West Coast’s shipping casualties
NEARER draws the time when Cape Town’s Dockland will be available. The printers advised that nearly half the consignment of books would be delivered next Monday and the rest soon thereafter. I confess to a feeling of mounting excitement, tempered by a twinge of apprehension about the readers’ reception of the book.
In that context, another act of honesty moved me mightily. In calculating his final bill, the book designer discovered that I had overpaid him, and he returned the credit balance. (A sneak would simply have adjusted the bill to his advantage, but not this highly principled man.) How refreshing to know that, with the country besieged by liars – some committing their sin even under oath – and grand-scale thieves, honest people remain guided by their moral compasses.
And more good news followed when we went to Lentegeur Hospital for our anti-Covid jabs. From the gent at the gate to the nurse who administered the jab and the lady who sanitised the chairs, smiling faces and efficiency abounded, so that our Lentegeur visit lasted only 40 minutes, including the mandatory 15-minute “recovery” time!
Also last week, a fog-shrouded trip to Saldanha Bay reminded me of the perils of the west coast, and the host of shipwrecks along that coast. Thesens whose small, shallow-draughted coasters called at Port Nolloth and Luderitz – and even made occasional calls at Lambert’s Bay, Saldanha Bay or St Helena Bay to load fish products for Cape Town – lost several ships in foggy conditions.
Of unusual general arrangement, Otavi was used by Thesens, inter alia to service the guano islands off the South West African (now Namibian) coast. With nearly 100 Cape workers aboard to scrape the guano from the rocky islands and load the bagged scrapings into the ship’s two holds, the 18-year-old Otavi grounded at Spencer Bay in July 1945, an accident caused by an incorrect course being laid out on the chart, and fog that prevented the officer on watch from realising the mistake until the ship hit Dolphin
Head in the bay.
Despite attempts by a tug from Lüderitz to refloat her, she became a total loss, fortunately, without loss of life. As the site of the vessel’s grounding is relatively sheltered from heavy seas, the wreck remained intact for years, but as corrosion of the steel occurred, Otavi lies in several pieces on that notorious coastline.
One of two Chant-class tankers that Thesens acquired when the coasting company took over the similar coasting operation, Union Steamships, Bechuana also fell victim to foggy conditions when, bound for Port Nolloth from Cape Town in December 1950, she was wrecked south of Kleinsee. Less than three years later, Thesen lost Zulu Coast, wrecked south of Hondeklip Bay while also Port Nolloth-bound and fully laden, including a consignment of diesel for the fishing fleet at the port.
In 1957, Thesens lost the chartered coaster Frean that grounded at Port Nolloth when arriving at the tiny port in poor visibility, and a further casualty occurred the following year. The Dutch-built Ovambo Coast was
running a shuttle service carrying fish oil between Saldanha Bay and Cape Town. On July 23, 1958, she had cast off from the jetty at Saldanha Bay when thick fog rolled in rapidly from the sea. The master anchored his vessel until the fog lifted when the coaster weighed anchor to continue her voyage to Cape Town. The fog closed in again, and the tiny ship grounded on Marcus Island.
As soon as the distress call came from the coaster, a naval rescue craft headed for the scene and picked up the crew who had launched the ship’s lifeboat. No lives were lost, but the ship and her cargo became a total loss.
In dense fog, but otherwise calm weather, the coaster Zulu – custom-built for the Port Nolloth trade in 1957 – was off Cape Columbine one winter’s afternoon in 1971. Inward for Cape Town from Port Nolloth, she had reduced speed and would berth at Number 6 Quay only the following morning.
Suddenly, the noise of shrieking steel and an ominous lurch to port caused havoc on board. Through the gloom, Zulu’s crew saw the bow of
another of the company’s vessels, Ovambo (2), wedged into Zulu’s starboard side.
Quickly losing buoyancy, the 14-year-old coaster began to sink. Ovambo, en route to Lüderitz and Walvis Bay, extricated herself and rescued Zulu’s crew. Within an hour, apart from a few pieces of flotsam, there was nothing to be seen of Zulu, a vessel regarded as vital to the economy of Port Nolloth and its environs.
Within a year of Zulu’s sinking, her consort on the trade, Swazi, was nearly lost when entering the channel at Port Nolloth. Fog suddenly closed in, and, despite the experience of the master who had passed through the channel numerous times, the ship grounded on the reef. Fortunately, she was refloated after a valiant six-week salvage operation.
Umpteen fishing vessels and even larger ships have been wrecked amid west coast fog, still a major peril, despite modern navigational technology.