Oloff and Muir de Wet, two South African brothers, taught themselves welding, CAD programmes, keel casting and so much more en route to building their dream cruising yacht.

Completing the project of a lifetime

We sit in Hout Bay Yacht Club, having brought Ongemak round from Cape Town. The forecast warned of heavy weather in the evening, but we and the other boats out were surprised when, in a matter of minutes, the balmy afternoon’s 10 knots became 30 knots.

We were forced to put in two reefs very quickly, and by the time we reached Hout Bay it was approaching 40 knots.

Something like this is not a nice surprise, but it was pleasing to find the boat felt safe and handled herself well. Right now it is raining and blowing at 50 knots, but fortunately I’m looking out at this forceful display of nature from the safety of the clubhouse, with a beer in my hand.

To be in a boat, and to sail it, while always being aware of the fact that you created it yourself, is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.

A dream becomes a reality as Ongemak rounds Cape Point in South Africa

The whole structure becomes more rigid when the coachroof and side decks are fitted and the interior welding is completed

Deck beams were welded to the underside of the coachroof before it was lowered into position. Note the hull plates are welded to the cradle during build – to be detached only when the boat is finished.

A great experience

I believe that to experience and to create are two of the most important things this world has to offer. Some other advantages of building a boat yourself are:

  • You acquire many new skills, like designing, welding, carpentry, and, very importantly, how to negotiate with chandlers and suppliers.
  • You get exactly what you want: from the length of the bunks to the make of the foot-pumps, it is all for you to decide.
  • You know your boat inside out. If there is ever a problem with the plumbing or
    the electricity, you will be able to find the fault and to repair it more quickly than
    any professional.
  • While doing all this you visit strange places and meet interesting people – I often had the feeling of being a tourist in my own city.
  • Your whole tribe eventually gets involved. Friends, neighbours and family get inspired by the idea that you can do something totally out of the box, and often someone would quickly come by just for a short chat and to see how things are going, or give you something they found in the garage which might help you in your project.

But there are disadvantages as well to building your own boat. Two main ones come to mind:

  • Time: Muir and I both did part-time work and spent some time fixing up and managing our rental properties. But for about eight months of every year we worked nearly exclusively on the boat. I estimate we each worked about 1,000 hours a year on the boat for five years. Of course about half the time was spent designing and planning, and I’m sure that to make another boat will take less than half the time, but anyone building should keep in mind that every single job usually takes longer than you estimate. It is not for no reason there are so many semi-complete boats all over the world.
  • Money: Building your own boat is not a cheap way to get a boat. For a cheap boat buy a good second-hand one and fix it up. But by building you do end up with a new boat, hopefully at quite a bit less than what a new boat would cost, with the added benefit that costs are spread out over years. Just never ever try to think what your time was worth! Rather, try to convince yourself that you went to a boatbuilding university, where you did a degree in boatbuilding for free – you just had to supply your own materials! Ultimately, the decision on whether to build or not to build comes down to this: build a boat because you want to build a boat, not because you simply want a boat.

Planning the interior

The great advantage of getting exactly the boat that you want, can only be realised through proper planning. We looked at many, many boats, in real life and on the web. So much has been done before, so learn to understand what Picasso meant by ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’.

Always have a measuring tape at hand; measure the heights of seats you like; measure the width of the bathroom door on the aeroplane. When things got critical, we built parts of the interior out of cardboard first. The most important thing is to keep things as straightforward and simple as possible. Have good geometry solve the problem rather than lots of moving parts.

Many small decisions had to be made but, for the sake of brevity, here’s a list of the main features we wanted and achieved:

  • Wide companion way steps that you can walk up or down with a drink in hand. The top step is deep enough to sit on during watch keeping.
  • Comfortable aft cabin with athwartships double bed.
  • Heads aft with full-size toilet.
  • Large G-shaped galley with the engine under the counter and accessible from
    all sides.
  • Saloon benches and saloon sole are all long enough to sleep on.
  • Comfortable forecabin with watertight impact compartment and large stowage.
  • Deep anchor locker keeps the weight of the 50m chain low.
  • Clear forward view from the saloon.

Building the interior

The interior consists of many small diverse jobs, so it is never boring and generally you have to move on to the next phase just when you were comfortable with what you were doing.

Carpentry on Ongemak was fairly basic, and a lot consisted of merely bolting marine plywood to the frames and stringers which were already in place. This process is very quick and the result is extremely strong.

We had all the plywood for the bulkheads professionally covered with Formica on both sides.

Formica is usually used for kitchen counters, so on bulkheads it will hopefully last forever without any maintenance. Most of the cabinets got the same Formica finish, but we made liberal use of Burmese teak for trimming and for fiddle rails.

Hennie Olivier gave us a generous gift – wood off a 1918 railway coach which he saved after having done the whole of the interior of his beautiful Miura, Sieraad. Personally I love this contrast in our boat between the new modern materials and the age old teak.

A big part of the interior is plumbing and electricity. There is a lot of literature on both, so let me simply say that it’s important to use very high quality parts in the hostile marine environment, like proper hose and tin-coated wire.

We did, however, find that it’s not always necessary to pay an arm and a leg for the marine stamp on a piece of equipment and that bits and pieces from your local hardware store can sometimes do the trick. But buy a sacrificial sample in such a case, and test it severely before you allow it on board!

The end and the beginning

Five years after we started our project, we had our final boat party. There were nearly 50 people in attendance, and Muir and I would really like to thank all our friends who lived this dream with us through their constant support and encouragement.

A variation on the old toast is in order, I suppose: ‘To the wind that blows, the ship that goes, and those who love a sailor!’

But a few days later the enormous crane and truck came to transport Ongemak to the Royal Cape Yacht Club, and for this occasion we did not invite anyone. It was a private affair – full of excitement, but also stressful with lots of detail to keep in mind. Fortunately, even though there was a strong breeze and a bit of rain, everything went very smoothly. Isolde de Villiers put a lovely video clip of the event on YouTube – search for ‘Aluminium Zeppelin.’ There is also one of the actual launch – ‘Ongemak Launch.’

A set of second-hand sails do the job for Ongemak’s first sea trials

The purposeful-looking Ongemak alongside at the Royal Cape Yacht Club

About the author: Oloff and Muir de Wet grew up in a small town in the interior of South Africa, 200 miles from the sea. Oloff studied mechanical engineering and then pure mathematics. He taught at a school in KwaZulu-Natal. Muir studied medicine and worked in Mexico, Peru and the Middle East. The brothers drove through Africa in an old 4×4 and then got stuck on building a boat. Ongemak is in Port Owen in South Africa before she sails for St Helena.

And this then is the end of this story. But a boat which floats is always the beginning of a new story…

Anyone interested in self-building a yacht at home, or our design in particular, is welcome to contact us at www.ongemak.co.za. We are making both the CAD drawings, and the cradle to build the boat in, available for free.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. The cost of building your own aluminium sloop
  3. 3. Completing the project of a lifetime
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