They began building ships in Knysna nearly 200 years ago. But it wasn’t always a successful affair.
Knysna’s most famous early settler, George Rex, arrived here in 1804, and set up in the farming and timber businesses almost immediately – and almost equally immediately began badgering the government of the Cape Colony to establish a harbour here so that he could export the wood that his workers (many of them slaves) cut from the forest.
He never troubled himself to find out whether The Heads were even passable, though, but he must have been quite persuasive, because the government did, in fact, declare The Knysna (as it was known in those days) a port in 1817.
And then it sent the good ship Emu to test the waters.
Bad idea: she tried to sail into the estuary dead in the middle of the river mouth – but, as the master of HMS Podargus would learn when he came along to salvage the wreck two months later – the navigable channel runs hard by the Western Head. (When you sail with us on Outeniqua, you’ll see – our skippers navigate by following a set of leading lights: a white flashing light on the white beacon on the Eastern Head, and a red flashing light atop a tower on Leisure Isle. Line them up, and you’ve got at least six metres of water under you to sail safely out to sea. Inconveniently, those lights weren’t there in Rex’s day.)
Once the Royal Navy knew that The Knysna was navigable, though, it decided to set up a dockyard on the banks of the estuary, at about the spot where the Laguna Grove building stands today. Seemed like a good idea at the time, what with the ready availability of timber and all. It opened in 1820, and promptly burned down – twice. By the time the idea was abandoned five years later, not a single ship had rolled off the production line.
That didn’t stop old George, though: he simply built his own ship, the ‘Knysna,’ in 1826. Perhaps not the most imaginative bloke when it came to choosing names, it seems that our Georgie was quite the shipwright, though, because the 139-ton brig – which he built entirely of stinkwood – outlasted him: he died in 1839, while she was wrecked off the coast of Cornwall in 1844. (If you want to see what she looked like, there’s a model of her in the Old Gaol Museum).
And that was that for shipbuilding for a while in Knysna – until the legendary pilot, John Benn, arrived to salvage the wreck of the Musquash in 1855, and stayed to build a 60-ton schooner, the Rover, for a local trader named Thomas `Skipper’ Horn. And he built a second ship, too – the 50-ton Annie Benn (also a schooner) in 1867.
After that, ship-building took a back-seat in the local economy. True, the Thesen family settled here in 1870, and set up as timber merchants, saw-millers and traders, and they did build small boats at their steam sawmill at Bracken Hill up in the forests – but it was only after 1923, when they moved their operations to Paarden Island (now Thesen’s Island) that boat-building really took off.
In fact the new business, Thesen’s Boatyard, became so successful that it won contracts to build 640 vessels for the Allied forces during the Second World War – the largest being the Fairmile class submarine hunters, which were made of wood so that the enemy’s tracking devices wouldn’t find them (Thesen’s built ten of them: see pic below).
After the War, the Thesen’s yard built fishing vessels, pleasure craft, yachts, and houseboats – but it would later be sold off, and it was closed during the 1980s.
Still, its boatshed survived – as did the big old coral tree which grew next to it – and you can still see them on Thesen Island today (the building now houses The Lofts Hotel).