One day I went for a drive with Dad out to a farm in the Swinburne district, Rensburgs Kop in the background. We stopped outside a big tin shed and walked inside. To my amazement there was a huge skeleton iron structure in there. I knew immediately what it was: It was an aviary. I grew up with aviaries, I knew aviaries. It would be just like Dad to visit a farmer with an aviary.
Except this one was in the graceful shape of an ocean-going yacht! It was a yacht. An ocean-going yacht. Or so Ronnie Mostert told us. He and his wife Mel were building it with the help of their farmworkers! But it would sink, I said. Made of steel and full of holes, it would definitely sink. No, said Ronnie. He told us he was going to fill all the holes with cement. Then he would take it to Durban and then sail around the world.
Now I knew he was mad. It would sink. Cement also sinks. The mafia use this fact to their advantage when they give a guy cement boots. Cement full of hidden steel will sink even faster. Everybody knows that. Also, Ronnie was a character, maybe he was pulling our legs? Maybe it actually was an aviary and he was going to put an aasvoël in it? I listened carefully, but it seemed he was serious and it seemed Dad believed him. Bliksem!
And that was the last I saw of it. I heard tell later that he actually had schlepped it to Durban and plonked it in the salty water of that big dam that you-cannot-see-the-other-side-of. And it floated! This seemed a real case where one could say, Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen!
Now it’s years later – I mean 47 years later if that was 1972 – and I’m reading all about Ronnie Mostert’s yacht in Leon Strachan’s wonderful book ‘Bergburgers’. Ronnie and Mel welded miles of vertical and horizontal steel bars in a shape according to a New Zealand plan they got in a magazine. Talk about faith that could move concrete! Imagine trusting your life to an unseen person – and a Kiwi nogal – sending his plans to you in a book!
Then they plastered it with cement, with Harrismith builders Koos van Graan and Ben Crawley, both of whom I think I have personally seen drinking beer, just like Ronnie, gooi’ing plaster on it and wiping it with the trowels they usually built solid houses with – and they expected it to float!?
And blow me down, it did.
How amazing to see pictures of that remembered glimpse from all those years ago and to reinforce my conviction that I’m not imagining all these things running round in my head. I tell my friends: Hey! I’m the sane one around here, but will they listen? Hmph.
They christened it Mossie, trucked it down to Durbs in 1983, launched it and sailed and lived on it with their son Gary for eleven years.
Cape Town, St Helena, Brasil, the Caribbean, the USA, the Azores and back down south. They didn’t truck it back up to the Free State, though, they settled in Cape Town-on-sea. Isn’t that just a stunning achievement! Hats off!
Leon’s book tells of another – even crazier – saga of fools building a boat on the Harrismith vlaktes and thinking that it would float. I’ll post that next.
vlaktes – not a place you’d sail a yacht; flats; veld; savannah
bliksem – blow me down!
aasvoël – vulture
Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen! – blow me down!
nogal – would you believe it
gooi’ing – slapping
blow me down – bliksem!
‘Bergburgers’ – ‘citizens of the mountain’, meaning Platberg, thus: Harrismithians; us; also a book by Leon Strachan, Harrismithian extraordinaire!
Mossie – sparrow; many Mosterts are called Mossie but I never heard Ronnie called that; Lovely name for the boat!
Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
Before the Kiwis start calling themselves the Ferrocement All Blacks, note that Les Bleus invented the stuff and built the first ferrocement boat back in 1848.
In 2020 Gary Mostert found my blog and could tell me that Ronnie and Mel are alive and well – and building a second yacht on their farm outside Cape Town! (see the comments)
Just heard Ben Crawley died, aged 80. I’ll try and get some detail on his life. What I know is athlete (held the school mile record for decades), sportsman, Mountain Race stalwart, builder, carpenter, MOTH leader, and (this was news to me – found out today): Anglican church man! (his cousins were Methodists with us).
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It was interesting stumbling across your website today. This was the yacht my dad built.
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Wonderful Gary! Is Ronnie still around? I loved seeing that yacht way back then. And was so pleased when I could find out more about it from Leon Strachan.
Hi there. Yes, he’s still around. We’re currently building a second yacht on my parents’ property on the outskirts of Cape Town, though I haven’t been able to get out there for a couple of months because of coronavirus lockdown (I live 30km away). Strange times.
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Ronnie was a special guy way back then – ca.1970! Please send him my best regards and that of my parents – Pieter and Mary Swanepoel. He’ll remember them, they had the bottle store! They’re 97 and 91 now, both well. Dad still driving, Mom still playing the piano, Finally moved out of their own home this year.