By: Andrew Hodgdon, Balance Catamarans Technical Director
When you make the decision to purchase and build a new Balance catamaran, it becomes an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience. The build process takes several months and there is a good bit of planning and decision making to do along the way. Many of our customers will make a trip or two to visit their boat while she is under build. While to date none of our customers have felt the need to have a surveyor to oversee things, they all enjoy visiting South Africa, fine tuning some of their decisions, and meeting the build teams. Normally it is not until we are five or more months into the build that final decisions have to be made on hull color, interior finishes, etc., so often times our buyers just decide to come to the factory for a day or so, then head out on an amazing Safari.
It is hard to describe how very personal and intimate the experience of buying a Balance is compared to buying a production boat. Everyone gets to know each other and a strong sense of family and shared interest arises that is quite special. It is especially fascinating to watch people experience South Africa for the first time. The natural beauty, the amazing music, the richness of the many layers of African culture merging in what Nelson Mandela proudly called his “Rainbow Nation,” is most unique.
Many of our 526 customers will elect to drive the Garden Route from Cape Town to Saint Francis, which is an amazing sea-side journey of 700 kilometers of mostly virgin coast. And for those who are buying a 482 or a larger custom Balance, the Cape Town experience is for sure something not to miss – Driving to Cape Point, visiting Wine Country, spending the day on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront are all spectacular experiences.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to get the full immersion into the South African experience that a new Balance owner would enjoy. I was visiting as part of my new role as Technical Director for Balance Catamarans. The 526 and the new Balance 620 Catamarans are built in the small seaside town of St. Francis on the very southern end of the continent, about an hour from the nearest airport at Port Elizabeth. The scenic drive into St. Francis took me through stunning views of both mountains and coast, Eucalyptus groves, and emerald green ranch lands. The highway bridges several gorges over which you can just make out the sparkle of the river far below. Upon approaching the town, you travel through seagrass dunes and estuaries with picturesque houses perched on their banks.
It is in this quaint little town that Nexus Yachts, the builders of the Balance 526 and 620, have set up shop. The operation is run by a pair of brothers named Jonathan and Roger Paarman. The brothers grew up on this wild coast and have salt water in their blood. Coming up in the budding surf culture of South Africa, they spent their youth working in the growing water sports industry of the 70’s and 80’s. Over the years they had many jobs but started out shaping surfboards and building Hobie Cats, eventually working their way up to creating highly customized cruising catamarans. When I first met Johnny and Roger, it was on the bustling factory floor. Construction was nearly complete on Hull # 6 of the Balance 526 model, a stunning bright orange vessel named “Alani” which is the Hawaiian word for “orange”. With a launch date scheduled for the following week, the whole factory had an electric air as the craftsman sought to make sure every detail of the boat was perfect. Launch day is always a big event in such a small town, and everybody gets excited to see it go off without a hitch. Then nearly the entire town shows up at the little Port Saint Francis to cheer on the boat until she splashes. The pride that is shown in this town for their builders is enormous, as they are not only one of the major employers, but these bright and shiny catamarans are truly stunning looking objects that were built right there in humble little Saint Francis.
One very special thing about the Balance situation in Saint Francis is that Nexus has their own dock in the harbor, which is very close to the factory. The team has time to bend the sails, tune the rig, and do multiple test sails to shakedown the boat to perfection. Then, when Johnny is happy, and the weather window right, off she goes for the 700-kilometer coastal sail to Cape Town.
Johnny and Roger make an impression as generally laid-back guys who are serious about what they do for a living. As with many South Africans, they exuded a “can do” attitude and stark independence. This seriousness about their work really showed as Johnny gave me my first tour of the factory.
Spread out across two large warehouses, there was a lot to take in as I looked over the construction materials and boats in various stages of completion. A compressor running on the vacuum table made it difficult to hear Johnny as he described the process of laying up a bulkhead and the system by which they ensure the proper resin to fiber ratio. Johnny is literally on the shop floor all day long. His team members probably view him as a bit of a micro manager, but the respect they hold for him – due to the pride he has in what he does – is enormous.
The Balance 526 is built using a sophisticated method of blending foam-cored epoxy e-glass with carbon fiber structural components. The end result is a light weight, rigid, and very fast cruising sailboat. This construction method is a time-consuming process that requires a lot of skill and even more attention to detail, but the end result is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
Compared to a European built catamaran, the Balance catamarans take – literally – three to four times the labor hours of other production boats. This is not due to inefficiency, but to the high level of hand-crafted work that goes into these catamarans.
Throughout my week in St Francis, it was not uncommon to see Johnny on his hands and knees working alongside several of his 50 employees to make sure some detail of the boat was just right. This same pursuit of perfection could also be seen in the office where Roger spends most of his time. With the craftsman diligently working down below, Roger watches over from his office window above the factory floor. He is responsible for the real dirty work of the boat building process…making sure everything stays on schedule. I got the sense that Roger is personally invested in every boat that leaves their facility. It was apparent that he was anxious to see “Alani” finished correctly and on time. Roger’s management role is often an unforgiving job as he deals with the mountains of emails and phones calls necessary to chase vendors and maintain a build schedule, but his approach has the same attention to detail which produces such a fine product and a smooth-running operation.
In my free time in St. Francis I was pleased to discover that the area has a lot more to offer outside of world class sailboat builders. There are numerous outdoor activities to choose from for the adventurous type. On days when the swell is up, you will see many of the employees from the factory catching an early pre-work surf session at one of the many pristine breaks along the coast. A short paddle out from my gorgeous beachside accommodations was one of the nicest waves I’ve ever seen in all my travels. You can spend hours playing in the sea but just make sure to stay clear of “Full Stop Rock”! On days when the sea isn’t cooperating, you can go for a mountain bike ride along the numerous scenic trails that follow the rugged coastline or roll through the inland hills. Hike these same paths and be sure to take a moment to look over the wild Indian Ocean and breathe deep the crisp breeze carried in from the Antarctic. The air is so fresh they should bottle it up and sell it!
For the less adventure minded explorer, there are many artisan craft vendors and high-end galleries within a short drive of St. Francis. There are also several delicious local restaurants to choose from in town, and I would highly recommend going down to the marina and trying some of the local fare. You can enjoy a fine local wine while nibbling on fresh caught calamari as you watch the fishing fleet prepare for another night of hard work. The nearby city of Knysna makes for a nice day trip to escape the bustle of the factory floor. This bayside destination is a popular spot for South African tourists and offers abundant shopping and a wide variety of local and ethnic restaurants. On the drive down, be sure to plan a stop at the Knysna Elephant Park which is an exceptionally well-run preserve. At the park I had the opportunity to meet and interact with a young lady named “Thandi” who is a 15-year-old adolescent elephant with a very kind demeanor. If you’re interested in a more immersive safari experience, there are several world class game preserves in South Africa including the famous Kruger National Park.
Departing from Knysna, heading West, you eventually arrive in Cape Town, which certainly rivals San Francisco as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Here is where I spent some wonderful hours working with Balance Designers Anton Du Toit and Phillip Berman working on the design for the new Balance 482. Cape Town is also the home of Balance Catamarans Cape Town, where veteran builder Mark Delaney is tooling and building the new Balance 482. Due to the demands on Nexus with the new 620 and expanding 526 production, it was decided by all to fabricate the 482 in Cape Town.
The scene in Cape Town is very different from Saint Francis! A thoroughly modern city, perched at the end of the world, with magnificent coastal communities branching out to the East and West. The Eastern Seaboard is built on terraced mountains with modernist contemporary homes overlooking the ocean. Some of the architecture rivals that of any major city in the world. Cape Town is also a heavily touristed city; offering bus tours, trips to the famous Table Mountain, and to Paarden Island where Mandela was imprisoned for so many years by the Apartheid government.
The most amazing adventure, however, is out to the Cape Point, over the famous Chapman’s Peak. Continuing on to the nearby wine country also offers some stunning scenery and wines that rival any in the world.
The facilities for Balance Catamarans Cape Town are very close to the heart of the city, in what is called Robben Island. Just down the street from the factory is the factory for Robertson and Caine, who build all of the Leopard and Moorings Catamarans. The environment is a sort of yachties dream world – Sparcraft spar makers, Ullman and North Sailmakers, every sort of marine vendor you can imagine can be found in Cape Town. And just down the road is where they all get together for the Thursday night races at the Royal Cape Yacht Club. Then, just to the East, is the world-famous Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Here you find every form of African art, carvings, handicrafts, restaurants, and a stunning array of birds and sea life as you walk along the waterfront complex.
Several other aspects of South Africa that make it such a joy to visit, especially for an American, are the fact that they speak English and that the US Dollar is currently so strong against the South African Rand. I recall ordering the giant “Family Platter” of sushi that cost us the equivalent of $18 U.S. dollar. Stateside such a plate would have been a $100 dollar meal. I certainly felt like a king with those dollars in my pocket!
Adventure, exploration, a shared sense of joy working with people who love what they do, you will enjoy your catamaran buying experience in South Africa so much you’ll be making up excuses to go back and visit.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the area, this trip was about work and soon I was back at the factory with the Paarmans and Balance Catamarans president Phil Berman. We spent the remainder of my visit finalizing the future plans for the construction of the Balance 526 Hulls 7 through 10 and planning some other very exciting new projects. As I am now a member of the sales and technical team at Balance I will be fortunate enough to go back to this wonderful place and enjoy it a couple times a year. I will also be running exclusive sailing charters and the Balance University program for prospective customers. My excitement is already building for the new Balance 482, as the first five hulls have already been sold.
It looks like South Africa will be in my future, and I could not be more excited about that!
If you’re interested in learning more about the Balance University Program”, or about what you can expect on your visit to South African, feel free to email me at AMHodgdon@Balancecatamarans.com.