Breeding Cats in Cape Town

Boatbuilding skill, affordable labor, and favorable exchange rates are behind the rise of the South African-made multihull. A catamaran feature from our July 2008 issue

June 30, 2008

Admiral Yacht 368

There¿s plenty of elbowroom and square footage for growth at the new Admiral Yachts yard in South Africa. Here the company currently builds about eight to 10 boats a year, with hopes of increasing the number to 15 in the coming months. Andrew Burton

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Why has the catamaran emerged in South Africa, a country far from the usual centers of mainstream sailboat construction, as the boatbuilding genre of choice? CW sent an associate editor to get the answer directly from Cape Town’s boatbuilders.

Cape Town sits on the Atlantic Ocean side of the southern tip of Africa. It’s not quite all the way down into the infamous Roaring 40s, but it’s still blessed with more than enough breeze. Its famous landmark, Table Mountain, overlooks the city of 3 million and its busy harbor. It’s no surprise that Cape Town is a big sailing town. But why in this out-of-the-way place, 8,000 miles from the mainstream of boatbuilding in Europe and North America, do hundreds of cruising catamarans get launched every year?

“A large number of South African sailors are imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit,” says David Bird, the managing director of Admiral Yachts. “They looked around and saw cats as the future of cruising. It didn’t hurt that a lot of them cut their teeth sailing Hobie Cats, too.”


“Cape Town was home to a couple of talented catamaran designers in Alexander Simonis and Angelo Lavranos,” says Peter Johnstone, a member of the Rhode Island J/Boats family and now president of Gunboat, which builds high-end cats in Cape Town. “Their designs drove the industry, and the location is ideally suited for cruisers. It’s a long downhill slide to the cruising grounds of the Caribbean, making it a natural spot for boatbuilders to ply their trade.”

“The local market is small,” says Lex Raas, president of TUI Marine, which owns The Moorings and Sunsail, “so builders looking to grow have aimed at the world charter market, which is demanding catamarans.”

A dozen years ago, a few boatbuilders were already building catamarans, after finding they could profitably and reliably be delivered north. That’s when Raas, a South African sailor who was then director of logistics at The Moorings, got together with his boyhood friend, boatbuilder John Robertson. “The charter business needed more cats,” says Raas, “and I couldn’t get them built to our specs. John suggested he could deliver what I needed.” To put it mildly, that was the beginning of a fruitful partnership, and Robertson and Caine has now built hundreds of boats for The Moorings and Sunsail as well as for private owners under the Leopard brand.


When Peter Johnstone was ready to build himself a big, fast-cruising cat, he went to Cape Town and came home with not only a 62-footer, Tribe, but also a new business. “I chose Cape Town for the Gunboats because it’s got the right mix of skilled labor and low cost,” he says. “They do top-end work.”

A combination of a good reputation for South African boats and favorable exchange rates has greased the skids further. Along with R and C’s expansion, other builders have targeted the world market and flourished. Voyage Yachts builds boats for its own charter company in the British Virgin Islands. Dean Catamarans sells to, of all places, the other homeland of cat building, France. Others, such as St. Francis, build heavily customized models for private owners in the United States and around the world.

The building boom, thought, hasn’t been without hiccups. A few years back, two notable builders-Island Spirit and Charter Cat-went belly-up, taking customers’ money with them. Despite the embarrassment of many builders I spoke to, most feel they’ve been tarred with the same brush undeservedly. Some, like Admiral Marine, now offer a performance bond to customers as insurance. I also learned that Admiral Marine is finishing off the previously sold Island Spirit models and Sanderson Marine is building the Charter Cat boats.


The post-apartheid fears of disorder in the country have gone mostly unrealized, and the boatbuilding industry has continued to thrive. This is thanks, in part, to provincial and local governments that see the industry as a way to put a largely unskilled workforce on the road to financial security through the training they receive working for the builders, says Veda Raubenheimer, CEO of the Cape Town Boatbuilders and Technology Initiative. The other side of the coin is that the workforce comes pretty cheap, allowing South African boatbuilders to offer their products at an attractive price point for Europeans and Americans, even after taking into account fairly substantial delivery costs. A significant portion of the labor pool has now become skilled enough in their trades that they’re able to pick where they want to work. And their wages have increased with their skills. Still, most builders seem loyal to their workers and resist completely automating their plants in favor of keeping more people employed. Another facet of the South African-built boat is that it has to be built well. Thanks to the huge costs of shipping them to their destinations, most are sailed there, whether it’s the 8,000 miles to the U.S. East Coast or 3,000 miles to Seychelles.

Robertson and Caine
In 1991, Robertson and Caine built its first boat, a maxi monohull; later, it built the Mumm 36. Its partnership with The Moorings in 1996 took the business to the higher level at which it thrives today. R and C is now among the largest catamaran builders in the world.

Employing nearly 400 people in its current 323,000-square-foot facility and completing about 85 catamarans last year, Robertson and Caine plans to build more than 100 boats in 2008. Three quarters of its boats-all cats, and all performance-oriented cruisers-are branded with The Moorings name and destined for charter bases around the world. For most of these boats, the maiden voyage is an ocean passage of several thousand miles. The Moorings 4000 and the Moorings 4500 have both won awards in Cruising World’s Boat of the Year contests.


Because R and C has the biggest workforce and builds more boats than any other builder in the country, the company has to be the most organized. Its boats are completed on a production line with one team of workers assembling each boat from the time the hulls are joined. Teams compete to see which can complete their assigned boats with the fewest defects in the least time. R and C currently builds the Leopard 40 and 46, which, with minor changes to make them more suitable for the charter market, are called the Moorings 4000 and 4600; other versions of the same platforms are called the Sunsail 404 and 464. R and C also builds a powerboat called the Leopard 47, which The Moorings offers for charter as the Moorings 474 PC. Its design is based on the sail-rigged Leopard 46. All the boats are designed by the California-based team of Morelli & Melvin, which is famous for designing the late Steve Fossett’s record-breaking cat PlayStation, among other projects.

In late 2007, Robertson and Caine announced plans to construct a new manufacturing center in Atlantis, a few miles east of Cape Town. More than twice the size of its current operation, the new facility will allow the company to nearly triple production and double its workforce. Just as well, because plans are in the works to build several new Morelli & Melvin designs, including a 37-footer expressly for Sunsail and a 60-footer for The Moorings.

Admiral Yachts
When I toured the factory in October 2007, Admiral Yachts had 12 boats under construction in its new 65,000-square-foot facility, which gives its workforce of 65 a little more elbowroom in which to work than the plant the company recently vacated. Currently, the company delivers eight to 10 of its rakish cruising cats a year and expects to ramp that up to 15 now that it has the extra room. Thanks to the reputation earned with its 38-footer, when the company introduced the Admiral 40 last year, more than 15 boats were sold before hull number one got wet. When I was there, production was sold out through January 2009.

Most of the boats Admiral builds are sailed north on their own hulls for private owners in the United States. With a wide range of options offered, including extensive handcrafted interiors, each boat is a semi-custom work. All Admiral boats are certified by the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Dean Catamarans
Though most Dean catamarans are sold to owners in France, they’re now starting to appear in North America, too, distributed there by The Catamaran Company. Peter Dean Jr. runs Dean Catamarans, the company his father started in the late 1970s, in a relatively compact facility. The company employs 50 people to build per year about 10 Dean 441s, designed by Peter Dean Sr., and three of its interesting-looking Jag or Pax 550 power cats. The Deans believe asymmetric hulls are the way to go for their roomy cruising cats, with the flatter side inboard to reduce the wake between the hulls. The Dean 441 has a cruising-oriented, long-term liveaboard layout and philosophy. But despite sacrificing a little performance in favor of beefy construction, crews have reported some pretty decent passage times.

In contrast to the extensively wood-finished interiors of many South African-built cats, Voyage’s four sleek-looking models feature hardly a splinter of woodwork. From 44 to 58 feet long, all are designed by Angelo Lavranos, and with very little automation in any aspect of their building approach, the 120-man Voyage workforce stays hands-on throughout the building process. The company has incorporated feedback it’s received from guests aboard its charter fleet at Voyage Charters, in the British Virgin Islands, and over time, it’s steadily improved the livability of the boats.

All Voyages are sailed to the B.V.I. on their own bottoms, even the Voyage 450, which is a day-charter boat. About a third of Voyage’s annual production of 12 or 13 boats goes to the charter fleet, with the rest going to private owners, most of whom reside in the United States. The interior of the Voyage 580 is an example of modernist luxury, with the clean, eggshell-white surfaces carefully styled by managing director and in-house architect Tom Lubbe. The 580 and 440 are former CW Boat of the Year award winners.

SCape Yachts
SCape Yachts builds its Simonis Voogd-designed SCape 39 in three modes; the Day Charter version, with a high built-in canopy frame; the Open-Deck Cabriolet, with seating for sun-tanners on the bridgedeck; and the Sport Cruiser, which features a rigid, semi-enclosed central pod that provides shelter from the weather. Most are destined for Seychelles charter fleets.

These lightweight speedsters have fewer creature comforts than many of the other cats I saw-there’s no luxurious on-deck saloon and raised galley, as on the other boats-but the SCape delivers in speed what it lacks in luxury.

Jaz Marine
Finally, a monohull builder amongst all the cat aficionados! When I wandered into the shop at Jaz Marine, the first thing I saw was a new Owen/Clarke-designed Open Class 40 racing monohull designed with a carbon rig and sprit for racing in Class 40 events. Jaz Marine has made its name building custom yachts-it built two of the first four Gunboat 62s-with an emphasis on weight-conscious racing boats that makes the company’s workforce an ideal team to build a production catamaran. And sure enough, Jaz president Uwe Jaspersen told me one was in the works. Plugs for the new Island Hopper 37 had just arrived, having been milled to Jaspersen’s design on a five-axis router. The boat is conceived as a fast coastal cruiser, ideal for tropical climes where alfresco living is most appreciated. Accommodations for up to eight people will be found in the hulls on either side of the open bridgedeck.
At press time, Jaspersen told me that Jaz Marine had almost completed tooling for a catamaran for Moxie Yachts, a new company based in the United States. The first boats will be minimalist fast cruisers; these high-tech 61-footers are designed by VPLP, the renowned French design firm.

Late in my tour, I came to the Gunboat factory. These slick Morelli & Melvin-designed performance catamarans came about as a result of Peter Johnstone’s desire for a fast cruising boat for his family. After the interest that was shown in his 62-footer, he built three more at custom yards in Cape Town. Eventually, he decided to go into production at his own facility to satisfy demand.

In the factory, the first of the new Gunboat 66s was nearing completion, and a recently molded 48 stood right behind it. With an emphasis on performance, these boats are constructed of carbon fiber and other advanced materials. Everything is vacuum bagged to eliminate excess weight and ensure a consistent layup; even the bulkhead tabs are vacuum bagged. Watertight bulkheads fore and aft reduce the chance of sinking should the boat suffer a collision. The 120-man workforce is divided into three teams, with each working on a different model: the 48, the 66, and a new 90-footer. The plugs for the 90, I noticed, were being strip-planked in a couple of long sections of the plant. At press time, Johnstone told me he’s just sold and started tooling for an 80-footer, as well.

St. Francis Marine
Because these boats are built several hundred miles from Cape Town, I didn’t get to see this company’s factory, but I got aboard the gorgeous bluewater-oriented St. Francis 50 at the Cape Town International Boat Show. Strolling the docks, I was surprised by a sight that would’ve been more at home at the Annapolis or Strictly Sail shows. There, flying high, was a Cruising World banner proclaiming that the St. Francis 50, a semi-custom Angelo Lavranos design, was the 2006 Boat of the Year winner for Best Catamaran. It was nice to see such a familiar sight.

Quantum Sails and Sparcraft
With so many boats being built in Cape Town and throughout the surrounding areas, and considering the somewhat remote corner of the globe that these builders occupy, it’s no wonder that supporting industries abound. A couple of global companies, Quantum Sails and Sparcraft, have set up shop here and, because of the low cost of doing business in South Africa, have developed into major suppliers that ship their products around the world.

Because all these boats need sails, it was pretty much a no-brainer that lofts would appear to serve all the builders. By far the largest is Quantum, which employs 70 to 100 people, some of whom have been with the company more than 20 years. In addition to sails, most cats need some form of trampoline rigging, which Quantum also makes.

Sparcraft/Southern Spars makes the rigs for almost all the boats built in South Africa as well as manufacturing the carbon-fiber masts used in the Melges 32 and 24 and the Farr 40 classes worldwide. In addition, the company makes such components as the crossbeams used on many of the cats built in the country.

There are a few monohull builders in the Western Cape region of South Africa, including Argo Boats, the builder of the Farr 395 racer/cruisers, and Southern Wind Shipyard, which builds a line of sailboats from 72 to 100 feet.

But cats are Cape Town’s main product, and the fact that Cape Town is generally much windier and rougher than most places in North America may partly explain why cats are so popular. Another explanation came to me from a young woman I spoke to at one of the builders. “It’s going to be really hard to get some hot chick to go out on a boat that tips over and gets wet,” she said. “Especially when she has the choice of going out on a cat.”
When I went sailing on a windy afternoon aboard the Safari 50 day-charter cat iQ-built by Bongers Marine, yet another Cape Town cat builder-it was hard not to see the logic in what she had to say. We cruised around, having a ball driving the boat at up to 15 knots with a reef tucked in the main while our drinks stayed where we’d left them and, behind us, the clouds rolled in like a tablecloth over the mountain.

Andrew Burton is a CW associate editor.


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