A tale of celebs, spies and very big tuna

Brian Cohen’s biography A Life to Remember.

From breaking an international record for the biggest tuna ever caught off Africa to rubbing shoulders with celebrities, heads of state, and cabinet ministers, Fish Hoek’s Brian Cohen has experienced what few can imagine, and he has put it all in a book, A Life to Remember.

His biography, written by long-time friend Lee Faulkner, takes you on a roller-coaster ride from hosting John F Kennedy Jnr, Dr Christiaan Barnard and his wife Barbara Zoellner, and Australian singer John Paul Young at his Fish Hoek and Murdoch Valley homes to hunting with Springbok rugby player Rob Louw and former Foreign Affairs Minister Pik Botha.

Mr Cohen said the book was written in “campfire” style.

“We wanted to keep it informal and real as if we were sitting next to a campfire reminiscing about the past,” he said.

Mr Faulkner said: “Brian had boxes and boxes of photos, letters, and memorabilia, and I suggested we put it in a book to preserve it. The patience in prying this information out and then applying the timelines, along with the archives of pictures, allowed us to piece this amazing story together.”

Mr Cohen, who is now retired, was born in Simon’s Town and was the first pupil to attend the new primary school. He matriculated from Simon’s Town School in 1965.

As the son of the legendary Vic Cohen, who pioneered the sport of game fishing from boats in the 1940s and discovered the existence of bluefin tuna in Fish Hoek Bay in 1964, it’s hardly surprising that Brian caught his first bluefin tuna at the age of 15.

He went on to establish the All Africa junior record at 16 when he caught a 600-pound tuna and was the winner of the state president’s award for sport on two separate occasions. He still holds the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record for the biggest bluefin tuna ever caught in Africa on a rod and reel, which weighed in officially at 845 pounds.

“It took me nearly five-and-a-half hours to land that fish and it took us all the way to Hermanus,” he said.

Mr Cohen said the catch was the subject of much controversy at that time as two well know international anglers were convinced it was bigger than 1000 pounds and it was weighed on an assized scale the next day and found to be 1047 pounds, but was never recorded as such.

Mr Cohen also became owner and chairman of the Tuna Marine Group which became the biggest tuna cannery in South Africa canning up to 1 500 tons of tuna annually.

He was also the director of Table Bay Tuna Company, a joint venture with his American partners for catching tuna commercially.

It was during this time that Pik Botha asked Mr Cohen to take him fishing. This resulted in a friendship of 42 years.

Mr Botha and his wife, Helena, became very fond of Mr Cohen’s Murdoch Valley house and often spent weekends there. This resulted in Mr Botha bringing many VIP guests to Mr Cohen’s house and involving Mr Cohen in numerous foreign affairs secret projects.

Later, Mr Botha asked Mr Cohen to host Bob Denard, the French soldier of fortune who was involved in coups and mercenary activities across Africa and the Middle East for decades, and they became close friends for many years.

Mr Cohen was also approached by Vladimir Tretchikoff, the well-known artist whose painting, Chinese Girl, became one of the best-selling art prints of the 20th century, to make a TV documentary of him enjoying a day out tuna fishing. But the weather did not play along and it was impossible to take the TV crew of five out to sea on his boat, the Kingfisher.

The event was then staged in the calmer waters at the lighthouse off Simon’s Town using a frozen yellow fin tuna.

“The event turned out to be very successful and the TV crew was very satisfied with the result,” Mr Cohen said.

Mr Cohen’s interest in art led him to start his own art collection. It included two small Tinus de Jonghs, two paintings by Maggie Laubser, a large Irma Stern in oil of the Zanzibar carpet seller, five Pierneefs, and a Picasso. His collection included 42 South African artists.

Dr Barnard, who performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant, also fished with Mr Cohen in Simon’s Town on several occasions. Shortly after the success and publicity of the transplant, Dr Barnard called Mr Cohen and asked him to organise a fishing trip on the Kingfisher, to catch a giant bluefin tuna in Fish Hoek Bay.

Several trips followed afterwards and Dr Barnard and his wife, Barbara, became good friends of Mr Cohen and would often send Mr Cohen postcards when travelling overseas.

The book also gives a glimpse of far south properties owned by Mr Cohen, such as the spectacular Graceland on the coastline of St James, and includes tales of midnight visits by international spies. All the stories in the book are corroborated by pictures and letters from the various people Mr Cohen met.

The book sells for R380 and is not available in book stores. To order or for more information, email capeskyrealtors@gmail.com

Brian Cohen with his 845-pound tuna for which he still holds the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record for the biggest bluefin tuna ever caught in Africa on a rod and reel.
Brian Cohen, left, and Lee Faulkner, right, in front of the wall of fame made up of letters, photos, and newspaper articles which Mr Cohen collected throughout the years.