering boats; they have a lot of sea miles on Leopards, which makes them eminently qualified to build in the quality and durability the boats are known for.
R&C employs up to 700 workers, making it one of Cape Town’s larger companies. The low cost of labor in South Africa is certainly a factor in the process of building boats since so much of the overall cost lies in man-hours. Plus, the historically low Rand (relative to the U.S. dollar and Euro) has been a trading advantage for the country’s exporters (like R&C). But, in the aftermath of the World Cup and the onset of the recession, the Rand has steadily been increasing in strength, so some of that currency advantage has disappeared. Builders like R&C have had to adjust their production to meet the changes and are working to become more efficient and to improve value.
R&C will have a new “secret” boat premiering at the Miami Strictly Sail show that promises to be a real success in the year ahead. Rosie and I saw it in Cape Town, but we are sworn to secrecy until it is launched in the U.S. Hull number one is actually at sea on her way to America as we go to press.
R&C’s success has elevated the national profile of boat builders in South Africa and has helped the smaller builders define their own value for the world market. There is no doubt this Leopard is really the king of the jungle.
THE NEW TRIBE
For North Americans, the appearance of Peter Johnstone’s first Gunboat 62, named Tribe, shone a bright spotlight on the world of boat building in South Africa. The ultra modern, ultra light, ultra fast Tribe—designed by Morrelli & Melvin—was unlike just about anything North American monohullers and multihullers had ever seen.
In this country we aren’t accustomed to the large, fast multihulls like Groupama or the Orma 60s that are much more common in Europe and take part in numerous offshore events run from France, Spain and England. Designer Chris White has been building custom and semi-custom performance multihulls in South Africa, Chile and even the U.S. for years, but these boats tend to sail in the Caribbean, Europe or around the world. For a lot of American sailors, the Gunboat phenomenon was something of a revelation.
We visited the Gunboat factory in Cape Town and had a tour with local manager Rachel Jaspersen. Gunboat builds cats at 48, 66, 78 and 90 feet, and three boats were in build while we were there. The Gunboat mission is to build performance cruising cats out of the lightest materials possible. The hulls are all carbon fiber and epoxy and vacuum bagged on male molds. The finished products require hundreds of hours of hand faring to get the high-gloss look that the boats are famous for. Unfared and unpainted, the boats look like stealth bombers, menacing and dangerous. But painted in the bright palate colors Johnstone and his owners prefer, Gunboats have the look of Ferraris or Lamborghinis of the sea.
Certainly the boats are fast. Sailing on Tribe, I’ve seen 18 knots steadily and 20 or more in bursts of speed. Once, Peter Johnstone emailed from the mid-Atlantic on his way from Newport to the Caribbean to report that he had made two 300-mile days in a row aboard Tribe.
The Gunboat line has evolved a lot since the first boats were built, and today they are the top performing luxury cruisers in the world that are built in series on a semi-custom basis. The Gunboat concept bridges the gap between production boats like the Leopards and the purely custom one-offs that are often exotic, unique and highly personal creations.
Uwe Jaspersen, Rachel’s husband, is one of the builders who has spawned a lot of truly creative projects in Cape Town. He built Tribe and the second and third Gunboats when Peter Johnstone was launching his company and he has more recently been building the fastest of the new Open Class 40 monohulls that are so popular in Europe. He has six out there racing right now. In the U.S., the Class 40 Cutlass, which has been winning offshore events in the last year, is also one of Uwe’s boats.
We visited Uwe and his partner Mike Giles at their shop, Jazz Marine, in Cape Town and found them a year into the build of a custom 61-footer called the Moxie 61. A truly modern creation, the new boat is for an American owner who was accustomed to sailing aboard his Swan monohull. During one passage from Bermuda to Maine, the owner watched CDs of the Orma 60s racing in Europe and in the transatlantic Route de Rhum. He was smitten and decided he needed a cruising boat that would sail at 20 knots or more. That’s where Jazz Marine came in.
The boat is all carbon, epoxy and lightweight coring so it will be extremely light, strong and stiff. The layout is somewhat unique and personal, with a large covered back porch and a hard top that covers the cockpit, which in turn flows into the saloon.
It takes up to 18 months to complete a boat like the Moxie 61 with a crew of craftsmen and a band of men faring all of the surfaces before painting begins. Uwe has developed his own carbon fiber spar laminating system that enables him to built ultra-light but very stiff masts and booms that seriously enhance his boats’ performance.
Uwe is well known in the racing fleets around the world, and although he is a quiet and unassuming man, he has done a lot to bring business and expertise to the boat building industry in South Africa.
Two Oceans Marine, also in Cape Town, is the builder of power catamarans in the 22- to 50-foot range that are primarily for the local market and well-suited to the choppy, rough waters around the Cape.
Run by Mark Delany, Two Oceans also builds large, luxurious custom cruising cats for private owners around the world. When we visited Mark, he was nearing completion on a 65-foot cat for an experienced cruising sailor who plans to sail far and wide about the world. Built more for comfort and seakeeping ability, the 65-footer is a formidable-looking cruising boat with vast interior spaces. But the boat will pale in comparison to the 75-footer that Mark has on the books to build next.
Two Oceans has been in business for 20 years and has a solid reputation for being able to turn an owner’s dreams into reality by combining practical boat building experience with top local or international design talent. The time a project like the new 65-footer takes from start to finish will be well over a year, but even with the Rand at near record highs, owners will find that they can complete a complex custom build at prices well below what they would spend in the U.S., Europe or New Zealand.
Gerhard Schein and SMG Marine don’t really fall into the custom one-off category. In fact, they don’t really fit into any standard category because they are building a truly unique and innovative “green” 50-foot cruising cat. We intended to go out sailing with Gerhard and met him aboard the new boat at the Royal Cape Yacht Club. But unfortunately the roller furling systems on the boat were malfunctioning and needed to be repaired. Such is the shakedown of a brand new custom boat.
The first thing you notice about the SMG 50 is the A-frame mast with a roller furling genoa-style mainsail mounted down its middle. The A-frame—similar to the experimental mast the Harken brothers put on their unique monohull Procyon back in the 80s—mounts on the inner edge of the hulls so it distributes compression to the vertical bulkheads instead of the horizontal section of the bridge deck.
The second feature you notice when climbing aboard is the saloon-aft, cockpit-forward layout, similar in some ways to the smaller Chris White Atlantic Cats. This arrangement works particularly well for warm climates since it encourages you to live outside.
The SMG 50 has electric propulsion using articulated sail drives that can be hoisted out of the water under the bridgedeck when you are sailing. Or you can leave one or both in the water and let the freewheeling props charge the batteries. Solar panels are built into the cabintop to add a trickle charge and reduce generator-running times.
The SMG 50, which will be at the Miami Show in February, is an innovative cruising boat that will appeal to those who really want the latest thinking in sailing rigs and propulsion.
The last custom builder we visited was young James Turner at Custom Marine and Fluid Yachts in the sailing port of Knysna in the Eastern Cape region. James was in the middle of building a 75-foot super cat for a very private owner based in Bermuda whose son was on site to help manage the project. Like Uwe Jaspersen and Mark Delany, James is highly expert at advanced composite building techniques and has assembled a team of craftsmen and assistants who can build ultra light, ultra fast cruising cats.
James also builds a semi-production cruising boat called the Fluid 550, which is built to a Phil Southwell design. The boat is designed to be a top performer with daggerboards and even kick-up rudders for beaching the boat or drying it out.
The world of custom boat building is a roller coaster since there are not that many new projects started every year and during a recession fewer customers who can afford the expense of a large custom cruising boat. That said, all of the custom builders we visited were busy and had boats on their order books to follow their current projects. Certainly, being able to build an advanced composite cruising cat for very fair prices gives the builders something of an advantage over their U.S. and European counterparts.
To visit the leading semi-custom or limited run production builders in South Africa, we had to do some traveling from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape and then on to Darwin.
In Cape Town, we visited with Peter and Fiona Wehrley at their Matrix Yachts facility, which is a brand new modern manufacturing plant in a new industrial region west of the city. The Wehrleys are experienced sailors who ran charter boats in the Caribbean before starting Matrix. Their first boat was a dedicated crewed charter boat called the Silhouette 760. The boat was shown in Miami three years ago and was without doubt the queen of the show. In the Caribbean, the 76 has won awards for being the best cruising cat in the crew fleet. The 760 is a semi-custom boat that can be modified somewhat to suit an owner’s specific needs. While originally intended for charter, the 760 would also make an amazing luxury cruising boat for a large family or a couple who wants to cruise with a crew.
Last year, Peter started work on a new 45-footer called the Vision 450. The first boat will be at the Miami show this winter. The boat is a luxury, high quality family cruiser that contains the same fine finish work as the 760. The design is being built on a semi-custom basis, so owners can choose from several different options within the confines of structural bulkheads, tanks and engineering spaces. A handsome new player in the mid-size range, the Vision 450 will no doubt turn heads.
The same is certainly true of the new Dean 5000 being built by Dean Catamarans just across Table Bay from Cape Town. Peter Dean launched the first 5000 a year ago and took it north to the spring and summer boat shows in France where it created something of a sensation. The new design has modern space age looks and a huge amount of space inside for accommodations. Most noticeable at first look is the large oval stern arch that curves gracefully over the cockpit. There’s nothing else out there like it.
The Deans have been building boats since 1983 and now build as many as 10 a year. The Dean 441 has been their most successful boat to date and they have owners sailing them all over the world. During our visit, we had a chance to crawl through a 5000 that was under construction and a 441 that was nearly ready to be launched and sailed away. The boats are solidly built and very nicely fitted out with top of the line gear and equipment.
Also in Cape Town, we stopped by for a visit with Rudi Pretorius, the founder and principle of Maverick Yachts. Rudi builds the Maverick 400 catamaran, which is a fully found cruising boat with high volume load carrying hulls and an interior that will be very homey for a cruising couple or a family of four.
The concept behind the Maverick 400 is to deliver a very well equipped and fitted out cat that is virtually ready to take her owners safely to sea. A relatively new company, Maverick builds three to four boats a year and is gradually developing a solid reputation among the cruising fleet.
To visit with the builders around St. Francis Bay, we caught a commuter jet from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth in the East Cape and then drove an hour or so west to St. Francis Bay. This is called the Garden Route and offers verdant scenery along the way. Farther inland, there are fantastic drives and places to hike, along with several small big game reserves. Surfers will recall that St. Francis Bay is home to one of the top point breaks in the world, and in fact, three of the bay’s beach breaks appeared in the movie Endless Summer (which no doubt dates the author…).
In St. Francis, we stopped first to see Duncan Lethbridge, the founder and owner of St. Francis Marine, which has been building semi-custom mid-range cruising cats since 1988. The St. Francis 50 is the boat he is building now and has proven over the last few years to be one of the best and most successful boats to come out of South Africa. Duncan started with a 43-foot cat designed by Angelo Lavranos in 1987. The boat grew to 44 feet and over the next decade he built 44 of them. It was a highly regarded cruising boat because of its high level of construction detail and quality, and also because it was fast. At the time, most cruising multihulls tended to be seriously overweight.
When St. Francis was ready to move on to a larger boat, Duncan sold the 44 molds to friends in the port city of Knysna down the coast, and they started building the boats with their own special twist. The 48-footer that replaced the 44 at St. Francis lasted in that size through eight boats and then was expanded—by adding area to the sterns—to the 50 they are building today.
The 50 has an amazing record for cruising the world. Like the 44 and 48, the boat is fast, and Duncan’s son, Duncan Jr., has set the speed record for the boat at 26.7 knots. The boats have high clearance under the bridgedecks, hydrodynamic hulls and tall rigs with plenty of sail area. For living aboard and passage making, the 50 offers the quality and performance experienced sailors expect.
To improve the boats and keep them light, St. Francis is beginning to infuse parts of the boats using a high tech resin infusion system. The next 50 will have all of her laminations created using the infusion method. A dean of the boat building business in South Africa, Duncan and his partner George Godfrey have set the bar very high for all who have come after them. And there are dozens of cruisers out there who sing their praises.
In the St. Francis Bay area, two other builders have set up shop and are busy building larger semi-custom cats. Tag Yachts was founded three years ago by Tim van der Steene, who has eight years of experience running big charter boats in the Caribbean. Tim joined forces with New Zealand designer Greg Young, and together with a seed client they set out to develop the next generation of high performance, luxury cruising cats. The new Tag 60 is the result and hull number one will be at the Miami show in February.
Tim and Greg have gone all out to make the new boat as innovative as possible. The whole rig is operated with hydraulics—even the mainsheet—from spaceship style consoles at the chart table and on both wing decks. The rig even has a “kill” button that dumps the main as soon as the crew decides the boat is going too fast or is in danger of flying a hull too high. The “kill” function can even be set on “automatic” to match your safety threshold. The boat is so modern and interesting that you will have to spend hours poring over the details.
The Tag 60 will compete in the high-end niche that was created in South Africa by Gunboat. Tim has built molds for the hulls, bridgedeck and all of the parts in the boat so he can continue to build them as semi-custom production cruisers.
Just down the road from Tag is Nexus Marine, which is now building their second Nexus. At Nexus, Roger Paarman and his brother Jonathan have set out to build efficient and handsome 60-foot cats that are well-suited to the charter business, diving expeditions, or, as they might prefer, extended surfing expeditions.
The boats have very clean lines and have been spec’d out to be simple to use and easy to maintain. The outside spaces are all wide open and roomy for many guests or passengers. The interior is finished in white trim, light-colored Corian counters and bamboo, so it is bright and airy throughout.
The Nexus 60 is a true passagemaker with a very high clearance under the bridgedeck, and good load carrying hulls that are narrow at the bows and have more volume as they run aft. The helm is raised and tucked under its own bimini top, so you have excellent visibility while maneuvering the big cat around the docks. For a family or couple with long range cruising on their minds, the Nexus 60 makes a very attractive package.
Down the coast from St. Francis Bay, we drove to Knysna, where we visited with Rika Fouche at Knysna Yacht Company. Rika runs the company with her husband Kevin. The Knysna 440, which started life as the St. Francis 44, now has a larger sister in the form of the new Knysna 480. As it was when being built by St. Francis, the Knysna 440 remains one of the better performing cats in the mid-size range. Plus, the 440 offers a lot of accommodation for its size.
The new 480 takes that profile—good sailing performance and spacious accommodations—and trumps it with both size and décor. Kevin and Rika have a knack for creating living spaces and color schemes that really enhance the livability of the boat. Plus, they have developed a solid team of craftsmen who build very fine interior cabinetry. With a plan to build four or five boats a year, the builders at Knysna spend a lot of time with their customers getting the details right and the finished product as close to the owner’s expectations as possible. The 480 will be at the Miami show in February, so you will have a chance to meet the builders and admire their craftsmanship.
Our last stop along the boat builder safari took us by air to Durban on the east coast. There, we met up with Ken Bircher, who founded and runs Royal Cape Catamarans. Ken is also the president of SABBEX and is deeply involved in the South African boat building industry and the organizations that serve it.
Ken builds the Majestic 530 cruising cat as well as power cruisers. The 530 is a voluminous 53-foot catamaran that has a huge amount of interior space, enormous headroom, vast amounts of storage and elegant living spaces. The boats are built to order on a semi-custom basis and can be laid out in a number of different configurations depending on an owner’s intended use and preferences.
The Majestic 530 that has been and will be at the Miami show draws crowds of sailors who are looking for a truly commodious oceangoing cat that will carry all of the gear they need and want across the ocean and will look after her crew when the going gets tough. The boats are toughly and conservatively built, going a long way to protect crew from mishap and preserve owner investment. Ken makes a point of building with CE-certified and Lloyds-approved materials to maintain the highest standards among international builders.
We spent 10 days visiting builders to see what was really going on in the cruising catamaran business in South Africa. We met a host of welcoming, amusing and very professional individuals who have a passion for boats, love building high quality cats and are using some of the most advanced techniques you will find anywhere.
The low cost of labor has allowed the South Africans to undertake complex, time-intensive boat building projects that require a huge number of man hours and to bring the projects in at a very favorable cost to the owners. And in the case of Robertson & Caine, the expertise in Cape Town—coupled with the low labor rates and the fairly inexpensive Rand—allowed the company to grow enormously in its partnership with TUI Marine.
For the time being and for the foreseeable future, sailors who want to cruise in a modern, fast, expertly-built cat will find many very attractive options at the far end of Africa.
TRAVELING TO SOUTH AFRICA
If you are looking at buying a South African-built boat, it makes sense to visit the builders and get to know the people you may be working with. But South Africa is not really around the corner from anywhere. From New York, we flew South African Airways and caught a local flight to Cape Town. The flight was 14 hours nonstop. To grasp just how huge the continent is, on the return flight we flew eight hours to Dakar, Senegal, refueled, then flew another eight hours to New York.
U.S. citizens don’t need visas for routine visits. If you are planning to visit coastal lowlands or spend long periods in the game parks of eastern South Africa, consult your doctor (and the World Health Organization) about preventative vaccinations and possibly prophylactic treatments for malaria.
The country is amazingly beautiful and a mind-boggling blend of cultures and languages. Aside from Cape Town and the boat building regions, we spent time wine tasting in the Stellenbosch district inland from Cape Town where they make wines of international stature.
We were fortunate enough to have three days to spend in the game reserves of KwaZulu-Natal north of Durban. We stayed in a game park called Bonamanzi that was rustic but comfortable and populated by impala, wildebeest, crocs and monkeys. We spent a delightful day big game watching from the back of a jeep in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park where we got close to elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, zebra and giraffes—all amazing to see.
Like most developing countries, crime can be a problem in South Africa’s larger cities, so keep your wits about you and use common sense when moving about at night.
BUYING A SOUTH AFRICAN BOAT
With so many builders creating so many different and interesting cruising catamarans, anyone who is thinking about purchasing a semi-custom cat will want to consider having it built in South Africa.
Other than Leopard, Gunboat and Voyage, builders do not tend to have dealers or agents in North America who are available for aftermarket service. So it makes sense for a buyer or his independent agent to spend time with his builder during the build process and to then thoroughly shake down the new boat in South Africa before sailing away.
SABBEX has instituted an accreditation program for its members that puts in place an industry code of conduct and establishes build and service standards. When selling into the different continents, members are also required to comply with ABYC or CE ratings.
Fully accredited SABBEX members have been trading as a candidate member for two years, and they will have been subject to review and audit by the council to ensure that they have met or exceeded the established codes and standards. They are required to comply with the adopted processes and standards through a process of self-regulation and periodic independent review, as is the system for CE certification.
South Africa has a thoroughly modern financial, business and judicial system based on English common law and international business standards and practices, so the business relationship an owner has with his builder will be almost identical to one he would find in any modern country.
For more information, visit www.sabbex.co.za.