South African Boatbuilders revisited

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Recently launched boats at Robertson and Caine, the country’s largest builder, undergo systems testing and sea trials prior to shipping.

In 2002, as an effort to promote the country’s then budding industry, the newly created South African Boatbuilders Business Council persuaded the government to pay for 10 international boating journalists, including me, to attend the Cape Town boat show. As part of the trip, we were bused to eight boatbuilding facilities. There was excitement in the air amid a sense that the post-apartheid South African boatbuilding industry was on the cusp of a major expansion that would benefit not only the industry but the country as a whole. (See “After Apartheid,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 83.)

That was 17 years ago. I returned to Cape Town in spring 2019 to see how things had shaped up, and for another round of builder visits. It was a surprise to find that almost all the issues they had been contending with in 2002 are still in play.

Not in play are more than half the boatbuilders I previously visited. As elsewhere in the world, the 2008 recession drove a number of them under (bankruptcies by South African builders affected several multihull designers abroad, including New England’s Chris White), and a new crop of companies took their places, some reusing molds bought out of bankruptcy (hence the name Phoenix, one of the builders I visited). A handful of the original builders survived, notably Robertson and Caine, Southern Wind, Two Oceans, Voyage, and St. Francis. Post-recession, the average annual growth rate of the industry has been a healthy 14%, and several of the builders I met with on this recent trip were expanding production. But, other than with Robertson and Caine, which, as we shall see, is a special case, there has not been the dramatic growth anticipated on my first visit.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Maverick Yachts keeps track of the
whereabouts around the world of all the boats it has built. For most South African builders it’s all about the exports

In 2002 we visited several yards building monohulls in low volumes, but the dominant builder was already Robertson and Caine, which had switched to producing catamarans for The Moorings charter fleets. Today, other than Southern Wind, which builds one or two super­yachts a year, hardly a monohull is to be seen, and Robertson and Caine has become the undisputed giant of the South African catamaran world, building close to 200 boats this year in four separate facilities. No other domestic catamaran builder comes close. Collectively the South African catamaran builders are second only to the French, albeit a fairly distant second.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 2002 our introduction to South African boatbuilding was handled by Bruce Tedder, the chief executive officer of the Business Council. Today, Tedder is the chairman of the South African Boatbuilders Export Council (SABBEX). I sat down with him and Vanessa Davidson, the executive manager for SABBEX, to review the state of South African boatbuilding, including some topics we discussed in 2002.

Government Support for South African boatbuilders

Tedder reported a significantly higher level of government support today, but with a shifting focus. “Boatbuilding we know well; we are now looking at the ocean sports economy as a whole. We have, for example, world-class surfing and kite surfing. Why not hold world competitions here?” There is currently some grant funding for individual boatbuilders to go to international boat shows, whereas SABBEX would like to see a fully funded “international pavilion” at the Miami show, to reinforce the strong position of South African catamarans in North America, and one in Europe, either at Cannes or the International Multihull Boat Show at La Grande-Motte, to challenge the French on their own turf. As we spoke I recalled having largely the same conversation about government support for a South African pavilion in 2002, so not much change here.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

Wet layup of one half of a hull prior to vacuum-bagging at Nexus Yachts. Increasingly, vacuum-bagging and infusion are replacing open-mold, hand layup as build techniques in South Africa.

In 2002 Tedder had advocated for government funding to provide no-interest loans to boatbuilders to cover the cost of a stock boat when there was no up-front buyer. This scheme was implemented via the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), with loans up to 80% of a boat’s cost, but then TAG, a builder of high-end catamarans, went bankrupt in 2017 with significant losses (on the order of $2 million) to the IDC and the Department of Trade and Industry. The bankruptcy proceedings described TAG as having “characteristics similar to that of a Ponzi scheme [pyramid scheme].” Essentially, TAG was taking deposits on new builds to cover losses on existing builds (a disturbingly easy accounting trap for troubled yards in any country to fall into). The upshot is the IDC scheme is no longer operative—a significant blow to small yards. And Phoenix, the builder of the Xquisite line of catamarans, one of the successful recent entries into the marketplace, has bought TAG’s 60 (18.3m) molds with plans to build a 60′ Xquisite in the near future.

Finding enough skilled workers, always a problem for South African manufacturers, is even harder as boatbuilding becomes more technically complex. Not helpful is the Department of Home Affairs blocking work visas for skilled professionals. On an upbeat note, the potential government support for training we discussed during my 2002 visit finally bore fruit in 2008: a three-year boatbuilding course was established under the auspices of a local college. SABBEX helped create the curriculum, which has national accreditation and requires literacy in math and English for admission. The students study at the college for six months of the year and then spend six months working in industry, keeping a logbook, which a supervisor must sign off on each week. Courses include boat design, composites, joinery, metal­work, marine systems, CAD, and boatbuilding standards. Currently, the program graduates 25 students a year.

Tedder brought up the subject of “transformation.” This was a new one for me, with a brand-new acronym: B-BBEE, for Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment. There is increasing government pressure to open up higher-skilled jobs and higher-level management positions to black employees (which also may be one of the reasons for blocking visas for foreign workers). During my visit it became clear that so far as the boatbuilding industry is concerned, this is not working very well. The higher-level jobs of the industry are still almost entirely filled by whites, although there is a clear recognition that this needs to change—a difference from 2002. I received comments about transformation not being made easier by the decrease in educational standards during the Jacob Zuma years, 2009 to 2018, including math and English literacy, which are becoming ever more essential, even at the most basic levels of the industry.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

An affordable workforce remains one of the driving assets behind the South African industry. Here a large finishing crew at Two Oceans shares in hand-fairing a catamaran superstructure.

Fluctuating Exchange Rates

Over the past decade South Africa’s rand has fallen in value from less than seven to more than 16 to the U.S. dollar. Almost all South African boats are built for export, with almost 50% going to the Caribbean charter fleets and the United States. Many lower-volume builders complete only one or two boats a year, with build times of as much as a year, and sometimes longer for larger boats. Tedder reported that the currency fluctuations caused “massive windfalls and massive losses.” Builders have learned to pin their sales and business to the dollar, which introduces a degree of pricing stability. Nevertheless, given the high volume of labor paid for in rand, fluctuations in its value can still have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Overall, the impression I got from Tedder and Davidson is that the boatbuilding industry is now seen as relatively mature and stable and not likely to be the high-growth business it was anticipated to be in 2002. The focus for growth seems to have shifted to the “sports economy.”

It was time to tour some boatbuilders. In all, I visited eight very different facilities: Celtic Yachts, Maverick Yachts, Matrix Yachts, Nexus Yachts and Balance Catamarans, Robertson and Caine, Two Oceans, St. Francis Marine, and Xquisite Yachts/Phoenix Marine.

Working Conditions

One key to South African boatbuilding has always been plentiful, cheap, unskilled labor willing to work in poor environmental conditions with little effective government health and safety oversight. In 2002, appalled by some of what I saw, I wrote: “None of the eight factories I visited had more than mini­mal air-extraction facilities; crews were laminating hulls and grinding fiberglass without proper protective clothing; and the resin-rich atmosphere in some of the boats under construction was enough, in my opinion, to induce narcosis.” However, I also noted: “Since the shop floor labor force is predominantly nonwhite, it is these people who suffer most from poor conditions in the workplace. But the problem goes beyond the question of race to a more inclusive issue of education and fundamental worker protection: I saw white members of a paint crew, in bare feet and cut-off jeans, preparing to spray linear polyurethane paint without respirators or protective clothing.”

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

This composites technician is doing wet layup with little or no protective gear—nowadays the exception.

This time around, my first impressions were equally shocking. I visited a builder still using open-bucket polyester layups and watched a laminator smoothing out wet fiberglass with his bare hands; styrene fumes hung heavy in the air. Fortunately, this turned out to be the most egregious example. Almost everywhere else, I witnessed improved working environments, albeit with plenty of lapses. At my final stop, one of the Robertson and Caine facilities, I saw the highest level of environmental awareness, with the majority of the workers wearing protective clothing and, where appropriate, respirators and goggles.

Just one year on the job, Robertson and Caine’s new managing director, Peter Giliam, comes from decades in the automotive industry, mostly with BMW. He approaches boatbuilding with a very different sensibility and cultural background from those who have risen through the shop ranks. Giliam: “Every executive meeting, every manufacturing meeting, and every factory meeting now starts with the topic of health and safety. We go through the COIDA [Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act] cases, discuss each one, and often come to new realizations. This leads to implementation of actions or fixes. We also go through non-COIDA cases.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

At Robertson and Caine, there’s dust extraction and workers are is fully kitted up with protective gear.

“We have a monthly health-and-safety steering committee meeting which I, along with the rest of the executive team, attend. This includes the factory managers, HR manager, the EHS [Environmental Health and Safety] manager, safety reps, senior nurse…. We follow a formal structure, which includes tracking and reportback by the factory managers on all cases…. EHS disciplinary measures are also being more consequentially implemented. For example, where associates transgress safety requirements (e.g., not wearing appropriate face and lung breathing apparatus) after having signed for being trained, they are disciplined. We are not where we need to be, but we have made significant progress in the last year.”

Air quality and sound levels are monitored in all the factories. “I am told on a regular basis that we are well within limits,” Giliam says.

Open Bucket versus Resin Infusion and Vacuum-Bagging

Improvements in working conditions are also being driven by technological changes. Almost all boatbuilding in 2002 was done with open-bucket lamination, in which teams of workers inside the female mold for a hull rolled on buckets of catalyzed polyester resin in a near-suffocating styrene-loaded atmosphere. Today, more and more of the hull and deck structures are laid up using resin infusion or vacuum-bagging, with either polyester and vinyl­ester resins or epoxy.

The leader in this technological shift has always been Southern Wind. It builds semi-custom carbon monohull superyachts. The company was bought out of bankruptcy in 1991 by Willy Persico, who had a boat in build at the time. Under his capable leadership the company weathered the recession and has grown to 300 workers, producing five spectacular models between 82 and 115 (25m and 35.1m) in length. As early as 2006, Southern Wind introduced resin infusion and post-curing for its hulls in temporarily constructed ovens, a massive undertaking with boats of this size. It has always been known for its skilled labor force. Sadly, Persico’s unexpected death in 2018 put a question mark over the future of the company.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

At Robertson and Caine a technician removes a vacuum bag from a molded part. All the company’s hull and deck
pieces are vacuum-bagged or resininfused, significantly reducing the release of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere.

Southern Wind is no longer the only South African boatbuilder constructing giant resin-infused hulls. Mark Delaney at Two Oceans currently has under construction an 82 and an 85 (25m and 25.9m) sailing cata­maran and a 110 (33.5m) power cat­amaran ferry. In a separate factory, he builds “small” boats, such as a 70 (21.3m) sailing catamaran. Founded in 1989, Two Oceans has evolved into one of the few yards in the world that can build really large custom catamarans, some in resin-infused post-cured carbon and some in resin-infused E-glass. Working with partner naval architects, it provides a full range of services, from conceptual design, through mold and plug building, to finished turnkey projects. The systems design, fabrication, joinery, and installations are done in-house. Individual projects take up to two years to complete.

Almost all the other builders I visited, including Phoenix/Xquisite, Matrix, Nexus/Balance, St. Francis, and Robertson and Caine also now employ either resin infusion or vacuum-bagging for their hulls and decks and, in some cases, various molded components, bulkheads, and elements of interior joinery. Another newcomer, Vision, which I was keen to visit but ran out of time, does the same. The builders of the higher-performing catamarans are extremely weight conscious. Peter Wehrley, the owner of Matrix, weighs his 60 and 80 (18.3m and 24.4m) boats regularly throughout the build. At Nexus, all bulkheads and other furniture structures are cored and vacuum-bagged, with carbon around the openings to provide the necessary strength with reduced weight.

This widespread use of sophisticated construction techniques was the most significant technical development since my previous visit in 2002. Nevertheless, there is still a fair amount of open-bucket lamination, especially in the less weight-conscious boats, with most bulkheads and other structural elements hand-tabbed into place.

Choices in Hull and Deck Construction

Among the eight catamaran builders I visited, I saw five distinctly different methodologies for hull and bridge deck construction.

Maverick Yachts and St. Francis have single-piece female molds. Celtic, Phoenix/Xquisite, and Robertson and Caine mold the bridge deck and the inside halves of the two hulls in a single mold, mold the hulls’ outside halves separately, and then bond the outside halves to the inside halves. Matrix, which builds heavily customized 80′ catamarans, has a split female mold in which the hulls are constructed and then bonded to the bridge deck.

Nexus/Balance, which builds a 52 (15.8m) catamaran and a 60-footer, lays up the two halves of the hulls separately, bonds them together, and then bonds on the bridge deck. This leaves considerable additional construction work at the fore and aft ends of the hull-to-bridge-deck joints. The areas are filled in with strip-planked foam, laminated over, and the laminates vacuum-bagged in place.

Two Oceans, which builds fully custom boats, constructs one-off female molds for the hulls and deck on each boat, with the molds subsequently disassembled.

The deck structures for the boats are molded in one or more pieces, some of them extremely complex, and then laminated into place. One way or another, for all the builders, extensive joints between the various pieces of the basic hull-and-deck structure still require a lot of bonding, fairing, grinding, and hand-sanding. Everywhere, I saw large teams of workers engaged in this labor-intensive build method, made possible by the cheap labor in South Africa.

  • A 60' (18.3m) lightweight catamaran is under construction at Matrix Yachts.

Stick-Built versus Molds and CNC Machines

The interiors on all but the largest cats are typically constructed before the cabin and saloon tops are put in place. The amount of tooling for interior construction varies widely. A builder such as Robertson and Caine, producing significant numbers of more-or-less identical boats, can afford to invest in molds for interior modules, thus minimizing labor. Additional joinery is produced in a separate factory, with increasing use of CNC machining. A focus for Giliam is to improve the accuracy of the hull, deck, and bulkhead installations to minimize the fit-out required when various modules are dropped into place. In contrast, the interiors for the lower-volume builders are hand-cut and hand-built, with the carpentry shop either on the shop floor alongside the boat (which requires a lot of climbing up and down) or on a mezzanine level with the back of the boat.

St. Francis Marine, founded by Duncan Lethbridge in 1990 and now run by Rob Brennan, formerly of Robertson and Caine, is an outstanding example of the hand-built tradition. The yard has built 70 boats since it started, and now constructs three or four of the current 50 (15.2m) model each year, every one significantly customized with hand-built carpentry and not a single piece CNC-cut. It takes six people six weeks to lay up a resin-infused hull, with a similar labor force and timeline for the vacuum-bagged cabintop. The boats move every couple of months from one construction bay to another as the builds progress. For the interior fit-out, the carpentry shop is level with the back of the boat, enabling the carpenters to move rapidly in and out as they measure, cut, and fit the individual pieces. The result is a beautifully finished boat with a loyal coterie of owners.

Cutting-Edge Systems

Historically, South African boatbuilders have been conservative with systems installations, preferring to stick with what they know rather than taking risks on new technologies. There are good reasons for this, especially when it comes to such exotic things as electric- and hybrid-propulsion systems. The recent history of boatbuilding is peppered with some instructive failures (including a serial hybrid in a Robertson and Caine catamaran about a decade ago); many were very expensive risks, and some drove builders under (this also contributed to the collapse of Gunboat). Nevertheless, some cautious experimentation with electric and hybrid systems is under way.

Voyage Yachts was founded in 1994. In 1995 it was the first catamaran company to create its own charter base in the British Virgin Islands, initiating a business model that has subsequently been copied by other brands. The company builds four models from 45 to 60 (13.7m to 18.3m). One of these, a Voyage 480 launched in December 2018, has an electric-propulsion system from Oceanvolt. This comprises a 15-kW shaft-drive 48V electric motor in each hull connected to a 35-kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion-battery pack from Valence Technology, and charged via a Fischer Panda DC generator and 1.6 kW of solar panels. The boat recently completed a passage from South Africa to the Virgin Islands, where it entered charter service. Voyage reports that at average sailing speeds, 1 kW can be generated off each variable-pitch propeller by allowing them to freewheel. Vision is building a similar boat. At least in part driven by the “buzz” around the electric Voyage 480 and the Vision 44, St. Francis has a customer seriously interested in a similar version of the St. Francis 50.

While it’s too early to determine whether vessels such as these represent a turning point or another failed experiment, the technology is certainly considerably better than it has been in the past, which bodes well.

Ian Stopforth and Jo Solivio, two of the founders of Voyage, sold their share to the other two founders, Robin and Jo-Ann Downing, in 2013 to focus on a separate venture, SeaShuttle International. Among other things, SeaShuttle has developed an interesting high-speed hydrofoiling passenger catamaran, branded the Stealth 380, built in Cape Town, which began service in the Maldive Islands in 2015. As it has proved to be a success, Stopforth sees the potential for a significant expansion of the fleet.

It’s an interesting quirk of the South African industry that the majority of new boats of any size built there, including the Stealth boats, have electrical systems installed by a single company: Multimarine Electrical (MME), owned by Peter Swanepoel. His teams of installers move from one South African boatbuilder to another as needed. MME makes up electrical panels and other components in its shop. Swanepoel’s customers use mostly conventional wiring and circuit breakers, although MME has also done some digital switching systems. The various electrical components are sourced from PowerSol, run by Bruce Robinson, a closely related business two doors down the street. Swanepoel and Robin­son originally shared a facility but outgrew it, and Robinson moved out. They will shortly move back together into new and larger premises.

During the tour I also met Tim Duncan, the owner of Celtic Yachts, who did the woodwork for Admiral Yachts, which at one point was building 20 boats a year but went under in the recession. Duncan bought the molds for a 40-footer (12.2m) and a larger model, made a significant number of changes, and went into business as Celtic in 2011. So far, he has built five boats. He does his own electrical installations with an interesting approach to a distributed-power system but without digital switching. In essence he scatters seven conventionally wired electrical subpanels around the boat, each powered from a conventional circuit breaker in the main panel, which eliminates a significant amount of the wiring required for a central panel at the navigation station.

One or two of the other builders also do their own electrical installations, with most now implementing digital-switching systems (DSS), predominantly from CZone. Notable among these is Phoenix, a company that builds three to six boats a year solely for the Xquisite brand. The electrical installations are immaculate—undoubtedly one reason Xquisite won Sail magazine’s annual “systems” award a couple of years ago.

Robertson and Caine

Towering over all the other builders in the scale of its operations is Robertson and Caine, though its involvement in catamarans is, in many ways, accidental. As I wrote in 2003, the company “goes back to a time when a couple of enthusiastic young boatbuilders, Lex Raas and John Robertson, built a number of boats together—all monohulls—in Cape Town. Raas moved on to Bénéteau, and Robertson went into partnership with Jerry Caine [who died in 2000 in a motorcycle accident—Ed.]. In due course, Raas joined The Moorings…as director of logistics (later becoming president and chief operating officer).” Raas persuaded The Moorings to introduce catamarans to its charter fleet. “Raas and Robertson got together with noted catamaran designer Alex Simonis…to produce the Moorings 45 (13.7m), known as the Leopard 4500 in the non-charter market, and in this way the ‘cat connection’ was born.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

The busy production lines at Robertson and Caine are fed in part by demand for charter catamarans in the Caribbean following significant losses from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

“Introduced in 1995 and specifically designed for the requirements of the charter industry, the Moorings 45 was an overnight success. It soon spawned the Moorings 38 and 42 (11.6m and 12.8m), also marketed as the Leopard 3800 and 4200. Demand was such that Robertson and Caine turned its entire production facility over to building catamarans for The Moorings. By 2002 production was running at 35 to 40 units a year. A subsidiary was spun off to build the huge Leopard 62 (18.9m) for private sales and charter use.”

The year after my visit, a near catastrophic underestimation of the build cost of its first powercat came close to pushing the company under. It was bailed out by The Moorings. John Robertson brought in outside capital in 2007 to expand the business. An additional round of $25-million funding in 2015 resulted in another major expansion, together with a 10-year renewal of an exclusive distribution-and-supply agreement with TUI Marine, the company which at that time owned The Moorings and also the Sunsail charter fleet (TUI Marine was subsequently sold to Travelopia).

In August and September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the Caribbean, devastating the charter fleets. Hundreds of boats were destroyed. In the aftermath, The Moorings and Sunsail poured in resources to rebuild their bases and fleets. Robertson and Caine engaged in a rapid capacity expansion. Today it has four boatbuilding factories and a joinery factory. Despite building close to 200 boats a year—almost four a week—it has been unable to keep up with demand from Travelopia, which recently bought 15 catamarans from French builder Lagoon, the first catamarans The Moorings or Sunsail has ever bought from another supplier.

Expansion Trials and Tribulations

I asked Giliam about the Lagoon purchase and whether he saw it as a breach in the dike that has for decades protected Robertson and Caine. Giliam: “There is an agreement between Robertson and Caine and Travelopia that if their demand exceeds what we can supply, they can procure elsewhere. Equally, if we can build more boats than Travelopia needs, we can sell them elsewhere.” He is concerned that if the company expands too fast, it could get burned in the next recession. “It is no good chasing every sale; we need to drive sustainable growth,” he said. At one point there was a plan to consolidate Robertson and Caine into one giant facility, but Giliam would prefer to see two or three, because, “in a downturn it is better to have more than one facility so that the business has more operational flexibility.”

Over the years, during the expansionary phases, Robertson and Caine has struggled to maintain quality control. Giliam has significantly strengthened and tightened up the QC processes. We also discussed the difficulty of finding adequate numbers of skilled workers, a common issue in the boatbuilding trade. He noted that they are working hard on training, and commented: “We need to transition into a learning organization.”

Giliam is clearly enjoying the challenges he faces: “This is the best job I have ever had.” Among other things, he noted: “Robertson and Caine has enormous potential. This company is 100% South African, and 100% of our boats are exported. I can’t think of another South African company that can claim that. It’s an amazing story.” It will be interesting to see in two or three years’ time what changes he has succeeded in bringing about with his automotive background, obvious enthusiasm, and a hungry market.

South African BoatbuildersNigel Calder

A roomy Robertson and Caine catamaran nears completion. Note the various checklists taped to the partition (center of the photo).

A Slow Transition

In 2003 I observed that “South African boatbuilders appear poised to continue their rapid growth…. In reality, the chief advantages South Africa currently enjoys over most other boatbuilding nations are its low labor costs and low overhead costs, combined with skilled supervision, excellent quality control, and leadership from enthusiastic and energetic entrepreneurs who love boats. The more labor-intensive a boat, the greater the potential competitive advantage, suggesting that the future lies in semi-custom and custom boatbuilding, perhaps challenging New Zealand and other countries in the superyacht marketplace.”

My assessment today is not markedly different, although the recession ended the dreams of explosive growth, and subsequently other low-cost-labor countries, notably China, jumped into the custom and semi-custom marketplace, intensifying competition. In the catamaran world, the French are the biggest player, not only at the high-volume end of the market, where the dominant Lagoon brand is now making inroads in North America, but also in the custom and semi-custom marketplace. Nevertheless, South African boatbuilders have maintained their niche in the catamaran world, with a slew of beautiful boats that have market appeal. Absent another recession or other major setback, the pieces appear to be in place for this to continue.