Cape Town is one of the world’s premier sailing and boat-building destinations – and much of the city’s century-old yachting lifestyle is hidden in plain sight around the city.
The best contemporary example of Cape Town’s prowess on the international yachting scene sits alongside a busy freeway leading into the city’s Central Business District – several hundred metres from the ocean.
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It’s a factory for one of the world’s largest boatbuilders, Robertson and Caine, which supplies hundreds of yachts each year to the rich and famous, who sail them on the azure oceans of the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
From the road, the factory resembles little more than a large warehouse, but inside, it’s a production line that helps produce up to 200 luxury boats every year, most of which make their way to some of the most idyllic sailing destinations in the world.
Cape Town has a long history with sailing – from the arrival of the early settlers who bobbed into Table Bay and chose the city as a waypoint for expeditions to its modern-day placement as a distinction in major races such as the Cape to Rio and Clipper Round the World.
Paul van Tellingen, the current caretaker at the city’s Royal Cape Yacht Club, says Cape Town has long been one of the most important places in the global sailing fraternity.
“Traditionally, Cape Town, being the Tavern of the Seas, has a strong nautical culture, and yachting features strongly in that, especially in terms of leisure activities,” says van Tellingen. “It’s still one of the foremost venues in terms of leisure yachting, so obviously that creates a demand for boatbuilding organisations such as Robertson and Caine.”
Boatbuilding is an industry that is still very much active in Cape Town – both in supplying domestic and international demand — and Robertson and Caine is one of the oldest and biggest in the world in this regard.
Its factory is tucked between several nondescript warehouses in a busy industrial section of suburban Woodstock, and because it’s several hundred metres from the ocean, it’s hard to believe that it’s here that more luxury catamarans are built than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere.
“We’re launching three to four boats a week at the moment,” says managing director Peter Giliam. “They’re all between 40ft and 58ft in length, so these boats are big!”
The company’s goal for the future is even more impressive, with plans to streamline the production line to deliver more than 200 boats to the international market each year.
“The history of Robertson and Caine is interesting,” Giliam says. “In the early 1990s, John Robertson and Jerry Caine were building custom monohull boats. But then, at some stage, somebody advised them to switch to building catamarans, which they have now done until this day.”
The monohulls are a thing of the past, and instead, they now focus on the types of boats usually photographed on exotic waters.
It’s possible to buy a state-of-the-art 70ft racing yacht fresh off the factory floor, but most of its boats, which come either powered or for sailing only, are available in various lengths and are highly customisable.
Manufactured by hand
The Cape’s long boatbuilding history means that it has a global reputation for good quality, handcrafted boats. They’re built from scratch, mostly by hand, to meet the demands of the world’s most discerning yachties.
“At the moment, it’s still a real hands-on manufacturing industry,” says Giliam. “The manufacturing process will inevitably start to include more automation. We’re starting to move in that direction, but at the moment, it really is still a craft.”
Many of the luxury yachts sailing the Mediterranean, or Caribbean, started their lives on this Woodstock factory floor.
Once built, the yachts are moved via the back of a truck a few hundred metres to the nearby Royal Cape Yacht Club, where they’re craned on to freighters and delivered around the world.
“The United States soaks up most of the boats,” says Giliam. “But we also send them to places such as the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands, the Mediterranean and Australia.”
It’s also possible to purchase one in Cape Town and start a yacht life right from the famous V&A Waterfront.
“You can sail the boats directly from Cape Town,” says Giliam. “That’s part of the strength of the brand – that you can climb on to this boat as it comes off the production line, and sail across the ocean.”
Of course, that assumes that money is not a concern – and with boats like these, that’s seldom the case. An entry-level three-cabin, 40ft yacht, without any extras, costs around US$417,000. Throw in some luxuries, such as a sound and entertainment system, electric flushing toilets, carpets and full-length mirrors, and that total will inevitably keep climbing.
But not all of Cape Town’s sailing culture centres around luxury yachts.
“There are two sides to Cape Town’s yachting activities – the cruising fraternity and the racing fraternity,” says the yacht club’s van Tellingen.
The Royal Cape Yacht Club has produced some top international sailors over the years and also manages the famous Cape to Rio race – the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
But it’s the club’s Wednesday night fixture that offers the best example of Cape Town’s yacht racing spirit.
“Wednesday night sailing enjoys great support,” says van Tellingen. “Every Wednesday evening during the summer months, we host a social, leisurely race in False Bay. Its purpose is mainly to introduce newcomers to the sport, and to act as the anchor point for the social infrastructure of the club.”
Anyone who’s interested, even those with no prior experience, can arrive and sign up to act as human ballast on Wednesdays, and despite the club’s long history of successful competitive races, this is more a time to appreciate the social aspect of the sport.
“As on the golf course, a substantial amount of business is done as a result of Wednesday evening sailing,” says van Tellingen.
And even for those not looking to close a deal, or become the world’s next top yacht racer, there are few better, and free, ways to appreciate the city’s long history of sailing and beautiful views than from the back of a boat whipping through choppy waters of one of the world’s most picturesque bays.
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