South Africa’s Last Breath of Maritime Steam

My story of the steam tug ALWYN VINTCENT

By Cedric Hunter

An abiding interest in the designs and workings of ships’ engines compelled me in late 1990 to join a small team of volunteers who had begun to restore the South African Maritime Museum’s steam tug, Alwyn Vintcent.  Our task for the maritime museum was to get her back to working order under steam power, after years of neglect, and prepare her for safely taking passengers on harbour excursions.


The A.V., at an overall length of 90ft (27m), was built in Italy as one of five sister tugs for service in South African ports.  Though built as late as 1958, not only were these tugs steam propelled (as opposed to diesel), each fitted with the orthodox triple-expansion engine, but their boilers (all of 3.3m in diameter) were of the hand stoked, coal-fired type, as opposed to the oil-fired boilers of virtually all new steam ships of that time.  Yet, this archaic power plant with its modest output of 360hp (at 130 revs./min.) was, despite the Vintcent’s 200 displacement tons, able to drive her deep hull through the water at a very respectable ten knots, and much more quietly than a diesel engine would have.


The classic marine steam engine’s enormous torque (turning power) and direct reversibility enabled it to be directly coupled (i.e. without intervention of any gears) to the shaft of a big efficient propeller – in the Vintcent’s case of 2.1m diameter.  The A.V. and her sisters were therefore endowed with powerful and rapid maneouvering ability, enough to rouse the envy of the crew of any present day single-screwed diesel tug.


Thoughts of such tug performance inspired us volunteer workers as we laboured on, weekend after weekend, below decks in the engine room and boiler room.  Sadly, over the first three months at least, our onboard workforce seldom exceeded four, which at times rather taxed the general morale.  One of our paltry number was retired ex-Royal Air Force engineer, Richard Carne, who headed our A.V. project and chaired its committee, apart that is, from being our boss aboard and very hard working himself.  Another was Tim Parks, a Welshman in his mid-30’s, who was some years later to become a sea-going engineer.  Equally devoted, he had joined Richard some weeks before a small appeal in the press (four volunteers), had my wife drop me off at the V&A Waterfront, to board the tug and look in on the action. 


The two of them were on the main engine’s catwalk and had just unbolted and lifted off the cover to the valve that transfers exhaust steam from the high pressure cylinder to the medium pressure cylinder.  My obvious interest, and more than a hint at knowing exactly what I was looking at (from that ample book-learned knowledge of ships’ engines to which I like to lay claim), hardly drew any gesture of welcome from them.  I was surprised therefore, when leaving a while later, to be stopped in my tracks, by Richard’s abrupt command that I join them on the following Saturday morning.


After some weekends aboard, toiling in old shabby clothes, I donned a spanking new boiler suit, to such applause from R and T, that I promptly ordered Richard to reserve only the cleanest jobs for me.  His expected scoff was telling enough, for a week later I was in the boiler’s smoke box using a long iron bar to ram repeatedly at the uptake’s great “butterfly valve” above, which was jammed shut.  The reason?  Years of accumulated carbon and rust deposited on the valve from inside the tug’s tall funnel.  The valve eventually yielded and Tim, who had eagerly awaited that moment, yanked at its external lever above the boiler causing the valve plate to jettison all its smothering sediment down into the smoke box overwhelming its forgotten occupant.  He, gasping, and his prized boiler suit, then emerged, blacker than the Ace of Spades.  But, as it had been a good productive day, I couldn’t help but join in the all round laughter, and probably smiled my way into sleep that night – not before at least three baths in a row, of course.


The success of our project so seriously depended on the soundness of the tug’s boiler, that its reconditioning was priority no 1.  Of about fourteen valves bolted to it, ranging from its big main and safety valves right down to the connections serving the water-level gauge glass, some needed to be disengaged in order, at least to reseat them on fresh steam-tight gaskets.  But many of the nuts and studs holding the valves down were so rust-jammed, that they sheared off at efforts to unscrew them, leaving their threaded bases embedded in the boiler shell. 


This grave problem had to be handed over to specialised boiler fitters who actually materialised some weeks later, courtesy of an engineering company kindly disposed towards our A.V. project.  Though the fitters managed soon enough to rectify the problem, I think a further couple of months went by before the boiler was finally deemed ready for its crucial hydraulic pressure test.  On the appointed day, a long-levered pump was connected to the boiler’s prefilled water space.  Then, in the presence of an officially appointed inspector and others, four of us, taking turns at the lever, got the water pressure up to the test-required 300 psi, being 50% over the boiler’s designed maximum working pressure of 200 psi.  As the boiler had held up well throughout the test, the inspector declared it fit for service, to the great relief of all concerned.


A major focus of work all along, had been of course the Vintcent’s complicated engine room, which besides its 3m high main engine, boasts six steam driven auxiliaries, and a vast maze of live and exhaust steam pipes.  Many steam space cover plates and fittings had to be unbolted and lifted so as to fit new steam-tight gaskets, studs and nuts, etc.  Sections of loose asbestos insulation were in urgent need of rebinding.  Pump valve chambers, including that of the big main-engine-driven Edwards “air” pump, had to be opened for inspection as did various pump-suction filter boxes, for cleaning.  The hot well’s louvre cages had to be cleaned and repacked with fresh oil-absorbing material, not to mention the pipe and tank repair, electrical and many other jobs, both below decks and above, begging our attention.


Our seemingly intractable list of tasks was coupled with mounting concern over whether or not the buoyancy figures of our heavy-displacement tug would be officially acceptable for its vitally needed passenger-carrying certificate.  Such was our need therefore for a surge of renewed confidence in the weeks leading up to the pressure testing of the boiler, that its hard-earned stamp of approval couldn’t have been better timed.


Almost immediately, our weekend workforce was boosted, not only by the more regular appearance of occasional volunteers and new ones, but also by the addition of none other than one Garnet Audie, the Vintcent’s chief engineer during her Mossel Bay years until she was finally decommissioned by the then owners of all our national tugs, the S.A. Railways and Harbours Administration.  Garnet, employed by Portnet as a key manager of Cape Town’s harbour tugs, joined our committee in its early days, so he had already been of great value to the A.V. project by the time of the boiler test, given his wide circle of contacts in marine engineering and other fields of maritime service.  But following the test, Garnet joined us on board where, for obvious reasons, his input was of the utmost importance as we feverishly pressed on preparing the tug for her eagerly awaited trials under steam power.


After a few weekends (+ some week days) of intensive making ready, including of course the charging of the Vintcent’s bunkers with several tons of coal (about 25% of full capacity) and filling her reserve feed water tank, we started up the boiler fires at about 4pm one Saturday.  It was strict practice when heating the Scotch boiler from cold, to do so very slowly, over at least fifteen hours to working pressure.  Richard and Tim with much sound advice, took turns through the night at tending the fires in both furnaces, until a couple of us took over from them early the following morning, freeing them for a breakfast break.


Garnet arrived later, as the most watched gauge was already telling of rising steam pressure.  Hamish Matheson also joined our below-decks team on that momentous morning.  As a professional ship surveyor, he was certainly an important member of our committee, but of consequence to us on-board workers then, was his background as a marine steam engineer, and that in his quiet way, he had very often toiled alongside us before.


There were about eight of us below, most moving between attending to something in the engine-room (oil can in hand), and helping in the boiler room, when a furnace door was opened to allow the blazing coal bed within to be raked, and then added to with shovel loads of fresh coal.  Palpable all-round excitement mounted with the rising steam pressure; until Garnet finally ordered the “cracking” open of all the boiler’s steam supply valves and its feed water inlet valves.


Test starting of the steam auxiliaries then followed, beginning with the condenser’s circulating pump and the reserve feed water pump.  This latter was of the non-rotative type as was our G.S. pump which we later put to pumping out the tug’s bilges.  Starting any of our three rotative auxiliary engines had to be aided (after opening its throttle valve) by turning its single crank off centre for the steam to take over, by which instant it was of course vital to have withdrawn the turning-bar from its notch on that engine’s heavy flywheel.


The most awaited moment that morning, was heralded by Garnet’s opening of the main engine’s big stop valve.  In silence and with bated breath, we watched as he then edged open the throttle and rocked the bypass lever.  Fully visible on such steam engines, the big cranks, rods, crossheads, eccentrics and quadrants, all started to move together, to everyone’s great delight.  But the motion was abruptly arrested by Garnet’s handling of the ahead/astern control, forcing the cranks to reverse their turning.  This procedure, coupled with the frequent opening of the noisy cylinder drains, was repeated a number of times for the required warming through of the engine, after which Garnet set it to continue turning in the dead-slow ahead mode.  The propeller was turning at about 30rpm, causing both our mooring lines to take gentle strain, and those of our fellow museum ship S.A.S. Somerset, alongside which the A.V. had been moored for some months.  While some of us were still watching the mechanical motion, a few wonderfully stentorian blasts, way above us, signalled to all Cape Town that our tug’s steam whistle was in fine working order.  And so too were found to be the stern steering gear and anchor’s windless, that morning.


“Ready for sea trials,” was finally declared to the appointed tug captain for the day, on whose subsequent orders, from the wheelhouse, the deck hands began to slip the mooring ropes.  The alarm-like bell of our engine-room telegraph signalled the first order down to us, the dial indicating “slow astern”, then, after the A.V. parted company with the Somerset, by “slow ahead”.  At this pace we left the Alfred basin through The Cut, in which an important blast of the tug’s whistle was always to give unsuspecting onlookers ashore a very evident fright. 


We then at “half ahead” steamed through the Victoria Basin to the open water beyond, where the captain’s order for “full ahead” allowed Garnet finally to open the throttle to its limit.  As there was no shortage of us below on that day, we took it in easy turns to enjoy the thrills on deck as the A.V., in typical heavy steam-tug fashion, ploughed its way through the water at about nine knots, its voluminous bow wash and boiling of the sea astern inspiring awe to say the least.  An experienced stoker aboard helped us novices to keep the fires burning cleanly and strongly enough to sustain the demand for steam while our tug was being put through its paces.  These included also a sharp turn or two to port and to starboard, and I think even, the anti-collision measure (when at full ahead) for rapidly stopping the ship by “slamming” the engine into full astern.


The Vintcent’s performance on that historic Sunday of her trials was hailed as a great success, the date being 28 April 1991, as on record in a letter to each of us committee members from Tom Graham, then curator and head of the Maritime Museum.  The euphoria was of course short-lived, given all that had yet to be achieved for the tug to obtain its necessary classification for passenger carrying.  Though we had occasionally steamed the A.V. in the interim, it was only in October that she was granted a certificate to carry a slightly disappointing maximum of 54 passengers, based on the findings of the buoyancy/stability tests.  But in good faith, work had continued all along boosted too by input over the weekdays from the museum’s workers who did all the above-deck cleaning, scaling and painting, and by the generosity of the growing number of companies which between them, donated specialised services, materials and equipment, and even free use of the syncrolift for our painting of the hull, down to its keel.


All of which resulted in an immaculate looking steam tug, by the beginning of her first season as a harbour-excursion ferry, being the December holiday period of that year (1991).   Regulation required that the A.V. be crewed by a captain and a chief engineer, both fully qualified, a “coxswain” (for steering), an engineer’s assistant, two stokers and four deck hands.  She was therefore to steam only on those days for which commitments had been obtained from enough appropriate volunteers, to make up the full crew.  The list, boosted a bit by offer of a very modest rank-based, earning per steaming day, had grown ample enough to allow for an easy spread of on-duty days between us. 


There were at least three available ex-tug captains, and even more “chiefs” (engineers).  And, as for deck hands, three of the Maritime Museum’s pre-trained staff were to be available for most steaming days, much reducing dependency on volunteers for that task.  Hopefuls, without any relevant skills to offer, were to be assigned to on-the-job training as stokers, many of whom, as it turned out, becoming so disillusioned by the heat and arduous labour over long hours, they very soon deserted, leaving only a few dependable listed stokers.  It was to ease this shortage that I was called upon to serve most of my on-duty days that season, as a stoker, on the remaining day or two, assisting instead in the engine-room. 


Each steaming day began with the arrival of the stokers who had first to bring back to life, the “banked up” (ash smothered) glowing remains of the previous day’s coal beds.  Then, with the arrival of the chief, and later the captain, standard procedure followed (as earlier described), leading of course to the day’s first trip, solely for dumping the previous day’s ash at sea, and steam-blasting the carbon dust from the boiler’s fire tubes.  Our paying passengers joined us on the hourly trips that followed,

during which the A.V. steamed in both the Victoria and Duncan Basins, on occasion briefly loitering near a visiting sailing ship, or some other special attraction.  One such was the vast cavernous remains of the bow of a massive tanker (in port for temporary repairs) that had lost most of its bow to very heavy seas off our notorious south coast.


The first steaming season (of over four weeks) went very well, due in no small part to the excellent all-round handling of the A.V. by captain Peter Moon, who had been appointed as her primary master, and as new head of our committee.  Richard Carne had gladly stepped down, in favour then of restricting himself to being one of our crewing engineers. 


Because of my reputation of enjoying it, I was generally tasked (whether on engine-room or stoking duty) with inviting small groups of curious passengers down to tell them briefly what they were looking at, and how it all worked, which usually led to amazement all round, most of them having probably never before imagined an engine other than a car’s.  A little more knowledgeable, on another occasion, was a refined old lady who, professing to be in her mid-80’s, and to have sailed on steamships in her youth, requested an exclusive engine room tour.  So the day’s chief and I helped her down the ladder.  For quite a while, she watched the engine working and then asked such intelligent questions as greatly impressed us.  She then, in the fierce heat of the boiler-room, watched the stokers at work, before finally thanking us, and being reunited with her anxious family.


Equally memorable was a day with my wife and 22-year-old daughter aboard.  Among the least mechanically-minded people I knew, I was delighted to see them entranced for some time by the motion of the engine’s cranks and rods.  After which, at Peter Moon’s invitation, we joined him for a chat in the tug’s beautiful wheelhouse, with its abundance of varnished wood and polished brasswork.  There was also the time when Tim Parks (one of our chiefs by then) abandoned the engine room for an entire docking procedure, leaving me alone to man the main-engine controls.  A dangerous trick as I had only ever been at those controls in steaming situations, between the manoeuvring spells. 


Avoiding the winter months, those anecdotally-rich steaming seasons of the A.V. came and went, until finally came a day, one of engine room duty for me, on record as 10th January 1994, singled out to be the final day of that steaming season.  Shutting down our tug’s steam plant took rather longer than the other day-end jobs aboard.  So, on my days of duty, being commonly the last to leave the ship, I was the one targeted late that day with the instruction to “close down ship” for the season. 


Not long after our docking, I was alone aboard, dismayed by the stokers having left fires far too ample for when no more steam is needed.  Its rising pressure, halted briefly by my use of the reserve feed pump, compelled me finally to rake out the fires, dousing down (with piped sea water) the loads of burning coals as they piled up on the floor plates, spewing plumes of sulphurous ash and steam.


As the A.V. has never again moved under steam power in fifteen years since then (my writing now in 2009), and was the last South African-based ship (as opposed to launch) to do so, through my actions aboard that evening, I unknowingly gained the poignant distinction of being the one to have physically closed down the era of South African maritime steam – dating right back to the 1830’s.  This is assuming of course, that none of our four remaining steam ships afloat, three being museum ships, is ever to steam again, highly unlikely given all it took to get the A.V. to do so, being the smallest of them by far.


Yes, she is still afloat, but not without a thwarted post-steaming history to say the least.  With dwindling benefactor input, the A.V. eventually proved too expensive under steam power to earn her own keep, which obliged the cash-strapped Maritime Museum, later in 1994, to lease her to a private Waterfront-based company.  Which with the Museum’s blessing installed a diesel-hydraulic propulsion unit in the tug’s after cabin.  This unit was to infuriate many a passenger lured aboard by the sign’s “Steam Tug Rides” only to hear a diesel engine piping up below.  But the venture managed to drag on until the tug was finally returned, in 1999, to the Museum, by then too short of staff and in serious financial straits.


So, unable to be cared for, and up for grabs, the A.V. languished at an isolated mooring, attracting little more than sea birds, and the mounting impatience of the Waterfront management.  Word got around on the internet, attracting two Dutchmen who flew here in 2007 to inspect her, with a view to having her shipped back to their team of volunteer tug restorers in Holland.  Though disgusted by the tug’s filthy state, they agonised for three weeks over estimated costs before finally withdrawing.  Then, three Italians flew out.  They were the captain, the mate, and the chief engineer of a steam tug owned by their employers, who wished to acquire a second one for use as a steam yacht.  They too declined the offer, but only after the exchange of many anxious emails over at least two months.  The only S.A. contender was the Mossel Bay Museum, wanting the Vintcent back in her home port as a shore-mounted heritage attraction.  It was the red tape-linked failure of this mission that finally broke the patience of the Waterfront Company. 


In April 2008, just when the Vintcent’s scrapping was about to commence, word came that Australian shipping magnate, Gordon Bashford, had paid the Maritime Museum the token sum of R2 000, simply to procure formal ownership of the A.V.  Since then, through the efforts of Gordon’s appointed Cape Town-based manager and contractors, she has been thoroughly cleaned and spruced up for her grand trip to Australia aboard a heavy-lift ship of his.  There, the A.V. is to be restored to steaming order, before joining Gordon’s two other, and much bigger, commercially operating steam tugs.


The lifting of the Alwyn Vintcent out of S. African water by Gordon’s ship presents the most fitting moment for me, not only to bid our small ship farewell, but also on which to round off the story, based as it is almost entirely on my own first-hand experiences.  However, that moment is still being awaited, Gordon’s big ship having yet to drop by.  Various unforeseen delays have intervened, so we can only hope that all is ultimately still to go according to plan.


My connection with the SA Maritime Museum survived the disbanding of the A.V.’s volunteer steaming crew, one reason being my long-standing employment at the SA Museum, Cape Town. So, remaining the most immediately available of them even after my retirement in 2002, I was requested by Iziko Museums’-employed maritime archaeologist, Jaco Boshoff, to show the Dutch and the Italian visitors around on board the A.V


Iziko is today the name of the umbrella body of 13 listed museum “sites” in and around Cape Town, examples being Iziko SA Museum, Iziko Slave Lodge, and Iziko SA Maritime Centre. This latter is, in terms of space and viewable collections, the very much shrunken descendant of our former maritime museum.  Having been squeezed into rented upstairs space in an office building, the Maritime Centre shares a small main entrance below with a bank. And this, amidst the vast and lavish developments of the V&A Waterfront.  A shame, to say the least, given that Cape Town is indisputably the mother city of South Africa’s maritime heritage.


Cape Town, March, 2009.