Boatbuilding legend bows out after remarkable career

It is Friday afternoon and Milton Coplan is looking wistful. It could be the weather, the sigh of springtime settling across False Bay as we sit down in his St James home.

Or it could be that I have come to talk about his retirement plans, because at 93 Milton Coplan has finally conceded that it may be time to call it a day, for a while, at least until his next hip operation is done and dusted.

By his own admission Milton has been a dismal failure at retirement. He was supposed to put his feet up about fifty years ago after a lengthy stint in the engine room of the South African economy where he worked mostly as Johannesburg factory manager for industrial giant Cape Gate. But instead of heading off to his beach house, he bought a Johannesburg boat yard “as a retirement plan” and went on to become one of the country’s foremost builders. In a little over three decades he has built a sizeable fleet of boats, the vast majority over 30 ft. During his ‘retirement’.  He built a wooden dhow by himself, aged 91.

If his boats match his physical pedigree they will still be around long after the sea dries up.

Even with a slight stoop Milton cuts an impressive figure, with penetrating eyes and a quiet intelligence. He wears comfortable loafers, a diamond pattern jersey, and a pair of detachable spectacles around his neck.  His hairline may be disappearing over the top of his head and the sun may have added a few blemishes here and there, but it’s easy to imagine the young man who set off for Africa from England in his early 20s.  Milton’s lust for life still sparkles, vital and urgent, beneath the veil of years between us.

Born in Los Angeles and reared in England – his parents moved across the pond when he was four – Milton and his family were evacuated from London to avoid the bombing raids of the Second World War. He was 12, and can still clearly recall the German bombers rumbling in at night above Bournemouth. “It was the German route into the midlands. All night they were coming over. They did drop a few bombs,” he says with typical understatement.

Milton’s life story unfolds across a broad sweep of history.

And it was a quirk of administrative history that steered Milton to Rhodesia in 1950 and not to South Africa as planned to join relatives who had founded Cape Gate, then a relatively small gate manufacturing business in Cape Town. “I was told I would need to return home (to England) to apply for South African residence, and so I went to Rhodesia to apply there,” explains Milton. “And I ended up staying there for 14 years.”

He started work in the hardware business and gradually built up a successful partnership. It was during this time he started building boats in his workshop, both as a hobby and 12ft—14ft ‘run-abouts’ for boating enthusiasts. One of his earliest commissions was a Cabin Cruiser destined for Lake Kariba. “It was sunk very soon afterwards – it rammed a tree after Kariba had filled up with water,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Milton is not one to crow about his abilities, but it is clear has always enjoyed a knack for hands-on work.  “I used to build model aeroplanes all the time. I remember my mom screaming at me to do my homework.  It was a skill he put to good use throughout his career, and explains his penchant for boatbuilding, which he concedes was strangely incongruous in Rhodesia where, before Kariba was built, he used to trial his boats on Lake McIlwaine (now called Lake Chivero). In trademark self-effacing style he says his one claim to fame is once being Rhodesia’s unofficial inboard hydroplane speed champion. The downside was three bouts of bilharzia which at that time required lengthy treatment.

One suspects he might have stayed in Salisbury (now Harare) were it not for the economic turmoil occasioned by the breakup of Northern Rhodesia /Nyasaland which prompted him to relocate to Johannesburg. “At the time my cousins who ran Cape Gate were busy with a ‘changing of the guard’ – one of the sons took it over. They wanted to open up in Jo’burg and they asked me to come and join. That was 1965.”

“They bought a factory there and started expanding it.”

The move brought him into close contact with his new boss, the soon-to-be famous industrialist Mendel Kaplan who at one time was considered one of South Africa’s wealthiest people.  For a while boatbuilding took a back seat as Milton accelerated along a career path that was to last over 30 years,  assuming ever more responsibility until he was charged with growing Cape Gate’s international footprint via an independent export company.  He found himself soaring around the world in the company’s own 12-seater jet, buoyed by the former South African government’s export incentive scheme.  “I sold to 32 different countries. The business was highly profitable.”

Boats were never forgotten, however, notably a passion project involving a GP14 which Milton started building with a friend in Rhodesia. He explains: “We had decided to build a sailing boat and sail it to Seychelles, but before the boat was half way through I moved down to Joburg.”

“We finally finished her in 1975, a very old fashioned triple keel, fibreglass hull. At that time there were sanctions and so we had to build the mast of laminated timber.”

Against the odds he and his friends finally launched in Beira, and took off on their long-awaited voyage despite the attentions of a British Corvette which was patrolling the area to enforce a trade embargo (on goods leaving or entering Rhodesia). “None of us had really been to sea before and the boat didn’t handle too well. It wouldn’t point. Every time we tried to point it would jibe and we had to do a 360 every time.”

But they eventually circled their way all the way to the Seychelles, none the worse for wear.

Milton remembers this trip as a seminal moment in his life, the moment the sea entered his soul.  He returned to work at Cape Gate but in his heart he was still halfway out to sea.  He had already started buying boats as a hobby, and finishing them off, a treacherous pastime for some but not for those like Milton who generally finished what they started.  It was a hobby that led him to Joburg yard owner Henry Vink, who operated out of Walkerville as the country’s official builder of Van der Stadt monohulls.  From Vink Milton bought the hull, deck and bulkheads for various boats and was about to start on a Stadt 34 when Henry was killed in a motorcar accident.  One thing led to another and within a few months Milton had not only a Stadt 34 but Henry Vink’s entire business.  “I took over the business with all the staff,” says Milton of the rather surprising move. “At that stage I was due for retirement (from Cape Gate) although I still had another five years to go. But I bought it with retirement in mind.”

“Then I retired from Cape Gate (early) and went to live out in Walkerville.”

Thus began an entirely new chapter in Milton’s storied manufacturing history, spanning both leisure and commercial boatbuilding.

Having taken over the Joburg yard Milton was faced with a dilemma. The domestic monohull market was in decline, already saturated. In contrast there was a growing global interest in multihulls. Milton regrets taking a while to make the switch: “I suffered the same resistance to change as the Brits because I was a monohull man. Sailing a Cat is not the same as sailing a monohull.”  He built another 14 Van der Stadt monohulls before making the switch to multihull moulds he bought from a Cape Town builder.

Milton’s artisan eye soon resulted in mould modifications, the result being the now well-known 34ft and 44ft Ocean Spirit models.  When the dust had settled on his career he had built about 50 of these vessels, much of the work with his own hands. In true Hydroplane tradition, he was not one to take a back seat.

When he reflects on his career he considers himself to have been ‘a jack of all trades’, able to marry his experience in business management with the grunt and grind of the factory floor. He credits his colleagues, notably his long-time partner Dawie, with bringing critical skills needed to sustain a busy yard in a highly competitive sector. The pair continued to work together up until six months ago when Milton sold the business, crossing the finishing line of an extraordinary career.

Milton is looking wistful again as we take in the view from his St James home. He came down to Cape Town earlier this year for a doctor’s appointment, and decided to stay. It’s easy to see why. We’ve been chatting for an hour but there’s an unspoken truth simmering just beneath the surface as we survey the yachts leaning across False Bay: in life, as in sailing, you never know how much wind is left in your sails. “Both my parents died at 70 and for some reason I thought I would too,” he chuckles, tickled by the thought. “If you’d told me then that I’d still be around at 93, well, I’m not even sure I want to be around at 93.”

“I didn’t make long term plans.”  He smiles.

Milton’s life story is proof that you don’t always need to chart a detailed course to go the distance.

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