Man on a Mission: Q & A with Kevin Fouché

There’s big news coming out of Knysna, where the Knysna Yacht Company has changed hands amidst an exciting new development phase involving the new 55ft K550.  Kevin and Rika Fouché remain an integral part of the team, but will ultimately be moving on – in their spanking new 550.  SABBEX asked Kevin about KYC, past and present.

  1. SABBEX: Great news about the new 550. Has this been on the cards for some time?

KEVIN:  The dream or vision started evolving from 16 years of feedback from our past and present owners who have tried and tested the Knysna cats. We also value feedback from delivery skippers providing practical information on system functionality and placement. Attention to “practical” detail is as important as attention to detail “finishes”.I was approached by a Knysna 500 boat owner requesting a bigger cat for his family and “co-partner”.  One of the conditions was to design the larger cat with a flybridge.I am very much an “ideas” man and the thought to extend our current production line with a 55-footer was very attractive.  The 2017 / 2018 international boatshows confirmed the growth in the bigger size market and we started doing research to design both a timeless and elegant catamaran to compliment the very successful Knysna 500 SE. We are not replacing the Knysna 500 model and it is super important to keep the unique, contemporary, sporty lines and timeless profile of the sistership.  The exterior styling and profile of the Knysna 500 attracts both multihull and monohull lovers.  Comfort on the one hand, performance on the other hand.Key points for us during the planning and negotiations is, as always, safe sailing; best value for money and attractive pricing; performance; strong and reliable long-distance cruiser yacht that can sail anywhere in the world in all kinds of sea conditions; an innovative deck plan with lines leading to the cockpit area which work well in a rough sea conditions and the complete isolation of the helmsman at the helm station avoiding going overboard in rough sea conditions, especially our sailing grounds -the Indian Ocean – ample natural light and headroom. We also favour common areas where you spend most of your time; these areas need to be spacious – cockpit, saloon and cabins.We are adding a signature swim and dinghy platform on the K550 allowing for close connection to the water and easy launching of sports equipment. Also, a great relaxing area for the sun worshipper.To design a “round-the-world” yacht all efforts will be focused on selecting equipment that is easy to service, maintain and understand plus it must be globally available.

  1. SABBEX: In your opinion what sets the 550 apart from other performance cruising cats?

Knysna Yacht Company’s philosophy is to design yachts for the private owner that can be semi-customised, thus bringing satisfaction to the client. This philosophy complements our boutique-style approach. Unlike many other boatyards we prefer to maintain low volumes. Our vision was always to be part of a boutique boatyard producing a handful of quality semi-custom yachts per annum for specific private owners.This journey commences the moment we start discussion around the table after the client commits to a legal builder’s agreement. The project and involvement give the yacht owner a chance to indulge and express his passion in a form that is entirely original and unique during the construction time of his yacht.  Another focus is to build the catamaran strong and light. Speed is important but accomodation as well. Our clientele is very specific, they are looking for a long-distance cruising yacht that can do serious ocean crossings and extended sailing, they want to be comfortable during this period. They are also living aboard permanently. Our aim is not to be the fastest cat on the water, our aim is to get the balance right between fast performance, comfort, and ease of operation.The starting point of negotiations with our designer is to have a fantastic cruising yacht that can perform in light wind. For this we need narrow hulls – which means compromising space inside.  The trick is to find a balance between quick sailing and comfort living while sailing with all the equipment such as a watermaker, genset, aircons onboard.  The sistership –  Knysna 500 SE is an easy to handle, efficient, practical and well-equipped performance catamaran.  Perfect for husband and wife couple crossing oceans with their families in safety with speed and luxury.She is on the top of the list of delivery captains worldwide -this is a compliment to any boatyard.  The Knysna 50ft was one of the 1st catamarans with a fully extended Coachroof protecting the entire cockpit. This was always a big drawcard for new owners due to climate changes and total protections from elements.

  1. SABBEX: South Africa seems to be going from strength to strength in this market segment, with a reputation for good-looking boats. What is the secret of our success?

South Africa is a great place to build yachts.  There is a huge population of good craftsmen and the South African Boatbuilding Academy also add the supply of skilled workers. Labour is also more affordable than countries such as USA, Europe and Australia. We have a programme in place to train people for a few months in a specific area of production – so when Maxwell Panda, our brilliant farer retires – we have someone young to take over from him.The mighty Indian Ocean is a comparative advantage in terms of quality and strength – yachts that sail here must be strong. This gives “peace of mind” to international sailors ordering boats from a SA boatbuilders.Our weak rand make the selling price more “attractive” but it is important to understand the cost of imports of material and to always prepare yourself for a stronger rand the following year. You can’t be artificially buoyant through currency fluctuations – you will get into trouble.

  1. SABBEX: Do you think the rival companies in this sector are feeding off each other and in so doing ‘lifting the ship’ so to speak?

KEVIN: Yes, that’s a nice way of putting it, competition is healthy and keeps the quality of craftmanship and technology in a good space. It also challenges the creativity of naval architect designers such as Du Toit Yacht Designs – versatility is key in this competitive market. All to the benefit of the buyer and the good name of South-African Boatyards.

  1. SABBEX: Have you drawn inspiration from other builders? Any you would care to mention here?

KEVIN: Grant Boshard and myself enjoy building yachts in South Africa, and we respect the commitment of the SA boatbuilders regardless of the challenges we are facing.  I have my favourites: I think John Robertson and Jerry Caine did a lot for the South-African boating sector and secured international trust in the ability to produce yachts of high standards.

  1. SABBEX: What about the Anton du Toit factor? He seems to be stamping a firm presence on the global stage.

The Knysna 500 is an Angelo Lavranos design and very successful. With the K550 on the cards we decided to use a SA designer as it is easier for the planning and to interact closer to home. We often travel to Cape Town to visit them. Du Toit Yacht designs have a good reputation in specialising in custom yachts. We enjoy working with Anton. His team is very professional and approachable. They understand the importantance of narrow hulls, fast sailing on a well-equipped yacht. We wanted to keep the “appearance” of the Knysna 500 brand, and the resemblance is noticeable between the sisterships. He has a brilliant versatile team of young designers – all in the good name of the marine industry of South Africa. His uniqueness in each design is very important to builders like myself.

  1. SABBEX: You mentioned a possible launch date of July 2019. Do you have any inkling where the first client might come from?

KEVIN: The 1st K550 will be a demo-boat for KYC. It is better as there will be less pressure and stress – we are aiming for a launch in 2019.  We do 90% on CAD, but I know on the mock-up we will change stuff from cabin to cabin — this is part of the fun and frustration.  There are times when I navigate by my “wits” which has served me well in the past based on experience as well as pressure and commitments. We have a very good team assisting me and we are extremely excited and committed.  We are very proactive with systems placement and needs to get this right from the start to avoid problems later.

  1. SABBEX: Are you seeing a shift towards bigger models?KEVIN: Clients want to replace their homes with a “floating” island villa, full of gadgets of homestyle comforts.

Lagoon has launched its new Seventy 7 flag ship along with a Powercat sister, the Seventy 8.   We saw the 77 ft at the Miami Boatshow and it was exciting to view. The new 67 ft Fountain Pajot was launched as the jewel in the crown of the FP flagship range.   I think there is a shift in the marine market, both ways – smaller and bigger. People are understanding the importantance of sharing quality time with their families — they want to do it earlier rather than later, the budget is important, and they will invest in a good size that they can effort.

  1. SABBEX: Knysna has long been a boat building hub, but trading conditions have been tough over the past couple of years and some yards are struggling. How do things look currently in the town?

KEVIN: We have a surprisingly number of businesses in Knysna involved in building and restoring boats. Knysna was proclaimed a port in 1817 largely because the forest of the area had become the country’s only economical source of timber. In 1820 the British Navy had established a shipyard on the banks of the estuary and in 1826 the “founder of Knysna” George Rex completed a 140 ton, 2-masted brig that was built out of Stinkwood which he christened “Knysna”. The harbour was sadly decommissioned in 1954. The town’s tradition of boatbuilding never died completely but did take something of a back seat for a few years.  During this time two international award-winning racing yachts were built in Knysna including Voortrekker and Albatross II – the latter winning the FIRST Cape-To-Rio Yacht Race in 1971.

We are facing different kind of problems compared with boatbuilders in Cape Town. The devastation of forest fires destroyed boatyards before – we faced the same fires in June 2017 that destroyed large tracts of indigenous forest. I believe +/- 1059 homes were destroyed and eight lives lost.  I doubt that any community could have rallied better – just 11 months after the blazes our little Garden Route town is returning to its picturesque splendour and will reclaim its position as one of South-Africa’s top tourist attractions and destinations. And the boat building continues!

Another issue is sailing through “The Heads”, an amazingly beautiful place as the two rock headlands form the entrance to the land. Swell, tide and wind affects the Heads daily. Entering and leaving can be extremely dangerous crossing the outer bar – which makes It difficult to take clients for test sails as well as for delivery captains to depart to various destinations as the vessel’s skipper takes the ultimate responsibility for any decision concerning navigation through the Heads. Ideally one should enter/leave the Heads around slack water.  A transit exists indicated by a forward white conical beacon surmounted by a white light signal flashing 3.0 seconds and a rear mounted pole on Leisure Island with inverted triangle and red-flashing light signals assist sailors. One can contact the local NSRI station 12 if in doubt as there is no radio base station in operation.

There is no real marine supply chain here in Knysna and the cost to courier 80% of equipment and material adds to the cost to produce the yacht.  Still, there is not other place in the world where I would have my boatyard.

  1. SABBEX: Do you think more could be done to promote Knysna as a boat building hub?  I see Cameron Searle is doing well promoting the vintage boating brand. Does this add extra sheen to brand Knysna?

KEVIN: I am not sure if the infrastructure and water supply will allow for too many boatyards, but it does offer job creation and brings visitors to our town. Current marine shops include Tait Marine, Knysna Marine, Vision Yachts, etc.

Cameron Searle is well connected in the tourism market and the spokesperson for the annual well attended “Knysna Antique & Classic Boat Show” where all restored vintage boats are on display. The Show attracts a lot of visitors to our town which is great for business and to market Knysna as a boat building hub.

 

  1. SABBEX: Tag yachts / Nautic Africa are in business rescue, but some order books are strong.  How do you see market prospects for the rest of the year? 

The key risks and challenges associated with boatbuilding include the concerns about the political stability and safety of South-Africa as a “supply-country” as well as the unclear laws of property ownership. Foreign investors are nervous to invest – this disturbs the entire export / import market which affects growth and job creations in SA.  Yacht builders with secured orders for 2018 and 2019 should find themselves in a “safe” place – hopefully the incomplete law (my opinion) of property ownership will have a positive outcome and solution for the future of all businesses in SA.

  1. SABBEX If you were Trade and Industry Minister with unlimited powers, what would you do for the boat building sector in your first 100 days?

KEVIN: Most foreign visitors at international boatshow am aware with the political instability of our country, the violence, etc. They are nervous to invest in SA. It is a reality.

The Dti, SA Consulate General in USA are major sponsors for the boatshows. The shows are the same each year, all the boats are parking in a row for people to view, each boatyard using own branding, different colours of carpets, etc on the SA pavilion. In short it lacks a “uniformed” appearance.

We must use the boatshow as a “platform” to promote South-Africa as a safe place to travel, visit and to invest.  The pavilion must “ooze” South-African hospitality while visitors enjoy viewing our boats.

My wife Rika and I attend boatshows worldwide; she loves going to the Cape Town Boat Show – any excuse to visit the V&A Waterfront as she enjoys the true African culture experiences and local talents, music and fire dancers and drummers. The V&A attracts +/- 24 million visitors each year and is the most visited destination in SA. Visitors are in awe and enjoy the “African” vibe and historical sights.

We need the same vibe at international Boatshows. Visitors must enjoy our hospitality and must learn more about our country in the time they spend on the pavilion to view the various boats, from the moment they enter to view our yachts until they leave.

SA branding carpets, flags, SA wines, even drumming and dancers – SA tourism and SA Airways must work together and offer a package deals (flights, hotels, game drive, holidays) for the client that plans to come visit a boatyard.  It will draw visitors to our country and boatyards.

Secondly,

I will contact the SA Consulate General in the USA to see if we can set-up a “South-African -Marine facility & offices” for South African export yachts specifically crossing from Cape Town to the Caribbean under the sponsorship of the Dti.

We (SA Boatbuilders) can use this a platform to ship material, equipment, parts, etc. (a “one-stop” facility) with skilled employees to assist, especially during the 2-year warranty period we all offer. There are many marine outlets in the Caribbean, they are extremely expensive and don’t always stock our products. We waited 3 weeks for a sail-drive to be shipped from Miami to Tortola and our yacht was caught in a hurricane while waiting. The agents claim they did not have stock while the CT branch had +/- 18 in stock?

It will be great to “deal” with the same people all the time at the facility and to build relations.

This will give “export” owners “peace of mind” as there wil be a strong presence and an infrastructure in place when needed while sailing. The “Caribbean marine outlet” will be on the route of all sailors leaving South Africa before crossing to the Med or Pacific Ocean.  Boat owners can contact the yards while en route between SA and Caribbean if they need anything and it will be ready on arrival. Trinidad and Grenada have good infrastructure to set up a SA-facility as the hurricanes seldom happens here. Perhaps businesses like Garmin, Seaport Supply, Harken, etc, can rent space in the marina to do business.

  1. SABBEX: What’s next for Kevin Fouche? 

KEVIN: There is plans of retirement in the next few years, and I am playing more of a mentoring role these days with Grant Boshard at the helm of Knysna Yacht Company. He is a very likeable man with many years of experience in the implementation of systems and processes. His aim is to increase efficiency in the manufacturing processes. He has the support of our amazing team of 48 workers, some of whom have been with us since 2002. Our present boat owners like him and can work with him. I will be around for a few years and still be involved with the boat shows and sales.

I do have a wanderlust; the sea is a draw, I do love being on the water, there is something incredibly liberating about sailing, very much our “zen-space” and we enjoy spending time on our “Knysna 500 cat” in the Seychelles. But, I am always happy to go home to my family, job and my country

I am also busy building my Whisper glider and hope to have this finished soon.

  1. SABBEX: If you had a year to build your dream boat with unlimited funds, what would you build?  And where would you go? 

 KEVIN: A Knysna 550 Sailing Yacht for the Caribbean and Pacific Islands and a Knysna 550 Motor Yacht for exploring the Mediterranean finding the best kite-surfing spots on the globe!

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