Meeting brings new hope for shipbuilding in Durban

Nov 17, 2004
Author: P&S

Shipbuilding and ship repair in Durban was given a new breath of life earlier this month at a workshop hosted by the National Ports Authority and attended by representatives of the respective industries.

The workshop was organised by Durban businessman Barry Wiseman who has long been involved in shipbuilding and has worked quietly behind the scenes to reinstate shipbuilding in Durban. This followed the collapse of the industry last year when it became apparent that the National Ports Authority was not ready to place orders for new harbour tugs, and bringing about the demise of Southern African Shipyards, which had already built five tugs for the NPA. Before that the yard had focused on building luxury mega yacht hulls and superstructures that were later completed in Europe.

In the past year global shipbuilding has undergone a transformation following the boom in shipping, mainly as a result of the global surge in trade particularly with China. Throughout the world shipyards are now operating with full order books, leading to record prices for new tonnage.

It wasn’t that long ago when Durban’s repair facilities were fully occupied, as with this scene courtesy of Elgin Brown & Hamer, showing the Eldock floating dock with no less than eight trawlers on for repair and another two alongside, and the adjacent NPA floating dock with two vessels. Currently the Durban repair docks have few bookings and expensive shipbuilding facilities lie unused, but this month’s meeting brought hope.

This has provided new encouragement and an added fillip to the local industry although it comes with a realisation that the window of opportunity, now wide open, may soon begin to close. Mr Robert Young, marine director of the Grindrod Group, South Africa’s leading shipping company with a fleet of more than 100 vessels, galvanised the workshop when he said his company was ready to place orders for 20 new ships and would ‘love to build them here in Durban’.

Young said that since 1968 Unicorn Shipping had built 25 ships, of which 11 were built in Durban including three large general cargo/container ships.

“We are unable to find a yard anywhere in the world to build a series of 30 000-dwt handysize bulk carriers – even the ‘mud-patch’ operators are fully booked despite some having never before built a ship.”

He said Unicorn required five new bulk carriers now and another 20 soon afterwards.

Theo van Vuuren of the Development Bank of SA said funding for the industry was not a problem, even up to a billion rand. Government agencies were ready to assist and give support but required an initiative from the industry. With the current world shipbuilding boom the timing was right but the industry needed to find a champion as well as the players who would form a cluster or consortium and present a viable business plan.

“The DBSA is there to provide support and is willing to provide finance.” He said the message is that government agencies are ready to assist and give support but required an aggressive approach and speed. “Funding is even available for training purposes but remember that any initiatives also require a sincere black economic empowerment involvement.”

According to Barry Wiseman, the Durban shipyard is a priceless asset lying dormant that could be put back to use with a synchrolift capable of lifting large ships that could be built at the yard or repaired. The current yard (where an existing slipway was filled in) could easily handle up to eight ships under repair or construction at a time and a large fabrication hall was available. Meanwhile, in conjunction with Durban-based Duys Engineering, he had been in consultation with a German shipyard that was keen to assist with building vessels here immediately.

“The Germans told us that South African-built ships are 98% of the German quality and standard. In Durban we still have at least 200 qualified people immediately available who know how to build ships – others can be re-skilled who can later re-enter the industry.”

One of the concerns facing a resurgent industry is the Port Master Plan that is to be presented to its board by the National Ports Authority. The Master Plan is thought to contain long-term proposals for a container/general cargo terminal in the region of the Bayhead marshalling yard (with Bayhead Road diverted to a tunnel beneath the access channel), which might require a widened access channel through the area currently occupied by the shipyards. NPA officials were unable to comment on this because of the sensitivity of a plan still to be presented.

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