Opinion: Why You Have To Go To South Africa If You’re In The Market For A Cruising Catamaran

Opinion: Why You Have To Go To South Africa If You’re In The Market For A Cruising Catamaran

South Africa manufactures 30 percent of the world’s cruising catamarans, and many of them are made at low-volume, family shops by artisan builders who have taken boats across oceans and are veterans of the Cape of Storms.

Second only to France, South Africa’s catamaran production is important to the country’s economic future.

Boat building has been targeted as one of the key sectors to revive South African manufacturing and help the country’s economic recovery, BusinessDayLive reported.

President Jacob Zuma is scheduled to lead a South African trade mission to France July 11-12, and ship building is one of the five exports he’ll be promoting, according to a press release. Automotive, aircraft, aquaculture, and energy sector products are the others.

Tim Murphy, editor of U.S.-based Cruising World, traveled in December to Cape Town and the Eastern Cape to meet South African boat builders, tour their yards, and sail some catamarans.

“If you’re in the market for a new cruising cat, it’s a trip I recommend,” he said.

What Murphy found, he said, surprised him: a unique blend of business conditions in South Africa that contribute to the industry’s success, and “some of the lightest, stiffest, highest-­tech sailboat structures available anywhere in the world.”

Three forces shape any business environment, Murphy said: labor markets, government regulation, and procurement of materials and components.

South Africa’s blend of these ­forces is unique. The big-ticket items are not labor or real estate or marketing, but components and equipment from abroad.

Cape Town is the hub of South African boat building. The materials suppliers, sail makers, riggers and boatyard crews are there in the industrial areas of Woodstock, Montague Gardens and Atlantis. Other boat building pockets lie farther east, past Cape Agulhas and along the Garden Route and Eastern Cape coastlines, especially St. Francis Bay and Knysna.

Robertson and Caine, South Africa’s largest boat-builder, will build 175 boats this year at four separate plants near Cape Town, Murphy said. They manufacture for the export market. Many of the other South African boat builders produce just a handful of yachts each.

South Africa’s most distinctive feature is its labor market, Murphy said. The legacy of apartheid and its aftermath shape business, creating opportunities and constraints that unlike any you’ll find elsewhere.

Boatbuilding jobs are welcome, and the industry encouraged in South Africa. The going rate for an entry-­level laminator, according to one Cape Town builder, is $2.70 per hour. Highly skilled workers earn $6.70 per hour. That amounts to annual salaries of $5,000 to $13,000. By contrast, a recent study by the U.S. state of Maine showed the ­average marine-trades salary there to be just over $40,000.

As an industry, South African boat builders are working to develop the necessary trade skills among potential employees. Trade groups like the South African Boat Builders ­Export Council and Marine ­Industry Association South ­Africa collaborate with False Bay College on a three-year yacht and boat-building program that combines classroom work with apprentice­ships. Every Cape Town yard Murphy visited employed students from the program.

From Cruising World:

South Africa’s blend of boat building skills, maritime culture and ­labor rates distinguishes it from every ­other boat building region. At the heart of that distinction lie the differences between high-production and artisan approaches. A 45-foot cruising cat from a high-volume yard might be built in around 5,000 man-hours, on assembly lines that employ advanced organizational techniques to reduce labor hours. Each boat ­designed for this high-volume business model must appeal to a broad demographic of sailors, which might include charterers.

By contrast, one South African builder told me his company ­invested 20,000 man-hours in a 40-­footer; ­another estimated between 25,000 and 30,000 man-hours for a performance-­oriented 50-footer.

Neither business model is ­clearly better or worse than the other. ­Rather, it’s a fundamental qualitative choice. There are advantages to owning a boat from a well-­capitalized company whose practices over dozens or hundreds of units have been standardized.

More labor hours ­aren’t obviously an advantage until you go aboard the boat and assess for yourself how well those hours were spent. From one artisan-style yard to the next, the answer will not be the same. Building on a small scale means that the personality and the choices of the builder will be more indelibly stamped into the boat, for better or worse. But what’s indisputably a good thing across the spectrum of builders is that there’s such a range of choice.