Holly and the stowaways

Dec 31, 2002
Author: Terry Hutson

The case of the good ship Holly, now long gone to the breakers yard, raises the ongoing problem of what to do with stowaways once on board ship. For as long as man has gone to sea in boats and ships, others have tried to use them to run away from problems or challenges at home. Perhaps they were looking for new challenges, or they needed to dodge a creditor, or wife or wives the list of reasons is long.

Today the most common reason is that of either seeking sanctuary in some other land, known as refugees seeking asylum, or as in the case of many of those entering and leaving South Africa, the need to find employment.

Quite a number of the latter are legal emigrants, people who come from countries to the north seeking work and who make use of temporary documentation allowing them a one month stay, but who find to their dismay that employment is as scarce in South Africa as it was back home.

In fact many are greeted with much resentment from the local unemployed population - a sector averaging somewhere between 30 and 40%!
Having arrived and found that work is non-existent, many of these would-be immigrants opt for moving on. Or perhaps they never intended staying in the first place, intending only to use South Africa as a stepping-stone to other places. We'll never know, except that they keep coming and in increasing numbers.

Durban soon became the port with the biggest problem, and at least one marine insurance company representing the ship owner when it come to the repatriation of stowaways caught on board ship, has gone to the lengths of fitting out an interrogation room in a building on the Esplanade, where captured stowaways are held for questioning, first by the insurance company's investigator and later by a representative of the country to whom the stowaway claims birthright.

This same company, which represents a considerable chunk of the world's ship owners and who handles between 300 and 400 stowaway cases in Durban alone every year, records that the highest number of stowaways found on any single ship coming to Durban was 24.

These desperate men boarded a ship in a West African port and were discovered en route to South Africa by a crew, which suddenly found itself outnumbered by unwanted passengers - itself a security risk that no ship's master ever willingly seeks. Fortunately the illegal passengers were well behaved and meekly allowed themselves to be handed over to port authorities once the ship reached Durban.

Stowaways find the strangest places to hide once they have boarded the ship of their choice. Some scurry into the funnel area, where hot gases and exhaust noises make it extremely difficult for even specially trained dogs to sniff them out. A favourite type of ship is one carrying logs, for not only are they common to places like West Africa or along the East Coast, but they provide plenty of hiding places - until the logs begin to shift in heavy seas!

Of course once at sea they will usually emerge from their hiding place and will then more than likely be apprehended quite quickly. Others might elude capture for several days or even weeks, emerging at night when most of the crew are below deck, and resorting to minor thieving from the ship's kitchen.

In some of the more audacious and dangerous cases, stowaways, unable to go on board a ship due to security while in port, have been known to choose a ship that is in ballast and high in the water. They then slip into the water and climb onto the rudder trunkway above the rudder itself, where there is sometimes a cavity on which they can clamber and hide.

The record number of stowaways discovered in Durban who chose this unusual but highly dangerous hideaway was eight men, who came from Pointe Noire in the Congo. These intrepid wanderers not only made the long journey safely down the West African coast and around the Cape but also along one of the most notorious coastlines anywhere, and managed to stay aboard such a precarious position without being sucked into the sea. It took an observant linesman at the docks in Durban to notice one of the men peering out as the ship was nudged alongside Maydon Wharf, who alerted the authorities.

An incredulous official refused to believe their story, thinking instead that the men had swum over from one of the nearby sandbanks as the ship negotiated her way down the Esplanade and Maydon Channels. An inspection of the unusual haven and the discovery of personal documents taped onto the ship's hull with duct tape eventually convinced the official.

Several other instances of people hiding above the rudder have been recorded by the P&I Clubs, including one where stowaways boarded a ship in South America bound for the USA. It was a particularly cold winter off the North American coast that year, and by the time the ship reached port several of the men had severe frostbite to their fingers and toes.

The cost each year to ship owners and insurance companies is high, for somebody has to bear the cost for their safekeeping while in custody, which often includes medical care and eventual repatriation. Normally that someone is the ship owner through his P&I Club, with the unfortunate ship's master and his crew having to take the brunt of the angry owner. Is it so surprising therefore to read of cases where the crew of a ship, on discovering stowaways, who decide to mete out their own form of justice by way of a severe beating? After all, some ship's master can and do make the lives of crew very uncomfortable, especially if it is found that stowaways were able to smuggle themselves on board without the crew noticing.

Unwanted passengers affect the lives of crew in other ways. In one case a ship on reaching Durban was instructed to proceed to the outer anchorage and drop anchor until a vacant berth became available in a few days time. This brought a passionate plea from the ship for urgent food and water supplies - it turned out the crew had discovered a number of stowaways shortly after sailing from the last port of call, which was about 20 days earlier. Although the ship had taken sufficient food and water for the voyage, it was on the assumption that crew only would be on board, and the unwanted 'extras' had literally eaten them out of house and home. By the time the ship reached Durban things had become desperate and the last thing anyone wanted to hear was that the ship must sit outside for several more days.

Ships harbouring stowaways are prone to other unexpected costs. Which brings us back to the strange case of the good ship Holly, fresh out of Dar es Salaam and bound for Durban in ballast, when unexpected guests were discovered.

Not wishing to return to port, the master decided on another plan. Taking his ship close inshore somewhere south of Nacala in Mozambique, he had every intention of putting the stowaways overboard on a raft in shallow water, from where they could make their way to land. However, as the Holly approached the shore, several outriggers set off from the nearby beaches - presumably the locals were used to ships coming close inshore for barter and trade, as several specialised shallow-bottom ships carrying 'project' cargo have been previously employed in these waters. This wasn't quite what the master had in mind however, so proceedings were delayed as his crew began parleying with the people on board the outriggers, perhaps negotiating a fee for them to spirit away the unwanted passengers. During all this nobody thought to keep a close eye on the ship's movement, until a sudden jar revealed an underwater reef, on which the unfortunate Holly had ran aground.

Efforts to pull the ship clear were unsuccessful until the assistance of two tugs from Richards Bay and a spring tide came to their help. By all accounts it also took about this amount of time for the Mozambique authorities to get wind of the affair, but by the time they had sent out a small patrol boat to investigate the case of the stowaways, the latter had absconded overboard on their own accord and swum ashore to safety and freedom, not very far from where they started out.

At about the same time the ship also came clear off the reef, and set off eastward as fast as her elderly motors could go, with the small patrol boat, little more than a launch really, left floundering in its wake. Holly has not been seen since on this coast.

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