Cape Town - Cape Africa holed

The Cape Africa anchored in False Bay

The Cape Africa at anchor in False Bay

Over the past month a drama has been playing itself out off our coastline. The Cape Africa a 150 000 ton ore carrier got into difficulties when it was holed in its port bow. A tear 23 metres long and between 5 and 7 metres wide appeared in the fully laden ship and should she have continued her journey would have been in imminent danger of sinking. So serious was the damage that the Captain and crew were removed from the ship.

SA authorities who were very aware of the danger of an oil spill should the ship sink and break up ordered it to be towed to a position 200 kilometres west of Hout Bay where it could be inspected by divers and a decision made as to what to do with it. The Cape Africa had 1900 tons of fuel oil on board and should it have sunk would have caused a major oil pollution disaster along our Atlantic Coastline. After establishing the damage to the ship it was decided that it could be repaired but before that happened authorities wanted all the oil pumped off the ship. The salvors announced that they were planning to use the Antarctic supply vessel SA Agulhas to remove the 1900 tons of oil on board. Eventually after a number of tense days, having to contend with cold fronts and delays in the pumping of the oil from the Cape Africa the job was completed and the authorities agreed to allow the ship to be towed into False Bay.

In cases such as the Cape Africa where ships need to be repaired at sea because they are fully laden and cannot enter port, False Bay is used as a safe anchorage in which to do the repairs. To get into False Bay the Cape Africa had to be towed backwards so that water would not flow into the hull and cause further damage to the ship. Once the ship arrived in False Bay it was anchored about three kilometres off Simonstown where it was again inspected by divers. As the hold with the tear in it was flooded it was necessary to find a way for workers to repair the damage which had occurred under the waterline. To do this a coffer dam had to be built to fit over the hull and under the ship to allow the water in the hold to be pumped out.

Some penguins from the colony near Simonstown

The coffer dam was to be built in Durban and then transported by road to Cape Town in section It would then be put together on the quay in Simonstown and then towed out to the ship where it would be welded into place. Once this was done repairers could pump out the flooded hull and weld back the plating that had been torn off when the damage occurred. The work was to have taken about three weeks. Last week when I visited Simonstown the ship was still out in the bay undergoing repairs.

Luckily for the salvors the weather has played ball with no real Cape winter storms having hit us over the past few weeks. It appears that we Capetonians have been lucky this time around. Every winter ships get into trouble off our coastline and either land up on our coastline or sink at sea causing major oil slicks and damage to our marine life.

Cape Town has a number of penguin colonies around the Cape coastline and when a disastrous oil slick happens it is these birds that take the brunt of the slick. The birds get oil soaked and die in their thousands badly depleting the already threatened colonies of breeding stock. Everybody remembers the ship the “Treasure” that sank off Dassen Island a few years ago and caused major damage to our coastline and to penguin colonies on Dassen and Robben islands.

Let's hope it does not happen again.

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Cape Town - Cape Africa holed