Peter Roeloffze is not risk averse.  His latest venture may be his most ambitious

Peter Roeloffze It’s a windy route up through the Hout Bay suburbia to reach Peter Roeloffze. Turning off the main drag I skirt Imizamo Yethu township and stop for directions from a man in a roadside security kiosk;  “you go up up,” he smiles, waving towards the mountain.

I go up, as far as I can go, until I reach Roeloffze’s front gate which is unremarkable except for one thing – a 108-year-old yacht moored on a patch of disused vineyard.

It’s a fitting introduction to South Africa’s celebrity classic yacht, Brat of Dunkirk, born in the UK and now hovering above Hout Bay valley like a monument to a distant maritime past. She has travelled a circuitous route, racking up more sea miles along the way than a school of sardines. Her weathered bow planks wear century of storms; in her wooden lineaments are five generations of seamanship. When she first set sail, fresh out of the Camper & Nicholson yard somewhere south of London, my grandfather was still a virgin schoolboy in the Cape winelands.

Peter Roeloffze I am still comprehending this dizzying timeline, gazing up at the Brat’s slender form, when I am joined by the yacht’s current ‘custodian’ (he refuses to call himself ‘owner’). At 60-years-old Roeloffze is about half the age of his new acquisition and in much better nick, notwithstanding a slightly loose plank around his midriff. He is a bustling, bubbling, dynamo of a man with a swirl of gray hair bouncing along with him like a herd of sea horses. If he was a vessel he might be some kind of America’s Cup Racing Yacht, but it is easy to see why he has fallen in love with the Brat – because she smells of adventure.

Roellofze wastes no time in giving me an introductory history. Designed in 1913. Launched in 1914. Dodged the Great War and spent her adolescent years knocking about the northern hemisphere, dreaming of warmer climes. Then came the Second World War and a potential date with destiny – the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk. Roeloffze insists the Brat was there off the coast of northern France when the Germans advanced on around 200 000 British, French and Belgian soldiers who clambered into anything that could float in a mad dash to safety across the English Channel. Brat is a war hero, says Roeloffze (who knows a thing or two about heroics — more about that later) who invokes the yacht’s provenance as proof thereof: “The whole thing around evacuation of Dunkirk is a little bit of a grey area,” concedes Roellofze, “because unfortunately she was not registered as one of the boats that officially took part (in the Dunkirk Evacuation). “But we know that some 850 boats took apart and only once the evacuation was under way did one of the military guys realise that they need to record the event — and they ended up only recording 500 or so boats”

Shortly after the war the boat was bought by two military men who renamed her Brat of Dunkirk – clearly pointing to the yacht’s role at Dunkirk, according to Roellofze. “All the indications are there,” he says, adding that stories handed down to him from previous owners corroborate this version. “We are happy to accept that as a fact.”

Not so happy about this ‘fact’ is the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS), which has pointed out that Brat is not among the 500 little ships on its Dunkirk register. “Unfortunately, I can find no reference to a vessel called Brat taking part in Operations Dynamo, Aerial or Cycle,” said ADLS archivist John Tough in response to an email query. “She (Brat) has a draft of 6’1”, so it’s not surprising, as the requirement was for shallow drafted vessels,” Tough said.

But Roeloffze believes Brat of Dunkirk is true to her name, and even if she wasn’t he would love her all the same given what she has been through, whether off the coast of France or the Midmar Dam – Roeloffse is not about to cast her adrift because of historical uncertainty about her role in the Dunkirk rescue.

Peter Roeloffze There is also the startling story of Brat’s own rescue from an obscure back yard in Port Elizabeth, where she was discovered by local boat supplier Warren Fraser and relocated to the Hout Bay Yacht Club. He and SABBEX chair Bruce Tedder initiated the restoration project, but battled to find the necessary financial support. “Bruce and Warren had this idea of getting the community involved but as we know often dreams turn into nightmares,” explains Roeloffze, who nevertheless bought into the dream of preserving the boat. “Then Bruce approached me and asked whether I would I be interested in taking over the project. I always had a love for classic boats and cars and bikes and I know it just costs money. So I then came to my wife Cathy and I said what does she think about it. Her immediate answer was that we can’t afford it, neither from a time nor a financial point of view.”

“But then her next words to me were, can we afford NOT to let her be restored, because at that point they were going to leave her on a farm somewhere. In a couple of years’ time she would have been completely rotten.”

“That is still our idea (restoration) and we’ve had a couple of boat builders here. The problem is that it would cost R100 000 a month and you don’t know how many months.”

He said the ideal scenario was to use local artisans who would view the job as a kind of legacy project aimed at passing on the fast-disappearing skills associated with wooden boatbuilding & restoration: “If you look at artisans in this country, particularly in boatbuilding, I don’t think I’ve seen a guy younger than 50-years-old. Who is going to replace them? Where will they get their skills from?”

Roeloffze is under no illusion as to the enormity of the task; the restoration has failed a few times already, after all, and even he concedes the vessel is fast reaching the point of no return. It is now or never, with no guarantee of funding support from corporate South Africa.

Interestingly, Brat is not the first and only South African boating connection to Dunkirk (whether real or imagined). The comparatively youthful 37’ motorised yacht HMS Bounty, built in Durban in 1936, DID in fact achieve the coveted Association of Dunkirk Little Ships stamp of approval and as a result still displays the Royal Navy Flag. HMS Bounty may be on the register but she is about as far removed from Dunkirk as one could imagine, having become stranded in the Vaal River, at least according to the last reported sighting.

As much as Roeloffze’s plan might seem quixotic, even foolhardy to some, sceptics should spare a thought for what the man has already achieved, without much fanfare. In less than 20 years Roeloffze and his wife Cathy have established an entire winery where before was mostly mountainside. They started their first wine in 2004 and today Hout Bay Vineyards produces enough grapes for 20 000 bottles, from vineyards both on their mountainside property and scattered around the valley. The couple also built their own house using labour from the neighbouring informal settlement. “I had some experience in building; Cathy had never built a house before,” says Roeloffze of the impressive home peeping through a row of tall trees. “It has 35 tons of steel in it.”

Roeloffze does more than just talk the talk, in other words.

Peter Roeloffze It was the same with sailing, with Roeloffze soaring from zero to hero once Cathy had shared her enthusiasm (she already had extensive crewing experience). Roeloffze claims credit for starting a local development training school that has produced professional sailors, buoyed by the tale of his own path to business success in the packaging industry. “I came from an exceptionally poor background, but the fact is that there are people worse off. We don’t claim to be Samaritans but we have always believed that we want to give back.”

Embedded in Roeloffze’s life story are other rare achievements that suggest Brat of Dunkirk may have fallen into the right hands. Formation skydiving and provincial rugby are unusual items on a CV that may just lend itself to the high risk world of wooden boat restoration. Leaping out of an airplane at 35 000 feet with a hammer and a packet of nails is an apt analogy of Roeloffze’s latest adventure.

The tottering ladder fastened to Brat’s belly feels like a test of faith as I swing my legs onto the deck. For a moment I can’t help imagining a churning seascape to port and starboard; a glimpse, perhaps, of the magic that underpins this passion project. When I go in search of Roeloffze I find him down in the cabin, staring out at me from a century ago.

In a world where everybody is just time travelling around the sun, sometimes it helps to drop anchor into the past, to slow things down long enough to take a look around.

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