A sense of déjà vu

Apr 26, 2004
Author: Terry Hutson

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu at the harbour right now, brought about by all this talk of widening the port entrance.

You see, it is not the first time this has been an issue in the annals of Durban. Similar challenges faced Durban harbour authorities for much of the second half of the nineteenth century; challenges that ruined the reputations of more than a few eminent harbour engineers along the way.

The current crop of port engineers will hope history is not to be repeated, for their task remains complex but is relatively simple by comparison. They at least know what is to be done, and why, whereas their predecessors only knew why, not how. Computer modelling now makes decision-making that much simpler. Today their joint challenge is to provide both width and extra depth for the port entrance – whereas in the early days it was all about depth.

In both cases though the results will be the same. If Durban is to prosper as a city, and a port, then it has to increase both harbour facilities and capacity. This was exactly the case in the 19th Century, nothing has changed in the 21st.

The decision therefore, taken by the National Ports Authority to widen and deepen the port entrance as well as the inner harbour in 2005 or 2006, has been generally welcomed, although the sceptics, of which Durban always seems to have more than its fair share, remain unconvinced. The reason usually offered now for widening the entrance is to allow the larger container ships now in service, capable of carrying a massive 6 500 TEUs (twenty foot container equivalents), to use the port and ensure that Durban remains internationally competitive to the market it serves.

To achieve this they must increase the entrance width from the present 122m of navigable channel to at least 210m, and deepen it from the present -12.8m to -18m. In the meantime container ships are being built even larger, capable of carrying 8,000 TEUs and even more.

Few believe it likely that Durban, or any other South African port for that matter, will see the likes of these goliath ships, at least in the near future. But the fact remains – the trend in modern shipping is to build bigger and wider ships and if the port is to survive then it too must evolve, or become a backwater, another of South Africa’s forgotten ports.

It wasn’t until the early1900s, thanks to an engineer named Charlie Crofts, who was appointed port engineer more by default than design that the challenge presented by the infamous sandbar across the entrance was finally overcome. In 1904 the first Castle steamer, the 174m long Armadale Castle was able to cross the bar and dock at the Point, thus inaugurating safe passage into and out the harbour for the very first time.

That safe passage is once again at issue. Earlier in January (2003) a large crippled tanker (Inville) was refused entry because it had lost all power and was so wide that port control officials decided it would have posed a danger if towed down the narrow channel. This highlights the really immediate reason why Durban needs a wider and deeper entrance channel. Large container ships will simply add value in years to come, but right now it’s all about safety.

Over the years a number of ships have lost power and collided with the breakwaters. The most recent was in April 2003. One day the real thing will occur, when a ship not only collides with the rocks of the breakwater but then sinks in the channel, preventing those ships already inside from leaving and blocking others from coming in.

So far Durban has been incredibly lucky. On any single day the port can have upwards of forty to fifty ocean-going ships within the port and up to thirty or so ship movements inside – and at an average cost of between R80 000 and R250 000 a day merely for the charter of these vessels, let alone the cost of cargo carried on board, imagine the insurance bill, and the accompanying screams of outrage if the flashing red lights came on at the Millenium Tower.

The economic disaster to both Durban and Southern Africa of such a blockage would be immeasurable and of a scale that renders the disruption caused by recent two day or weeklong strikes as nothing by comparison.

A hundred years ago it had taken port authorities nearly fifty years to overcome the challenge posed by a dangerous port entrance. That was because equipment like self-propelled dredgers either didn’t exist, or because of political dithering. It took the fortitude of engineers like Charlie Crofts, Edward Innes, Catchcart Methven and John Milne to stand resolute in the face of adversity and win the battle of the Bar, giving testimony to their belief in Durban’s future as a port city.

Economic sense prevailed then. Hopefully the sense of déjà vu means that the same common sense will prevail again.

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