Capt Mike Brophy, retiring chief harbour master of the ports of South Africa. Picture by Terry Hutson
Captain Mike Brophy, chief harbour master of Transnet National Ports Authority, has retired after more than 30 years of service with the company. He has been based in Durban since 2004 following his appointment as port captain (later renamed harbour master) of that port. In 2006 he succeeded Captain Eddie Bremner as chief harbour master.
Although Capt Brophy hails from a small Irish village called Crosshaven and still speaks with a soft Irish brogue, he has spent much of his life either on ships or helping making them safe in harbour. He finally came ashore in the land of his adoption after falling in love and marrying a Port Elizabeth lady, and joining the harbour service in the process.
The young Mike Brophy went to sea in 1963 when he signed on as an apprentice deck officer with Irish Shipping, working up the ranks to 2nd Mate with a Mate’s certificate before seeking a change of scenery with Ocean Fleets (Elder Dempster Line and Blue Funnel Line) which took him on the run to West Africa. “Not a good place at that time, with the Biafran war underway,” he recalls.
One day in the early 1970s while back in London he was passing the Safmarine offices and ‘popped in’ to enquire about a job. In the 1970s ships officers were in demand and he was soon in contact with South Africa, a country he immediately liked.
This fondness grew even stronger when he met a young lady from the Eastern Cape who agreed to become his wife, a decision that led Brophy to realise that it was time to ‘go aground’ as he put it. As a result he applied to and joined the South African harbour service.
The first posting for the married couple was to Mossel Bay, an interesting little port for any harbour man where he had to double his duty as both tug master and pilot at times, while acting as harbour master on other occasions.
In his first night at the little town and barely a week after getting married the Brophys were woken at 2 am by a loud knocking on the door. It was a messenger from the harbour.
“Kaptein… Kaptein, kom gou-gou, daars ‘n skipper wat in die moeilikheid by Knysna is…”
“What on earth’s he talking about?” demanded Brophy of his sleepy wife of just seven days.
Fortunately Mrs Brophy, who came from Port Elizabeth, both understood and spoke Afrikaans and was able to translate for her husband.
“They want you to come quickly, there’s a ship in trouble somewhere at sea near Knysna and they need a tug,” she explained.
It turned out that one of the Unicorn coasters, the Barrier he thinks it was, was in difficulty off Knysna that night and urgently required a tug to assist. So off Brophy went with the port’s only tug, the little pilot tug ALWYN VINTCENT, motoring eastward from Mossel Bay to bring the Barrier to safety. Later the coaster was taken to Durban for repairs behind one of the large steam tugs but the episode served as a sudden introduction to the harsh realities of harbour service although it later offered a lucrative reward from the salvage money.
After four pleasant years at Mossel Bay, where to his amusement the Irishman was constantly referred to as ‘die Engelsman’, the Brophys were transferred to Durban. “For my wife it was a good move to a big city but for me coming from a small village anywhere, even Mossel Bay or Richards Bay, was large. Besides, as a seaman I was used to making do wherever I was.”