Building Ongemak

What do you get when you combine an engineer/mathematician, a medical doctor, passion for the upstream and early retirement?

Read this 3-Part series on Building Ongemak:

Part 1:

The Name
Occasionally one has the rare privilege of reading a sentence or two that capture your sentiments much better than you yourself could. ‘There Be No Dragons: How to Cross a Big Ocean in a Small Sailboat’ by Reese Palley was, for me, a book with many of these gems. One of the highlights is where Palley warns against being “overly dedicated to comfort”. He urges us to “break the pattern of thought which says more comfort means a better life. The good life has damn-all to do with comfort. The good life has to do with stretching mind and body…”

‘Ongemak’, the name of our boat, is the Afrikaans word for discomfort. It was also the name of our grandfather’s farm, and from the moment that Muir and I came up with this name, it stuck, it grew, and sometimes became akin to a living force behind the project. It was a name that at once reflected our roots in the platteland far from the sea, as well as a sense of adventure and a willingness for sacrificing comfort and comfort-zones for new uncharted horizons.

The Beginning
Muir and I had our first serious taste of sailing (albeit not of salt water) when, together with our friends Tinashe, Elisma and Adolf, we acquired a Miura on the Vaal Dam about ten years ago. An article like this is no place for assigning blame, but it was mostly Hennie Olivier’s fault. Shortly after we had arrived back in South Africa, after a year-long transcontinental trip, Muir and I were telling Hennie the story of how we, with our youngest brother Francois, had sundowners in Dakar on the last evening, having sold the old Hilux to buy our flight tickets back. Sitting at Dakar’s beautiful yacht club, staring out over the boats, we’d already started dreaming of new frontiers. So Hennie immediately got up to fetch his SAILING Magazine from the car, and together we started going through the classifieds. He later drove through from Bloemfontein to advise us when we bought the Miura. He became our sailing mentor and a true friend.

Having a Miura on the Vaal proved to be perfect for the metamorphosis from land animal to amphibian. The Vaal can occasionally be nasty, but it is mostly friendly, and a Miura is always a very forgiving boat. But we also learnt that owning a boat is about a lot more than sailing. It is a way of life, and being part of a community of often eccentric individuals. It is interacting with nature in the most straightforward way, and (if we are honest) often has a lot more to do with keeping and maintaining a boat than sailing it. This played a major part in what followed.

Human nature means that we always want more, and sadly sailing does not cure us of this malady. Soon I started thinking of improvements to the boat – small ones at first, and then increasingly larger ones. It did not help that I was busy with a PhD in Geometry, because often during my years of study I found that when duty called, some other project promising pleasure started calling like a siren in an even louder voice. So slowly an idea started brewing…

My mother often said that Muir and I are twins born two years apart, and it is true that we share a like-mindedness which is sometimes uncanny. So it came as no surprise that, when we discovered we’d both moved on to a new page in our lives, it was in fact the same page. (He was now working in aerospace medicine in the Middle East and I was a lecturer in Pretoria.) This is what our new page said: It makes no sense to sell the best 8 hours of every day. Life is short and the world is big. Let’s move to Cape Town and build a yacht.

So in our late thirties we both quit our jobs. We said goodbye to the office, confident that we would soon master the mystical skills of welding and the wielding of power tools. Success was a given, because when he was 7 and I was 9, we built a really nice tree house. We even had the dog up there.

Design Criteria
This is more or less what we wanted:
• A sloop for extensive cruising for two couples.
• Minimum maintenance and simple systems
• Energy efficiency and complete solar reliance

Finer detail of the design will be discussed in part 2 of this article.

The Material
We wanted an empty shell and to design our own interior layout and systems, so we started by looking for a hull and deck, or a semi still in the beginning stages. But somehow, even though we looked at quite a few, we were never happy. It eventually dawned on us that what we wanted was something much too specific. We realised that we would have to start from scratch.

There is a lot of information available on different hull materials, and on the pros and cons of each. Our boat was to be used specifically for cruising, and for this we decided on aluminium:

1. Minimum maintenance: I strongly believe that many boats are designed to look nice at boat shows without taking into account how the boat will have to be maintained for the next 30 years. Modern aluminium yachts are not painted on the topsides or at the inside, and osmosis does not exist. Steve and Linda Dashew describe how they used to be full of concern for the boat’s gel coat when tropical traders came in canoes and dugouts to sell fresh fish, fruit or coconuts. But once they got an aluminium boat, concern melted away, and was replaced with nonchalant chat and friendly barter. This is what we wanted, a Hilux on the water. (I have never seen a bow fender on an aluminium boat!). Lastly, the hull and deck are welded together, resulting in a very dry boat, which also lowers maintenance.

2. Once-off: While GRP is good for mass production, it takes a lot of work to produce a single hull. Aluminium is perfect for a once-off, especially like in our case, where the building and designing took place more or less simultaneously. It is the perfect material if you want to weld on, cut off, repair or adapt parts of your boat in future!

3. Strong: Aluminium and steel are the choices for those who want to go to high latitudes where things might go bump in the night. But aluminium is much lighter than steel, so there can be much more weight in the keel for a stiffer safer boat.

4. People with them love them: When we asked the owner of a big aluminium yacht at the RCYC whether he would care to show us his beauty, he was most welcoming in his rather quiet way. We had lots of questions. I saw his two Rocna anchors and asked him if he was happy with them. “Well I should be,” he answered, “I designed them.” It was Peter Smith, and after this first fortuitous encounter at the club he and Marlyse visited us at home on our project on several occasions with lots of valuable advice. He is not one to overstate or exaggerate, but when asked about materials his answer was simple: no material is perfect, but if he had to get another boat, it would again be aluminium. And he should know – his factories in New Zealand and later in Papua New Guinea built boats in a variety of materials, and he has been to Antarctica in his own boat more than once. (By the way, the Rocna website is a treasure chest of all things to do with anchoring).

As Peter said, no material is perfect. The main disadvantage of aluminium is the possibility of galvanic corrosion. This can occur when another metal, like stainless steel, is connected to the hull, especially in a wet environment. The way to prevent this is through a plastic gasket, special sealant or, even more common these days, by using a non-metallic alternative, for instance a plastic sea cock rather than a stainless steel one. Galvanic corrosion can also occur if there are stray currents flowing through a marina, especially if the underwater paintwork is not in good nick. To prevent this, aluminium boats carry sacrificial anodes on the hull. There should be enough of these and they should be checked and replaced as needed every few years. This is not a problem while cruising and anchoring away from commercial power.

I might mention that I have often heard the dreaded story of someone who dropped a metal coin in their aluminium boat, and then discovered it a short while later, just in time, before it has corroded straight through the hull. I believe that this is total nonsense, or at least one of those nice stories that has become more and more fantastic as it was retold over the years.

We did the following experiment: Six glass jars, each with a marine grade aluminium disc at the bottom, were filled, three with salt water and three with fresh water. Into these we put samples of respectively stainless steel, lead and a variety of coins. After six months we examined all the samples, and only where the lead sample lay in salt water on the aluminium disc was there the slightest indication of pitting, less than 0,2 mm in depth and diameter. (As far as I know, no one even goes through the trouble of painting the inside of the hull). Herein lies an important lesson which we noticed on several occasions, namely that it is often easier to empirically test the validity of a statement than to go on hearsay or to get trapped in contradictory theories on the internet. So don’t be shy – test it, break it, burn it or freeze it – it’s great fun too!

Lastly, something about the price of aluminium compared to other materials. The aluminium plates for our boat cost about R75 000 ($6 000), but to this one has to add lots of consumables, as well as various bits of aluminium profile. Therefore the total cost of the hull and deck was nearly double this amount, roughly R150 000 ($12 000). It might seem tempting to rather build a boat out of steel or wood, by which one can get the hull and deck for less than two thirds of this price. But it is important to realise that, compared to the price of the whole project, which might be around R 700 000 ($55 000), this saving is less than 10%. To my mind it makes no sense to compromise on the hull material, for this would influence the character and the resale value of the boat for years to come. If money is to be saved, it can be done by having simpler interior, internal systems, rigging or engine. These could always be upgraded later.

The Skills
One of the most rewarding aspect of creating your own boat is that you simultaneously create, in yourself, sets of skills which you might not have acquired in any other way. Neither of us have ever welded before! So one of the first skills we had to learn was MIG welding (Metal Inert Gas welding).

For this we contacted the South African Institute of Welding in Johannesburg, and organised to go on a one week course. The instructors there were surprisingly flexible in realising that, unlike most of their students, we were not seeking any form of certification, but rather a broad introduction to different aspects of welding from where we will be able to proceed through practising at home. At the end of the week we were tired to the bone, but we were given a good nudge in the right direction, as well as lots of advice on what may and may not work for our ambitious project.

Back in Cape Town we bought a cheap MIG welder (which only pushes the filler wire from the machine’s side) and had the cable shortened (for less friction) instead of buying a more expensive push-pull machine. This worked very well and the wire hardly ever got jammed – probably because the filler wire used for welding marine grade aluminium is quite stiff.

And then the fun started! We had lots of cut-offs once we started cutting the hull plates, and on these we started practising. And we watched lots of YouTube videos. And then we practised some more. We cut the welded metal up into strips and broke it in the vice. If it broke on the weld it was bad – if it broke on the heat affected zone next to the weld we were happy. The hierarchy of welds seems to be like this: a bad weld looks good, but breaks easily; an average weld looks bad, but is difficult to break; a good weld looks good and is difficult to break.

I think I can safely say that our boat consists of equal amounts of the last two types!

Another skill was to learn how to use power tools. The wonder of working with aluminium is that normal woodworking tools are perfectly sufficient: a skill saw (fitted with a blade for cutting aluminium, available from any hardware shop) goes through a metre of aluminium plate in less than two minutes, an electric planer can destroy your project if you are not careful, and an angle grinder or pencil grinder fitted with a carbide tipped blade is perfect for removing the cold start of a welding run. Just remember not to use abrasive discs or sandpaper where you want to weld again later – these will contaminate the area and lead to messy or weakened welds. And don’t forget all that safety gear!

The Place
There are those who believe that if you wish for something really hard, then you can attract it through some mysterious force. I am not one of those people, but this happened more or less in any case.

One day at work while paging through our beloved SAILING magazine (it must have been lunch time) I found a curious advertisement: “Accommodation to let. Large loft on second floor of house in Milnerton, together with garden space suitable for building a yacht.” This was still a year before we planned to move to Cape Town, but, as luck would have it, my best friend Paul Schutte was in Cape Town while finishing his own boat project. Paul happened to be looking for accommodation and he liked the place so much that he agreed to rent it for himself in the interim. Like many other things to come, it worked out beautifully.

It turned out that the owner of the house originally wanted to build his own yacht, so he left space next to the house for the building site. This is good, because, like with many things in life, one should have an exit strategy. It might be possible to build a boat in an enclosed space, but very difficult to get it out again! We built a 12 metre long lean-to next to the house from wooden poles and beams, covered with plastic tarpaulin and shade cloth. (MIG welding needs a wind free environment.) It was a lovely space so we threw a massive party for all our friends. If you tell so many people that you are going to build a yacht in this big tent, then you have to do it!


Part 2 of 3 parts

by Oloff de Wet

One can not discuss the idea of building one’s own boat, and of extended cruising, without considering the question of money. “How can you afford it?” is probably the most common boat-question we got asked. The golden coin has two sides. One side has to do with investing wisely, and in ultimately earning a passive income. The other side, plain and simple, but less often realised, lies in discovering that many of us need a lot less than what we think.

“Blessed be moderate poverty!” proclaims Friedrich Nietzsche’s hero Zarathustra. And he has a point when he says that “he who possesses little, is so much the less possessed.” And also “they acquire wealth and make themselves poorer with it.” But unfortunately he seems to sleep in the forest most of the time, and furthermore, much as I respect Zarathustra’s teachings, he is after all a fictional character.


On a more serious note we can look at Maslow’s well known hierarchy of needs. The idea is that a healthy individual would first fulfil his most basic needs like those of food, sex, shelter etc. Thereafter the individual would move on to higher needs like social belonging, and lastly to self-actualisation. It seems clear to me that our consumer society is to a large degree stuck at the most basic levels. We keep on striving for more possessions: branded clothes, newer cars and bigger houses. And we keep at it, even when many of us have much more than what we need. Ultimately we are poorer for it, and this endless material chase denies us the opportunity of acquiring higher forms of wealth. Surely there are other things to be done! We have to read old books. We have to design and build new boats. We have to write articles! (But bless the poor readers.)


Personally this is what I did: I lived in a place which was slightly too small and slightly too dodgy, much like when I was a student. I tried to avoid buying all the crap which everyone is constantly trying to sell you. I drove an old car which I had bought for cash. For holidays I went to third-world countries with a backpack – these are the best holidays in any case! The money I saved in this way, which was about half of my salary, I invested, both into rental property and onto the stock exchange (mostly low risk Index Tracking Funds). Then, after nine years, the miracle of compound interest occurred, when I realised that I can sustain myself from my investment income – it is a feeling of relief and indescribable freedom.

Muir, on the other hand, started saving quite late, but like the hare instead of the tortoise, he ran off to the Middle East, where he was offered a much larger salary, and returned three years later with a pot full of money. He invested his booty alongside mine and we manage these portfolios together.

Hull Design
Our first idea was to build a Stadt 34, for which we had ordered the plans, but to redesign the interior to make it more suitable for two couples. These boats have a very good track record, and a medium sized boat is much cheaper to build than a larger one, since the cost of boats tends to go up exponentially with size. For a cruiser this is important, because you don’t only want to visit the beautiful anchorages all over the world, you also need some pocket money to rent a car to explore the interior. Or maybe just book into a hotel with a big bath once in a while! As confirmation, the friendly people at Van de Stadt estimated that it will cost about 50% more to build the Stadt 37 than the Stadt 34.

We ordered six marine grade aluminium plates, each 6mm thick with dimensions 2m x 6m. We were busy figuring out how to cut the different hull plates out of these, when we realised that there will be a fair amount of aluminium left, and that it was actually possible to build a bigger boat with the available material. Let us stretch the boat by 2,5 %, we thought, and inadvertently pushed over the first of many dominoes. Then followed an altered hull shape with the bow more upright for a longer waterline; more freeboard and the cockpit further aft for a more spacious interior; a large foredeck to lie on as well as a proper swimming platform aft; a step in the coach roof with hatches for a view forward; and a draft limited to 1,75m for cruising in canals. To do this I read several books on yacht design, and Muir became an expert in CAD, drawing and redrawing our altered design several times on his laptop. I taught mathematics for quite a few years at university, but to actually use my mechanical engineering and maths background for something which was really going to exist in three dimensions, was very exciting.


One of my favourite books was John Letcher’s Self-Steering for Sailing Craft. The last chapter makes the point that wind vanes are usually fitted to boats as an afterthought, but that a cruising boat can be designed in such a way as to allow for a simple and integrated self-steering mechanism. As a consequence, ‘Ongemak’ has a well-balanced rudder, situated close to the transom. There is a tiller, not a wheel, and the stock turns in Jefa self-aligning roller bearings. This results in a responsive steering system with extremely low friction, and the self-steering is simply a large horizontal vane connected directly to the tiller. It can be swung to the side when not in use, so that the swimming platform remains open. Anyone who wants to design their own self-steering should definitely get hold of this book – it is also available as a free download.

The decision to have a tiller rather than a wheel also has other advantages for cruising. The stats show that a cruising boat sails only about 10% of the time and that the boat is mostly at anchor. The cockpit, with the tiller tied to one side, is then the heart of the party: people can move about freely and scuba gear and other toys can easily be launched. The definition of cruising is boat maintenance in exotic places, but with a tiller this is at least slightly less true.


At last we were ready to begin building. But now the questioned popped up: did we stray so far from the original design that seaworthiness or behaviour of the boat will be affected? We made an appointment with Anton du Toit, the well know Cape Town based yacht designer. We were offered coffee and discussed the plans for more than an hour. It was a big relief to hear that all was in order, and when we asked for the bill we knew that this was money well spent. “There is no bill,” he answered, “you guys want to build a boat. Now go and build it.” Well Anton, we did build it, and thank you once again. And I hope the wine was OK.

Hull Construction
Another person who was superbly helpful is Ray Mathews, who was commodore of the Royal Cape Yacht Club at the time. He organised for the plasma cutting of our hull plates. It was incredible to see how the plates for the whole boat were cut in about an hour of time, and they were delivered that same evening. Our excitement was uncontainable as we handled parts of our boat for the first time.

‘Ongemak’ is a hard chine boat, so each plate is as long as the boat, although quite narrow. The wonder, with aluminium being so light, is that two people can quite easily manoeuvre these long plates. So they were dragged across the lawn to the back. But they did not remain there for very long – over the next two weeks they were moved again – into the shed and onto the cradle, where they were to stay for nearly five years.

At the time of delivery we had already built the cradle in which the boat had to lie. It is made out of mild steel and is rugged and strong. But we had made it with the utmost care, accurate to a few millimetres, because in this the hull plates had to rest, and it ultimately determines the shape and symmetry of the boat.

What followed was fantastic – something close to immediate gratification: every day we hauled one of the plates onto the cradle, and tack-welded it to the one underneath. Each tack-weld is only two or three centimetres long, and the purpose is to temporarily hold all the plates in the right position. So lo and behold! After eight days we had a beautiful shining aluminium hull next to our house!


The actual welding, however, took many weeks. The welding on the outside of the boat was done first. It is important to make welds short (about 20cm) and to scatter them along the length and also between port and starboard. This prevents distortion caused by built-up heat. This took a long time, since the welding machine constantly had to be moved, and furthermore every single weld has a cold start which had to be cut out, in our case with a special blade we had on the angle grinder. Of course, at that stage, we were still new to the game of welding, our bodies were not used to a whole day’s manual labour, and much time was spent figuring out where to do what. Still, the boat grew, and with it our abilities. It is a wonderful feeling when equipment becomes extensions to one’s body, without thought as when driving a car.

Next came the inside. It was a relief not to weld upside down for a change, but first all the back-cutting at the inside had to be done. This involves cutting a groove along the joint of the plates at the inside so that, once welded, the outside and inside welds are fused. The stem was also fitted during these early stages. It is a big heavy tapered bar, it is brave and it is a pioneer.

The Keel
The keel is a big job and it was difficult. I have a strong suspicion that nothing I read on aluminium keel construction was written by someone who ever did it themselves. Of course we now know exactly how to build the next one!

The first step was to strengthen the hull somewhat. So we fitted the stern plate, deck stringers and foredeck. Then we moved into the garage, where the keel was constructed. It is basically an accurately made aluminium tank, into which the lead can be poured. It contains vertical floors which run all the way down for strength. The one side of the keel can simply be welded to these floors, but there is no access to weld once the other side is on, so slots must first be cut to enable welding onto the floors later on. But the irony is that, after having cut the side full of holes, it has to be welded closed very well. Because if it isn’t, salt water will enter, and galvanic corrosion would occur between the lead and aluminium. This requirement is so strict that one temporarily welds a lid onto the top of the keel, and then pressure tests to check for any leaks.


I may add that some aluminium boats have normal external lead keels, with a non-metal gasket between it and the boat, and it is attached with normal keel bolts. The advantage is probably that one would be able to outsource this job! But, the incredible strength of an integrated keel would be lost, and keel bolt maintenance would come into play, like on most boats.

Having done all this, we now got our block and tackle (i.e. the old mainsheet which is now our kicker) and hoisted the keel, which now weighed about 100kg, into the boat. A template was made and we then cut the hole for the keel into the bottom of the boat. A deep hole was dug underneath the boat as well. The keel was now lowered in, but we had to hoist it up a few times to file the hole slightly bigger. It is generally good practice to get parts that are to be welded to fit snugly, because it is easy to accidentally burn straight through when a gap is more than one millimetre. But before we welded the keel to the hull we had to put in the floors. These are the horizontal beams, under the floorboards of a boat, which gives the bottom of the hull its strength. It is a meticulous job to get it to fit the hull exactly, and each one was basically cut twice, first just roughly, and then more accurately after it was put in place temporarily and the profile marked with a compass.


I think it was Krishnamurti who said “the first step is the last step.” And in the same vein Muir often mockingly sang Dem Bones: “the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, now praise the name of the Lord!”

We were constantly building and planning at the same time, and this played a role right from the start. So, for instance, we had to think carefully about where exactly the floors had to go, because some of the floors had to be extended upward to become the frames onto which the bulkheads get bolted. And the bulkheads ultimately determine the whole interior layout. I am glad to say that the care we took early on was thoroughly rewarded. The geometry lines up very nicely to give an uncluttered and spacious interior, and anyone who wants to produce a sister ship to ‘Ongemak’ will find it simple and straightforward.

The last step was to fill the keel with two tons of lead.

A contact I made in the bar at Matjiesfontein now came in very handy and he sold us recycled lead at a very reasonable price. We melted the lead pigs in an old cast iron pot and bit by bit we filled the keel by pouring it in, or by stacking whole pigs in when space allowed. This process was a lot of fun, but we worked slowly and carefully, for our own safety and for that of the keel, because distortion to the keel had to be avoided, and water sprinklers were on at the outside of the keel all the time to keep it cool.

Lastly, I have to say something about sealing the top of the keel. Several sources indicate that it is sufficient to seal the top of the lead with epoxy or tar. Fortunately for us Peter Smith visited us around this time and warned us to rather weld aluminium cover plates onto the keel and to pressure test it again. This ended up being a very big job, because we did not plan for this in the beginning, so some of the floors were in the way. We are, however, very thankful to Peter for this good advice. There are many stories on the internet of people who had problems years afterwards from not having done it correctly in the first place, and I have personally met someone who had so much galvanic corrosion inside the leaky keel of an old aluminium boat that he decided to cut off the keel and have it redone!

101 Other Things
The biggest welding jobs were now behind us, but a lot still had to be done. We put in the frames onto which the plywood bulkheads were to come, as well as three sets of chainplate knees for our double spreader mast. We carefully incorporated the knees into bulkheads or cupboards to keep the interior uncluttered. (An easy way to create templates is to stick strips of hardwood together.)


This was followed by stringers to support the benches and bunks, and a watertight compartment under the front half of the V-berth.

A very deep anchor locker made sure that the weight of the chain would be as low as possible.

The mounting bed for the engine was made and the engine with it’s saildrive was installed.

The sole in the saloon rests on top of the floors, while the sole in the fore peak is the hull itself. This step (together with the upright front side of the coach roof) means that one can stand in the saloon and look out through forward facing hatches – a rare privilege on a modern boat.

Next came the decks, coach roof and the cockpit, which simply drains through holes in the transom. Both the cockpit benches and sole are long enough to sleep on, and there is a large lazarette to port. The swimming platform has continuous welds, and the cavity underneath serves as an integrated water tank. When the decks were eventually painted, this part got a darker colour, so the water for the transom shower gets heated by the sun.

The last job was the building of the rudder. This was mounted in the special self-aligning Jefa bearings, which means that the rudder will keep on functioning, even if it takes a hard knock which bends the stock. The rudder was mounted at the transom plate, and thus the cockpit remains open and without obstruction, and the sole is, as mentioned, long enough to sleep on.

At last then, the hull and deck were completed. It took more than two years of planning and building, but there it stood, like a giant modern sculpture next to the house. We were thoroughly thrilled and decided to have another big party. The party was called: The Halfway Mark.


Part 3:

Part 3 of 3 parts

This evening 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 which were out, were quite 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 obviously not a pleasant surprise, but it was pleasing to realise that the boat always felt safe and handled herself well. Right now it is raining and blowing at 50 knots! But fortunately I am looking out at this forceful display of nature over the bay, from the safety of the clubhouse, with a beer in my hand.

To Build or not to Build
To be in a boat, and to sail it, while always being aware of the fact that you created it yourself, are some of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I believe that to experience and to create are two of the most important things that this world has to offer. Some other advantages of building are:

1. You acquire many new skills, like designing, welding, carpentry, and, very importantly, how to negotiate with chandlers.

2. 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.

3. 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 quicker than any professional.

4. 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.

5. Your whole tribe eventually gets involved. Friends, neighbours and family get inspired by the idea that one 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:


6. Time: Muir and I both did some 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 that we each worked about 1000 hours a year on the boat for 5 years. Of course about half the time was spent designing and planning, and I am 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 what one estimates. It is not for no reason that there are so many semi-complete boats all over the country.

7. Money: Building one’s own boat is not a cheap way to get a boat. Much rather then buy a good second hand boat and fix it up. But one does 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 boat building university, where you did a degree in boat building for free – you just had to supply your own material!

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 that you like; measure the width of the bathroom door on the aeroplane. When things got critical, we built parts of the interior of cardboard. The most important thing, I believe, is to keep things as straightforward and simple as possible. Rather have good geometry solve the problem, than lots of moving parts.

Many small decisions had to be made, but for the sake of brevity, I list the main features:
8. Wide companion way steps that one can walk up or down with, drink in hand. The top step is deep enough to sit on during watch keeping.

9. Comfortable aft cabin with athwartship double bed.


10. Heads aft with full-size toilet.

11. Large G-shaped galley with the engine under the counter and accessible from all sides.

12. Saloon benches and saloon sole are all long enough to sleep on.

13. Comfortable forecabin with watertight impact compartment and large stowage.

14. Deep anchor locker keeps the weight of the 50m chain low.

15. 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 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 ply 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 this rare 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 note that it is 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 is not always necessary to pay an arm and a leg for the marine stamp on a piece of equipment and that bits 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 – or is it the Beginning
Five years after we started our project, we had our final boat party. There were nearly fifty people, 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.”

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 building a yacht at home, or our design in particular, is welcome to contact us at or We are making both the CAD files and the cradle to build the boat in, available for free.

Main Specifications
Design: ‘Ongemak’ 35
LOA: 10,45 m
LOD: 9,90 m
Beam: 3,33 m
Draught: 1,75 m
Displacement: 5,3 tons
Ballast: 2,1 tons
Rig: sloop
Year launched: 2016
Building time: 5 000 hours
Building cost: R650 000


Are you ready for a new journey? Contact us to access the plans for “Ongemak” and build your own!

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