With one elbow planted on his desk, Nic Stevens holds aloft a sheet of paper. “This is how it all starts,” he says in triumph.

We are sitting in his workaday office in Vredenburg, just metres away from three giant warehouses where various boats rest half-finished in weekend slumber. Apart from Nic’s Rottweiler puppy chewing a stick at my feet, we are alone, with only desultory Sunday traffic sound drifting in from the quiet west coast town where no doubt many people are still in church.

We meanwhile are discussing boats, not paradise, though some might say the two are intertwined. Nic and his dad Mark Stevens are the well-known faces of Sachal Shipyard, a market leader in ocean-going composite commercial vessels in the 40ft—110ft range. In South Africa’s fishing harbours Sachal vessels are as endemic as snoek, from Kalk Bay to St Helena. And now here’s another one taking shape in front of me, a mere line drawing in Nic’s hand, soon to be fleshed out on the factory floor behind me.

“This is the electricity system for a boat – just the scribbles,” Nic explains, ruffling the page at me, or pages, for I now see there are more than one. The drawings then migrate onto his computer, to be refined, nipped and tucked, perfected. There is something almost Di Vinci in the way Nic brandishes his drawings, artist and engineer in equal measure. In his boat narrative too is the artist’s dream of perfection, as if this new electricity system may be the ultimate one. “I don’t sleep at night because I’m thinking of new ways of doing things in composites,” Nic confides, a half smile flickering. “Resin suppliers get annoyed with me because I keep phoning to say this might work with that.”

Echoes of Di Vinci and his quest for the perfect clay.

But we are in Vredenburg, not Florence, and though Nic Stevens wears a vaguely Renaissance beard he is very much a son of the Cape soil, having grown up in Cape Town and the winelands, matriculating from Bridgehouse College in Franschhoek. He also knows a helleva a lot more than Leonardo about boating, having learnt a thing or two from his sailor/boat builder father Mark who bought the already established yard in 1993.  Nic grew up surrounded by towering fibreglass fishing behemoths and stories of transatlantic glory. He came home from boarding school to a family life staked out in manufacturing milestones and banking loans. “At dinner my whole life we’ve spoken about boats – there was always a big workshop at home,”  Nic says of his boyhood. “It sort of becomes part of you.”

So much so that after school he jumped straight into the family boatbuilding business, literally thrown into the deep end of some of his father’s biggest builds even as he enrolled for a correspondence course in mechanical engineering. “My final exam was on the same day we launched a boat,” he recalls with a wry grin.

Unlike some father-son partnerships that end in family rupture – or worse – Nic considers himself fortunate to still work with his father, who handles the business administration arm of Sachal, thereby allowing Nic to concentrate on operations. “We’re so busy we don’t have time for bullshit,” is his frank assessment of workplace family dynamics as we begin a tour of the facility, starting off in the store room where a half-finished wooden dingy hangs from the roof. “I’m always thinking about finishing it,” quips Nic. Other maritime bits and bobs illustrate the Stevens family habit of mechanical tinkering, such as a large chunk of engine sitting on a tabletop.  “That’s just a part from the farm which my father brings in every now and then,” says Nic of the mystery engineering project, before pointing to a curious row of ablutions — “and those are just toilets for a boat”.

We move through three large warehouses with the customary shipbuilding trappings, here a row of laying and cutting machines, there a wheelhouse and tooling for a 90ft fishing vessel. In an adjoining yard we pass a massive launch trailer that puts the scale of production into perspective. Every piece of equipment, from the several engines sitting sentinel side-by-side to the pack of 5000V inverters needed to keep things going, require maintenance and investment, says Nic with the slightly pained expression of one who understands the finances involved. “Boatbuilding is the ultimate combination of art engineering,” he adds, sliding open another sliding door.

What is immediately clear about Sachal is that it punches well above its weight. The yard is to Vredenburg what the Hillbrow Tower is to Joburg, or Charlize to Benoni. That is to say, the place would be very different without it. It was the biggest business in town until the arrival of Saldanha Steel, and probably has the better track record. It still employs around 50 people, down from a high of 150 due to technological streamlining.  The yard has come a long way since acquisition in 93 and is now looking to expand into other sub-sectors of the commercial market, such as patrol vessels. “My dad always says we like to build boats that can earn people money, not boats that you can drink gin on,” says Nic of their preference for industrial-strength vessels. That said, aesthetics is definitely part of the brand mix, particularly for Nic with his penchant for line drawings and computer graphics: “My silly analogy is that we build boats for people who want a work boat that looks as good as a luxury boat. We work to what the client wants. In the beginning I normally tell them, that is impossible, that is crazy’, and a week later we start with it and get it done.”

Ironically Sachal’s unique resin-infusion method was born out of a defunct west coast wind turbine project, of which Sachal were a production partner. The resin-infused turbine blades may not have ended up generating any power – in fact they were mothballed – but Mark Stevens was quick to apply some of the lessons learned to his boats: “What we picked up there from infusing the blades we are able to apply to the boats,” he told FINSA in a 2018 interview, adding that Nic’s involvement had added new momentum to the resin-infusion process. “We believe we are the world first in a polyester single skin infusion,” he said.

Nic says the yard’s ability to customise has stood them in good stead and helped entrench their reputation as the antithesis of ‘tupperware’ boats: “We like to break the mould where it is needed. We have our tooling, but every build you end up tweaking the tooling. I don’t like to build the same boat.”

“We say let us try and meet the demands of industry instead of giving clients the same old thing.”

A case in point is one of the yard’s flagship models, a 47ft foot designed specifically for the tuna industry. With a few tweaks the boat now has wider application to the diamond industry, and more recently as a supply boat.

Robust boats built to South African conditions are also a key consideration when taking on Southern Ocean conditions when one would not want to rely on a mass-produced vessel designed for fair weather inshore fishing. “Our oldest boat is still operating at over 60 years old,” says Nic, who takes particular pride in product longevity.

Nic believes South African yards are only beginning to flex their muscles in the commercial sector, with the ability to make a broad range of vessels  in demand in key economic sectors such as oil & gas and research. He sees big potential to sell into the African market, with the success of the recreational sector a benchmark of what could be achieved: “But we do have to show Africa what we can produce — to get into those other markets. We have the capabilities, not only ourselves but other companies like Two Oceans Marine. It seems like we are on the right track.”

Nic believes government could also do more to help the boatbuilding sector by facilitating more new entrants in the offshore fishing sector, particularly in the tuna fishery. The major players tend to source vessels offshore, whereas new entrants tend to buy South African vessels, thereby bolstering the sector. Supporting local boatbuilding would go a long way to creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.

Like his father Nic isn’t all about building boats – he likes to use them too, in his case in the service of the Mykonos NSRI where he is station commander. “When I’m not building boats I’m in a boat,” confirms Nic, who has also picked up his father’s sailing habit.

With so many sea miles between them it’s no wonder they have fibreglass on their hands.

A firm farewell handshake signals the end of our meeting and I leave Vredenburg with a deep appreciation for the contribution of industrial pioneers underpinning the maritime sector. In their quiet understated way Sachal Shipyards have built a legacy that goes way beyond boats.

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