South africa’s maritime history – synopsis produced by Brian Ingpen Early Years

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Produced by Brian Ingpen
1. Early Years
During the Dutch and early British settlement at the Cape, local sailing vessels went up the west coast on fishing, sealing and guano-collecting expeditions, and as settlements grew along the southern African coast (especially in the later years of the British governing the Cape), they also moved small volumes of cargoes. Some of these small vessels (brigs, schooners, etc) were locally owned.

The first steam coaster and several later steam coasters were British-owned, as were some vessels engaged in sealing and fishing. Several fishing vessels (sailing vessels and steamers) were owned locally, including some steam trawlers. Steam whalers operated out of Cape Town, Saldanha Bay and Port Natal, while Captain John Grindrod (based in Durban) conducted whaling operations in Mozambique and along the coast south of Port Natal.

Gradually, local coastal shipowners began to emerge :

  • The Barrys (c1859-1865; Breede River to Cape Town; sailing ships also traded on this route, some continuing to Britain with grain or hides and skins);

  • Thesen (1869 – calling mainly at Knysna, Mossel Bay, Cape Town and west coast fishing harbours) This company continued trading under various ownerships until 1965 when it was bought by Safmarine and exchanged for shares in Unicorn Lines.

  • Stephan Brothers (c.1880-1916 when bought by Mitchell Cotts; Cape Town-west coast);

  • Smith, Webster & Co (1890-1917 when bought by Thesens; Cape Town-west coast);

  • T.N. Price (c.1890-1896; taken over by Smith’s Coasters; Port Natal-Port Shepstone-Port St Johns).

  • Smith’s Coasters began trading in with chartered vessels in 1896 (Port Natal-Port Shepstone-Port St Johns) and later, once the fleet had expanded, extended the service to Cape ports. This company continued trading until it merged with African Coasters in 1966 to form Unicorn Lines.

Other companies also ran coasters, but most of these were feeder vessels owned by British companies.

The tugs in the harbours were owned, initially by the respective harbour boards (some by Union or Castle Lines) and, later by the Cape Colonial Government. From the time of Union (1910) the tugs and other harbour craft were owned by the South African Railways and Harbours Administration and their succeeding organisations.

While a few locally-owned sailing ships traded out of South Africa (e.g. the Port Elizabeth-owned Mazeppa and Grindrod’s Bangkok), no foreign-going steamships were locally-owned at this time.
2. Between World War 1 (1918) and start of World War 2 (1939)

  • Thesens continued trading, mainly along the west coast as far north as Walvis Bay, with occasional voyages along the east coast to Mossel Bay, Knysna, Algoa Bay, East London and Durban.

  • Smith’s Coasters continued trading from Durban to Cape ports, carrying mainly sugar. They had done well and, in the 1930s, built the first ships for a South African owner.

  • Three ships were bought by the South African Railways and Harbours (known as SARships) in 1919 to carry coal and other minerals to Asia or West Africa and they loaded railway sleepers for the return voyage to South Africa. Although the original trio were sold, the SARship fleet grew via acquisition including the brand-new Erica, the first foreign-going ship built for a South African company (1926). At the outbreak of World War 2, SARships had four vessels, two of which were sunk during the war.

  • Frontier 1922 Shipping Company began in 1922 and in 1933, African Coasters was formed (both companies were the idea of Captain John Grindrod) and the former was absorbed by the latter in 1937.

  • Coastal Shipping was formed in 1933 for trade between Cape Town and the Breede River and the west coast. The company ceased trading 1935.

  • All harbour craft were owned and operated by South African Railways & Harbours, and, with larger ships entering the South African trade (especially larger Union-Castle liners) new, larger and more powerful tugs were ordered.

  • Fishing continued in all ports from Mossel Bay as far north as Walvis Bay, then a South African enclave. Some fishing was also done from other ports.

  • The first South African fisheries research ship, Africana, began operating. Pieter Faure had also been used for fisheries research, but was not a dedicated vessel for this purpose.

  • Whaling was important (whale products fetched high prices in Europe) and whaling operations were conducted out of Durban, and Saldanha Bay, while Irvin & Johnson, with overseas partners, operated a large whale factory ship and several catchers for Antarctic whaling and whaling off Durban. Another whale factory ship was operated by Durban-based interests with a Norwegian whaling company.

3. 1940 to 1961
The immediate post-war years heralded an unprecedented shipping boom as cargoes – backlogged by the wartime disruption to shipping - needed shipment and the reparations in Europe and Japan created a huge trade in steel, cement and food, particularly grain. Thousands of passengers were seeking berths to flee the damaged European cities or to seek new beginnings in countries that offered opportunities.

Thus shipping seemed a profitable business at the time and, like elsewhere, new endeavours sprang up in South Africa.

3.1. Some short-lived attempts to enter shipping
Using a variety of old ships - sold by their owners as surplus or as past their economic lives, and even in two instances using converted dredgers - a number of other shipping companies sprang to life in South Africa in the late 1940s. Some of these tried the Indian Ocean islands trade, only to find that the cargo flow was one-way from South Africa, with little return cargo, thus making the passage from the islands a financial loss. Other companies tried to break into the already over-tonnaged Durban to Cape Town route. Thus, without proper analyses of the conditions of the time, many of these endeavours faded within a few years, and in some cases, the ships ended as derelicts in South African ports. Some of those companies are listed below :

  • The fishing company, Ovenstones, operated two small coasters from Cape Town to the west coast in 1941. Both were bought by Thesens for their west coast service.

  • The Finnish barque, Lawhill, that was captured by the South African naval forces and taken as a war prize vessel in 1940, operated under the South African flag until she was sold in 1947. She carried mainly grain and timber from Australia to South Africa, but also carried South African cadets and junior officers.

  • Union Sea Freighters (1949-1950) operated two ships between Durban and the Indian Ocean islands. Lack of cargo caused the company to cease trading.

  • Atlantic Shipping Company (1945-1946) operated a four-masted sailing vessel on various voyages, but the company ceased trading when the vessel was laid up and scrapped.

  • Union Steamships (1946-1947) operated one ship along the west coast (she was bought by Thesens in 1947) and the other traded from South Africa to the Mediterranean until she was sold, also in 1947.

  • Alpha Steamship Company (1946 to 1948) ran five trampships, mainly moving South African minerals to Europe.

  • Arden Hall (1947-1951) traded to West Africa using old tonnage and ceased trading due to the age of the ships and the lack of cargo.

  • Van Riebeeck Lines (1950 to 1954) had two ships that traded to West Africa but the vessels were old and poorly maintained, which, coupled to the lack of cargo, forced its closure.

  • Neptune Shipping (1952-1955) had three ships for trade between Durban and the Indian Ocean islands and West Africa. Lack of cargo, the age of the ships (and the cost of operating such old vessels) and the loss of one on the South West African (Namibian) coast led to its closure.

  • Cape Recife Shipping (1955) operated a small coaster between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, but the small volumes of cargo caused its early closure.

    1. Operations that continued for longer :

  • Union-Castle Line registered two freighters in Cape Town in 1946 to appease the South African government who wanted more local involvement in the company that was benefiting from the UK-South Africa mail contract. (The ships were manned by Union-Castle British officers and ratings. Both had been scrapped by 1961.)

  • Northern Steamships and the associated Southern Steamships (owned by the Johannesburg-based Nomikos brothers) operated four Liberty ships (one was wrecked shortly after her naming ceremony) and a war-built tanker. The fleet expanded initially and a new freighter and a new tanker were ordered. The companies ceased trading in 1962.

  • South African Lines (SAL), was founded in 1945 by a Greek shipowner Eugene Eugenides, to trade to West Africa and South America. SAL began a joint South Africa-Europe service with Deutsche Ost-AfrikaLinien in 1951, an association that led to a buy out of SAL by the German company Globus Reederei that retained South African registration for some of its ships.

  • Safmarine was established in 1946 with American and local finance, initially using chartered ships to trade between South Africa and the United States. Three Victory ships were bought in 1947. A triangular service (South Africa-UK-USA) evolved and, by 1960, four new ships had entered service. The company’s services changed to South Africa-United States and South Africa-United Kingdom. Chartered ships augmented the owned vessels to provide a more regular service. Safmarine also operated two new vessels for worldwide tramping.

  • Durban Lines was established in 1957 to trade between Durban and Mozambique.

  • Springbok Line, a subsidiary of the British & Commonwealth Group, was formed in 1959 with five ships that traded until the company and its ships were merged with Safmarine in 1961.

  • The major coasting operations (African Coasters, Smith’s Coasters and Thesens) continued to operate along the southern African coast, the former two on the Durban-Walvis Bay range and Thesens mainly along the west coast. From 1954, their operations had been boosted by the abolition of the SAR&H’s “Sea Competitive Railway Rating Policy” that had attracted coastal cargoes to the railway system at ludicrously lower rates than the coasters could offer. With those rates now abolished, the companies were able to grow, but the lack of capital forced them to buy older tonnage.

  • SARships continued to move South African mineral exports to Asia and to return with railway sleepers from Australia, but when railway development slowed down, and other materials were used to make sleepers, the demand for Australian hardwoods decreased and the ships (now only two) moved coal from Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) to Cape ports for railway locomotives, steam tugs, steam trawlers, powerstations, as well as for industrial and domestic use. One ship was scrapped and chartered ships augmented the remaining vessel on the coal run, especially in winter when coal demand was greater.

  • Mobil Oil began operating two locally-flagged product tankers along the South African coast. The operation only lasted from 1961 to 1965, by which time the Cape Town refinery was operating, thereby reducing the volume of coastwise oil product cargoes.

  • Five new oil-burning tugs, two new coal-burning tugs and a number of new pilot tugs replaced older tugs in the harbours. The oil-burners with their longer range were particularly useful in salvage and ocean towage operations.

  • The trawling fleet was modernised as a number of steam trawlers were replaced by modern side-trawlers. A new, custom-built fisheries research vessel, Africana II, entered service in 1951, and an inshore research vessel, Sardinops, was built at the Globe Engineering yard in Cape Town.

  • Whaling activities continued from Durban and Saldanha Bay.

  1. 1961-1976

4.1. Continued local shipping operations
This period was characterised by extensive restructuring of the South African shipping industry, and saw the industry at its zenith. Salient milestones of this period include :

  • In 1959, the Industrial Development Corporation purchased a significant shareholding in Safmarine that enabled the company to build three modern reefer ships and to buy three others that it had on bareboat charter; to modernise its fleet by building eight fast freighters; and to expand into the bulk trades by ordering (in some cases with major charterers) four handysize bulkers and one capesize bulker.

  • Safmarine entered the passengership sector by purchasing two Union-Castle mailships, thereby gaining a two-seventh share in the South Africa-UK mail service that had been operated by British interests since 1857.

  • Safmarine also entered the tanker sector when, from 1966, it began to manage the IDC-owned tanker fleet that in time grew to eight vessels. Later, three VLCCS were built.

  • After the grounding of the tanker Wafra at Cape Agulhas in 1971, Safmarine was commissioned by the government to build two large salvage tugs as emergency towing vessels to be stationed along the South African coast. (This was the world’s first such project.)

  • The coasting sector was restructured in 1964 when the mining house Union Corporation took a significant share in African Coasters which merged with Smith’s Coasters to form Unicorn Shipping Lines in 1966. When Safmarine bought Thesens in 1965, it sold the coasting company to Unicorn in 1966 in exchange for a shareholding.The capital injection from Union Corporation allowed Unicorn to replace older ships and to build new ships, including eleven that were built in Durban between 1969 and 1983.

  • Unicorn extended its dry cargo operations to West Africa, South America, the Indian Ocean islands and to Israel.

  • Besides its containerised and break-bulk coastal services, Unicorn entered the coastal oil products trade with the purchase of tankers to move products between southern African ports.

  • Diamond recovery from the seabed along the west coast to the north and south of the Orange River mouth began in the early 1930s, but Marine Diamond, operated by the American Sam Collins, began in earnest in the 1960s with specially-fitted and custom-built barges, tugs and other craft, including some converted whalers whose operations had been outlawed by the global moratorium on whaling. Although Collins’s operation was short-lived, Consolidated Diamond Mines (De Beers) that also began offshore diamond recovery off the west coast, continued, initially using converted coasters and later using larger and more sophisticated vessels. (Although the diamond recovery operations continue, most of it is conducted now by Namibian vessels.)

  • When the world-wide moratorium on whaling came into force, two former whale factory ships, Suiderkruis (formerly the Norwegian vessel Kosmos IV) and Willem Barentsz (formerly a Dutch vessel) were converted to operate as fish factory vessels off the west coast. Although both of these large were registered in Cape Town initially, they went to operate further north, and were reflagged.

  • To transport South African Antarctic teams to and from the ice, the government ordered a specialised vessel from Japanese builders, and in 1961, the country’s first polar supply vessel, RSA, was delivered.

  • The advent of two specialised salvage tugs and the need to provide harbour tugs that could handle the large vessels destined to call at South African ports, prompted SAR&H (later known as South African Transport Services and then Portnet and finally Transnet National Port Authority) to order over 20 multi-directional tugs, some from local yards and some from foreign yards. (Safmarine, acting for Iscor, ordered tugs from French yards for the Saldanha Bay iron export terminal.) Locally-built pilot launches replaced older pilot tugs, while two new floating heavy-lift cranes came from a Durban yard.

  • Skipcor moved vehicles between Port Elizabeth and other local ports from 1969 until 1970 when Unicorn Lines bought the company.

  • Durban Lines and its ships were absorbed by Unicorn Lines in 1975 when Mozambique became independent and trade with South Africa declined.

  • Globus Reederei, the parent company of South African Lines, was bought by Safmarine in 1973 and its ships were transferred to Safmarine operations, some under the South African flag and others continued under German flag.

  • The SARship operation was reduced to one ship that was replaced by a custom-built bulker for the coal trade. Chartered ships augmented the capacity of the fleet when required.

4.2. Some short-lived local attempts to enter shipping operations

  • Southern Reefer Shipping (1962-c.1978) operated two small reefer ships – mainly moving fish cargoes.

  • The near-derelict freighter Good Fortune operated under three different companies between 1968 and 1972 when she went to scrap. (She spent much time laid up.)

  • First Freighters operated three Liberty ships between 1965 and 1967. Inadequate planning and management led to the company’s demise.

  • Faros Shipping Enterprises (1971) took charters for the contract to move coal from Lourenco Marques (Maputo) to Cape ports. Corruption in the tender process led to the demise of the company.

  • Green R Line was formed in 1969 for the South African coastal trade. Because of the fierce competition from Unicorn Lines and the containerisation of much of the coastal trade, the company ceased trading in 1976 and its vessels were sold.

  • Rennies Coasters was formed in 1961 and operated two vessels. One ship was chartered to Smith’s Coasters, but later withdrawn and operated independently. Eventually, competition from Unicorn Lines and limited trade changed the operation. One ship was sold and the other was lost at sea in 1979 when the company ceased trading. Associated with Rennie’s Coasters were Zambezi-Africa Line and Cape Natal Line, the latter operating two small coastal ro-ro containerships. Machinery failure and competition from Unicorn Lines forced the company to cease trading.

5. 1977 to 1999
The main characteristic of this period was the entry of South Africa to the container era, and the introduction of modern, sophisticated product tankers for coastal and international operations.

  • With jet travel becoming popular, the approach of the containerisation of the South African trade, high portage bills and high fuel costs, passengership services were in decline. One of Safmarine’s mailships had gone to scrap in 1975, and the other made her last voyage in 1977 as the mail service closed.

  • South African involvement in Antarctic and paleo-Antarctic island scientific programmes required more scientists and more equipment to be moved. A new polar supply ship came out in 1978, replacing the original vessel.

  • The introduction of containerisation in 1977 brought shipping operations under various consortia, including DOAL, and their locally-flagged conventional freighters ships were replaced by a 2500-teu German-flagged containership.

  • Safmarine introduced four “Big Whites” (2500-teu ships) for the main South Africa-Europe Container Service, a smaller containership for the South Africa-Mediterranean trade and two for the Safari Service to the Far East. Each of these ships replaced five conventional freighters, and reduced the number of crew required.

  • Safmarine also reflagged many of its ships to counteract the effect of trade sanctions. It added several more handysize bulkers and Capesize vessels.

  • Safmarine re-entered the passengership sector with the purchase of Astor, crewed by some South Africans and foreign nationals. A second vessel was built to replace the smaller ship.

  • As the use of coal in Cape ports was declining (powerstations being closed with the opening of Koeberg nuclear powerstation; coal-burning tugs and trawlers had been phased out; less industrial and domestic use of coal; coal-fired locomotives had been phased out), the remaining SARship was sold in 1984.

  • Although it had introduced fully-containerised and multi-purpose coastal services, Unicorn evolved from a containership and general cargoship operator to coastal tanker operations. It built two small containerships, two larger containerships (1780-teu) and four product tankers in Poland, but ultimately, its coastal shipping services changed and, by 2000, the last identifiable Unicorn-owned multi-purpose ship on the coastal service had been withdrawn.

  • Grindrod, parent company of Unicorn, purchased Island View Shipping in 1999, giving it access to international bulk shipping.

  • Safmarine’s container division was sold in 1999 to the AP Moller Group of Denmark and its bulk division was sold to the Restis Group of Greece. Although some of its containerships continued to trade to South Africa, some ships began carrying increasing numbers of foreign crews.

  • The fishing industry expanded. Five major trawling companies and other fishing enterprises continue to operate, employing mainly local crews.

  • The fleet of harbour craft continued to operate and new tugs were added to the fleet.

6. 2000 to present
The thrust of shipping in this period has been the advances in containerisation that replaced almost all of the conventional shipping trading to South Africa. Another characteristic is the increase in size of containerships trading to South Africa, and some of 8000-teu capacity are now regular callers. All are foreign-flagged.

  • Safmarine took delivery of “second generation” containerships for the South African trade. Apart from one older vessel, all were foreign-flagged as the company was taking advantage of more friendly tax regimes and other benefits for shipowners elsewhere. Those “new generation” ships have since been replaced by larger chartered ships. When Safmarine’s technical and crewing divisions moved from Cape Town to Singapore, foreigners replaced many local seafarers.

  • Unicorn continued its tanker construction programme, building vessels in Korea and China. Bulkers were also built for Island View Shipping. All of these vessels (42 fully-owned or part-owned) have been flagged out to take advantage of more friendly tax regimes and other benefits for shipowners. While as many South African officers, cadets and ratings as possible are employed aboard these tankers and bulkers, shortfalls are filled by foreign seafarers.

  • The Department of Fisheries built patrol vessels, which, with the existing research ship fleet, are all locally-flagged and crewed.

  • The fishing industry continued with five major companies (Using trawlers inter alia) and numerous smaller companies operating smaller ships.

  • The Department of Environment ordered a new polar supply ship (SA Agulhas 2) to replace the existing vessel (SA Agulhas) that became a cadet training vessel.

  • One of the original salvage tugs was scrapped while the other continues as the country’s emergency towing vessel.

7. Current South African-flagged Fleet (Excluding naval vessels, fishing vessels and harbour craft)
Africana - Fisheries research vessel

Algoa - Oceanographic research vessel

Ellen Khuzwayo - Fisheries research vessel

Fumana - Bunker Barge

Lilian Ngoyi - Fisheries patrol vessel

Ruth First - Fisheries patrol vessel

SA Agulhas 2 - Polar Supply Ship

SA Agulhas - Cadet Training Vessel

Sarah Baartman - Fisheries patrol vessel

Siyakhula - Terminals Tug

Smit Amandla - Salvage Tug

Smit Bongani - Bunker Barge

Smit Energy - Bunker Barge

Smit Lipuma - Bunker Barge

Smit Madura - Tug

Southern Valour - Bunker Barge

Southern Venture - Bunker Barge

Victoria Mxenge - Fisheries patrol vessel

Two small tugs under construction for Smit Amandla Marine will be registered in South Africa.
Note :
1. With 42 owned or partly-owned ships, Durban-based and JSE-listed Grindrod remains the largest South African shipowner. It has flagged its ships out to take advantage of conditions that are more conducive to ship owning than those experienced in South Africa (e.g. more friendly tax regime; more appropriate labour legislation; employment freedom.)

2. In 1970, Safmarine alone had 23 commercial foreign-going ships flying the South African flag, and Unicorn had 25 commercial ships (mostly operating on the southern African coast) flying the South African flag. Currently, no commercial ships are flying the South African flag.
8. Crewing

  • Local fishing craft were crewed mainly by local fishermen, a practice that continues to the present. Local whaling vessels were also crewed largely by South Africans, although a number of Norwegian, Italian and Dutch whalermen were also employed.

  • Until about 1990, the entry level for employment as an officer aboard the SAR&H harbour craft was a master’s foreign-gong certificate of competency. Thus, every officer in the harbour service (masters, mates aboard tugs and dredgers; pilots; assistant port captains, deputy port captains, and port captains and nautical adviser – now known as chief harbour master) was a qualified master mariner. Crews were drawn from local population groups.

  • Coasters operating out of Durban had mainly white officers and Zulu ratings, while those operating out of Cape Town also had mainly white officers and so-called coloured ratings, as did most foreign-going ships, including Safmarine. Safmarine-operated vessels that traded from Durban had Zulu ratings.This policy changed in the 1970s when the shipping companies employed the most suitable officers, irrespective of race. As there were insufficient qualified South Africans to fill all the officers’ positions at sea, dispensation was granted for companies to employ suitably qualified foreign nationals. As the IDC-owned and Safmarine-managed tankers were not registered in South Africa, and as few South Africans had tanker experience, many tanker officers were British or Dutch.

  • Grindrod (Unicorn tankers and Island View bulkers) continue to train cadets, a practice that goes back to Unicorn Lines’ cadet programme that began in 1965. Where shortfalls of local crewmembers exist, foreign nationals are employed on a contract basis.

  • When locally-owned ships were flagged out, more foreign nationals were employed both as officers and ratings. This was done to widen the scope for recruitment and because, in some cases, foreigners’ salaries were lower. The less successful ventures often had few South African seafarers aboard their ships and inadequate management ashore.

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