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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Ralph Berkmans

Captains of Ships – Ralph Berkmans

Thanks to his father’s career as a construction engineer, Ralph and his little sister had a rather characterful childhood.  Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, he was educated in Somerset West and Bloemfontein before moving back ‘home’ to Belgium.  Barely a year later, his father was hired to help build an extraction facility, it was time to up sticks for a slightly less appetising location – Iraq.

“Actually, I enjoyed my early teenage years in western Asia,” says Ralph.  “We lived in a big compound in Al-Qa’im, close to the Syrian border, and had everything we needed from schools to medical centres.  I’d go out into the desert hunting snakes and scorpions and then bring them to school the next day.  It was fun.  Next, we moved to Baghdad where I spent one year in international school and another in a French school.  Aside from the occasional night-time shootings and sound of falling bombs, there was little reminder of the ongoing war with Iran and big city life was good.”

Age 18, Ralph decided he wanted to go to military school and, having changed his nationality from South African to Belgian, he was entitled to enrol at the Royal Military Academy where he studied to become a Flight Engineer.  After four years, Ralph graduated and went on to specialise in flight electronics and aerodynamics on the fleet of fighter jets.

“At first, I loved it.  Taking the backseat on a fighter jet flying at over 1,000 miles an hour was an exhilarating experience but, as the systems became more modern, my job became more boring.  I found myself swapping out faulty pieces, sending them to an outsourced factory for repair, and replacing them with new ones.  Having completed just one tour in Bosnia, I left the Army after 12 years’ service.”

Ralph’s relationship with Ann (his sister’s best friend) survived the military test unscathed, and they would go on to spend a total of 22 years together before parting in 2013.  One other thing endured, his love of the water.

“Water sports were part of my childhood.  I started surfing in South Africa at the age of six and quickly became proficient in kayaking, waterskiing and windsurfing.  Before I joined military school in Belgium, I became a waterski instructor and took up dinghy sailing.  A few years later, I added dive instructor and an International Certificate of Competence to my CV.  While I was in the Army, I started to put it all to good use.”

“There was a lot of free time in the military.  Some friends had a Swan 56, and I began racing with them.  The owner would look to me for race crew, delivery trips, arranging hotel accommodation, and the green shoots of a yacht management business came together in my mind’s eye.  I upgraded my qualification to Yachtmaster Coastal, and in the year 2000 snapped up a sailing boat in the French Mediterranean town of Argelès-sur-Mer, just across the border from Salvador Dalí territory in Spain.  The idea was for Ann and me to host private charters but, after three years, I sold the boat to my brother-in-law and left the Army to focus on my flourishing nautical consultancy – Dalí Sailing.”

In 2003, Ralph was sailing with hydraulic company Holmatro’s professional race outfit.  The chap in charge, skilled inshore and offshore sailor Gideon Messink, was the official dealer for Grand Soleil Yachts in the Benelux nations and asked Ralph if he’d look after Belgium on his behalf.  It was a fine business.  Within three months he’d sold three Grand Soleil 45s and, after three years, Dalí Sailing got the remaining two-thirds of the Benelux dealership.

Meanwhile, financial solutions company Swiss Life bought two Grand Soleils for its corporate sailing team.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Ralph was already in partnership with Patrick Nuyens in corporate fast-RIB charter business Antwerp Sea Adventures, and he invited Patrick to come onboard as a 50-50 co-owner in Dalí Sailing.  The corporate sailing side of the business flew.  They entertained 650 clients on Swiss Life yachts in two years, with Ralph also taking part in the annual Isle of Wight Round the Island Race, Cowes Week and representing Holland in the Admiral’s Cup.

“By 2008, we had more and more race projects going on with more and more clients buying Grand Soleils.  When the new boats arrived from Italy, they went straight to the Standfast Yachts yard in the harbour town of Breskens in southwest Netherlands – barely 20km from the Belgian border.  It was here that masts were stepped and antifoul applied.  Awkwardly, the yard went bankrupt while we had three boats inside.”

“Patrick was on holiday, I called him and shrieked ‘help!’.  He suggested we buy it.  Within two weeks of meeting the liquidator we had an agreement.  This included equipment such as the travelift and five of the 35 existing employees.  We immediately stopped building new Standfast Yachts and established Breskens Yacht Service – a refit, winter storage and maintenance business.  We gradually grew to 22 employees and could now manage every step in the process from purchase to preparation and aftersales to repairs – not only for Grand Soleil, but also for the likes of Princess Yachts, Grand Banks as well as local pilot boats.  The only thing we couldn’t manage was the economic climate.”

“Patrick and I bought the insolvent shipyard in May 2008 and by October the world was plunged into economic crisis.  We managed to deliver 12 Grand Soleils to their owners by summer 2009 but by summer 2010 this figure plunged to just one.  At this point Patrick suggested we brought Ann in as a third partner.   A very smart economist and implementation specialist, Ann became our Logistics Director, and ran the company while I was away – which was a lot.”

Indeed, in 2009, an English client purchased a Grand Soleil from Ralph and asked him to take on the management and maintenance.  He gave him a good budget to put together a great crew following an intensive racing programme:  summer in Europe, winter in the Caribbean.  Each year he would put the old boat up for sale with Ralph and buy a new one – always named Antilope.

“90% of the guys we had onboard Antilope were professional sailors.  I was usually on the foredeck trimming, working for legends such as Bouwe Bekking who has sailed in eight Volvo Ocean Races.  I wasn’t home much and, in 2013, my relationship with Ann came to an end.  We worked together another year or two before I sold my shares in 2015 followed by Ann in 2016.  Patrick is still running Breskens Yacht Service and we remain friends – in fact we just sailed together at Les Voiles.”

Having quit the yard, Ralph bought a liveaboard and set up at home in a marina at the heart of Antwerp.  He kept on Dalí Sailing, did plenty of freelance delivery work for Peters & May between Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp, and, proving once more he’s not the sort to miss an opportunity, bought a handful of classics to establish Antwerp Classic Cars.

 “Before long, I had a ‘why the heck am I staying in Belgium?’ moment.  I was newly single and the two main reasons I’d lived in Belgium – for my education and for the shipyard – had gone.  I had travel in my blood, loved Mallorca from racing here for 20 years, and thought Palma was a great place to base a business.  Being honest, if you can’t find a job in yachting in Mallorca, you have a problem.  I sold the liveaboard in December 2017, packed six suitcases and, in January 2018, moved to the island.  Sonia, former manager of a yacht club in Antwerp, followed me for the adventure.”

 “We started life in a small house close to the beach in Arenal before moving to a finca with a beautiful view in Esporles – the perfect setting for Sonia who is a talented artist.  The sixth and final Antilope was sold in 2018, so I completed my Yachtmaster Ocean with Aigua Sea School and looked to fellow Antwerpen Jens Oomes of Invisible Crew for some temporary delivery work.  That first year proved to be pretty busy, from the Grenadines to Europe and back to Puerto Rico with, thankfully, a slightly quieter winter.  I now look after half a dozen boats on behalf of their owners and have been racing with Peter Huysman on his new Solaris.  Founder of Huysman Yacht Insurance, Peter was the first guy I sold a Grand Soleil to, he bought three from me in total, and it’s serendipitous to turn full circle and race with him some 15 years on.”

 So what does the future hold for this serial entrepreneur? 

“This winter I’ll be spending six months in the Caribbean on Lagoon 620 Crocodile Daddy.  Officially, I’ll be captain, but on a boat of this size I’ll be mucking in below deck and in the galley.  Sonia is already busy with yacht cleaning and provisioning and she will also help me out in the Caribbean this winter.  I guess I’ll keep doing this mix of management, racing and skippering until I hate sailing – and that won’t be anytime soon.  I like to manage things, have always worked with investors and it’s always gone well, so maybe I’ll start another business.   I have ideas, but of course I am not going to share them with you – yet.”


Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com