Those of you who know me, and follow this blog, know that I rarely report the negative aspects of experiences in other countries. We have all had experiences with corrupt officials, and businessman in various countries along the way. And, its not uncommon to occasionally find unscrupulous people in most countries of the world. The cruising community has ways of sharing negative experiences, and we try to avoid giving future business to those who treat their customers poorly, when possible. But, sometimes you can’t avoid because the only business available with the service you need is that person we’ve all heard about. There are also sometimes concerns in some countries for security and issues of crime. We have cautions on all of these matters for South Africa. Be forewarned, this is a long post.
Being a businessman myself, I can appreciate how circumstances beyond your control can make you look bad even when your own intent and desire is to give good business. But, at the same time, it is often possible to go above and beyond to make your customers happy even when something goes wrong and the good will generated is better than the cost sacrificed. On the other hand, there are some business people who have no intention of sacrificing their profits no matter what the circumstances even if they failed to deliver quality service. It appears this latter practice is more common in South Africa than in other countries, at least in the marine industry. Given the number of similar experiences by other cruisers in South Africa this past year, I suspect it is more than just bad luck on our part.
Now that we have left South Africa, I want to warn future cruisers to be cautious here. We had very negative experiences with individuals and marine-related business entities in several cases here. And, there are other concerns about sailing conditions, and the political and economic situation.
First, I will start with a few positive words about Richards Bay and the Zululand Yacht Club. They have an active social program and make a big effort to welcome foreign yachties and assist with visiting not only their club, but also with their community and doing sightseeing and shopping. Richard’s Bay is also in a good physical location for going on sightseeing tours to some nearby game parks and other sights. Several yacht club members go way out of their way to be welcoming. And several social events held by the club were open to foreign visitors. They really want you to be happy with your experience.
However, we had a very negative experience with the boatyard of the Zululand Yacht Club. I will not go into all the details here, please contact me if you need to know more. The haul-out equipment for catamarans is delapidated, and in my opinion unsafe for any catamaran larger than 38 feet in length. This part of the yard is operated by Jan Smit. Be forewarned he charges the same price for hauling out AND hauling back in (I was not told this beforehand). His haul-out rate was the highest we have seen anywhere (especially when multiplying it by two). Jan will not own up to mistakes or damage his operation causes to your boat (including lifting issues or collisions with objects in the yard). Tahina and another catamaran were both damaged during haulout during October 2014 season. Also, the lifting device’s hydraulics gave out during Tahina’s haul-in dropping it 18 inches almost to the ground. I suggested to the haul-out manager afterwards that he should consider making amends for the poor job and the damage caused to our boat, and he refused to do so in the strongest terms and said he did not see any need to do anything differently and referred me to his contract which states he’s not responsible for damages. Speaking of his contract, it actually stated he would not be responsible for causing your death or injury even if he or his staff did so intentionally (I had him strike that portion out of the contract before I would sign it).
We also had issues with the manager of the boat services company (who is the son to the haul-out manager), his name is Morgan Smit. He only bills by the hour and you need to watch the hours he bills very closely (I’d recommend a log book for each worker, and since he bills by the hour – don’t let him bill for worker breaks and lunches). He and his team have poor project management skills. By the way, he offered to make expensive fiberglass reinforcements to the hull of our catamaran. He stated they have done it to many catamarans because they are not strong enough. According to him, it wasn’t the damage caused by the haul-out, but weakness in cat hulls that caused our problem. Note: Tahina never had these issues in previous haul-outs, nor have owners of the same model. I discovered he only pays a disgustingly small portion of the hourly rate to his staff. These are just a few of the business issues we encountered during our 2+ months having work done there to fix Tahina to like-new conditions.
When we initially went back into the water, we did our usual immediate inspections since thru-hulls had been modified. We had to direct them to pull us back out because we were taking on water. It turned out the exhaust port hoses were not reconnected after work had been done on them.
With regards to Richards Bay, please make sure you read about and discuss with locals about safe travel in the area. Crime is a serious problem. There are certain rules that will greatly reduce your risk (like not going out at night), and you should be careful about stopping on the roads (there are many violent hijackings in the area). Also, the Tuzi Gazi marina docks were in very poor condition last year and an entire dock almost came separated from the main dock while several foreign yachts were berthed there late last year.
When we went to book a berth in Simons Town Marina at the False Bay Yacht Club, we discovered two things. One, they quoted us higher rates (20% higher) than what was on their web site (they apologized and said they hadn’t updated the web site yet). And two, you have to pay a significant daily rate to the yacht club (required whether or not you take advantage of all their services). We also found out later the club demands payment to those anchoring in the harbor because they are supposedly “responsible” to the Naval Base for anyone in the port. We paid the fees.
Despite the higher than expected expense, we enjoyed our time at the marina and club. The facilities were in reasonably good shape, and the club was welcoming. Simons Town is conveniently located for sightseeing both locally and in Cape Town. We really liked the quaint local stores and restaurants in Simons Town. The location is especially good if you are willing to hire a car, but you can also take the train into town (be aware of crime issues on the train though). Also, be aware that the wind can blow quite hard (we often saw 50 kt gusts in the marina) on any given day or night – but, this is true in the entire area. The marina waters are well-protected, so the winds rarely cause any surface chop. But, swells do come into the area causing a fair amount of motion. Lines must be checked frequently for chaffing. You don’t want your boat rubbing against the docks.
We also had issues with work done in Cape Town. We had a leak with a hydraulic cylinder for our steering, and assumed it was a seal, so I took it to an engineering company in the city. They put a new seal kit on the cylinder, but it turns out they installed the piston backwards – which I didn’t realized until later. They quickly re-installed it after I pointed it out at no charge. Later, after we left Cape Town, I found out we still had the leak. It turned out a close inspection of the piston revealed a nick in the rod. Fluid was being forced out when the rod went past the seal. They should have inspected it.
Prices for goods in the chandleries in South Africa can be quite high. Some products, like Southern Ropes are made in South Africa, but the prices aren’t special for the ropes in the chandleries. South Africa has no documented process for bringing in parts or other goods duty-free for yachts in transit. Marinas will most likely direct you to using a clearing agent, and you can expect additional fees due to typical African graft expectations. This lack of yacht-in-transit duty-free arrangements (found in most countries of the world) is a serious problem in my opinion that needs to be addressed.
We had several other business issues while in the country. I had a pair of binoculars repaired by the manufacturer repair facility, but after I got them back it quickly broke again. I had to take it back again and they did a better job the second time. A decal company we asked for a quote from in Richards Bay never got back to us after several promises, so someone gave me the name of a decal business owner who immediately came and gave me a quote. Come to find out it was the same company I had worked with before! Then they ended up with the wrong material causing another day delay, but at least they quickly resolved it and didn’t charge me extra when the manual work took longer than they had estimated. It just seemed that quality services are hard to find. We weren’t the only foreigners that had such issues.
Unfortunately, we didn’t escape problems even on our last day in South Africa. We knew for weeks that there was an issue with the process of clearing out in the Cape Town area. Officials for some reason will not let vessels clear out from Simons Town to leave the country. Boats have to go to Cape Town to clear out. Rumors were that the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town was required to be used for clearing out and you had to pay them fees both for the process and for mooring (slips only). As we, and several other boats, were preparing to leave Simons Town, new rumors surfaced that the customs and immigration officials were not requiring yachts to go to Royal Cape to clear out. Supposedly you could go on the main wharfs there temporarily at no charge and do the process. Several crews attempted to clear out from Simons Town, but were told they had to go to Cape Town.
We attempted to contact the Royal Cape to see if they could accommodate our catamaran. They said they could – and I tried to get them to tell me what the rate would be. Multiple calls to the person responsible, and I never made contact. We left Simons Town anyway, and finally reached the Royal Cape dock manager as we approached. He said we could use the “immigration dock”. We were happy with that since, as we all know, immigration docks are made available to yachts on a temporary basis for clearing purposes. We got there to find a rather dilapidated dock with a finger barely long enough to tie off Tahina. But, we were only there a few hours we hoped at most, so we thought that was ok. We had to jump over gaps in the docks where they were replacing seriously over-weathered wood slats throughout the marina. It was in sad shape.
We went to the marina office to sign in, and they re-iterated their US$25 processing fee, and then told me a fee for the mooring. I explained we were on the “immigration dock” and we were not told about any slip fee. They said “sorry, but there is a fee and you have to pay for the night even if you stay a few hours”. I said I wanted to talk to the manager.
The general manager of the RCYC and I sat in his office for 30 or so minutes. He explained (in what was obviously a frequently practiced speech) a long history (which we had already heard from other boat crews) about how it wasn’t their fault they were “stuck” with having to process all the yachts in Cape Town because the officials “forced it” on them. He explained how his yacht club understood that international yachts are accustomed to simpler clearing out processes and reasonable fees, and in fact his club had research done that showed how valuable foreign yachts are to the country’s economy because they tend to spend a lot of money in the countries they visit for tourism, boat repairs, and provisions, and because they stay much longer than average tourists. He said the results from the study were “stunning” at how much foreign yachts can contribute. He also explained that his club, and all the other yacht clubs, regularly have meetings to discuss how best to “handle” the foreign yachts. Then he had the audacity to explain how the burden of having to clear yachts leaving Cape Town meant the RCYC had to keep slips open that he could otherwise book. I wasn’t buying his talk because we had been told the officials were not requiring the Royal Cape to be used. But, I kept quiet.
Then he said the charge I was getting was for the slip for a night according to our length, times two, because we were a catamaran. He said that is the standard fee and he had no “control” over it.
I said his position was ludicrous because I was only staying a few hours, not over night, and we were on the end of a T-dock, so our width should have nothing to do with their rate. And, I said it was really wrong for him to tell me how much he valued foreign yachts, and then tell me he was going to charge an exorbitant fee on a supposed “immigration dock” which is free in all other countries. I had not been told about any fee, and in fact had tried to get information on fees the previous day with multiple phone calls. And, I had been told a boat had been moved from my slip and would be going back when we left – how could that be if I paid for it for the night?
He said it was out of his hands and it was clear he would not budge an inch! He just sat there with a smirk on his face. He said it was up to the council of the yacht club – not him. I was quite pissed off with his attitude, but I wanted to leave the country. I didn’t want further debate. So I told him poor customer relations is not a good way to run a business and left. I paid what was plainly extortion. I gave my condolences to the woman who I paid for having to work with such a difficult manager.
We got a taxi ride to start our process of clearing out. It took about 2 hours to get it all done with three different locations. We asked at customs and they said we were NOT required to use the Royal Cape to clear. We moved Tahina to the fuel dock and paid a higher than expected fee for diesel (you’d never know oil prices had dropped by 50% globally) just to finish off our business experience properly.
The attitude of the general manager at the Royal Cape Yacht Club, and his explanation of the “meetings” between all yacht clubs in South Africa, might explain why many visiting yachts this year discovered much higher than expected rates at many of the yacht club marinas we visited in the country. Rates for marine services and goods were higher in South Africa than in many other countries (at least for foreign yachts) – despite the fact that their Rand is very weak in comparison to foreign monetary systems and other things like food, lodging, transportation, and alcohol are very reasonable in South Africa. Also, despite that the quality of the marina facilities were in all cases below international standards – this applied for us in Richards Bay, Simons Town, and the Royal Cape Yacht Club. In fact, we had never seen operating marinas in such a sad state of disrepair. And we heard similar things about the other ports. In all cases the docks were in sad shape (although Simons Town was slightly better maintained), and supporting facilities were either poor or non-existent. I imagine after the research the yacht clubs had done on what international yachts were paying at expensive countries like Australia was an attractive pricing concept to the clubs in South Africa. But, the research obviously didn’t include the quality of services provided for those prices (or the fact yachties aren’t happy with those prices in those countries either). I never established whether local yacht owners paid the same rates.
A couple of positive notes, I will say that the Knysna Yacht Club clearly did not participate in such shenanigan’s and did not try to charge us even for being temporary members of their club, or for anchoring. A more welcoming club could not be found in South Africa. We also had a great time with our sightseeing – especially Cape Town area and all five of the game parks we visited. We are extremely glad we got to go to those places. We met and became friends with a number of very nice people in South Africa. Some went out of their way to help us and expressed dismay when we mentioned some of our experiences with the businesses.
We were worried about political and economic climate in South Africa. I would pay close attention to the stability factors like crime and security before visiting there again. You don’t have to look far for how concerned citizens are there – most of the housing neighborhoods are surrounded by cement fences with razor wire and electric fences on the top and often cameras and motion sensors as well. Signs usually say they have armed security. This is true in Cape Town, and even in more remote areas of the country like Richards Bay, Port Elizabeth, etc. You are even expected to pay parking “attendants” a few coins to watch after your car while shopping at shopping centers or even the grocery store.
One last caution for sailors, make sure you read up as much as possible on the conditions you can encounter while traversing the shoreline of South Africa. The weather, currents, tides, and shore conditions make for very complex conditions. Also research available stopping points in case you need to divert, and also formalities required as you are expected to do clearances in every port you enter/exit.
Needless to say at this point, we had both strong positives, and strong negatives in our visit to South Africa. And some experiences in between. So, be safe if you are going to sail to South Africa and be prepared.