One of Durban’s Old Salts passes on

June 16, 2003
Author: Terry Hutson

The death in June 2003 of Captain Peter Embleton, one of the true ‘Old Salts’ of the port, reminded one of how a port like Durban holds so many fascinating and intriguing secrets and mysteries. Many of these are seldom shared with others, for seafarers are a reticent lot, keeping to their own and not boastful of their exploits and adventures.

To be sure, some could not boast of their escapades, for they are best left untold except among true friends. But for others they seep out almost reluctantly and leave with those who hear them a longing for more.

Sadly the stories of Peter Embleton cannot be told anymore, for he died the other day age 80. Nothing remarkable about that perhaps, except it’s a good age, but what is remarkable is that Peter remained at sea right until the very end, giving in to his illness when there were a few days remaining.

Captain Peter Embleton, ex Royal Navy, was master of the Toto, a supply and salvage tug based in Durban these past five or so years. He chose to remain at sea despite his advancing years and failing health, long after the time when most men would hang up their sea boots, and whenever in port was always ready to exchange the time of day across the quayside while sharing an adventure yarn or two. The port is a sadder and poorer place for his passing.

A ship like Toto is a home to interesting people as well as interesting voyages. To look at, there isn’t much of her – with a length reaching a mere 50 metres and deadweight a little under a thousand tons, Toto hardly stands up to the name of her Durban owner/operator, Tall Ships.

Yet the little supply tug is possessed of a character and a history all of her own, with a crew and master to match. Visit on board and such an impression became all too evident.

Captain Peter Embleton held many jobs at sea in his long career, owning or co-owning a number of his own ships, some of them like the coasters Judith R and Pondoland, which were based in Durban.

Together with his friend and colleague of many years, chief engineer Ken Harper, they shared many adventures on the coast and together sailed with other ships like the Laurel and Judith 2, the latter which one day caught fire out in the Indian Ocean in quite dramatic fashion.

All of Toto’s crew seem an interesting bunch of men, each with his own story or two to tell, but alas for the propriety of some, that should wait for another time and place. Perhaps it is as well, for some might prefer their story not to be told!

One of Toto’s jobs was to go to Reunion and take in tow a 6 500 ton ship that was being denied a port of refuge, as the ship, loaded with cement, had cracks in number two hold. Eventually the only option remaining was to tow the unfortunate ship some 300 miles south of the island and scuttle her.

Another unfortunate job involved hastening to Cape Town to the assistance of the stranded bulker Ikan Tanda, aground off Scarborough with 15 000 tons of nitrate on board. The idea was to transfer the cargo to the shallow-draught Toto, but this proved impossible because of the huge swell running for much of the time. On the night of her grounding a wave buoy outside Cape Town, a short distance away, measured the swell at 17 metres.

Subsequently most of the nitrate on board the Ikan Tanda was thrown overboard to lighten the ship and enable her to be pulled clear. How this was achieved without the faintest squeak from the environmentalist bodies remains a credit to another salvage company Smit Marine and their news management.

Unfortunately however the authorities refused permission for the stricken ship to enter harbour and she, like so many others was taken into deep water and allowed to sink. That is a tale all in itself worthy of being told.

On other occasions Toto has carried cargo to Angola for the oil industry or supplies to fishing fleets operating in the ‘Roaring Forties’ of the deep Southern Ocean fishing for the elusive and often illegal Patagonian Toothfish.

Another recent task for Toto was as mother ship for underwater explorers seeking what they believed to be the wreck of the ill-fated liner Waratah. Despite some widespread publicity that the Waratah had been found it turned out that the wreck was a World War II freighter named Nail Sea, carrying a cargo of Sherman tanks that are still visible on the deck in 113m of water.

Captain Embleton recounted how the actual operation had gone exceptionally well despite the strong Agulhas Current, and included three successful dives onto the wreck of the Nail Sea and later a dive on a genuine passenger ship, the ill-fated Oceanos, which sank in the vicinity in 1991.

Toto was built in Texas in 1970 as an oilrig supply vessel named Eastern Advocate. Her subsequent career has been chequered, including dices with British customs and excise people that resulted in a previous owner/master eventually going to prison for a lengthy time. The ship subsequently came south where she was grounded at Quelimane in Mozambique. Later the ship was successfully refloated and sailed to Durban, where a company named Shark Investments registered in Aruba purchased her.

Looking back on the ship’s history one might think the investment company’s name ill chosen, but this has nothing to do with shady or nefarious deals or even that there may be a lawyer or two among the owners. It perhaps has more to do with epitomising the home province of the new owners – and perhaps a smattering of support for a certain rugby team.

Since her acquisition Toto has undergone extensive repairs which included fitting a new bow. She looks proud when speeding down one of Durban’s channels leading to the open sea but at other times the ship may be found idling away in some corner of the port, waiting for that call. But if she is no-where to be seen you can rest assure she will be out there somewhere in the Indian or Atlantic Ocean, earning her keep, and adding all the time to the lore that surrounds this little ship and the men that sail her.

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