Voyage Yachts kingpin opens up about life, the universe, and his latest catamaran.
Kay Oldenburg is doing his best to sit still. A 59ft fiberglass deck, slightly concave and held aloft by a gantry, is floating across his boatyard like a giant stingray, and he is stuck in a media interview about nothing in particular. To his credit he remains calm, more or less, despite the hugely inconvenient timing; only the faintest twitch of impatience accompanies him to the table adjoining the office kitchenette at the Voyage Yacht yard in Paarden Island.
History is being made just a few meters away on the other side of thin dry wall but Oldenburg is his usual affable self, casually dressed and refreshingly straightforward.
On first impressions Oldenburg has a lot in common with his boatyard: a marriage of grunt and grace. Half-finished hulls and drums of composite materials, cheek by jowl with a table tennis table – an immaculate one, not a re-purposed plank with ripped net. Equal measures of unashamed pragmatism and eye-catching aesthetics: standard-issue cabinet and microwave adjoining reception, next to block mounted pictures of yachtie paradise.
Here are clues to the boat building formula that has made Voyage a key player in the market.
Oldenburg’s personal voyage is part of the mix, too, and he tells it almost reluctantly, no frills attached. Born and bred in Hamburg, Germany, his early exposure to water-sports and boating was largely via water skiing and windsurfing, not sailing. From that flowed an ability to tinker with boats and engines. “I was always trying to build something,” recalls Oldenburg, who aspired to be a toolmaker: “That was kind of my choice. I wanted to be a toolmaker but couldn’t find an apprenticeship. I went to the Labour Department (in Hamburg) and they suggested all kinds of jobs, among them boat-building. It made sense since we owned a boat.”
Oldenburg said it was unusual being a boat-builder who had zero interest in sailing – at least not until he began building sailing boats. “I still don’t really enjoy sailing to this day,” he chuckles. “I do it, but I would rather go hiking.”
It’s the kind of remark one expects from Oldenburg, who to his credit doesn’t seem overly concerned with fitting in.
This might also explain why he left Hamburg in 1991 and took up a job in Cape Town with Southern Wind Shipyard, at a time when many professionals were heading the other way – leaving South Africa for Europe. For Oldenburg it was a purely pragmatic decision: he had an interesting job offer.
That offer was from none other than the legendary Uwe Jaspersen (latterly of Cape 31 fame) whom Oldenburg knew from the German navy. “He organised me a job and a work permit,” recalls Oldenburg with affection. “I worked with him at Southern Wind Shipyards, which had just been bought by Willy Persico.”
It was a complex time in more ways than one, although Oldenburg was a stranger to the country’s tumultuous political transition at that time. “For me it was exciting overall – I wasn’t involved in the political situation.”
By contrast he was heavily involved in new technologies sweeping boat-building at the time, epoxy in particular. After three years with Southern Wind he jumped ship to Robertson & Caine, and then to Voyage which took him on as production manager, at a time when production was just one boat at a time. “It was still at the Waterfront at the old Queen’s Warehouse, and from there we moved into these buildings here in February 1996.”
That was 25 years ago. Since then the yard has grown from the proverbial minnow into one of the big fish of the local boatbuilding trade, buoyed partly by a series of new models and updates. Supplying boats to Voyage Charters was also a game-changer, Oldenburg says, as was winning the prestigious Cruising World Overall Boat of the Year award in 2002, followed a year later by the Best Cruising Multihull award.
But in the tradition of production junkies, Oldenburg is less interested in the past than in the specs of his next boat, which as it turns out is literally about to be bonded a few meters away. We are interrupted by somebody stepping into the room; Oldenburg leaps to his feet: “I think we should go through.” He leads the way.
And that’s how I got to see the 59ft deck of the first Voyage 590 coming into land on a wintry Cape Town morning, with Oldenburg thoughtful at my side.