South Africa and the Sea – A History That Arrived in Ships

by julian roup

Southern Wind Sailing is hugely aware of the role sailing ships have played in the history of the Cape and of South Africa and works hard with its team of 300 skilled shipwrights to carry the message of sailing excellence and success to all the seas of the world.

If you stand at Sagres, on the very southwestern tip of Portugal, you find yourself at the birth of South Africa as a nation. For it is at this exact spot where Prince Henry the Navigator built his naval academy. It was from here that the Portuguese ships set out to find a way to the Indies and the lure of its spices worth a king’s ransom.

1584 Ortelius Map of Crete
Abraham Ortelius – Africa Tabula Nova – 1584

Today nothing remains of the school at Sagres just a handful of fishermen on the cliffs which boom with the pounding of waves that have crossed the Atlantic and below some daredevil windsurfers.

But it is from this place that Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama (discoverer of the sea route to India), Pedro Cabral (who discovered Brazil), and Bartolomeu Dias (who rounded Africa) all studied.

Zheng He Chinese Emperor Fleet
Zheng He Chinese Emperor Fleet

So it was both Christian and Muslim sailors from Europe and China whose sails brought them to this part of the coast of Africa where today Southern Wind is building the latest and most modern yachts designed to cross oceans. We could claim that the 600 year long sailing heritage in South Africa makes it the perfect place to manufacture yachts.

And when the South Easter wind howls across Cape Town and the great grey ‘ship’ mountain in the centre of the city raises her main sail it is good to know that we chose this place to build our sailing yachts – and also that our crew of 300 are all safely inside and not out on Table Bay!

Cape Town Southern Wind
@ Southern Wind Shipyard, Cape Town © Carlo Baroncini Photography

So the written history of South Africa started in Portugal with sailors studying all there was to learn about the coast of Africa, information gleaned from fisherman, sailors and merchants with a good dose of myth and terrifying legend thrown in for good measure.

They built a fleet of Caravels, the fast sailing ships that carried intrepid crews in search of wealth and glory. In the days before Columbus, when the world was presumed to be flat, this rugged south-western tip of Portugal was the spot closest to the edge of the Earth. Prince Henry the Navigator, determined to broaden Europe’s horizons and founded his navigators’ school here, and sent sailors ever further into the unknown. Shipwrecked and frustrated explorers were carefully debriefed as they washed ashore.

Dutch Indian Company
Dutch East India Company

And from China came the junks of the diplomat, soldier, admiral Zheng, a eunuch sent by his Emperor to map the Indian Ocean from Japan to Kenya and conducted seven epic voyages across the “Western Seas” to cement centuries of Chinese dominance in trade and seafaring across the Indian Ocean. Surprisingly, it is only in recent years that Zheng’s explorations have received attention, and even now, he is relatively unknown in his own country.

Zheng’s voyages and mapping of his African expeditions happened before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had even started his explorations. This was about a century before the Dutch established their Indian Ocean trade routes and also a century before Christopher Columbus began his voyages to what would become the Americas.

Cape Town Southern Wind Journey
@ Southern Wind Shipyard © Carlo Baroncini Photography

As the Green Revolution and the Environmental Revolution and Global Warming all impact on the earth, what better product to create than a moving home on the seas that allows you to live off grid? Two thousand years ago the Romans said of this continent: “Always something new out of Africa” which expressed their awe and wonder at the new and never ending gifts of this magnificent continent. Today you, the team that builds Southern Winds Yachts are the latest in line to bring something wonderful to the world from Africa. Sailors played a key role in our Southern African history and now we are building on that legacy to make South African sailing history ourselves.

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