In the early 1800s, Cape Town and the Cape Colony needed timber – and there was only one place where it grew naturally and in abundance: the Garden Route of the Southern Cape.
Problem is, the Garden Route has no natural harbours – although the Knysna Lagoon does come close. So when a man named George Rex settled on the banks of the Knysna River Estuary in 1803, and brought with him a considerable number of slaves to harvest the Knysna Forests, it was only natural that he should lobby the colonial government to declare the place a port.
Not the ideal port of call
Knysna wasn’t ideal for the job – it had a shallow, narrow, dangerous entry (The Knysna Heads), and no easy landing place (unless you beached your ship on a sand bank at high tide, and then did your loading and unloading when the water subsided at low). But it would have to do.
The government eventually declared the port in 1817 – before anyone knew for certain whether The Heads was navigable, and a year before the first ship (the Emu) even tried to enter the lagoon.
The Emu struck a rock on the eastern side of the mouth, and was wrecked in the attempt. But the next-comer, the naval ship Podargus, did make it safely through – teaching us in the process that the navigable channel lies on the western side, hard up against the cliffs of the present-day Featherbed Nature Reserve.
Knysna served as a port from then on until 1954 – although it was de-proclaimed and re-proclaimed a number of times over the years as the economy of the country waxed and waned.
Surprisingly, then – and despite a ready supply of timber – Knysna didn’t see much commercial shipbuilding until well into the 20th Century.
The British Navy did set up a shipyard here in 1820, but it was burned to the ground (twice), and abandoned after five years without producing a single vessel. And 1831, Rex himself recorded another first when he launched his 140-ton ship, ‘Knysna’ – which he’d begun building on the banks of the lagoon back in 1826.
Others followed, but still on a relatively small scale. In 1855 the owner of the St George’s Tavern (later the Royal Hotel), Skipper Horn, employed John Benn, a shipwright from Mossel Bay, to build the 60-ton schooner, Rover, for the local trade. (Benn would go on to become the pilot and harbourmaster at The Heads in 1868, and the first of five Benns to serve as pilots in Knysna – the last being Reuben Benn, who was transferred to Port Elizabeth when the post was abandoned when the port was closed in ‘54. John Benn also gave his name to Knysna’s popular double-decked floating restaurant cruiser: the m.v. John Benn.
Shipbuilding in Knysna took on a more important role in the economy in the first half of the Twentieth Century, when the Thesen family – shipowners, sawmillers, timber merchants, and general merchants who had established themselves in the town in 1870 – launched the Knysna Boatyard.
The Knysna Boatyard – in its purpose-built wooden warehouse called The Boatshed on Thesen Island (now occupied by The Lofts Boutique Hotel) https://www.knysnahotel.co.za – saw service during the Second World War when it built 640 craft for the Allied Forces. These vessels ranged from ten Fairmile-class wooden submarine hunters, to a large number of long boats intended for use as life rafts.
After the war, the Knysna Boatyard built fishing vessels and pleasure craft, yachts and houseboats – and, in 1976, the much-loved NSRI rescue craft, Alex Blaikie.
The Knysna Boatyard was closed for economic reasons during the 1980s, but boat building continues in Knysna to this day – and, in fact, has recently become a major driver of the local economy, with several successful yards now producing luxury yachts, catamarans, and speedboats for the South African and export markets.
Explore Knysna's Shipbuilding past
- The Knysna Boatyard – stroll around Thesen Harbour Town and visit The Boatshed on a self-guided Thesen Island Heritage Walk;
- Visit the rescue craft Alex Blaikie, which is now housed in the NSRI Museum on Long Street in Thesen Harbour Town;
- Cruise the Knysna Lagoon on the mv John Benn – a wooden vessel that was designed and built in Knysna in the 1980s by James Edwards of Lucky Bean Boatyard.