Cape Town boatbuilding family turns adversity into opportunity
Fuad Jacobs can’t help smiling as he pages through a well-thumbed family photo album. His eyes sparkle, his smile pushes up the corners of his moustache. Tenderly he caresses some pictures and prods others with an index finger, triumphant.
We are looking at his boats, not his relatives; Jacobs introduces each one as he would a long-lost uncle recently returned from some distant ocean: “Now THIS boat..” he says, launching a new anecdote that seems to billow into life before us. “And THAT one!” His finger prods another of his extended floating family.
One by one I meet the entire Jacobs fleet, or as much of it that fits into one album.
There are other boats to talk about, too, such as the giant framed photograph on the lounge wall – the original Jacobs Brothers build – and the couple of hulls in the yard, still taking shape. It is here in a quiet cul-de-sac in Cape Town’s southern suburbs that Fuad helped establish a boatbuilding legacy that continues to this day. But while the local maritime community is well aware of the Jacobs brand, not many know the full story behind the trademark aluminium hulls.
Like many boatbuilders Fuad’s interest in boats grew out of a family passion for the sea. His father, a metal worker by trade, also owned a fleet of small crayfish bakkies he kept on a beach near Kommetjie. For Fuad and his four brothers these boats were a crucial focal point that helped shape their careers. “All the brothers were somehow connected with this as we grew up,” recalls Fuad, reaching into a part of the family history not to be found in his album. “Before the season started we as kids used to help caulk the boats. And when the fishermen came in after fishing the guys would take us for a ride.”
It is easy to see how boats became a family motif and their father a massive role model, particularly in light of the early death of the brothers’ mother, who died when Fuad was just six. No doubt the sea was a form of refuge for the entire family. Fuad recalls boats being a source of much pleasure for him and his brothers: “The road where we stayed in Wynberg used to flood when it rained, and we would make our own little floating boats and play there,” he says.
Other early memories include a surfeit of kreef which the brothers would sell at the Muizenberg traffic circle: “My dad would put the leftover crayfish in a outside bathtub; I was then asked to call the neighbours to come and fetch what they wanted – for free,” chuckles Fuad.
Almost inevitably the family acquired a bigger fishing boat with an inboard motor, and there might have been an even bigger one had the government not cancelled their fishing quota and licence. In the end it was Fuad’s oldest brother, Ismail, who provided the impetus for the next phase in the Jacobs boatbuilding dynasty.
Ismail`s fascination in the Cape Town docks led to a volunteer boatbuilding job with a German sailor, finishing his boat. As so often happens fate then lent a hand when the German paid Ismail in kind, by giving him the boat design drawings. “After paying the royalty, Ismail rolled out the drawings on the table and said, we are going to build this boat.”
And they did, from scratch, a feat that put Jacobs Bros on the boatbuilding map, albeit in the amateur league – although not for long.
That it was at all possible was due to the fortuitous family skill-set made up of a boilermaker (Ismail), a carpenter / joiner (Fuad), a welder (Salie), a general worker (Allie ,youngest), and a sheet metal worker (Sulaiman, second youngest). Says Fuad: “I thought my eldest brother must be joking, that we would build a 45ft steel boat. But a couple of months later a truck pulled up with all the steel and we started building the boat. I got married in 1977, after taking four-and-a-half years to build.”
It was another formative experience for the Jacobs brothers, producing an eye-catching vessel that set tongues wagging in maritime circles. It stayed in the family for six years before being sold to a British couple, but not before turning many heads at the Royal Cape Yacht Club where she was moored.
By now the dye was cast and the Brothers used part of the capital to buy drawings for their next vessel, which they had spotted at RCYC, an Andre Mauric design. “We built that boat in Aluminium,” continues Fuad. “Internal ballast, centreboard, pop-up rudder, a draft just under a metre. It had a very thick bottom so you could beach it. We kept that boat for 12 years.”
It was at around this time that Fuad, having taken over the boatbuilding duties, received the first build order – aluminium Shearwater design. “We had built two of our own boats but this was the first one for a customer,” explains Fuad. “It launched us in boatbuilding in South Africa. We realised we had all the skills, and we opened up a company.”
Jacobs Bros was in business.
Another turning point was a career hiccup for one of Fuad’s brothers who after many years, lost a stainless steel supply contract with a big company. Instead he opened up a new business with a CNC cutting machine and had cut two boats for Jacobs Bros. It was another example of the family turning adversity into opportunity. Business flourished, all shapes and sizes: for example, 4 x Phil Southwell designs, for the Beachcomber Race and cruisers; a glass boat refit; a wooden refit; 4 x Angelo Lavranos and 4 x Dudley Dix designs, builds from Van Der Stadt, Alex Simonis and Ed Joy. The company grew and absorbed a new generation of Jacobs brothers – Fuad’s sons (Sieraj and Taariq ). At one point he had to refuse two 60ft orders. “We can only build two or three at a time – the maximum we’ve ever had was four (boat builds at a time) but that was too much,” says Fuad, who is a firm believer in quality over quantity. “Except for the electrics, the mast, sail and upholstery, we do everything,” he adds.
Fuad believes the company’s focus on aluminium boats has been a branding success, in that Jacobs Bros are known for robust boats. “Less maintenance and tougher,” is Fuad’s assessment. The company also prides itself on its custom work for discerning clients: “The boats we build are sort of specialised – we get thick specs from the owner. If we did production boats the owner buys what he gets, but we build the boat around the character of the owner,” says Fuad.
The ageing photo album on Fuad’s living room table illustrates the past, but what of the uncertain future? Fuad is planning to relocate the company to a facility in nearby Retreat to accommodate future growth: “We are on the verge of putting up our own factory,” he gushes. “We’ve got industrial land and the steel portals, ready to put up a proper “boatshed.”
Fuad takes the long view regarding market conditions and says the company is geared to expand or contract as per demand. He says political uncertainty around the elections affected confidence but conditions would settle: “We just carry on, we can’t give up. If we don’t have work we don’t close down – we hire and fire as we go along.”
Currently the company is “busy with small stuff” but quoting on a couple of boats. “It’s a family business and we’ll keep it as a family business,” concludes Fuad, who recently won a local ‘Industry Legend’ award from the South African Boat Builders Export Council.
Small in stature he may be, but Fuad’s personal journey has been immense, from Wynberg laaitjie and kreef hawker in the bad days of Apartheid, to one of the country’s finest boat builders.