John Whitmore – South Africa’s Hobie Cat King: A Historical Timeline

Much has been said and written about John Whitmore’s influence on South African surfing, as a pioneering surfboard manufacturer par excellence, founder of Springbok surfing and his years as the chief administrator of the sport in the country. But far less is known among the broader public about John’s influence on South African Hobie Catting. 

While there were certainly other catamarans in South Africa beforehand, John almost single-handedly introduced Hobie Cats to the country late 1970s. Along with his trusted lieutenants in his Cape Town Coast Catamaran factory and the racing administrative scene, Whitmore built the sport up to the point where there were thousands of these twin hulled boats sailing on the beaches, dams and lakes of the country by the mid-70s. 

By forming the Hobie Cat racing class, John challenged the hegemony of the snooty monohull yachting establishment. He and his team were behind a push in the sport that ultimately resulted in thousands of racing regattas and scores of regional and national championships and a vibrant national recreational Hobie Catting community. 

By the late 1970s Hobie Catting was firmly established in South Africa, as evidenced by this article on surfing Hobies in Natal in the official American Hobie Cat magazine, The Hobie Hot Line.

South African Hobie Cat contingents also attended and placed highly in many international Hobie Cat world championship events, which ultimately resulted in South Africa’s first ever world champions in any sailing class, Mick and Colin Whitehead, who won the Hobie 16 Worlds in Texas in 1978. Just like he did with surfing, John also negotiated with the necessary officials in yachting administrative circles and government departments to get many Hobie Catters their Springbok colours from 1979 onwards, after years of being snubbed by much of the yachting elite.

John was also instrumental in South Africa hosting three Hobie Cat world championships between 1979 and 1991. The efforts of John and his support staff made many of the country’s sailors world title holders across the three main Hobie Classes of the day – Hobie 14s, 16s and 18s. To this day, including the later Turbo, Tiger and Dragoon classes, South Africa still boasts the most podium finishes and world champions out of any Hobie sailing nation, a remarkable achievement.

John and his South African Hobie Class Association employees regularly published their own magazine to keep local Hobie Catters abreast of SA and international Hobie Cat news.

The South African Hobie Cat explosion – and that is really what it was, a total phenomenon – continued in the late 70s and 80s – when it unfortunately fell prey to anti-aparthied sports boycotts before recovering slightly when South Africa was transformed in 1994. But the country’s commanding presence continued even into the 90s, before the Hobie Cats experienced a sharp decline in popularity worldwide, one that not so coincidentally coincided with John’s full retirement and departure from active involvement in the sport.

Nevertheless, though the sport is now much smaller than it was in its 70s and 80s heyday, South Africans continue to dominate world Hobie Catting racing, continuing a wonderful legacy – one started in the country by John Whitmore exactly five decades ago.

Never an avid regatta entrant, John nonetheless loved to sail his own modified Hobie Cats. Image Whitmore Family Collection.

Dubbed both ‘Mr Hobie Cat’ and the ‘Hobie Cat King’ in South Africa, John’s impact on this the success of this sailing discipline arguably outstrips even his influence on surfing in the country. 

Historical Highlights

The following are some of the historical highlights spanning The Oom’s involvement in South African Hobie Catting.

1966 – John sees the likes of Hobie Alter, Bruce Brown, Sandy Banks, Mickey Monuz, Wayne Schafer and Phil Edwards sailing P-Cats in an event alongside the third ISF World Surfing Championships in San Diego, California.

Late 1960s – John builds several wooden Hawaiian style outriggers, which he used for sailing and fishing in locations such as Hout Bay in Cape Town (famously crashing one of them into the fishing village’s harbour wall during strong southeast winds).

1968 – Thanks to his friendship with Laguna’s Dick Metz and Hobie Alter, John is made aware of the latter’s new invention – The Hobie 14 – but does not see one personally for a few more years, as there are none in South Africa.

1970 – While visiting Danny Keough’s ‘Keyo’ surfboard factory in Brookvale, Sydney, Australia after the 1970 ISF World Surfing Championships, John is invited by Danny – the Aussie Hobie agent – to sail on a Hobie 14, and he is instantly smitten. He immediately buys one and has it shipped home, and also orders several more.

1970 – John assembles and then sails his first boat for the first time in Hout Bay. Christened ‘Numero Uno’ by daughter Sian, the boat attracts much attention and inquiries from potential customers.

1971 – John assembles the first consignment of boats from Australia in his Cape Town surfboard factory and sells them to family and friends before they are even finished being put together (his boat is in fact not the first Hobie Cat in the country though, PE sailor and dentist Mox Lippstreau had also imported one from Australia a few months earlier).

1971 – John converts his surfboard factory into a Hobie Cat factory and, upon receiving several pontoon moulds, parts and materials from Australia (as the Americans are too busy to send him anything), manufactures his first Hobies under his new company – Coast Catamaran Pty Ltd.

John converted his Buitengracht Street surfboard factory into Cape Town’s – and South Africa’s – first hub of Hobie Catting, producing hundreds of boats out of its cramped interior before expanding to a new premises. Image Hobie Hot Line magazine.

1971 – John registers a patent for Hobie Cats in South Africa.

1971 – John takes his boats to a sailing regatta and introduces Hobie Cats to the monohull sailing fraternity, who largely dismiss them – besides a few, including painting contractor Mick Whitehead, who buys one from John for R999, receiving R1 in change.

1971 – John holds the first South African Hobie Cat race in Hout Bay and wins it narrowly ahead of new Hobie Cat sailors John Niemeyer and Dave Buerski. The next day Coast Cat sells another boat and receives several more orders and inquiries.

1972 – The first Hobie 14 National Championships are held in Port Elizabeth. The top finishers, including debut SA Champ Ralph Prince, Mike Cormack and Mox Lippstreu, are selected to represent South Africa at the first ever Hobie 14 Worlds in Honolulu, Hawaii a few weeks later. 

1972 – Paraplegic Knysna sailor Derek Kershaw, who lost the use of his legs after a shooting accident as a child, attends the Hobie 14 Worlds in Honolulu, Hawaii as an independent entry. Rigging his own boat, he sails through the qualifiers to finish in 42nd place out of 46 finalists, earning the respect of the Hobie world and garnering much publicity for Hobie Cats back home. 

1972 – John attends the ISF World Surfing Championships in San Diego and goes to a Hobie regatta with Hobie Alter, with whom he makes a formal deal to become the exclusive agent for Hobie Cat for the whole of Africa and the Indian Ocean.

1972 – Though he by now has sold a few dozen boats, John is not satisfied. He works with advertising maestro Ashley Lazarus to make a movie commercial for an alcohol brand featuring a Coast Cat Hobie. In the weeks after the advert is shown in cinemas, the phone begins to ring off the hook and Hobie Cat sales skyrocket.

Hobie Catting had a cult following in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Here Durban’s Lewis Hewitt sails his boat to get a closer look at the visiting QE2. Image Hobie Hot Line magazine.

1973 – Coast Cat makes and sells more than 100 Hobie 14s – and a handful of the new Hobie 16s.

1974 – The Bronkhorstspruit Dam Cat Club is formed near landlocked Johannesburg.

Mid-70s – Hobie Catting explodes across South Africa, with dozens of national and regional championships and individual races being hosted from Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, the Southern Cape to Cape Town and the West Coast, including at Veldrift and for the first time in Langebaan, as well as Fish Hoek, where a new Hobie catamaran sailing club is built.

Have a Hobie day and a brew or two. Natal Hobie Catter Des Chaplin’s Hobie themed bar. Image Hobie Hot Line magazine.

Mid-70s – South Africans continue to challenge international Hobie 14 and 16 World Championships, but despite showing great skill, especially in strong winds, and being a constant threat to the American dominance of the sport, fail to place any higher than 24th.

1976 – John goes to Hawaii for the first time as SA Hobie Cat team manager for the 1976 Hobie 16 World Champs in Honolulu. Unfortunately most of the team contract food poisoning in Brazil en route and do not do as well as expected, with Barry Wrankmore and Peter Collard finishing 25th.

1976 – Former SA junior surfing champion and reigning Hobie 14 Champion Mike Hornsey opens a Hobie Cat shop under licence to Whitmore’s Coast Cat in Johannesburg and business booms. The Cape Town Coast Cat factory produces more than 600 boats. 

1977 – Coast Catamaran produces more than 800 boats, more than half of them sold in Johannesburg alone.

For several years Mike Hornsey’s Johannesburg Hobie Cat shop sold more boats than the rest of the country put together. Image courtesy Mike Hornsey (RIP).

1977 – Four South African Hobie Catters crack the top 20 at the Hobie 14 World Championships in the Canary Islands. 18-year-old East London sailor Blaine Dodds achieves fifth place beating Hobie Alter. Mike Collier and Leonard Mason finish in 10th and 11th place, both ahead of reigning Hobie 14 world champ American Jeff Canepa, and Gerhard Koper ends 15th. 

1978 – 45-year-old Mick Whitehead and his 13-year old son Colin win the 1978 Hobie 16 World Championships, held in South Padre Island, Texas, with John in attendance. They are the oldest and youngest, and first non-Americans, to win a Hobie World Champs – and the first South African sailors in any yachting class to win a world title. Their win earns huge publicity in SA.

The caption says it all. Image Hobie Hot Line magazine.

1978 – Coast Catamaran moves out of John’s original cramped Buitengracht surfboard factory to Harrington Street, which becomes known as ‘The Cattery’.

1979 – John and his team successfully pitch to hold the 1979 Hobie 14 World Championships in Plettenberg Bay. Coast Cat builds 40 boats especially for the event, which is won by American Phil Berman and is a resounding success, lauded as the best organised Hobie world event to date by attendees Hobie Alter and Hobie Cat company president Doug Campbell.

The 1979 Hobie 14 World Championship in Plettenberg Bay hosted by John was lauded as the best ever Hobie worlds. Image Hobie Hot Line.

1979 – Hobie Catting is accepted as as full racing class by the South African Yacht Racing Association (SAYRA) and Mick and Colin Whitehead are awarded Springbok colours, the first of many Hobie Catters to receive their national colours for the sport, brokered by John and Derek Kershaw.

1980 – More than 140 boats enter the combined 1980 South African Hobie 14 and 16 National Championships in Durban.

1980 – Blaine Dodds and Shaun Ferry finish second in the Hobie 16 World Championships in St Croix in the Caribbean, which is also marred by a small anti-aparthied protest that results in a South African flag being burned on the quayside, before it is quickly quashed.

1981 – South Africa is barred from entering the Hobie 14 Worlds in Brazil due to aparthied boycotts. Two South Africans, Mike Collier and William Edwards, eventually attend the Brazilian event on foreign passports as individuals, placing sixth and 25th respectively.

Pontoon moulds in the Harrington Street factory. Image courtesy Mike Hornsey (RIP).

Early 1980s – Mike Hornsey moves his Johannesburg shop to a larger premises and sells up to  30 boats a month.

1982 – Blaine Dodds and Shaun Ferry again finish second in the Hobie 16 Worlds in Tahiti, losing narrowly by one point to Hobie Alter Jr and Patty McGuire in the final log standings.

1983 – Transvaal hosts the second Hobie 18 Nationals, held at Hendrik Verwoerd Dam outside Johannesburg, which John attends. The event is later broadcast on national television.

By the early 1980s Hobie Catting was booming even in the landlocked Transvaal. A weekend regatta at the Vaal Dam would attract hundreds of people. Image courtesy Mike Hornsey (RIP).

1983 – Johannesburg sailors Caroline Winter and Lisa Stuckenberg win the US Hobie 18 nationals.

1984 – Blaine Dodds achieves his third consecutive second place, finishing runner up in the 1984 Hobie 14 Worlds in the Philippines.

1984 – John sells Coast Catamaran to Johannesburg businessman Bruce Fyfe and retires from the Hobie Cat manufacturing business, but retains his position as the Hobie Class Director and remains involved in administering the sport and securing and obtaining sponsorship for events.

Mid-1980s – John travels to the US to pitch for the Hobie Turbo Worlds and the Hobie 16 worlds in 1985 and 1986 respectively, but ultimately fails to win either, again due to aparthied issues.

1985 – South Africa is barred from the Hobie 18 Worlds, held in Port Macquarie, Australia. No South Africans attend.

1987 – John successfully pitches to host the Hobie 14 Worlds in Mauritius. Attracted only a few overseas entrants, the regatta is dominated by South Africans, who fill 12 of the top 20 final places and is won by Cape Town Hobie sailor Allan Lawrence. John convinces British royalty, Princess Fergie and Prince Andrew, who were honeymooning at the host resort that week, to hand out the prizes.

Unable to host the Hobie 14 Worlds in South Africa due to aparthied sports boycotts, John Whitmore managed to instead get it held in Mauritius in 1987 – and convinced honeymoon UK royalty Prince Andrew and Princess Fergie, who were at the same resort, to hand out the trophies at the final ceremony. Image courtesy Gerhard Koper.

1991 – Now in semi-retirement, John helps to secure the Hobie 16 World Championships in Langebaan in April 1991. South Africans who fill 17 of the top 20 spots, including 1991 Hobie 16 World Champions David Kruyt and Michelle Le Sueur, with Blaine Dodds and Steve Arnold in second. 

1991 – John retires from active involvement in Hobie Cat regattas but still attends many races and events.

1990s – Several further South African Hobie Catting world champions follow after John’s retirement, including Springbok Shaun Ferry, who becomes the 1993 Hobie 16 world champion in Guadeloupe with Shelly Polson, and Blaine Dodds and Steven Arnold, who win the 1998 Hobie 16 Worlds in Australia. Many more South African Hobie Catters are awarded Springbok before John Whitmore passes away in 2001.

To date South Africans continue to place highly in international Hobie Cat events and the country still retains the most Hobie Cat world titles of any participating nation.

A South African Hobie Cat regatta at Langebaan on the Cape West Coast circa mid 2000s. To date South Africa still holds the most podium finishes and world champions of any Hobie sailing nation. Thank you, John. Image courtesy Mick and Colin Whitehead.

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