It may sound far-fetched but it’s true: South African history is the story of quality rigging.
Would Vasco de Gama have gotten far without some decent sailmakers? Jan van Riebeek would have stayed a desk clerk if it wasn’t for mahogany masts and trusses.
The same goes for South Africa’s celebrated boat building industry, an export success story in recent years; where would it be without the underlying infrastructure of service providers and artisans who keep the whole ship moving, no matter the economic headwinds.
So says founder and long time managing director of Associated Rigging, Warren Fraser, who this week started work on boat number 13 491. By the time you read this he would have rigged up quite a few more. While aluminium hulls and fibre-glass decks may hog the headlines, rigging is quietly getting the job done, says Fraser. “I speak for many others who are part of the service sector as opposed to boat builders – they often don’t include all the figures into what boat building is all about. If they did then total turnover would look a lot rosier.”
Associated Rigging is a case in point. It cranks up big numbers yearly dealing directly with the foreign cruising fraternity. “They spend bigger even though the overall number of vessels is a small percentage of the annual number,” says Fraser. “Interestingly the spend accounts for a much larger portion of annual income – money coming into the economy from outside sources.”
Fraser, who founded his company in the early 90s, has grown it into a dominant player in the marine services environment. His clients include several top boat builders with most imported products, as well as custom engineering for a wide variety of clients. While industry behemoths like Sparcraft and Southern Spars are pushing out the big numbers, Associated Rigging has been plugging the gaping hole in the market for customised services, for builders and sailors and everybody in between.
Take for example Fraser’s recent heroics with Lisa Blair who was dismasted in the Southern Ocean last year while attempting to become the first woman to circumvent Antarctica – an unlikely but grateful Associated Rigging client. She detoured 900 nautical miles to get fixed up in Cape Town. “Alerted to Lisa’s dilemma, we met with various role players in the local yachting industry and following her arrival on 13th April 2017 we all kicked into high gear in an effort to help her on her way,” said Fraser of the incident on his website. “Facing considerable budget and time constraints, Lisa purchased a suitable second-hand mast from a well-known local sailor whereafter we oversaw the refurbishment and upgrade of the mast and rigging to suit her particular boat and sailing requirements.”
For Fraser the story illustrates the vital – and often overlooked – contribution of service providers in making South Africa a global boat building and marine services brand.
As a former Sparcraft employee Fraser is well aware that smaller companies are unable to compete with the big volumes of the top global producers; the reason he left Sparcraft was to meet the demand for back-up installation and service. “I guess my mindset is more in tune with the local market and doing service and repairs, which is very much required. I mean you wouldn’t go along to BMW and buy a car without knowing there were all the accessories and repairs – it’s the same with boats.”
“I have a huge working relationship with Sparcraft and, going forward, with Southern Spars. It’s a win win. They build about six or seven masts for me every year, adding to this numerous related spars and all serious mast repairs.”
Despite the volatile currency Fraser remains upbeat about industry prospects and local skills training. He believes there is enough international business to keep local suppliers ticking over: “A lot of foreign guys are spending more money here,” he says, adding that Associated Rigging was reaping the benefits of business efficiencies on account of having matured steadily over the years: “There is plenty of work out there. Business is no worse than it was last year and in fact we have come off a run of about five years of substantial improvement. There’s no real reason for it other than that our business has matured – we are more efficient,” Fraser says.
For a nation founded on imported rigging components and hardware, South Africa isn’t doing so bad. Now we turn that hardware into our own stuff – and export it to the rest of the world.
Who knows what is next on the horizon.