Zeeslang by Liesl King.

According to W H Fields, as an actor, one should never work with children or animals. As a writer, I have a similar taboo, only this one is self-inflicted. I try very hard not to write about people I stand in awe of. It’s not that I can’t do it, I am just not convinced I can do them justice. Hence the story of Zeeslang and her creator has been on my desk for a while. I have marvelled at her creation, her uniqueness and what she has achieved. I researched her history right up to where she finds herself today and still her story remained untold.

It was not Zeeslang holding me back, it was the man who commissioned her, Cornelis Bruynzeel, better known as Kees or CB. Bruynzeel was a man ahead of his time. His concepts for Zeeslang, Stormvogel and Stormy attest to that. Revolutionary ideas are all good and well, but one has to put them into practice and then the results alone will show whether the ideas were worthy or not. And Bruynzeel did just that. The more I researched and read about the man, the more I realised what a visionary he was. Not only was I in awe, but I wished I had known the man.

Interestingly our stories are somewhat intertwined. I grew up in a suburb on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, bordering on a sprawling plywood factory that we knew as Bruply. The smoke from its chimneys were part and parcel of our lives and the occasional accidental fire, was a local event, with everybody heading down the hill to watch the unintended fireworks. It was only when I started researching the history of Zeeslang and Stormvogel that I discovered that Bruply was none other than Bruynzeel’s factory. 

Bruynzeel grew up in the Netherlands and joined the family’s timber processing factory. In 1939, using a new water resistant synthetic resin glue, Bruynzeel developed a durable three-ply panel that became known as marine grade plywood.   It was this product that, amongst others, was being produced in his Bruply factory, after Bruynzeel emigrated to South Africa from the Netherlands. In fact, Stormvogel was constructed on the Bruply premises in one of the sheds, using this new plywood, known as Bruynzeel Ply or Bruynzeel hechthout.

The first boat that Van de Stadt designed and built for Bruynzeel with this new plywood was Zeevalk, a 35’ sloop, which proved a great advertisement for his product, coming second in class to the overall winner, Yeoman, of the 1951 Fastnet Race.  The new plywood allowed for a revolutionary lightweight design, vastly different from the heavy boats of that era. The next boat designed for Bruynzeel by Van de Stadt was Zeeslang, design number 58. Bruynzeel asked Van de Stadt to design a fast “weekend cruiser” that could handle the waters around Cape Town. The boat had to be easy to handle, fast and seaworthy, with the accommodation of minor importance.

Zeeslang was very different from her predecessor Zeevalk, being a long and narrow hard chine yacht with a box fin keel and a displacement of 1.75 tons. Her hull was made of 10mm mahogany plywood while her hollow cast iron fin keel weighed 750kg. Her keel and mast could both be moved forward and aft according to the conditions. She was so fast for her day that during sea trials in the North Sea, Zeeslang achieved speeds in excess of the upper limit of 12 knots on the Kenyon speedometer. Her most unique feature though was her coach roof. Made from green Perspex mounted on an aluminium frame, it allowed Zeeslang to be steered from down below when sailing to windward. An extra tiller as well as a seat on port and starboard, complete with compass and speed indicator, enabled the helmsman to steer in comfort. Bruynzeel’s daughters remember with glee how they use to all head below when racing, thus frightening other competitors with their “unmanned boat”.


Zeeslang in Cape Town

She was designed to be fast, and despite being only 30’, she took the Cape racing scene by storm.  According to reports Bruynzeel caused a furore at the Royal Cape Yacht Club when he announced that he intended to sail his newly imported boat Zeeslang in the race to Dassen Island and back. A strong northwester was blowing 40 knots at the start and the committee members begged the Hollander not to sail in his “suicide box”. Bruynzeel ignored them and a fleet of eight boats set off, comprising Zeeslang and seven of the traditional “heavies”. The story of the race became history and Zeeslang achieved legendary status.

The little Van de Stadt, weighing only 1.75 tons, beat the 55’ Paragon III, a 16 ton cutter, the pride and joy of the RCYC, by a staggering forty minutes.  The rest of the fleet retired with broken masts and torn sails. Not only did Bruynzeel beat Paragon III, but he did it in style. According to the records Zeeslang clung to Paragon III, skippered by Ivor Jamieson, on the beat to the Island.  At the turn at Dassen Island, Zeeslang had overtaken Paragon and was already 20 min ahead.

With the wind now well over 40 knots, having increased in strength since the start, Bruynzeel did the unthinkable. He ordered the reef to be removed and the spinnaker hoisted. At first his crew refused. No yacht could survive such conditions and definitely not with a spinnaker up. Bruynzeel however won the argument, the reef came out, the spinnaker went up and Zeeslang planed all the way back to Cape Town under perfect control. The race would catapult the little yacht into the history books and spell the end for the “heavies”. Cape Town’s leading yacht designer retired and the RCYC committee started looking for a one design keelboat with lightweight displacement similar to Zeeslang.

Bruynzeel produced plans for Zeeslang’s slightly modified sister Black Soo and the Royal Cape One Design was born.  The Royal Cape One Designs went on to dominate the local racing scene and even became a National Class. They continued to excel at long distance racing with Suidoos II, skippered by Gawie Fagan finishing third on handicap in the 2006 Cape to Rio race.  In 1960 Bruynzeel sold Zeeslang to Cliffie Leah, who campaigned her successfully, coming fourth in the Simonstown to Mossel Bay race and second in 1962 in the Simonstown to Port Elizabeth race. In 1963 she took line honours in the Table Bay – Lambert’s Bay – Saldanha race, followed by victory in the 1967 race to Gansbaai and back.

From 1968 onwards Zeeslang changed hands several times and fell into disrepair. She was badly in need of restoration and was even offered to the Maritime Museum at one stage.  Commander Tony Reilly was to be her next owner and through hard work he made sure she was seaworthy. Her next owner Bernard Dielbold went a step further, restoring her to her full glory. Bruynzeel had declined to give Cliffie Leah the plans for Zeeslang when he sold her, forcing Dielbold to make a trip to the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, where he thankfully found the plans.  Journalist Charles Paice asked Dielbold why he undertook such a massive project.  “You cannot rationalise decisions of this nature, it just becomes a driving force”, Dielbold explained.  Tommy Walker was brought in to undertake the extensive restoration. On Saturday 10 December 2005 Zeeslang, once again a graceful lady, slipped into the waters of Table Bay.

These days she is the pride and joy of owner Michael Baumann who bought her from Dielbold. He had her fitted out for offshore racing as he was determined to compete in the 2010 Simonstown to St. Helena Race.  Unfortunately Zeeslang broke her boom during the first night and had to retire. In 2012 Baumann left South Africa, taking Zeeslang with him to her new home in Austria on Lake Attersee.

“Racing was mostly not very successful due to my limited capability as a skipper and the fact that she was rigged for more hectic conditions on an ocean. Still we had very good fun and enjoyed ourselves a lot”, he explains. “A new rig was also built, as the old mast had a few small signs of rot.” Bauman reports that currently Lake Constance is Zeeslang’s home, but with the wind not being plentiful there, she misses the ocean she was designed for so long ago.



From the Van de Stadt factory in Zaandam, to the waters of Table Bay and onwards to the beautiful Lake Constance, Zeeslang has left her mark on history and in the hearts of those who have owned her or had the privilege to sail on her.  The “oversized dinghy” that the RCYC committee deemed “a craft that they would not entrust their lives to in Table Bay” was the ultimate proof that Bruynzeel’s concepts for her light weight and design were both revolutionary and extraordinary.







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