Brian Ingpen hosts a weekly column in the Cape Times, called Port Pourri, where he shares with his readers the news about happenings in the Western Cape ports. He lives with his ear to the ground and his insights into the port vibes make for excellent reading. On this site, he shares his column and adds some photos as a bonus for an insider's view on the port life.
Atlantic seaboard residents will have noted the volume of shipping off the coast recently. From the Green Point lighthouse earlier this week, I saw 16 ships at anchor, two handysize bulkers were inward and two northbound tankers were hull-down as they skirted the coast.
Fog-related delays at the container terminal and a planned outage of the Navis system accounted for the containerships in the roadstead. Some ships with large numbers of containers to work will occupy the two operating berths at the terminal for extended periods, aggravating the situation and lengthening the queue. The terminal folks do not need any further bouts of the south-easter or the fog, factors over which they have no control.
Excitement focused on Saturday evening's departure of the magnificent Queen Mary 2 - despite an erroneous week-end press report indicating that she would sail on Monday.
Known for their efficiency, Cape Town's senior pilots were blessed with calm conditions for the arrival and departure of the giant liner, unlike those times when her predecessor, QE2, was delayed by wind.
Meticulous planning by Mike Magee's team from King & Sons ensured a smooth visit by the world's most prestigious cruiseliner. Besides the ship's stores and dozens of other arrangements, allowance had to be made for 1600 passengers to disembark in Cape Town and for 1700 joining passengers. I understand that the immigration department was outstanding in its assistance, bringing about 40 officials to the ship to speed up the processing of passengers.
With over 4000 pieces of baggage to be handled, a large squad of customs officers also ensured the rapid movement of passengers. Often the butt of agents' ire, the officials should be complimented for their efficient handling of this important caller.
The gathering point for boarding passengers was the Conference Centre, although much of the processing of people and their baggage occurred in the 18-metre marquee that had been erected on Eastern Mole where the ship berthed. While it served its purpose, a tent is not a solution and Magee breathed a sigh of relief that the south-easter had died.
Cape Town must present a more welcoming face to cruiseliner passengers. Immediate steps must be taken to provide a multi-use facility that can also be used as a passenger terminal when the ships are here, an issue that has been raised many times in several different forums, only to be quashed.
Another vessel to dominate the dockland skyline since her arrival on Sunday morning from the Caribbean is McDermott DB50, a dynamically positioned, heavy-lift and pipe-laying vessel. Her huge crane, I am told, can lift 4400 tons, most useful for the offshore oil and gas sector.
Passing all those ships in the roadstead, but obscured by early morning fog for much of her passage along the Atlantic coast on Monday was the US frigate Stephen W Groves, one of the older ladies in the fleet. She was in port for about 12 hours to bunker.
In the longer term, we may see even more ships in the roadstead or lying idle in the port. Surging iron ore and coal prices have caused importers to hold back, thereby reducing the demand for ships. As freight rates and charter rates have declined well below operating costs many owners will struggle to repay loans. Since South African law allows a creditor to attach a ship associated in any way with a defaulting owner's vessel, several such ships could clutter Table Bay.
One hopes, though, that as the winter months approach, their anchoring gear is in good nick!
TOP: Queen Mary 2 in Cape Town
From Cape Times - Pirates
PIRATE ATTACKS A MAJOR GLOBAL ISSUE
Although he didn't say so, I discerned that a shipmaster friend was not looking forward to returning to sea. His ship, he had learned, was scheduled to make several voyages through the Gulf of Aden, aka Pirate Alley.
Once aboard, he would have paged through the lengthy Anti-Piracy SITREPS that most ships receive, a recent copy of which was emailed to me by another correspondent, also a shipmaster whose bulk carrier was about to pass through the Indonesian archipelago, another pirate alley. The contents of this piece of daily reading are terrifying. It documents actual attacks, some involving six skiffs whose powerful outboard engines can drive them at speeds much greater than that of most merchant ships, and like the windhond of the African plains, the pirate boats simply chase down their prey. The SITREP also cautions about possible attacks in areas ranging from Brazil to the South China Sea, and from West Africa to the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, but thankfully, excludes the South African coast - for now.
Hijacking a vessel plodding along at 14 knots is easy for the fearsomely-armed and well-organised pirate gangs, who, once aboard, need to capture only one crewmember for the rest to be forced to surrender at the peril of their shipmate's life. A few black eyes and cracks over the head with an AK47 give the crew the message that these thugs will let no one come between them and their expected handsome payout. "Don't be a hero," warns a notice to seafarers, stressing the need to obey the pirates' commands. Those felons only need to sit tight aboard the ship for a few months, beat up a few crewmembers every now and then to ensure compliance from their hapless captives, and their pirate bosses are assured of a payment of millions of dollars. Not a bad reward for a few months' work!
The trauma generated by such captivity in a confined, hot space - and the frequent threats of death or torture - is impossible to imagine unless one has experienced it.
This was the unhappy - and entirely possible - scenario facing my acquaintance on his return to sea, and, as the master of the ship, he bore concerns not only about his own safety, but also that of his crew. Like hundreds of other South African seafarers, many of whom are devoted family men, he is subjected to this threat as he simply tries to earn an honest living aboard his ship that is plying one of the major sealanes.
Remove, if you can, the personal aspect of this scenario, and consider the economic implications of piracy that, I am told, costs the world about US$7 billion a year. Consider also the direct effect that the actions of these thugs have on South Africa.
The usual course for large tankers bringing oil to South Africa from the Arabian Gulf passes directly through the pirate hotspot east of Somalia. Their slow speed and low freeboard make them relatively easy targets for the pirates who nabbed two such vessels, each of which fetched extraordinary ransoms that encourage further attacks on laden tankers.
To avoid their vessels being hijacked, several tanker owners have instructed their masters to take a circuitous route from the Gulf to South Africa, well into the eastern part of the Indian Ocean before turning towards the South African coast. Besides the increased fuel consumption during such an extended voyage, the daily hire of a large tanker - at present a mere US$12000 but forecast to reach US$35000 a day this quarter or even higher should the current Egyptian situation escalate to panic oil consumer nations into widespread buying - could increase substantially. And don't forget the insurance fraternity who have also hiked their premiums for passages through areas of known pirate activity.
Rising voyage costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer. You, dear reader, could be paying more for your fuel eventually because of greater shipping costs, a spin-off of the East African pirate curse.
If a couple of tankers carrying crude oil cargoes for local refineries were to be hijacked in quick succession - a realistic scenario, given the successful record of the pirate bands - about 600000 tons of crude could be unavailable at very short notice. That would make a significant dent in the availability of refined products on the local market.
Coal, other minerals and a range of products from Richards Bay or Durban and destined for a variety of ports in Turkey, Israel, the Gulf, Black Sea or the Indian sub-continent move north in bulkers of all sizes. That route takes them straight past the pirate lairs. Like the tankers, they are relatively easy prey for the pirates, and their cargoes could reach their destinations late or never, leaving the importers no alternative but to seek more reliable sources elsewhere.
Since attacks have occurred across a vast area of the Indian Ocean, combating widespread piracy is difficult, and currently involves warships of many nations. However, one wonders how well coordinated the anti-piracy operation is, given the fact that hijackings continue apace, even in areas where one would have expected the naval force to be most effective. Indeed, some successful attacks have occurred with warships looking on, their crew frozen into inaction for fear of provoking the pirates into killing their hostages.
Although rather late, the deployment of at least one South African frigate to anti-piracy patrols has been welcomed, especially as she will probably be tasked to secure the northern end of the Mozambique Channel into which pirates ventured to attack two ships at the turn of the year. Without a secure Mozambique Channel, the anchorages off Richards Bay and Durban could present golden opportunities to pirates operating from mother ships. After all, if vessels have been captured only 500 nautical miles from the Indian coast and steamed back to Somalia, why could the pirates not look towards the rich pickings in South African roadsteads?
The frigate's task would be much easier if a squadron of long-range, sophisticated maritime reconnaissance aircraft was available to locate and photograph suspicious vessels, and to relay their positions to the frigate. However, the powers that be opted to buy submarines instead - perhaps more four-by-fours were available for this deal - and, in the absence of modern reconnaissance planes, the multi-retreaded ancient Dakotas fly on.
The rules of engagement for the frigate have not been published, but one hopes that her officer commanding will be given orders to sink any suspected pirate skiff or mother ship on sight. As the rights of seafarers and their protection need to take total precedence over those of the pirates (the reverse seems to be the norm), the appalling escalation of piracy - an international crime - needs to be countered with decisive force, not with do-gooder welfare parcels and a free passage home. Since these are international criminals, bent on hijacking, mayhem and even murder, they should be given the same treatment that armed terrorists would receive if they walked into Heathrow or JFK.
As the shipping industry has secreted itself behind razor wire, tyre-slashers and security gates, shipping suffers from a far-away-and-out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind syndrome that denies it the prominent public profile that it once held. Thus incidents of piracy are less newsworthy than aircraft hijackings. Because of the immense role that shipping plays in the global and South African economy, any disruption to the smooth flow of ships and their cargoes should be countered with all the political and military might available. Indeed, the eradication of piracy should be approached with similar swat-team zeal and minute-by-minute media coverage as is dedicated to a hijacked jumbo jet. To my knowledge, no aircraft or airline passengers are currently held hostage anywhere, yet, as this article reaches the breakfast tables, some 30 ships with over 700 crewmembers are currently in the clutches of Somali pirates alone - and there are probably others held by their Nigerian or Asian counterparts!
The U-boat menace of World War 2 was countered by designing highly effective equipment and through highly efficient naval operations. With all the space-age technology available now, surely naval forces can eliminate this modern-day menace to shipping.
But any anti-piracy operation is not only about ships and cargoes, or about shipowners forking out huge ransoms, or about disruptions along the shipping lanes. It's about my seagoing friends, decent, hard-working folks of great integrity, who are entitled to earn their keep in safety. Only real political will and determined, unfettered naval action will ensure that, after their demanding spells at sea, my friends, and thousands like them, can return - in good health - to their hearths and homes.
PIRATE ATTACKS A MAJOR GLOBAL ISSUE
From Cape Times - Fruit
In 1958, I was a mere kortbroek. Yet, I recall vividly the day - 29 January - when a friend of my mother - a Union-Castle passenger clerk - phoned with the news that the fruit pre-cooling sheds in Cape Town harbour were on fire. I wanted to go to see for myself.
"Not now," my mother said, "but perhaps we can go when Dad comes home." Well, we didn't; go because Dad couldn't fit in a trip to the harbour between his arrival home and a meeting later that evening. So we missed the excitement.
The pre-cooling sheds were located at B and C Berths and a gantry passage linked B Berth with No 4 South Arm, enabling ships berthed there also to load fruit at the height of the season, lessening the pressure on the extremely busy B, C and D Berths.
January is a hectic time for fruit exports as grapes and some deciduous fruits begin to move through the harbour. In the pre-container era, reefer ships - and some other vessels with reefer capacity - loaded fruit at those berths, while the weekly northbound mailship at A Berth took masses of fruit as well.
On that day, Dunottar Castle was at B Berth, Clan Macaulay at C, a tanker was discharging petrol at D (then the import terminal for fuel) and, strangely, I forget which mailship lay at A Berth. Immediately the fire broke out, tugs were dispatched to move the ships from the berths adjacent to the pre-cooling sheds - they began with the tanker! - and to fight the fire which was extinguished only the following day. Unfortunately, when the fire broke out, workers understandably fled from the buildings, but in their haste, they omitted to close the fire doors at both ends of the gantry to South Arm 4. In the wind tunnel that was created by the heat, the fire, apparently, raced through the gantry and destroyed part of the double-storey shed at South Arm 4.
That such widespread damage should occur to the export terminal at the start of the fruit season was a disaster for the fruit growers and port officials had to move smartly to accommodate the huge volumes of fruit that were descending on the harbour.
Although the small pre-cooling facilities at A Berth were undamaged by the fire, the debris that lay across South Arm Road and the badly damaged gantry prevented easy public access to the passenger berth. While small reefer ships were able to load at A Berth, the northbound mailships went to G Berth for several months until full road access was restored and the gantry removed.
There was talk of relocating the fruit terminal to J-K Berths., However, as the adjacent L Berth was the discharge berth for railway and powerstation coal, the south-easter would have carried coal dust further up the long quay and European importers would certainly have rejected coal-laced fruit.
The fruit terminal was rebuilt on its original site - and suffered severe damage again when another fire destroyed B Shed a few years ago. Although it was rebuilt yet again, volumes of fruit being loaded at B, C and D Berths have declined rapidly as reefer containers now carry most of the fruit cargoes. Once a hive of activity and lined with fruit ships and others queued for a berth, the fruit terminal now is often without ships. In any case, cargowork at those berths has its perils. An award-winning photograph of the Norwegian vegetable oil tanker Maricopa sailing from B Berth in a howling south-easter in the 1950s epitomised the problem of loading weather-sensitive cargoes in that part of the harbour. As much of the fruit season coincides with the height of the south-easter season, masses of flying spray from the choppy Duncan Dock are not compatible with boxes of fruit as no one likes salty fruit. More importantly, the spray wets the cardboard boxes that become soft, weakening them to the point that they are unable to carry the weight of other boxes. In addition, wet boxes become mouldy, rendering the fruit unfit for consumption.
A similar problem is experienced by ships discharging grain at the once-busy fruit terminal. Indeed, delays are frequent during the southeaster season, as evidenced by delays to a ship at C Berth as spray flew wildly during a particularly windy spell this month, preventing the discharge of a full cargo of urea.
From fruit sheds to multi-use quays, B to D Berths in Cape Town harbour illustrate the changing face of shipping over the years, especially the fact that containerships move most reefer cargo now. In addition, as the fruit shipments waned, the pragmatic berth concession holders opened the way for a variety of cargoes to be handled, proving the value of private berth concessions in South African harbours.
LEFT: Dunottar Castle was one of the ships that the Cape Town harbour tugs had to move from the adjacent berths when the pre-cooling sheds caught fire in January 1958.
A TALE OF FIERY FRUIT
AND WILD SPRAY
A TALE OF FIERY FRUIT AND WILD SPRAY
From Cape Times - Cunarders
The arrival of Queen Mary 2 in South African ports drew thousands to vantage points in Durban and Cape Town. Although Cunard is a very different critter to the company that in its heyday, saw weekly trans-Atlantic sailings by some of the largest liners, its ships continue to attract more attention than those of other contemporary cruiseliner operators.
And that has been the case for more than a century. Apart from the excitement engendered by the occasional Italian, German of French superliner of the inter-war period, Cunarders took the limelight - when Queen Mary (1) captured the Blue Riband on the second occasion from French Line's magnificent Normandie, she notched up Cunard's 23rd record-breaking westbound trans-Atlantic passage.
A product of returning soldiers after World War 2, my generation did not see Franconia, Carinthia or Laconia berth at Number 2 Jetty in the Victoria Basin in Cape Town or at the Point in Durban during their worldwide cruises in the 1920s and 1930s. Neither did we see the magnificent Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Mauretania or the four-funnelled Aquitania during their wartime calls or Laconia on her ill-fated last voyage during which she was sunk off West Africa while carrying Italian prisoners of war to Britain. Franconia and her sisters also escaped our cameras as they too conveyed the Empire troops to various theatres of war.
We also did not see those great ships in the immediate post-war years when they were engaged in troop and Allied family repatriation voyages, initially still in their wartime livery, and later with their Cunard red-and-black funnels, white superstructures and black hulls.
My first recollection of a Cunarder was the maiden call of the lime-liveried Caronia (1) during her first round-the-world cruise in 1950. The Cape Town Foreshore area was an open wasteland, the cargo shed at H Berth had not been built and no raised freeways existing, giving all a grand vista of that beautiful ship. She carried umpteen radio officers who were extremely busy receiving and typing up stock market reports from all over the world for the idle rich aboard to scrutinize several times a day. Within minutes of the reports being available, the sparkers began transmitting messages at the behest of those rich folks, instructing their stockbrokers to take appropriate action.
Her annual visits were a treat for ship-spotters, although few realised that some of the Union-Castle mailships were larger than this visitor that took the limelight.
Surpassing all in grandeur, Queen Elizabeth 2 (aka QE2) towered over local wharfside sheds when she berthed in South African ports. Her first visit to the Cape co-incided with a gale-force south-easter that forced her master to take her to the summer anchorage off Sea Point for about two days. Despite the wind, she was ultimately forced to enter port to bunker and to enable many passengers to catch their flights out of Cape Town, and joining passengers to embark. The wind took charge, blowing her towards A Berth. Skillful piloting and the efforts of all four of the port's steam tugs pulled her clear of the concrete, and brought her to her berth.
On another visit, with a few hours to go before her midnight sailing, the agent was alerted that a group of Durban-based musicians had not arrived on board to provide entertainment for the Cape Town-Walvis Bay voyage. Hasty enquiries revealed that they had missed their flight from Durban. "Charter a plane!" the agent ordered his Durban colleague, "and get them here!" When told of the musicians' plight, the master reluctantly agreed to delay sailing until one o'clock, "But not a minute later!" he fumed. "I don't want to be caught by this wind!"
By the time the musicians arrived, the wind had increased in strength, and sailing had to be postponed. She finally left the following morning when the wind had abated slightly and an intrepid pilot agreed to sail her. The extra fuel consumed to make up time on that short voyage probably set Cunard back thousands of dollars - all for the sake of wayward musicians.
In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in America, QE2 was one of the cruise liners redirected to South Africa to escape possible threats while operating out of the customary cruiseliner ports in America. The navy, police and private security companies were very busy patrolling both the wharfside and the harbour lest evil minds had plotted some mischief while she was here. When she sailed, a South African naval strike craft shadowed her from the roadstead and, I understand, accompanied her to Walvis Bay. When I wrote about the escort in my weekly newspaper column, Cunard's agent phoned me to deny it. "I saw it!" was my response.
When another Caronia (ex-Vistafjord that had also been here in Cunard colours) arrived in Cape Town, the port authorities surprisingly ordered her to berth at the old coastal container terminal, beam-on to a light south-easter. Fortunately, wind speeds remained slight and the ship sailed on time.
QE2 was withdrawn, and sold to new owners who sent her to the Arabian Gulf for conversion to a floating hotel and convention centre, as Queen Mary (1) had been at Long Beach, California. When the recession hit Dubai and its surrounds, curious plans were forged to bring her to Cape Town to serve as hotel during the soccer world cup - and beyond. Wonderful as it might have been to have the liner in Cape Town, local agents were most aggrieved that she should take up two working berths for months. She did not come here, to the relief of many, but to the dismay of others who might have made a good living from her chandling requirements and passenger transport and entertainment.
In time, the newer liners will follow in the wake of Queen Mary 2, but one hopes that the port authorities and their security hawks will be pragmatic and open parts of the harbour - including the breakwaters - to allow folks to gain access to good vantage points from which to see these remarkable ships.
CUNARDERS TO THE CAPE
TOP: The remarkable Aquitania sailing from Cape Town in 1946 when she carried troops to Australasia. During her 36-year career, she carried over 1200000 passengers (excluding the thousands of troops she conveyed during two world wars) and crossed the Atlantic 475 times!