The ‘Mercury’ (SA3) is rising in Knysna

Aiming to recreate a slice of Proudly South African history, a small but enthusiastic team is hard at work in the Knysna Quays to restore one of the country’s iconic yachts that helped promote our sailing culture some four decades ago.


The story of the restoration of the 42ft timber constructed sloop cutter “Mercury” (SA3) in Knysna is, however, more than merely a tale of interest to the yachting community. It is not only about resurrecting the past – but, more importantly about discovering how the vision of the past can be extended to apply to many of today’s challenges relating to skills development, job creation and even environmental management.

The “Mercury” (SA3) was one of the 59 yachts that lifted anchors to the starting line of the inaugural Cape to Rio yacht race in 1971.  A good 33 of these were crewed by South Africans keen to embark on the transatlantic adventure.  At the time these vessels and the seafarers that manned them, catapulted the sport of yachting into the media as the world watched the spectacular journeys and challenges of the Cape to Rio competitors.

From the start line to the eventual overall winner of the 1971 race, the “Albatross II” (SA24) represents a South African yachting legacy and is the inspiration for the team currently restoring the “Mercury” in Knysna.  The “Albatross II” was built to the original van der Stadt 222 design in Knysna by Thesen & Co.  Considered a sister vessel, the “Mercury” too was built according to these specifications, but was constructed in Germany before embarking on the grueling race with her South African crew.

The two vessels are reported to have sailed neck and neck throughout the Cape to Rio race until the second last day saw failing winds take the “Mercury’s” finishing position in Rio de Janeiro back to 13th.  But owner Mark Orpen and his restoration team has their eyes set on seeing their reworked vessel on the starting line of the half centenary Cape to Rio ready to add a new chapter to her evolving story.  It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s one that has reignited a passion amongst the Knysna yachting community, the Thesen family, the team of woodworking restorers and even some of the crewmembers and skippers that once sailed on the majestic vessel.

Despite an impressive sailing CV in the early part of the 1970’s, the “Mercury” changed hands five times from 1970 to 2012 when  she had settled into relative obscurity after some brief attention as the Mainstay yacht in the advertising campaign for the spirit in the 1970’s.

Having been purchased in 2011 and sailed into Knysna by co-owner Guy Lewis, the grand lady is receiving the tender loving care she deserves.  A combination of volunteer and skilled artisans are hard at work to ensure that she can once again take centre stage in one of the world’s most iconic yacht races.

While she has undergone repairs and refurbishments during her lifespan, she is now benefiting from new technologies as well as some creative alternatives during this major restoration.

But the vision for the “Mercury” extends beyond the half-centenary Cape to Rio challenge and looks ahead to creating a platform for sailing training and supporting conservation along the Garden Route from Knysna.  Mark Orpen has a long-term vision that is more than just entrepreneurial.

Source:  Garden Route Sailing Adventures, by Mark Orpen