Significant announcements dominated maritime industry

Significant announcements – one negative and the others positive – dominated the local maritime discourse early in the year.

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The former was the concerning announcement by Maersk that it would not recruit South African cadets or junior officers, closing a 72-year-old training and employment opportunity that began when Safmarine – part of the Maersk Group since 1999 – bought its first ships in 1947.

At that time, an initial trickle of cadets joining the embryonic Safmarine came mainly from the training institution General Botha; within a short period,that trickle developed intoa strong flow of cadets, many of whom moved through the Safmarine ranks to command a variety of ships, or rose to chief engineer in the Company’s fleet. Some were appointed to management positions within the growing South African shipping line, and several served on the Company’s board, providing valuable leadership and advice based on their seagoing experience.

Having also served their cadetships and subsequent years as officers aboard Safmarine ships, yet others were appointed to senior positions in the South African Navy, the harbour service (now Transnet National Ports Authority) or in other maritime operations. Through their leadership, guidance (based on years of experience) and sheer hard work, these officers contributed greatly to the rapid growth of the South African maritime family.

Among these officers were the founders of the National Sea Rescue Institute whose intrepid crews still undertake amazing rescue and casualty evacuation operations in all weathers. Former South African cadets who had also moved through the ranks were the pioneers of the emergency salvage response operation, initially a division of Safmarine. Now, after several restructuring processes, that operation is embodied in Amsol, a South African-owned company that, apart from operating the emergency standby tug, also undertakes a wide range of maritime management projects, including crewing the South African polar supply vessel S.A. Agulhas II.

Taking the lead in major salvage operations in local and foreign waters have been many South Africans who learnt the ways of the sea – and of salvage operations – while serving as cadets and as officers in Safmarine vessels, including time aboard the two powerful ocean-going tugs.

To keep local maritime training under way, several highly experienced sea-going officers joined the staff of maritime training and educational institutions, providing students with more than simply the course content; indeed, illustrations for their lectures are drawn from their own real experiences at sea.

Some surveyors for classification societies, port state control and flag state control came from the ranks of those Safmarine officers, again using their sea-going experience to meet the challenges of the job.

Most harbour pilots and senior officers in the harbour service began their sea-going careers in the cadetship programme of Safmarine or Unicorn, as indeed, had many ships’ agents, shipbrokers, stevedoring managers, or others involved in shoreside marine operations, while successful marine engineering companies have teams that include those whose careers included time in the engine rooms of Safmarine ships.

At its height, the local ships’ register had around 50 cargo-carrying vessels, crewed largely by South Africans although, with strictly enforced exemption regulations, other nationals filled a few gaps, especially among marine engineers. But that fleet was the training ground for many who went into the wider maritime industry, making it – in former years - one of the brighter spots in the national economy.

Now that a major employment and career channel for cadets and junior officers – the Maersk fleet – has been closed to South Africans, and with no ready alternative in sight, the knock-on effect for the local maritime sector will be felt greatly, especially in terms of the lack of extensive sea-going experience among people occupying key positions. And with inexperienced personnel being appointed to some of those positions that actually require in-depth knowledge and expertise, the country will be the loser.

Overall, the gradual reduction in employment opportunities for South African seafarers – especially for ratings - is to be lamented, and does not bode well in terms of future expertise in the wider shipping industry. Major contributing factors to the paucity of sea-going employment for South Africans included the post-1994 sell-off of local maritime assets, and demands for higher wages for seafarers. In addition, in response to the disinterest shown by government in adopting measures to protect and to promote the local fleet and jobs, the majority of South African-owned ships have been flagged out and manned predominantly by Asian or European crews. The consequent decline in the number of qualified and experienced ships’ officers and ratings is tragic at a time when it could have been so different.

There are, however, some positive signs. Contrary to activities at some other ports, Saldanha Bay’s multi-purpose terminal is busy, the tanker terminal sees its quota of vlccs, while the ore terminal is gearing up for greater growth. Another railway truck tipper will be inaugurated to hasten the discharge of iron ore from the ore trains from Sishen, and, after the recent re-start of zinc mining and processing at Gamsberg in the Northern Cape, the port might see more zinc concentrates or even zinc ingots passing through. In the environs of the harbour are several new large buildings, symbols of growth. Twelve 1.1 million-barrel crude oil storage tanks are presently under construction and will be linked to the existing tanker berth. The new tank farm’s design will enable both oil storage and blending at the facility.

Seismic sub-sea surveys—for oil or gas—are underway to the west of the port while the South African minister of energy and his Saudi counterpart announced that a Saudi investment of $10bn will focus on a new oil refinery and petrochemical plant, and that Saudi Aramco will use the existing enormous oil storage facility. Although its relative proximity to the Arabian Gulf makes Richards Bay a possible site for a new refinery, Saldanha Bay’s central position between West African, Brazilian and Arabian oilfields gives it the advantage for the location of a refinery.

The installation of a gas import buoy at Saldanha Bay opens the way for the construction of a gas-fired powerstation at the port, a prospect that introduces the possibility of expanding the existing steel mill – and the possibility of a zinc smelter - at the port. Beneficiation of more iron ore and of zinc hold exciting potential for job creation and for significant foreign earnings on exports of these commodities.

The announcement of the discovery of a significant condensate reserve at the Brulpadda field, south-west of Mossel Bay, also created great interest. Although it looks positive, the field’s viability needs to be explored further through additional test drilling and intensive laboratory testing regarding its calorific value before final decisions are made regarding production. Besides prolonging the life of the refinery outside Mossel Bay, this gasfield—if production does indeed go ahead – holds great promise for the energy needs of the country, while it will provide a fillip for the offshore service sector, especially when a new spread of seabed pipes is laid. If additional reserves are discovered in the area, the offshore buoy might not be able to meet the needs of an expanded shipping operation, paving the way for the possible expansion of Mossel Bay harbour to include berths for tankers and gas carriers.Meanwhile, another liquid bulk tank farm is also under construction at Ngqura to replace the existing tanker terminal at Port Elizabeth, paving the way for a new, modern tanker facility at Ngqura.

South Africa lies on one of the world’s more important shipping routes as millions of tons of Asia-bound West African oil and South American minerals pass Cape Agulhas daily. Large Capesize bulk carriers call regularly at Saldanha Bay and Richards Bay, while VLCCs bring oil to Saldanha Bay. In addition, the Asia-West Africa, Asia-South America and South Africa’s own container trades have grown considerably over the past decade, and, given current trends, will continue to grow.

Every attempt should be made to exploit benefit from this passing traffic in terms of bunkering at ports and in every sheltered anchorage (including False Bay and within Saldanha Bay). In addition, the ship repair and maintenance industry needs more capacity to feed off transit ships and callers in local ports. In this connection, it is important to note that no African port and no southern hemisphere port has a drydock capable of accommodating ships over 300 metres in length and about 35 metres in beam. A large floating dock—similar to those used in Asian shipyards to build mega-ships – can also be used.

At present, a force majeur drydocking for a large ship with hull damage or rudder or propeller problems—or routine maintenance drydocking - is impossible, and with no South African facilities available, such a vessel could be lost or the work given to the nearest large drydocks able to accommodate these large ships in Bahrain or Singapore. In that event, valuable foreign revenue will be lost to local enterprises

Ship repair—particularly ships using the drydock for a refit —is a labour-intensive industry, sometimes using hundreds of workers from the most highly-trained engineers and electronic experts to large numbers of unskilled workers. Although these people are employed on either a permanent basis or a temporary basis, an additional (and large) drydock will result in a significant number of jobs.

As virtually all ships using South African drydocks (or that will use a new large drydock) are foreign-owned, additional drydocking facilities will bring further large amounts of foreign exchange into the country.

Associated with expansion in the ship repair industry will be training in a number of fields. This will help to expand the country’s skills base that will be useful in all engineering sectors.

Despite the loss o fthsoe valuable cadet berths, several brighter spots in the industry are emerging. If government —via positive, encouraging legislation to create an agreeable climate in which shipping activities can occur—and the private sector can combine their efforts, a vibrant, viable, vicarious and versatile shipping industry can develop.

It just needs vision and hard work. 

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