"Star of the West" launched in Cape Town on 27th September 1983 is named after the pub of the same name located next to the "Big Hole" in Kimberley South Africa. The pub is reputed to be one of the oldest surviving establishments in South Africa and to have been named after a ship plying the African continent in the last century. The name seemed an appropriate one to adopt, she provided a warm atmosphere for tired limbs from boat building as she no doubt provided for tired diamond mine workers in the last and early parts of this century.
The concept of building a boat to sail the oceans was first introduced by friend Jon Holst in South West Africa (now Namibia) in the mid 1970's. Jon was sailing instructor for the Walvis Bay Sailing Club and it was a fortuitous meeting and friendship that developed. Jon had a lot of sailing experience, coastal and transoceanic and with that a sound understanding of boats and the sea. Myself, I was just a beginner learning the hard way with co-owner Paolo Sciacca how to keep our 16ft Fireball sailing dinghy upright and its mast out of the sticky mud at the bottom of Walvis Bay harbour. Our boys Andrew and Mark had their first exposure to sailing in the Fireball dinghy and Jon and his family exposed us to keelboat sailing offshore from East London on the South African Indian Ocean coast in a van De Stadt 30foot Cape One Design. Through the late 70's and early 80's Jon's seamanship and associated knowledge was gratefully absorbed.
The selection of a design was the first obstacle whilst a decision to build was still being contemplated. Jon's knowledge won through after I thought yachts should have pointy bows, flat sterns and a distinct fin keel. He insisted that for ocean cruising one could find no better a companion than a full keeled double-ender which he had safely crossed the Atlantic on. After ordering various study plans from different designers Jon persisted in pushing his pet design "Mercedes" by Jay R Benford. I weakened and constructed a scale model of the gaff ketch version of the design. I was impressed she looked handsome and strong and full plans were ordered in 1976 from Benford in Seattle (http://www.benford.us/).
1977-1981 Kimberley South Africa
The next questions to be answered were, how to build, place to build and construction material and not in any logical order. How to build was a huge ask as I was a geologist with only previous building experience consisting of a couple of speaker cabinets for kitset home hi-fi system, hardly a platform for building a boat. Jon was an electronics technician also of dubious boat building experience. The "Mercedes" design was targeted for amateur builders in either steel, ferro-cement or fibreglass. A friend was building a cruising yacht in Durban and a using a composite fibreglass mat marketed as C-Flex from the United States. C-Flex was a composite of fibreglass rods tightly held together in a fibreglass mat. Its benefits to amateur boat-builders was huge. The large diameter rolls, approximately one foot in width, could be unrolled and stapled onto an open male mould the solid rods keeping the required curves between the frames of the mould. This allowed a simple male mould to be constructed rather than a solid female mould as used in most commercial operations. Benford was consulted regarding using C-Flex and also to a modification on the interior design to allow for two double cabins.
Where to build was very dependent on employer Anglo American Corporation. Being on work leave, involved in post-graduate studies at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, I was logically hoping that when completed my employers would post us somewhere in throwing distance of the sea. This was not to be we were posted to Kimberley in the middle of the dry arid Karoo landscape and a 1,000 kms from the sea. Kimberley was a friendly city and we selected a house to rent on a huge section which would allow a boat project to evolve on (the section was eventually subdivided with three extra houses on either side of the original house). Once back into the swing of work (still completing my thesis after hours) focus started on commencement of building. Three pieces of 8ftx4ft hardboard were purchased, joined together, painted and placed on the small garage floor to allow for lofting the lines. An exercise of transferring the designers measurements to full scale to enable the mould frames to be constructed. These penciled lines had flat head nails then hammered in sideways which when the to-be mould frames were placed on top the outline of the mould shape was impressed. Cutting by jigsaw along the nail indentations completed the frame shapes. Simple and effective.
Accumulation of materials followed first to construct a shed to build under (The Kimberley climate was suitably dry for open shed fibreglassing) then secondly for mould and boat materials. Firstly an auction provided a surplus of young pine and roofing then, a fortuitous meeting with a demolisher whose name sadly I can't recall provided not just the bulk of materials for the mould, but Oregon pine, teak and lead for construction of the vessel.
On my way back to work, after a lunch session at home completing finishing touches of the thesis that was dragging on, I spied a house being demolished. The opportunity for inexpensive materials for the project flashed before me and I introduced myself to the person in charge of the demolishing. He was a calm Afrikaaner and after listening to my plea, he said there's probably little here of interest but if I cared to look at the old Kimberley Administration buildings on the other side of the City that he was also demolishing, there may be something of interest there.
I couldn't believe my eyes, the complex built during the last century was huge, consisting of Administration buildings, workshops and Fire station. Large Oregon pine beams, Teak doors from Fire Station and sheet lead from roof flashings, amazing. Even more amazing was that when the demolition contractor arrived he offered me the lead already removed for a give away price and the remainder for free if I arranged for removal myself. I tentatively lead him through a series of doors through the backdoor of the Fire station where I pointed to the huge solid teak doors and said "what do you want for them"? He smiled and said he'd been offered a good price but didn't like the cut of the fellow "you can have them for a discount". One of those events in life that you realize are pre-ordained, fantastic. The Oregon pine beams would form the backbone of the roofing trusses for the shed and the deck beams for the boat. The teak would provide the bulk of the teak required for the teak decks, hatches plus interior joinery and the lead was almost enough for the 4 tons required for the keel ballast. Tell me that that was a coincidence, building in Kimberley was meant to be!
1978 Mould construction
Building the mould frames continued in fits and starts. The lofting of the lines and building of the frames had to be shifted to various farm houses in the Northern Cape that were used for mineral exploration bases as the work project shifted further north. Work was confined to nights between busy days in the field. Eventually after six months work at different sites all the frames were completed and transported back to Kimberley on the work vehicle. A base (Jig) was constructed for the frames to be mounted and the frames were assembled on the jig in May 1978. The mould frames were all bolted together to enable easy disassembly and re-use later for the second hull that Jon had planned to build. The mould was taking shape and with keel and longitudinal stringers in place, eventually completed! The construction of a yacht in Kimberley so far from the sea was an oddity and attracted attention of the local daily English language newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser, who wrote an article which generated further interest with people from local restaurants collecting lead from the wine bottle cap discards to contribute to ballast requirements. These were eventually added to lead flashings from the demolished Kimberley Administration building to create lead ingots. Others whose dreams had not eventuated offered assorted yacht items that they considered may be of use. All in all a very supportive community.
1978-1979 Fibreglassing & Fairing
Rolling out the C-Flex onto the mould felt like a giant step forward, however that was the easiest part. Wetting out with resin, applying the subsequent layers of unidirectional rovings and chopped strand mat proved a trying exercise as layers were added. One time the all important catalyst was omitted from the resin resulting in a soggy mix of mat and resin that had to be wiped off with acetone and restarted. A blue dye was used in the resin after wetting out the C-Flex and this was to provide ease of viewing bubbles in subsequent layers. It showed all sorts of impurities and in part had to be ground off with grinders another step backwards. Eventually the fibreglassing in between filling and grinding the external layup was complete. This however was the simplest part of the hull construction what followed were several months of filling and fairing as long sanders were used by an ever changing flow of casual labour who disliked the constant itches of the fine dust. Eventually however the hull exterior was completed to a satisfactory level of fairedness. And the hull could then be turned using chain blocks to allow the removal of the mould frames and the completion of the remaining layers of internal fibreglass to be added with the internal stringers. Two years of work and the hull was now the right way up for the first time.
Next came the removal of the mould frames, which were re-bolted together and stacked for reuse as Jon Holst had wishes to build a hull also. Fibreglassing of the inside of the mould was followed by installation of the internal ballast which was a combination of lead ingots, cast iron and steel reinforcing rods to make up approximately 4 tons which were all cemented together in concrete and sealed with resin and fibreglass. Above the ballast, water tanks and diesel tanks were fibreglassed into the hull all below the yet to be constructed cabin floors and helping contribute to a low centre of gravity.
Outside the boatbuilding progress and possibly a product of it, late 1979 saw a change of lifestyle. The demands of geological field work and boatbuilding combined to sadly cause a marital break-up and my wife and three children returned to New Zealand. The earlier plans of a globe trotting family were lost and a period of readjustment was required.
1980 Deck beams, Decks
During 1980 work began in earnest on fitting out the bare hull. Deck beams for support of the deck at approximately 12 inch intervals were laminated from oregon pine and mahogany in a jig constructed to provide the correct deck curvature required. Assembly of the deck beams onto the fibreglass deck shelf which was an integral part of the hull, installation of bulkheads and floors along with other interior work transformed the empty hull into an entity where nautical dreams were inching towards reality. The bulkheads and floors were constructed of 18mm Brynzeel marine plywood from Holland. More interest for the local community was provided when the local Afrikaans language newspaper Noord Kaap published an article. A fellow employee of Anglo American Corporation and New Zealander (also ex Scots College Wellington) Barney (Fred) van Asbeck had taken an interest in the project and after assisting outside work hours he resigned from his job and provided invaluable full-time assistance and enabled the project to maintain momentum.
1981 Decks, Hatches, Cockpit, Interior Fitout
During 1981 boat building proceeded in leaps and bounds with the hull, teak deck and trim, deck structures becoming an integral one. The enjoyable progress aided in no small way by a stable relationship with a local Kimberley girl Marlene Smith together with her daughter Jenny and my two oldest children, Andrew and Mark who had came back from New Zealand. Barney continued plugging away fulltime whilst the rest of us gathered as regularly as possible and fellow friends and co-workers who ventured by were given a tool and a job to do. The deck plywood (2 layers of 9mm marine ply) were glued and screwed onto the deck beams, an enclosing cocoon for the interior work below. Teak planks (12.5mm thick) were cut and grooved and assembled on deck whilst the cockpit coaming was fabricated and fibreglassed. The teak decking was glued, screwed and caulked and hatch coamings and openings constructed. The exterior was completed, providing immunity to weather and the basics of an interior was taking shape. The rudder was constructed of laminated plywood prior to foibreglass sheathing. A reconditioned Mercedes OM636 diesel engine was marinized and installed and eventually I was advised of a work posting to Cape Town in early 1982 by employer Anglo American Corporation who generously agreed to transport the completed hull and decks to her new environment near the sea. Barney's brother Dolf visited from New Zealand and as Dolf had welding skills, he ably welded a steel cradle for the hull to be transported to Cape Town. The construction shed was dismantled, the precious mould frames which had been preserved for so long for construction of Jon's hull were given to a passing local. Jon's work commitments meant he was unable to contemplate a similar project and the frames were broken up for firewood. Everything was ready for a move to near the sea. De Beers Corporation based in Kimberley affiliated to my employers Anglo American Corporation provided a crane and the hull was transported by road to Cape Town.
1982-1983 Cape Town
1982 Move from Kimberley, Interior fitout, Paint, Rigging
The move to Cape Town was covered by the Diamond Fields Advertiser as " Star of the West" as she was to be named departed her original neighbourhood. Friend Ben van Rensburg had first introduced me to "Star of the West" pub and it was a logical choice of name for a part of Kimberley that was to travel the seas. Proprietor Abe and his son Jeff, Ben, myself and many other Kimberley residents had contemplated and planned a myriad of forward paths in the pub's warm environment, the visionaries often aided by amber fluid. The scenery couldn't have been more different as now Table Mountain formed a backdrop and the sea in the form of Cape Town harbour was only a few boat lengths away. Labour continued to be largely provided by Marlene, her daughter Jenny, myself and co-workers who ventured too close to avoid being given a task. Barney van Asbeck had moved on from Kimberley and had provided valuable assistance in maintaining forward momentum. My oldest children Andrew and Mark who had provided company and enthusiasm during 1981 returned at the end of that year to schooling in New Zealand. The year passed with many of the myriad of tasks remaining before launch started but far from finished. Expectations of a launch date in 1982 diminished as fine detail to electrics, plumbing, cabinetry, upholstery, life-lines, teak hatches, sails, dodgers, stainless fittings etc dragged construction into another year.
1983 Final detailing, launch
Early advances during the year included selection of the rig and riggers (Bellamy Masts) under the supervision of Nigel Clack and painting the hull. Topsides were spray-painted with polyacrethane paint and the underwater surface was prepared with a tar based epoxy and overcoat. With the rigging of the mast and completion of the painting, the transformation from hull to almost complete yacht was dramatic, particularly against the backdrop of Table Mountain. The finer detail of interior projects, exterior rigging, canvas and sails, instrumentation and electrics were completed between work excursions in Namaqualand near the South West Africa border. Eventually everything seemed sufficiently advanced and a launch date was set for 27th September 1983. The imminent launch was reported in Kimberley by the Diamond Fields Advertiser bringing all those who had followed her progress up date. Good friends Paolo and Denise Sciacca happily recommended Paolo's mercurial mother Maria to officiate. Maria was an energetic grandmother who's zest for life and charm (her partner was some 40 years her junior) would ensure "Star of the West" the best of beginnings in her new aqueous environment. Consequently the launch via crane into the Royal Cape Yacht Club basin went off smoothly and the 4 and half year odyssey was complete, "Star of the West" was animated at last moving to the gentle wavelets in the shelter of Cape Town harbour in the Atlantic Ocean. Summaries of her subsequent journeys begin in Voyages and Logs.