From the Drawing Board  

by John Welsford - Hamilton, New Zealand

A Houdini in South Africa

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I meet a lot of customers by email, and over the course of their building get to know them a little. A question will have snippets of personal information with it, and I reciprocate, and over the year or two of the build a small friendship builds up. It’s a real buzz when the pictures from launching come in, and then the stories of the first adventures. It's like living the life of the new boat as it grows from an idea to a completed boat, and sharing the excitement with the family as they begin to expand their horizons.

I’m a real fan of cruising in open boats, and can generally be counted upon to preach about it at every opportunity, and its wonderful to hear accounts of people discovering this way of being so close to nature.

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Herco van de Erve first contacted me about 18 months ago asking about my Houdini design. He wanted to do some overnights, and to daysail with friends and family and after some discussion he ordered plans through local agents CKD Boats in Capetown. I drew a set of plans for a gaff sloop rig, something that I’d been planning to do for ages, and his request finally got it to the top of the list of things to do.

We have had the occasional exchange of emails, a question or two and a couple of progress reports, nice to hear and I wish that more of “my” builders would keep me up to date. The very best thing about this job as a small yacht designer is meeting such great people!

Herco and family are resident near Pretoria in South Africa. That’s a long way from the sea, and my image of that part of Africa being somewhat dry was given the lie when Herco sent me a Google Earth link that showed a huge dam on the Vaal River a bit south from where he lives. His link shows the course of his five day maiden cruise in his brand new gaff sloop rigged Houdini named "Kurkprop" (Africaans for Champaign cork). Have a look “HERE” or click the image below left.

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If you don't have Google Earth, you can download it from the link above. Then click the image at left to see the track of Herco's cruise.

The lake looks near perfect for cruising a small boat, with space to sleep aboard this is “real” cruising, lying at anchor overnight, the boat rocking her crew to sleep as she swings to the changes in the wind and waves, and charging bravely through the waves when the afternoon winds get up on her way to the next anchorage.

Here is the email from Herco telling of the first big cruise and some pictures of “Kurkprop” on Launching day and on later sails. Wonderful stuff, I do hope that I get to hear of more adventures!


I Finally mailed you that money for the gaff sloop sail plan. I must apologize for taking so long. That letter addressed and seal have been sitting on my mantel piece for months. Luckily now it's done. So is my first cruise and the only reason I didn't enjoy it was my guilty conscience. ( no problem Herco, thanks for remembering JW)

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For a complete novice boat builder and sailor, the Houdini was a challenge but not too difficult, more of a steep learning curve. The best part is all the compliments I get from the round the can racers and canoeist at the sailing club. It has been even described as the nicest boat in the dinghy park, which I will have to agree with. Here in South Africa dinghy cruising is limited and almost completely unheard of. Inland it's too dry and the coast line doesn't have much sheltered water. There are some dams and rivers that can be navigated by small boat. These are the places that I will seek out and explore. I started of with the Vaal river and dam a 100 km 5 day cruise joined by my two brothers and Sam the loyal boat building Jack Russell, all of them well acquainted with the big African outdoors.

The weather service got it wrong two week ends in a row and we ended up with quite a rainy, windy two days. Day one was dead down wind ' being the novice sailor that I am I decided to sail under jib only and this worked just fine and gave us a nice relaxing trip to our first camping spot, by camping spot I refer to a suitable place on some unknown farmers land. The brothers, complete nonsailors, got a rude awakening the next day, when wind, river and the 1965 seagull outboard motor conspired against us. We spend the day reefed, beating in to a wind over tide, one to two foot chop in a narrow river with an outboard that wouldn't start. Progress was slow with waves sending spray into the boat on a regular basis. In our yellow rain suits we looked a bit like we could be on the southern ocean. The brothers where a bit wide eyed at first but "Kurkprop" (Champagne cork- named so because of all the floatation foam, its the law here) quickly put them at ease with her excellent sea keeping ability and should you develop a cough the Jeagermeister was at hand driving away the cold. Arriving just before dusk at camping spot number 2 everybody new exactly how to tack even Sam moved to the windward rail when the sails crossed over. There she kept a sharp look out most of the day. The Seagull gave us no joy as we stripped it in the torch light next to the fire. Being the true adventurers that we are we decided to sail on.

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Day three dawned to a beautiful African morning. Hot sunny and with little to no wind. It made quite a change from the previous two days and the warm clothes made way for swimming trunks as we sat in the middle of the widening river, centre board clanking in its case. The only thing chasing us on was the meeting with the families at the chalets 30 km down river. This date with a warm bed and a shower had us sculling over the transom with the untested sculling oar. The lack of practical experience and practice didn't count in our favor. Lucky for us a light wind made its appearance just as the sun set, and we had a fantastic sail under the full moon arriving past dinner time. Tired but happy. This signaled the end of the cruise for some of the crew.

We pushed on the next day resupplied and refreshed, minus one crew the dog and the outboard. Most of the trip was done and we had two days just to sail the last few kilometers and do some exploring. The river widened more and changed into a big mass of water. Gone were the idyllic days of being the only people for miles. There where quite a few wet bikes and motor boats about and houses line the shore. We decided to spend the night afloat. During dinner the wind suddenly increased and turned 180 deg putting us on a lee shore with a dragging anchor. Dinner was scoffed down, sails hoisted and a better anchoring spot found behind a small island in the middle of the dam. As soon as the anchor was down the wind subsided and the moon and stars came out to give us a brilliant light show as we listened to the slapping of the small waves, drifting of to sleep.

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Dawn broke as beautiful as can be, and we were off to circumnavigate the island. After a lunch stop and exploring some of the island we were of to meet with the backup crew to take us home. Whilst loading the boat and gear an old salt, well a fresh water salt then, came up for the usual chat, questions and compliments. He was quite impressed as we told him about our adventure and said we can be sure that we are the first to ever do this. He has been living there his whole life, so we took his word for it. I felt a bit like a real explorer and then I knew why I built a cruising dinghy and didn't settle for a second hand round the can racer. I want to go places with my dinghy, to relax and explore. The rat race is race enough for me. Going round in circles weekend after weekend doesn't have the same appeal as going somewhere, anywhere. That's why I built a cruising dinghy, but I guess you know this.

John, thanks again for a beautiful, well designed boat, that works.

With thanks and regards
Herco van de Erve
Dragonfly woodworks
25 Axle Drive
Olifants fontein

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