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Contributed by Roy McBride - Cape Town, South Africa

Sofala, A Big Little Ship

Living here at the end of a rather unstable continent always brings those stories that seem to be special,this one needs some understanding from the point the when Frelimo took over power in Mozambique, after years of trying. They turned what was a once vibrant country into one that had nothing. It was posted amongst the worlds poorest countries at one time. The sad thing was that people like Barry Johnston (who I know) and many many others like him, had holiday homes on the coast in Mozambique. Nothing fancy, just simple beach houses with basic stuff in them. Beach bars run out of a 20ft container that really was a large fridge full of beers in front of which was the bar and its owner. Normally from SA or Rhodesia and able to offer a service and support the locals.

I was there some while back, 1968, yes a long time back. The really sad thing was that all those people supported and were accepted by the local community, who in turn received wages from outside the borders, plus free lodgings and food. They lost the lot and will have been more or less destitute over night. I am not a political person but having seen how well the country was supported from outside its borders by the tourists, it was a sad time to see that stop.

I should add that I know little of what the war was about,sounds normal?

Ian Allen? a small world - it was he who told me about John Welsford when I asked him to track down another designer, Julian Godwin. Ian is a long time sailing club fellow member and resident of Hout Bay where we still live. He moved to Picton, South Island, NZ, some years back. He also owned Sofala, of course.

Mike Young? He is a friend as well. I have known him ten years or so. He was editor (and still is) of the Cape Town TBA, (Traditional Boat Asscociation) of which I am a founder member. Mike took over last year as the TBA commodore.

Ian Allan sent me this story.

Hi Roy,

This is the only photo I could dig out of Sofala, aside from a large one that hangs in our lounge. She was a lovely old boat and a classic John Hanna Tahiti ketch. She was built in what was then Rhodesia and planked and decked with Iroko. Her engine was a horizontally opposed 20 HP Coventry Victor of the type commonly used for farm generators, and occupied almost as much room as a baby grand piano, though needless to say not as tuneful and sweet. Actually, the engine became known as Smorg, the dragon from the Hobbit, because it was given to grumbling and growling when disturbed in the dark recess of its home beneath the cockpit sole and the belching of odorous smoke and flame when pressed into reluctant service, but which could be harnessed to work if handled correctly. She was a steady little ship and on a number of occasions I sailed her on my own, trimming her sails and lashing her helm in a strong breeze and then retiring to the end of the bowsprit with a beer whilst she contentedly cared for herself.

Anyhow, Barry Johnson, who farmed in Rhodesia, launched his boat in Mozambique and named her Sofala for an ancient seaport on the coast of that country. He kept her in an idyllic little anchorage at an island off the coast of Mozambique where he had a cottage, and would fly in for sailing holidays from his farm.

Well, when Samora Machel's Frelimo took over, they attached all property of settlers, both fixed and movable, and that included Barry's proud little 'Sofala,' and she lay unattended at her anchorage for over a year whilst Barry fumed at the injustice of it all. I say unattended, but that is not quite so, for Barry had a very devoted African chap who worked for him about his property on the island, and one of who's jobs it was to row out every other day to the boat, sluice down the decks and crank old Smorg over a number of times. So assiduously did he attend to his duties, even in Barry's long absence, that when the time came for a moonlight flit from the shores of the old Portuguese colony, the motor started on the first attempt when it really counted.

But I am getting ahead of myself, because after Barry, a tough little ex submariner in the wartime R.N, had decided to cock a private snoot at Mr. Machel by extricating Sofala from Frelimo clutches, the first problem he faced was how the hell to get into Mozambique and his anchorage under cover of darkness.

Not to be stymied by such peccadilloes, Barry made the acquaintance of a piratical band of ex-mercenaries running a fishing trawler out of Durban. The old Scope magazine ran an article on the adventure all those years ago, and I can tell you from the photographs in that story that these were not the kind of guys you gave lip to in the local pub! A more archetypal band of nautical cut-throats you would seldom ever have seen before.

Well, Barry managed to cajole these fellows (doubtless with the judicious deployment of loot) into taking him up to his island and depositing him aboard Sofala under the cloak of darkness one moonless night. Since none of the brigandish piscatorians knew any celestial navigation, Barry took his sextant and tables along and showed them the way. To stay their concerns about the return journey, he drew them a series of reciprocal courses on their chart which, together with a compass (their only piece of navigational equipment on their good ship), enabled them to regain the coast of Port Durban.

At this stage came Barry's full appreciation of the unseen toils of his trusty employee, because the engine leaped (and I use the term advisedly) into stentorian life on the first attempt at starting and never let him down whilst he made his break under power, not daring to show sail until well on his way.

Barry told me afterwards that he kept looking over his shoulder expecting to be pursued, but in retrospect he figured that all the dictator's men had either not seen him, were too pissed to care, or too lazy to make chase - more than probably all the above.

In any event, he had a reasonably uneventful trip to Durban, though doubtless presenting customs and immigration with a bit of a headache. Certainly the port authorities insisted he install little niceties like pulpit, pushpit, stanchions and lifelines before proceedings to Cape Town soon afterwards.

Well, Cape Town it was where we bought the boat from Barry and he went on to build an Endurance 37 in which he and wife, Frankie, cruised extensively in the Med. We took the boat eventually to Langebaan, where she saw many happy years of sailing and became a distinctive sight at her mooring just off Sandy Bay, her gaff rig often showing attractive sail on the skyline off Saldanha Bay.

We eventually sold the boat to a wooden boat fanatic who never really sailed her, but who put a great deal of resources into refitting her to be quite a showpiece. That owner in turn sold her to a fellow who sailed her to Portugal with his son. Eventually, the fellow told me, they were forced to abandon a foundering Sofala in hurricane conditions during their attempted return voyage. And thus her crew were saved by a passing ship, but the brave little Sofala was not and has doubtless become another prized addition to Davey Jones' cache.

Every little ship has her tale, be it long or short bold or modest and most are worthy of the telling. This was just a chapter in the life of one that reflects the combined personalities of both a valiant wee vessel and her intrepid owner with the springs of adventure strong in them.


Ian Allen

Roy Mc Bride - Founder -
email -
Cape Town
South Africa

Addendum - July 8, 2007:

Its a small world - as my email was sending to you, Ian Allen, in New Zealand was mailing me pictures he found of his old boat Sofala. It's his story you published above.

The first pictures are of the boat at RCYC, Cape Town and in the clubs moorings. The one in the fog and on the hard is at Saldahna YC some 60 miles NW of Cape Town. The last picture with two guys in the cockpit and sailing in Table Bay, is Ian himself (with beard) on the left. I do not recognise the other person. You may want to update Sofalas tale? - Roy McBride