Visiting the Alex Blaikie Museum, Knysna

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Knysna’s history is inextricably linked to the sea – from the ancient, Middle Stone Age people who camped in the caves at The Heads and lived off the mussels and oysters they harvested from the shore, to the early colonists who sailed to and from the area with their cargoes of timber and essential supplies, to the shipyard that built wooden minesweepers for the Allied forces in the Second World War – to today’s elegant yachts and high speed power boats.

The river mouth – The Heads – though, can be a treacherous place: it’s very narrow (only 229.5 metres wide) and relatively shallow (maximum 12 m, average 4.59 m deep at low tide), and it’s the only entrance to the sea through which the tides ebb and flow twice a day – delivering enough water to raise and lower the level of the estuary (which is 18 km2 in size) by up to 2 metres every 6 hours or so.

As a yachtie (officially ‘the world’s silliest sailor’ according to my darling grandson), I’m always grateful for the volunteers who run the NSRI’s Knysna Station 12. Somehow, going through The Heads isn’t quite so daunting knowing that they’re there.

NSRI’s Alex Blaikie

Of all the craft that have belonged to Station 12, the 8-metre ‘Alex Blaikie’ must be the most famous.

She was built in 1976 of wood at the old Thesen’s Boatyard here in Knysna, and she quickly became a part of the lives of so many of us who worked or played on the water – both in the Estuary and out at sea.

Her rescue work was the main reason for her fame, of course, but as a ferry boat skipper on the Estuary from the early 80s to the late 90s, I clearly remember her attending all the important events of the day: the arrival of the navy’s vessels when they came to visit for the Knysna Oyster Festival; the launch of our the restaurant ferry, m.v. John Benn; the surfers’ paddle-out (memorial service at sea) for a young friend who died after an accident at Buffalo Bay.

The Alex Blaikie was decommissioned in 2008 after 32 years of service, and her crew and coxswains, and the community who loved and supported her, put her on permanent display in a small, purpose-built museum in Thesen Harbour Town – just metres away from where she was built. (The Boatyard I remember is now The Boatshed, which houses The Lofts Boutique Hotel as well as shops and offices.)

The Alex Blaikie Museum – which is also the information centre for the Thesen Islands Blue Flag Marina – is situated at the southern end of Long Street, Knysna. It’s open every day, entrance free, and it’s easily accessible for wheelchairs.

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