South African Offshore

South African Offshore

The waters of the Cape are very much like the waters of the English Channel, sometimes calm, sometimes rough, often very windy and unpredictable! The perfect testing ground for power boat design. In fact in the mid sixties the lure of the Cowes Torquay brought to these shores some very experienced racers….and some highly specialised race boats, from South Africa!.

Meteor II - 1968
"METEOR II" 1968

Their first appearance on these shores was in 1968 and if you were in the area of Fairey Marine that August you would have spotted a small Levi like white cruiser on her trailer awaiting her fate in that years race. Known as Meteor 2, 22 foot in length and powered by 2 Mercruisers totalling 450 hp she was to be driven by her owner Ken Stephens.

Meteor III - 1969
Meteor III

1968 it will be remembered was a very rough race that saw the sinking of White Tornado. Meteor 2 fared better although retired in the early stages. Undeterred Ken Stephens was back the following year bringing with him another entrant Koenie Rontgen and his Mercury outboard powered Lucy which went on to complete the course and finish in 20th position.

Lucy - 1969
"Lucy" 1969

Ken’s own boat was a Catamaran designed by South Africa’s foremost designer Bob Van Niekerk, the boat Meteor 3 was powered by 2 Holman Moody Fords totalling 900hp and was extremely fast. Misfortune though again befell Stephens when she threw a prop off Southsea whilst in 7th place. He proved her worth later in the Round the Island race and finished 4th, remember that Offshore Cats were still very much experimental in Britain at that particular time and Cougar were still building Circuit cats.

A profile of Bob Van NIERKERK

Bob van Niekerk Designer

Bob van Niekerk (shown left in the picture above)

Bob van Niekerk Designer

J v R van Niekerk (Bob – shown in the foreground of the picture above) Pr.Eng. BSc.Eng (M). FRINA. MSAIMENA.), known for his GSM (Glass Sport Motor) DART, DELTA & FLAMINGO car designs of the 50’s and 60’s.

Bob van Niekerk has been designing and racing these offshore catamarans since the late 1960’s and has used this demanding sport to test and develop his unique catamaran designs. Offshore powerboat racing has enabled him to continually be innovative and try out risky design features in this real world high speed scenario.

ON ON - 1970
"ON ON" 1970
405 EXPRESS - 1970
"405 EXPRESS" 1970

Bob van Niekerk was an originator of the asymmetrical catamaran design with the use of steps in the early 70’s offshore racing catamarans. He has also been an innovative and influential designer of trimarans and their development. He continues to design trimarans and currently has a 36m aluminium BOBTRI Patrol Boat design.

In the late ’50’s Bob van Niekerk (Senior Partner, BoatLoft), together with partners Willie Meissner and Verster de Witt developed and manufactured the first South African Sports Cars

 • GSM – Glass Sport Motors

Bob van Niekerk graduated from Stellenbosch University with a Bsc in Mechanical Engineering in 1953. After working for the Deutz agents in Cape Town he joined up with Willie Meissner and Verster de Wit to design and produce the GSM Dart (known in the UK as the Delta) Sports Car – about 300 cars were built in South Africa and UK.


His interest switched to high speed boats in 1964. He joined the Consulting firm of Liebenberg and Stander in 1978 to initiate a Maritime Section.

His field of professional experience includes: Design and Construction Supervision of small craft of less than 45m in length and special purpose vessels and vehicles.

He has been involved in all small craft projects for Armscor since 1983 and has designed offshore mining boats for the diamond industry, fishing craft, offshore racing boats and hotel boats have also been built to his designs.


In 1970 African entrants again appeared at Cowes, Gordon Lanaham-Love arrived with the 31 footer "ON ON" powered by two Holman Moody Fords totalling 1000hp and from the Ivory Coast, Mr G.Orid with "405 Express", a 32 ft hull with 3 Mercury outboards hanging off the stern totalling 405 hp, hence her name!

In the race it was the RSA entry that completed the course arriving back in Cowes in 9th place and 7th in class but 405 retired after an initial good showing.

Remember that South Africa was going through many upheavals at this time with Apartheid and trade sanctions sapping the availability of suitable components. Maybe it was inevitable that in 1971 the only entry from the continent was Orio’s boat now renamed "Safari Express" with 4 Mercury outboards now totalling 540hp.

71 was of course another of those horrible rough races where even the winning boat Ronny Bonelli’s "Lady Nara" won albeit with injured crew and Safari Express was one of the many retirements. Unfortunately the brief association with the South African racers came to an end and we never saw them on our shores again until one Grant Harrison who had worked in SA with Bob van Niekerk and is now well known for his involvement with Thundercats came to the UK.

When you look at the accompanying pictures bear in mind how 10 years previously two great designers were independently working on the Deep V principal. Here history again repeats itself as James Beard and Clive Curtis develop their catamaran ideas, a counterpart on the other side of the world is working his ideas on the same principals and designing some highly successful craft.
One wonders if politics had not hindered the South Africans in their need for equipment and engines, whose cat design would have become the first major offshore winner?

There also follows an interesting article by Tony Needell about the SA offshore scene and a Ray Bulman report featuring Meteor 3.


Armscor Projects

  • Project Select
    Cat – 38 knot Survey Vessels – GRP
  • Project Latmus
    Cat – 44 knot Patrol Boats – Aluminium
  • Project BK502
    Cat – 12 man Assualt Craft – Aluminium
  • Project Pisces
    Cat – 13m Survey Vessels – GRP
  • Project RHIB
    MONO – Self-righting Rigid Inlatable Boat
  • Project RE
    Cat – High Speed Military Ferry
  • Project Citrus
    Launching Trailers for Military purposes
  • Project Olifant
    40 ton Trailer
  • Project AVA
    Cat – 50 knot high speed Pursuit Craft
  • Project BMI
    Facilities for the Military
  • Project 4 in 1
    MONO – 8m Rigid Inflatable Boat for Military Purposes

Special Purpose Projects

  • Seabed Digger
    TRIMARAN – Wreck Robbing
  • Surfjet
    TRIMARAN – National Sea Rescue Institute
  • Paddler
    Cat – Riverboat
  • Okavango
    Cat – Hotelboat
  • Decadence
    Cat – Advertising Boat
  • Penquin
    Cat – Aluminium Ferries 100 pax
  • Paddle Cruiser
    Cat – Knysna paddel wheeler
  • Isiponono
    Cat – Corporate Cruiser
  • Sea Princess
    Cat – Party / Entertainment Boat
  • Veecraft 888
    MONOHULL – Aluminium Whale Watcher
  • Drakensberg
    Rescue Vessel

Offshore Racing Boats

  • Bobkat 485 Circuit Racing Tunnel hull
  • Bobkat 701 Offshore Racing Cat
  • Meteor III Offshore Racing Cat
  • Meteor IV Offshore Racing Cat
  • Meteor V Offshore Racing Cat
  • Suzuki Offshore Racing Cat
  • Spindrifter Supercat
  • Spindrifter ‘In XS’
  • Miss Hennessey Offshore Racing Cat
  • Miss Pickfords Offshore Racing Cat
  • Team TOTAL Offshore Racing Cat
  • Daniel Hechter Offshore Racing Cat
  • Muffett III Offshore Racing Cat
  • Sea Point Plumbing Offshore Racing Cat
  • ‘The Phoenix’ Offshore Racing TRIMARAN
  • Friedman Volvo Offshore Racing Tunnel hull

Jokers Sports Club 2

This particular boat, ‘Jokers Sports Club 2’ has been highly successful in the 6 litre class competing in the United Arab Emirates over the past few years, and was a design by Bob van Niekerk and Nic de Waal.

Special Fishing Boats and Patrol Boats

  • 17.5m Steel Cat – MFV
  • 5.6m GRP Cat – Small Game Fishing Boat
  • 15m Steel Cat – MFV
  • 10m GRP Cat – South African Police Services
  • 12m GRP Cat – Israel Patrol Boats
  • 22M GRP Cat – South African Navy
  • 13m GRP Cat – UN Patrol Boats

Other Projects

  • Church Steeple – Riebeeck Kasteel
  • Underwater Pipeline – Robin Eiland
  • Low cost Refrigerator
  • Low cost Commuter vehicle – Hotel Guest carrier
  • Dolos – Concrete Breakwater Construction Blocks


1971 False Bay - Page 1

1971 False Bay - Page 2

1971 False Bay - Page 3

1971 False Bay - Page 4

  Powerboat Racing in South Africa by Tony Needell
Click to view a PDF of this article


1969 Round I.o.W - Page 1

1969 Round I.o.W - Page 2

  Motor Boat and Yachting - 19th September 1969 - Race Report - Round the Isle of Wight in under an hour. Miss Enfield wins the Bollinger Goblet - Report by Ray Bulman
Click to view a PDF of this article


Many thanks to Grant Harrison for supplying the pictorial history
and details of Bob’s career.

Mike James
Jan 2012

Recent Posts

Renato (Sonny) Levi.

Renato Levi, known to all as Sonny, was born in Karachi, India in 1926.
His father ran a shipyard in Bombay(now Mumbai), so Sonny naturally took an
early interest in boats & ships.

Sonny became an apprentice in his fathers shipyard in Bombay, but with the coming of World War 2, he joined the RAF, becoming a Pilot Officer. No doubt his interest not only in boats but also aircraft was heightened by this part of his life.

Sonny became primarily interested in marine design, especially in relation to smaller, fast craft, and the ability of such craft to withstand the varieties of sea conditions often encountered. He designed craft for his fathers yard during the 1950’s, but moved to Italy in 1960. In Italy, Sonny managed Cantiere Navaltecnica (Canav), in Anzio.

No one of a certain age can forget “A’Speranziella”, built by Canav to Sonny’s design for the 1961 Cowes-Torquay Race. She finished sixth, after experiencing mechanical problems, but had led the race for a considerable distance, dueling with the eventual winner “Thunderbolt”.

After partially re-building the boat in light of the experiences of 1961, success dawned with a win in the 1962 Viareggio-Bastia Race. Further developments resulted in great success with “A’Speranziella” winning the 1963 Cowes-Torquay Race.

Sonny became a world renowned designer of fast craft largely as a result of these successes, and the many fast craft he designed culminated in the 1965 launch of
“Surfury”, often thought of as one of Sonny’s most memorable designs. This boat
made a name for herself, winning Cowes-Torquay in 1967. “Surfury” was the first of Sonny’s much lauded Delta designs.

This success brought more commissions, and Levi designs were sought world wide,
where fast sea-going boats were needed.

In the 1980’s, Richard Branson commissioned Sonny to design “Virgin Atlantic
Challenger II”, which was successful in recording the then fastest trans-Atlantic crossing, despite contaminated fuel issues en route. This famous boat was certainly a fabulous marker in Sonny’s career. “VAC II” not only had its design by Sonny, but also the Levi Drive system too.

Developments in high speed propeller and drive systems have been part of Sonny’s
great contribution to fast boat development over the last forty or more years.

Martin Napier

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