(Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Ski-Boat magazine)
By Johan Smal
IN the January issue of SKI-BOAT I started talking about the chukkies of Arniston and the tough fishermen who have perfected the art of handlining for yellowtail. In part 1 we looked at some of the history of fishing and the evolution of the tools anglers use; in this issue I want to point out how the history of these craft and fishermen ties up with that of Arniston. Please note that any reference made to Agulhas in particular includes the major settlements of Bredasdorp, Agulhas, Struisbaai, Arniston and Skipskop, unless otherwise stated. Our focus, however, remains Arniston throughout.
“Desolate to the extreme” was a rather fitting description by someone of what this particular piece of barren land had on offer many years ago. This is the very same place where the quaint little town of Arniston eventually sprouted from the ancient, windswept, lacteous-coloured sand dunes. Located 27km on an easterly heading from the southernmost tip of our continent and called Waenhuiskrans in Afrikaans, it’s the only town in South Africa officially known by two names.
The English name, Arniston, originated from an East Indianman sailing ship christened Arniston. Under charter by the East India Company, while heading around the Cape to repatriate wounded soldiers from Ceylon on 30 May 1815, she was wrecked on this rugged shoreline during a blistering storm. The Afrikaans name, Waenhuiskrans, was in reference to the huge tidal cave which was chiselled into the sandstone cliffs by Mother Nature’s elements during ancient times. Waenhuis means wagon house, and the cave is literally large enough for an ox wagon and span of oxen to turn around in.
Remains of stone-walled fish traps located in the inter-tidal zone and their associated shell middens, scattered around above the high-water mark and dated to be 2000 to 4000 years old, provide authenticated proof that nomadic tribes stayed in the area for millennia. From a later period evidence also indicated a more resident lifestyle, and from the 16th century onwards, further substantiation that there was some contact between the Khoisan nomads and survivors of the numerous shipwrecks dotting this treacherous stretch of coastline.
The first reported wreckage in the area was that of the Zoetendal dating back to 1673, but these disasters must have occurred ever since the Portuguese explorers Bartolomeu Diaz and Vasco Da Gama traversed the area in the late 1400s.
In the 17th century European settlers started to explore the Overberg, and by1708 cattle farmers had already procured grazing rights on loan farms in the area. By the time Arniston was wrecked in 1815 the nomadic tribes had already disappeared from this part of the coast and the six shipwreck survivors were taken to Cape Town by ox-wagon.
Arniston Downs, the loan farm on which Arniston was later established, became a private property in 1838 and changed hands on a regular basis. Around 1850 the first members of the present fishing community of Arniston settled in the region. It seems they were originally from Swellendam.
Initially fishing from shore, the fishermen migrated to inshore fishing as boat technology advanced. They went to sea from the present Roman Beach known as Oubaai and lived mostly in houses spread out in a closeby area now known as the Ou Dorp. Following an agreement in 1905 to develop a holiday village on their land, they gradually moved to the present fishing village called Kassiesbaai. The village was so-named because some of the first houses there were built from the numerous “hout kassies” (wooden cases) that washed ashore from the many vessels that crashed on the reefs. A national heritage site, this 200-year-old settlement is the oldest fishing village in South Africa.
Arniston was declared a town in 1922 with the Fisherman’s Union, inaugurated in 1932, assuming responsibility for managing the Kassiesbaai fishing village. The two different names used for the town, became the official town names in 1981.
Arniston, Agulhas and Struisbaai have been popular vacation and fishing destinations since the mid 1850s. As the populaces burgeoned and increasingly attracted more permanent dwellers, the towns expanded with a progressive snowballing effect. They are now bustling holiday and fishing towns, especially during the December holiday seasons.
A famous anecdote is that Jock Dichmont (one of the previous Arniston Hotel owners) who ran the pub had two stompkop (poenskop/black musselcracker), decorated with steenbok horns, mounted on the wall. Holidaymakers, some asking very peculiar questions about this bizarre collection, were told that they were local “bokvis” which came out at night to feed amongst the dunes. Legend has it that many actually believed the story and spent many hours camping on the beach hoping to gain a glimpse of these outlandish fish.
HEADING OUT TO SEA
By the turn of the 20th century the local Arniston fishermen were going out to sea in small wooden rowing/sailing boats, the only means of propulsion available to them at the time. The boats were pushed over the beach by hand and launched directly into the surf from small protected bays.
Instruments were non-existent and the men relied on their indigenous knowledge and natural instincts, using landmarks to navigate and always fishing within sight of the shoreline. As the fish were abundant and close inshore in those years, it was not necessary to go far out to sea. Once the first sail was hoisted after a day’s fishing there was usually a race back to the harbour, not just for fun, but mainly for commercial reasons. The longer you fished the greater the catch, but the first boat in had the best chance of selling its entire catch.
Following their relocation from the Oudorp to the present Kassiesbaai, boats were launched from Arniston Bay but were still pushed over the beach by hand. However, once again mankind’s eternal need for advancement and proprietorship reigned supreme, and the construction of the Arniston slip eventually reaching completion in 1936.
Some 40 metres long and 25 metres wide, dipping into the ocean at an angle of 7°, the slipway extends right into the surf and has no protection from any breakwater facilities. Although this presented some new challenges that had to be surmounted, handling their boats on this concrete surface became manifold easier for the fishermen. Although still manhandled, the boats could now be lifted onto steel rods and be rolled around more easily.
Motorised handling of the boats during launching and beaching then followed — the very same system still in use today. When launching, a modified tractor is used to drag the boats down to the water’s edge and they are then pushed to a suitable depth where the skipper can safely negotiate the oncoming surf. (See Part 1 for a series of pictures of a chukkie launching during a spring low tide.) When they return to port, the boats — neither fitted with wheels to run up the slip, nor trailered — are hooked onto a permanently installed diesel-driven winch and hauled up the slipway where they are stowed safely above the high-water mark.
Today the chukkies are still pulled around on the slipway’s concrete surface without any wheeling arrangements. Sliding on heavy steel channel irons permanently fixed to the keels, they suffer from accelerated wear and tear, especially generally impact damage resulting from all the knocks endured during these bumpy operations.
Up to the early 1980s the lack of appropriate electrical infrastructure — indispensable for suitable refrigeration and ice production in particular — rendered the safeguarding of bait and management of daily catches absolute nightmares for the fishermen. The peak fishing season was during the hot summer months, regularly yielding bumper catches. To prevent spoiling every single catch of the day had to be dealt with sensibly and quickly; it either had to be consumed or sold, alternatively salted, dried and stowed for personal future use or sale.
With the majority of residents being subsistence fishers at the time, the local market could not absorb much excess. Some local farmers purchased small quantities at times, mainly for consumption by themselves and their workers, but most catches had to be transported to the bigger markets at nearby settlements. Located some 95km away, Swellendam was the most popular terminus. These precious, quick-spoiling loads had to be carted on the back of open trucks and were covered with wet hessian sacks to keep them cool and moist, a practice which lasted may years. (For more details on the susceptibility of fish to spoiling see “Something Fishy — Causative factors of fish spoiling”, SKI-BOAT July/August 2017.) <https://issuu.com/sheenacarnie/docs/skiboat_201707/58>
THE BIRTH OF GRP CHUKKIES IN AGULHAS
Numerous chronicles documenting the history of early life in the area have been compiled and published, but these records dealt mainly with the early settlements, its people and lifestyles, as well as the area’s natural beauty and associated attractions. Not much had been documented about Agulhas’s richest attribute — the abundance of her copious fish stocks, the eventual exploitation of these and the hardware used to gather the catches. Due to the absence of written records on the subject — especially the period around the 1950s/1960s when the industry really mushroomed — one has to rely on oral records. Unfortunately very few elderly people are still available to share their life ventures, and getting accurate historical accounts remains testing.
Sadly, nobody could confirm who coined the name “chukkie” for these boats. Different spellings have surfaced over the years, but in Arniston the boats are commonly referred to as chukkies, allegedly named after the engine’s start-up noise. Some people say, however, that they were originally called “Chug-chyggy” which again was based on the running noise of their original slow revving engines — a mere 800 to 1 200 rpm going flat-out! Locally they are also differentiated from ski-boats (habitually called speedboats or powerboats) as the “slow boats”.
Chukkies developed from the novel wooden row/sail boats which originated in Kalk Bay as early as the 1700s. Many years later this design eventually found a foothold in Agulhas, where they were extensively used at Arniston, Skipskop and Struisbaai until around the mid 1900s. They were mostly carvel builds (hull planks laid close together on their edges) with only the odd clicker built to be found (edges of the hull planks are overlapped to form an irregular exterior).
Due to the exceptionally rough operating conditions they were exposed to these wooden craft required a lot of maintenance. The hull planking in particularly was prone to damage with the joints having to be cleaned out, re-caulked and sealed on a regular basis, using the traditional caulking cotton rope (also known as Oakum) and red lead putty. Repairs were labour intensive and time consuming, rendering the craft unserviceable for extended periods, and obviously when there was no boat there was no income.
With the new GRP technology progressively gaining popularity and becoming readily available over time, a practice evolved to simply apply a GRP skin over the damaged wooden planking. Proving to be a relatively quick, cheap and effective repair at the time, the practice gained acceptance rather quickly. This resulted in some wooden boats eventually sporting a complete new GRP skin, so successfully applied that the rotten planking on the inside could simply be stripped away and discarded. Further developments eventually led to the “wooden frame completely encapsulated GRP hull” builds that became very popular during later years.
One of the high risks associated with this technological advance was a phenomenon called “fibreglass pox”. This defect was named after the multitude of surface pits in the outer gel-coat layer which resembles smallpox, and which allowed seawater to seep through small holes and caused delamination. Most of the older fibreglass boats were often not constructed in temperature controlled buildings, leading to this widespread problem. It was also caused by atmospheric moisture being trapped in the layup during construction in humid weather.
With inshore fishing becoming a normal lifestyle for many South African’s after the Second World War, the need for more suitable, advanced and better-equipped fishing craft was pushed into an unprecedented upward spiral. The relatively new fibreglass technology which became available in South Africa around 1950, was ideally suited to build such boats. This could be done much more quickly than was possible using the more traditional methods, and in response to the growing demand various boat builders introduced this new GRP technology.
The well-known Stompneusbaai resident, fisherman and entrepreneur, Samuel Antonie Walters, realised the immense potential of St Helena Bay’s rich seafood resources and saw that the fishermen were looking at options to upgrade their crayfish and snoek boats in particular. Together with Charles Hutchinson and Alfred Tallie (an expert Louw & Halverson boat builder fabricating wooden boats in Velddrif at the time), Samuel established the company Sachal in Vredenburg during 1965. The name Sachal was created by using the first two letters of each partner’s first name. Commencing with the construction of GRP boats straight away, they were the first to deliver these new generation chukkies to Arniston in the mid 1960s, followed by Struisbaai just a few years later.
ENGINE-POWERED CRAFT TAKE ARNISTON BY STORM
The first reference to a motorised vessel operating at Arniston was Koos Sparmers’ 32ft trawler Miss Arniston. She was acquired around 1927 and, believe it or not, fitted with a 9hp Thornycroft engine. She had to be anchored in Arniston Bay at sea and the catches shipped ashore by rowboats.
Reportedly Coen Taljaart, a well-known boat owner and ostensibly the first principal fish merchant in Arniston and Agulhas at the time, was the first to install an engine into one of the Arniston rowboats during the mid-1940s. This was a 2-cylinder Scottish built 15hp Kelvin paraffin engine, distributed by Louw & Halverson at the time. Although some Lister engines also followed, the Kelvin became the engines of choice until they were replaced by the preferred 2-cylinder Ford diesel engines which became available circa 1955.
The next major upgrade to these power sources only materialised in the late 1970s when 30hp Yanmar engines and the 80hp 4-cylinder Ford became the popular choices. After 40 years of hard labour in extremely harsh conditions, most of these engines are still tonking away today, still chasing Kassiesbaaiers’ dreams.
Although our focus remains on Arniston, it is interesting to note that by 1960 chukkies were in fact used all over the Western Cape. Some important locations include Stillbaai, Mossel Bay, Witsand, Skipskop, Gansbaai, Hermanus, Gordon’s Bay, Strand, Kalk Bay and St Helena Bay. However, Struisbaai, Arniston and Kalk Bay are the only places where they still operate on a daily basis, weather permitting.
Acknowledged as the first managing owner of a real commercial fishing enterprise in Struisbaai, Barend Dalhauzie was the first to build a fish-factory in Struisbaai harbour during 1960. Operating a fleet of his own boats, he also rendered a boat repair service to others. Sold to Etienne Bruwer and with Lance Steytler also playing a role in the business, Irwin & Johnson (I&J) bought the factory in 1967. Louis Knobel was transferred from Kalk Bay to manage the operation and brought the Kalk Bay-built wooden chukkie Dagbreek 1 with him.
According to my sources, the first GRP built chukkie located in Struisbaai was Jan Weber’s Waterberg, built in 1969 by Sachal in Vredenburg. Kenny Coleman, a well-known ex-Kalk Bay fisherman, relocated to Struisbaai during the early 1970s. He used a 16ft GRP Sachal-built monohull fitted with a 20hp Yanmar outboard and an 18hp auxiliary Johnson engine. Due to the restricted deck space, load carrying capacity and fuel cost Kenny decide to upgrade and bought the GRP constructed chukkie Melody from Kenny Kingma in 1973. Operating at Kalk Bay harbour at the time, she was also built by Sachal in Vredenburg.
During 1974 Frank Weber, an uncle of Jan Weber who owned Waterberg at the time, used Dagbreek 1’s hull (the biggest hull at the time) to shape a mould. He then built Blouberg followed by Dagbreek 2 in 1974 — the very first GRP chukkies to be constructed in Struisbaai.
In 1979 Louis Knobel and one of his sons, Brian, also engaged in building GRP chukkies. They constructed a mould using the hull of a defunct I&J boat, but lengthened by 1.2 metres, to build Marco 2. Some eight more chukkies were built by them between 1980 and 1985, mainly for I&J. Brian then progressed further by building larger craft in Struisbaai, including some deep-sea trawlers.
THE BIRTH OF GRP CHUKKIES BUILT IN ARNISTON
During 1975 the treacherous Agulhas coastline claimed yet another victim. The relatively new wooden chukkie, Gansie 1, one of Coen Taljaard’s many chukkies, built by Louw & Halverson’s builder, Alfred Tallie in Veldrif, was wrecked on the reef at Struispunt. once she was salvaged Coen commissioned Jollop Murtz, one of the legendary Arniston fishermen and general boat repairer at the time, to restore her. The new GRP skin was laid over her wooden hull using lots of resin and only chopped strand fibreglass, with no gel-coat whatsoever. (Gel-coat is the material used to provide a high-quality finish on the visible surface of a fibre-reinforced composite.) Having been declared seaworthy following the acquisition of a new licence and different name, Ou Grote, she went back into service.
Currently Arniston’s oldest lady in use, she happens to be the chosen one we’ll get to know more intimately at a later stage. This particular build marked Jollop’s first GRP build, setting him on course to become Arniston’s most celebrated boat builder. His second chukkie, Ahi, which was owned by W Fortman, was built in Struisbaai.
Traill Witthuhn, another legendary commercial Struisbaai fisherman, relocated to Struisbaai in 1971 and started fishing with Kenny Coleman on Melody. In 1977 he decided to take the leap and build his own boat. With Jollop Murtz designated as his preferred builder, he moved a wooden hull belonging to a defunct I&J boat called Marco, to Arniston. Traill’s new boat Rusvic was layered over Marco’s wooden hull using the male moulding system.
Marco’s 25ft long hull with its flat underside was ideally suited to facilitate shallow water floating which was essential for the launching and beaching conditions from shore at Arniston, so many GRP builds were fashioned over her shell. Also using the male moulding system, they were all constructed by Jollop Murtz, aided by his son Thomas, and most of them are still in use today.
Samrock was one of the most celebrated wooden Arniston chukkies; she belonged to the famous Kassiesbaai brothers, Simon and Samual Marthinus. During 1977 they decided to build their own separate boats and also commissioned Jollop for the task. Their boats, Timothy and Nicolene, are both still in service today. Samrock was subsequently sold to Eppie Newman who operated her for a few years before she was grounded and used as a mould by Jollop Murtz to build numerous more chukkies.
One of the Marthinus brothers, 88-year-old Samual, is currently the oldest remaining Arniston fisherman and also the only one still alive who went to sea with rowing boats. Fortunately he could share his memories with me; it was indeed a real honour and privilege to be able to talk to him in person.
In the next and final part of this series I will get into the real meat of handlining yellowtail, starting by sharing some snippets from the pre-colonial fishing practices as gleaned from Jan van Riebeeck’s journals dating back to 1653. I’ll also touch on the current quandary of the Arniston chukkie fishermen and take a closer look at one particular local chukkie. Weather permitting and fish biting, I hope to spend a day on Ou Grote handling yellowtail the Arniston chukkie way, and will report back to SKI-BOAT readers on my personal experience.
My thanks to the following sources for the wealth of information provided:
• Ferdie Sparmer, rightly called Arniston’s walking encyclopaedia and the original source of most records.
• Kenny Coleman, Brian Knobel, Samual Marthinus, Thomas Murtz, Eppie Newman, Piet (Lulu) Swart, Frederik Walters and Traill Witthuhn.