Historic boat shipshape but out of sight

Museum puts renovated Sprog in storage

The restored 1946 Sprog dinghy
The restored 1946 Sprog dinghy
Image: Supplied

An avid Port Elizabeth-born yachtsman grabbed the opportunity to restore an iconic South African dinghy last year after he noticed the boat – that formed part of his childhood memories – was no longer on display at the Bayworld museum complex.

Frans Loots, 61, of St Francis Bay, who has built and repaired about a dozen boats in his life, said he was eager to take on the project as he owned a similar dinghy.

“I remember this boat being on display at Bayworld and as a kid I was always fascinated by it,” Loots said.

“I asked about the boat after I saw it was no longer on display and discovered that it had been stored in the basement as it was in a bad condition.”

The restoration project started in June and was completed in January but the museum, which got the dinghy back last week, has no space for it – and it is back in the basement.

The historic dinghy was originally designed and built in 1946 by prominent Port Elizabeth architect the late Herbert McWilliams, an avid yachtsman who served in the Royal Navy as a rating during World War 2.

Named the “Sprog” – navy slang for a newcomer or rookie sailor – the plywood boat was 4.2m long and weighed 100kg.

“It was a popular sailing boat and I happened to have one, so it captured my interest,” Loots said.
“Even though it cost me a few thousand, I really just wanted another boat project.

“I really enjoyed fixing it up. It was a delicate piece and my objective was to preserve the historical significance.”

McWilliams designed a host of prominent buildings in the Bay, including the Collegiate School for Girls, the Hellenic church complex and the bishop’s house at St Augustine’s Cathedral.

Upon his return to Port Elizabeth after the war, he built the boat prototype – which proved to be a huge success, with more than 1 000 Sprog-class dinghies built across the country as well as a small fleet in England.

“The boat coped extremely well in the city’s boisterous winds, which was a major contribution to its popularity.

“For many years this dinghy produced the country’s top racing sailors,” Loots said

The Sprog, which still has its original Egyptian cotton sails intact, was displayed in the museum from 1952. In recent years it had deteriorated and was kept in the basement.

Bayworld displays curator Charmaine Wynne said: “Unfortunately we cannot display it as we do not have the space. It is wrapped up in plastic and is back in storage, but we would like to find a place [for it].”