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Insight: How Southern Wind Shipyard has found the perfect vantage point

Written by
Charl van Rooy

Perched at the end of the world, set in the picturesque port of Cape Town, one might be forgiven for not actively tracking the ongoing activities at Southern Wind Shipyard as closely as other shipyards nearer to home. Regardless, as one of the most southerly shipyards still in operation today and the only one to be based in South Africa, Southern Wind has become known for its consistent deliveries of high quality, ocean-going sailing yachts.

We could not think of a better time than the company’s 25-year anniversary to meet up with the man behind the company himself: visionary experienced yachtsman, Willy Persico. It is on the newly delivered SW102, Crossbow, where Persico awaits me with his signature smile and charismatic demeanour.

How did you come to own a shipyard at the bottom of the earth in South Africa?

It came by chance. 26 years ago I went to South Africa to build two new yachts (one boat for myself and another for a friend of mine). After eight months of construction, the shipyard went bankrupt. My options were; forget about the project and lose the two hulls with engines fitted and deck areas nearly complete, or, take over the shipyard, finish the projects, and slowly grow the activity at the yard. I decided to gradually liquidate my business in Italy and progressively invest my interests in South Africa.

Were you already in the yacht building business at the time?

No, not really. I was in the oil business and my company was also controlling a shipyard building hydrofoils in Sicily and just outside Genoa. I was the chairman of a shipyard building small, fast, commercial ships, which gave me the confidence to take on such a venture. But there is a big difference between being in charge of an existing shipyard, and starting a new operation from scratch.

When did the decision come to step up your production size scale?

In the early 90s. We were only building one model – a 72 footer designed by Bruce Farr. In 1997/98 we were very fortunate to have received an enquiry from a client to build a 95-footer (also a Farr design). At the time we noticed a shift in the industry towards more modern sailing yachts, especially in this size range. This is when we started using carbon fibre and other modern construction materials. By early 2000 our line had grown to four models, among which the SW78 designed by Reichel Pugh and Nauta Design, who gained lot of success with five units produced in four years.

In 2004 came an important point in our company’s history when we purchased a design for a 100ft sailing yacht. This would become the start of our very successful 100-foot mini-series of which we have built 13 units to date. This gave us great confidence to develop our line of yachts and invest in new designs over the years. Our philosophy is quite simple: when we like a boat, we will buy the design and develop the idea into something suited to the market. We will then start searching for a client to built the first, second and third models. This mini-series or ‘semi-custom’ approach is what our company is based on today.

How much of the actual design, engineering and development takes place in South Africa? Is any of the work outsourced to international parties?

The company is located in South Africa. There we have a management structure that consists of myself and three other directors. There are in total around 300 people that take care of all the aspects of the construction. When we feel we have a new idea that we would like to develop, we get in touch with the American naval architects at either Farr Yacht Design or Reichel Pugh and for interior styling, and for the overall concept we rely on Nauta Design. From these three parties together with the contribution of Pegaso Italy, who handles the sales, marketing and customer care of the shipyard, we set off on the development of any new project. The whole construction of yachts is carried out in-house.

What makes the shipyard location so unique?

The launching of our yachts takes place in arguably one of the most picturesque settings in the maritime world. Cape Town harbour is where we lower the yachts in the water, which is a mere 20 minutes’ travelling from Cape Town International airport. After the launching, and once commissioning is complete, our yachts have to carry out the ultimate delivery test – a maiden voyage of 7,000 nautical miles to reach the Mediterranean, as many of our clients are European.

Have you ever considered relocating production to Europe, because of the distance one has to travel?

No, simply because it took me 25 years to train my people and we have now reached a stage where the second generation of staff at the shipyard are getting involved. Furthermore, we are very involved in the development of the local community. Over the past few years, we have been supporting a boat building school through which we advance around three or four apprentices each year into a permanent position in the company.

How did you celebrate the company’s 25-year anniversary this year?

We had a great celebration on the island of Capri in May this year to mark the occasion. 13 of our yachts gathered for the event along with many of our existing and new clients. Coming from Naples originally, for me the event was extra special as it felt for me like I was returning home, and celebrating the event at this location was very exciting for me.

What would you say has contributed to the success of SWS over the past 25 years, and what type of clients does the brand continue to attract today?

We have been consistent in the way that we construct our yachts. We are building fast, comfortable cruising boats that are strong enough to endure a gruelling 35-day maiden voyage. Southern Wind attracts owners that are passionate sailors, willing to enjoy life at sea, being it sailing around the world or enjoy performance in coastal navigation and races. In terms of clients, it’s worth to highlight that a select few of our yachts are available for charter through Pegaso Charter Division, and this has become a great way for potential clients to appreciate our construction and some of these charterers go on to purchase a yacht afterwards. Many of the Southern Wind family are repeat clients. We have completed nearly 53 yachts in our lifetime – 49 of those are in operation today, with four under construction. Out of those 53 yachts, at least 10 are owned by repeat clients with some of them having built up to three yachts with us.

Having achieved this quarter century milestone, what do you see for the future of the company?

We produce three yachts per year, each year - as we have for the last 10-12 years. For the next three years we will maintain this pace of delivery and perhaps increase this rate to four yachts per year by 2019. Our size range will always remain between 25 and 35 metres. We might increase the number of yachts delivered over 100 feet, simply because once you reach this size range, your number of competitors decrease significantly. There are many shipyards, new and established, with whom we have to compete with when it comes to yachts below 95 feet.

Will someone in your family take over the company once you retire? Is there an outside party that could possibly be interested in buying SWS?

The future of the company will most likely involve the current management taking over the shares of the business. My family could also possibly be shareholders, but they will not be involved in the daily running of the company. It makes me very happy to know that the shipyard is stable and not having to rely on some private equity fund or investor to keep us alive. I live for the future. The past has given us the experience to know what to do today and the present offers us a lot of opportunities and ideas of what to do next. I hope to be around to see what the shipyard is capable of achieving over the next 10 years.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction from this job?

As you can see, I am not a young man anymore, but what is most important is what lies ahead of me. I am curious by nature, and I am constantly looking at what is happening in the yachting world. My first target is to do well at what I know and to contribute in some small way to the yacht building industry. It gives me great pleasure to have a dinner with a client of ours and his family and to witness how happy they are for having built a yacht at our shipyard. That is my greatest reward.

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