Oranjemund Antarctic Adventure

Jan 16, 2006
Author: Robert Young, Unicorn Shipping

Returning to her homeport Durban within the next few days on completion of a remarkable record-breaking voyage is Unicorn Shipping’s smallest and oldest vessel, the 2,000 dwt mini-tanker Oranjemund.

The diminutive tanker was chartered to refuel and re-provision Greenpeace vessels in Antarctic waters where the environmentalists are engaged in harassing Japanese whalers shooting hundreds of whales purportedly for ‘research’ purposes.

Departing Durban on 20 December the assignment took the Durban-built ship through the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘screaming fifties’ to sixty degrees south – the highest latitude ever visited by a Unicorn vessel – and by few merchant ships not specifically designed and outfitted for polar operations. Her homecoming also represents the ship’s longest non-stop voyage – some 5,750 miles port-to-port and one month duration, during which the ship also celebrated her 30th anniversary.

Oranjemund safely negotiated probably the most severe weather and sea conditions of her long career as she twice transited the ‘weather factory’ latitudes of the vast Southern Ocean. Force 10 gales and swells higher than the ship’s masts enduring for days thoroughly tested both ship and crew, and sub-zero wind-chill temperatures and snowstorms and dodging of icebergs were in stark contrast to the conditions normally experienced at this time of year by the ship and her long-serving master, Capt Gaston Albergaria, his crew and ship’s cat Tommy. However, the ship and her 14-man complement were well-prepared for their adventure.

Unicorn Tankers Oranjemund arrives on station in the Southern Antarctic Ocean with Greenpeace flagship Esperanza in background. Picture courtesy Greenpeace

Prior to accepting this extraordinary charter, Unicorn officials and the ship’s officers conducted a thorough risk assessment analysis. All likely hazards involved in such an undertaking were identified and counter measures and contingency plans were debated and put in place.

As Oranjemund was not built for such extended voyages her limited fuel and fresh water capacity had to be supplemented by carrying additional fuel in her cargo tanks while fresh water was loaded into her ballast tanks. Temporary pumping arrangements were provided to enable their safe transfer during the voyage.

For added drinking water security an evaporator was installed in the engine room to produce fresh water from the sea using waste heat from the main engines. To accommodate extra perishable provisions not only for consumption by the ship’s own larger complement but also for supply to her customer vessels, additional chest freezer units were installed on the ship’s bridge-deck.

Extra spare parts for engines and other critical machinery were stowed in the engine room. Stores, sacks of potatoes and other fresh produce were stashed in every available nook and cranny including the ship’s small office. Emergency repair materials such as quick-setting concrete, steel plate, piping, angle-iron, plywood and timber were put on board in case of need, as were portable pumps and hoses and tools.

One each additional navigating and engineer watch keeping officer were embarked for the voyage.

Every member of the crew was provided with suitable polar work wear while polar-fleece sleeping bags supplemented the duvets on the beds. Everyone was issued with a survival immersion suit. Even Tommy the cat received a knitted woollen overcoat. Although portable electric heaters were supplied to the ship for the voyage, surprisingly they were unnecessary as the ship’s living areas were remarkably warm – testimony to good quality of insulation built into the ship by her Durban builders.

Originally it was intended to leave the engine room internal doors open to permit the warm air to permeate the accommodation areas, however resort to even this simple expedient was not required.

Before departure the ship’s radio equipment and navigation gear were thoroughly checked. The original autopilot was renewed and an additional satellite radio communication system was temporarily provided. All safety and survival equipment was carefully checked and serviced.

Regular reporting and emergency communication procedures between the ship and Unicorn were agreed. By using the ship’s regular satellite-based security alerting system Unicorn officials were able to continuously track the ship and monitor the ship’s speed and heading from their office and home computers.

In contrast to the earlier weather mayhem and chaos, the conditions at the ship’s eventual rendezvous locations were as calm as the proverbial mill-pond and the ship-to-ship refuelling operations were conducted expeditiously without spillage or other incident, and with Oranjemund receiving a signal of commendation from the Greenpeace flagship Esperanza for a job professionally executed.

Refueling at sea is normally a tricky business and is made more so when accompanied by a snow storm in the Southern Ocean. Unicorn Tankers’ Oranjemund viewed from one of the Greenpeace vessels. Picture courtesy Greenpeace

Navigation in the ice called for extra vigilance and extreme caution as low-floating ‘growlers’, bergy-bits and huge icebergs pose great hazard to the vessel, particularly given reduced visibility by radar as well as by eye on account of snow, sleet, fog, rough seas and high swells. On one occasion Oranjemund had to retreat northwards on account of advancing ice. Numerous icebergs were encountered including one estimated by Capt. Albergaria as larger than Robben Island and on the homeward passage icebergs were still being encountered as far north as 49 degrees latitude, not far from Kerguelen Island.

Originally delivered to Unicorn from Dorman Long’s Bayhead yard (Durban) in January 1976, the ship spent the first 25 years of her life engaged almost exclusively on the company’s Cape Town – Port Nolloth trade for which the handysize ship had been purpose-designed and built with a shallow-draught, twin screws, twin rudders and bow thruster.

Following the phenomenal natural silting-up of the desert port some eight years ago and its subsequent inaccessibility to vessels any larger than fishing craft, Oranjemund kept Luderitz supplied with diesel oil out of Cape Town, and refuelled diamond-mining dredgers and trawlers at sea off the Cape and Namibian coasts in so-called STS (ship-to-ship) operations – the same method that was used to refuel the ships in the Antarctic.

The versatile Oranjemund also assisted with a number of local salvage operations involving grounded ships, more recently those of the tanker Nino on the Transkei coast and the container ship Sealand Express on Milnerton beach.

Sadly and notwithstanding her successful and interesting career and her excellent condition, the ‘little darling’ of the fleet no longer fits Unicorn’s modern fleet profile of much larger and sophisticated tankers. With Unicorn to take delivery of at least thirteen further new tankers from Korean and Chinese yards before the end of 2008, Oranjemund is on the market looking for a new owner.


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