With its beautiful lagoon, rich variety of natural resources, and access to the ocean, it should come as no surprise that Knysna has a long history of shipping and boat building. In fact, it’s an industry that has served to define the town over many generations.
How it all began in Knysna
In 1804, George Rex, who some believe to have been the illegitimate son of King George III of England, settled on a farm near Knysna. He soon saw the enormous commercial potential of the local forests. The timber of these local forests could be exploited for housing, transport, heating, and shipbuilding. However, a safe harbour was needed for ships to access this timber to transport it to the Cape and so George Rex began lobbying the Government to declare Knysna a port.
Eventually, the government agreed. However the first ship to attempt the entrance in 1817 was the Emu, and she floundered in the Heads. Two months later, HMS Podargus entered safely and was followed by HMS Eurydice who completed a survey of the Knysna River.
Establishing a dockyard at Featherbed
In 1820 a naval dockyard was established where the Featherbed Ferry terminal stands today. In its short five years of operation, the wooden building burned down and was rebuilt twice. This was followed by the building of the Knysna in 1826, George Rex’s ship which was built entirely of stinkwood. However, despite his efforts, the port of Knysna was de-proclaimed in 1827. By this time though George Rex was known as the proprietor and founder of Knysna and his legacy lives on through the various building and street names seen today, including the George Rex Drive which leads to the Eastern Head and Beacon House apartments.
Up until 1867 the loading and unloading of ships had been extremely difficult in the Knysna Estuary. Lighter pieces were loaded onto rafts or small boats and rowed to shore, but for heavier cargo, the ships had to be beached on the sandbanks at high tide. Thus Skipper Horn decided to build a stone jetty at his own expense. This jetty served Knysna until 1883 when a New Jetty was built on Thesen’s Island. The Knysna Yacht Club would eventually be built on the old jetty.
The Thesen family makes its mark
The Thesen family is responsible for the shipping boom in Knysna. Their jetty became the first formal harbour in the town. In 1895 the Thesen Line welcomed their first ship, the Agnar. Alongside the cargo, she regularly took schoolchildren from Knysna to boarding school in Cape Town. Because of the stormy seas, the children quickly nicknamed her the Agony.
Despite this name, the family ran a very successful shipping business in the town. Eventually, the company was sold off in 1921 with the Thesens instead focussing their energy on sawmilling, wood processing, and the construction of wagon parts and luxury furniture.
A new boom for boat building in Knysna
It was during World War II that the boat building industry in Knysna took off. In 1942, General Jan Smuts was calling for additional military recruits. The Thesens decided to heed his call and close the furniture side of their business to allow their staff to sign up for service. However, just before the staff was due to leave the admiralty requested that the staff put their skills to use by crafting boats for the war effort instead.
During the war years, some 640 wooden vessels were crafted by the Thesen’s yard. These wooden-hulled ships included the famed Fairmile submarine chases. These 112ft patrol boats were in such high demand that they were being built two at a time in the company’s boatshed while smaller crafts and lifeboats were constructed in the old furniture factory.
The boats, which were made on wooden cradles, were launched via slipway into the lagoon.
The boatshed, which is still visible on Thesen Island, dates back to the 1940s. Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed in 1966 by a fire but it was quickly rebuilt.
A modern history of sailing in Knysna
After World War II boat building production was scaled back, however, some pleasure craft and fishing vessels were still produced in Knysna. This included building the prestigious 49ft yacht Voortrekker. The boat went on to finish second across the line during the 1968 single-handed transatlantic race, with a first-place finish on handicap. It was thereafter acquired by the SA Navy and sailed to victory at the 1983 BOC Challenge, a single-handed round the world race.
Following the success of the Voortrekker and to celebrate 70 years since the family’s arrival in Knysna, the Thesens built the Albatross II, named after the schooner on which they had originally arrived in the area. The 42ft vessel won the 1971 Cape to Rio Yacht Race, cementing Knysna’s position in the yacht building industry.
A history still visible today
Knysna has also continued to be a major boat manufacturing hub in South Africa with the Knysna Yacht Company and Vision Yachts, internationally-renowned boutique luxury yacht manufacturing businesses both based in Knysna. Drawing on the rich maritime heritage of the area and spurred on by the formidable Agulhas current on their doorstep the world-class customizable, blue water sailing catamarans from both companies can now be seen sailing in many different destinations around the world. Fusion Power Boats also makes versatile bay boats for those who want to spend their time enjoying the Knysna lagoon fishing and skiing.
The magnificent high-ceilinged Thesen boatshed has since been repurposed into a commercial centre housing a variety of boutique shops, one of the best restaurants in Knysna, a spa, and even a boutique hotel. It is here that you will find Thesen Harbour Town which pays homage to its past with the entire existing timber framework retained and all the timber cladding re-used. Thus offering you the chance to experience this rich maritime history for yourself.