The Alwyn Vintcent Revisited: Part 1

Thomas Graham – Former Manager of the SA Maritime Museum


My association with the Alwyn Vintcent (AV) started when I was Manager of the South African Maritime Museum (SAMM) in Cape Town between 1987 and 1995. The SAMM was a satellite of the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM), and situated in the former South African Railways and Harbour’s Workshop 17, adjacent to the Robinson Dry Dock, in the Victoria and Alfred Basin.


The Museum purchased the tug in 1988 as its second floating exhibit (the SAS Somerset, a former naval Boom Defence Vessel, was the first). The two vessels were moored, double-banked, along west quay, and later north quay, in the Alfred Basin, as one of the first attractions of the emerging Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (V&A). The V&A, in time, became Cape Town’s most popular tourist destination.


I have very fond memories of the AV as it was an exciting period for me, the tug and the new SAMM. With the help of a group of very committed, highly enthusiastic and experienced volunteers, and with the assistance of several maritime companies in Cape Town, we embarked on a successful restoration program to operate the coal fired vessel as a pleasure cruiser for a number of seasons. They were exciting times and having sifted through old reports, articles and newspaper clippings I share the following memories.


It all started early in 1988 when Dave Clarke, a fireman in Cape Town and highly talented ship model builder, met me at the SACHM in Adderley Street to talk about the tug.  He had heard the AV was up for sale and located, at that time, in the Knysna lagoon, a particularly beautiful area of the South African coast, midway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. It is the largest estuarine complex on the south coast and possesses the highest plant and animal diversity of all South African estuaries.


Dave, a passionate ship buff, was familiar with the tug having spent many hours sketching her and, on occasion, stoking her boilers. He was one of the crew of nine who sailed the AV out of Table Bay to Knysna on New Year’s Eve 1985. They arrived in Mossel Bay, the AVs former working port, 52 tons of coal and many beers later. After waiting for conditions to improve they raised steam again and headed further east to enter the treacherous Heads, mooring the vessel alongside Thesen’s jetty in the Knysna Lagoon.


The tug’s move to Knysna was the start of the third chapter in her post official career. The AV left Cape Town in July 1959 to serve the port of Mossel Bay as a pilot tug for the South African Railways and Harbours, with occasional relief work in Port Elizabeth. A duty she fulfilled for the next 24 years before her official career came to an end when she was sold in 1983, together with the RA Leigh and two lighters, for a total of R11 550.


The AV was bought by Stan Martin, an Australian who with two of his countrymen, John Davis and Ted Hall, had big plans for the vessel and the RA Leigh and SJ Harrison, which they had acquired at the same time. Their ambitious plan was to sail the vessels back to Australia, over 12 000 km away, by steaming up the east coast of Africa across to India and then working their southwards to Australia.


Their efforts were plagued by bureaucratic challenges and logistical difficulties which eventually scuttled their plans. Among the hurdles they couldn’t overcome was getting the harbour authorities to approve the safety requirements; the non arrival of a bank certificate to waiver export duty and with these delays the start of the cyclone season upset their sailing schedule. Most crippling of all - their financial reserves dried up.


Davis and Hall returned to Australia while Martin remained in South Africa sailing the AV to Cape Town where he operated the tug as a tourist attraction for a year, claiming it to be South Africa’s first floating museum. The RA Leigh and SJ Harrison were re-sold, the former left to rot in Durban and the latter to be converted into a trawler.


The heavy financial burden of keeping a working ship in operation forced Martin to sell the AV at the end of 1984 to ‘Pip’ Lorentz who had similar plans of running the tug as a pleasure vessel in the highly popular Knysna lagoon. The new ownership was the catalyst for the tug to start her new chapter in a different port at the start of 1985. Like those who had gone before the Lorentz venture struggled to sustain itself and by 1987 the tug was once again on the market.


In my discussions with Dave he was interested in the SAMM purchasing the tug and operating her in the proposed V&A. Supportive of the idea I asked him to gather more information so that I could make a case to the SACHM director at the time, Anton Roux.


During the Easter weekend of 1988 Dave loaded his wife and three kids, as well as his buddy, Joao Goncalves and his fiancée Ana, into his VW kombi and drove to Knysna to inspect the tug and take photographs. On their return they produced a report which recommended the tug be purchased by the museum. I submitted the report to the director, who in turn took it to the board of the SACHM, and after many months of negotiation, including getting the Department of Education and Culture to agree, the museum purchased the tug for R50 000 in October 1988.


Dave and Joao were delighted. Their reward – I eventually employed both of them! Joao was appointed first, as the SAMM first ship model builder, and later became the carpenter at the SACHM. When the latter appointment took place Dave resigned his position as a fireman with the Cape Town City Council and joined the museum officially as model builder/restorer and unofficially as deckhand and stoker for the AV. It was his ideal job.


The biggest challenge was getting the tug back to Cape Town. It was not possible to fire her up and sail her back as her certificates had expired and she needed a full inspection of her boilers and engine before the authorities would allow her to steam anywhere. Knysna had closed as a port in 1954 so it did not have the necessary infrastructure to carry out the required work.


My primary task was to organise to have the tug towed back to Table Bay at limited expense to the museum.


The biggest obstacle was getting the tug safely through The Heads, the narrow mouth between two great sandstone cliffs connecting the estuary with the sea. There were several shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the sea within or near The Heads to illustrate the area was not without its dangers. The first recorded shipwreck was the Emu, a British Navy transport, which went down in 1817.


There was no suitable vessel within the estuary to assist us. Negotiations with Pentow Marine in Cape Town secured a deal that if we could get the tug through The Heads they would tow her back to Table Bay with one of their coastal patrol vessels who sailed passed the inlet every two weeks.


Additional discussions with the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) initiated a plan of using one their rescue vessels, essentially a speed boat, to take the AV through The Heads. The plan was to lash the AV to the side of the NSRI vessel.


The weather, tides and seaworthiness were other factors we had to take into consideration. The route required staying in the main channel which dog legged twice, first to the left, and then to the right, to exit The Heads. A tricky operation indeed. To be successful ideal weather conditions had to prevail. This implied a windless day and a calm sea both of which had to coincide with high tide.


Before we could move the tug she had to be declared seaworthy and a towing clearance certificate issued for insurance purposes.


It was time to put the plan into action. Malan Skinner, the berthing master at Cape Town Harbour, Joao and I loaded the museum’s bakkie with gear and drove to Knysna on Friday 18 November 1988 to begin work. We had a list of tasks to complete to make the tug safe to tow. Over the weekend we sweated and toiled around the clock packing away and tying down all loose gear; removing the air vents and closing the air shafts to make them watertight; boarding up the wheelhouse; securing every door and porthole; fixing the rudder; securing the drive shaft and valves; manufacturing and rigging an emergency tow line and fixing a towing bridle.


Throughout the weekend the weather remained perfect with little or no wind which left the lagoon beautifully still. The question was whether the calm conditions would continue into Monday, the proposed D-day for first attempt to take the AV through The Heads. At 1.45 pm to be precise.


Monday arrived but by 10.00 am the surveyor booked to inspect the vessel and issue a seaworthy certificate had not! A phone call to Cape Town offered bad news – heavy fog over George had prevented his plane from landing and the flight had returned to Cape Town. He wouldn’t get to Knysna before 2.00 pm!


Without the survey and a certificate the operation could not proceed. Was there an alternative? Further calls to Captain da Sousa in Mossel Bay, about 110 km away, revealed he had left for Portugal the day before and couldn’t help us. A visit to the Thesen’s shipping office drew a negative response as did combing the local telephone directory for surveyors. Driving back to the jetty it looked as if the whole operation would have to be postponed.


Our spirits were lifted however when we got back to the tug to see the surveyor on the quayside inspecting the vessel. He told us that once he found out early that morning the weather was bad he had abandoned his flight plans and drove straight to Knysna instead. That’s what your call reliability at its best! He duly completed his inspection and issued us with a seaworthy certificate (regrettably I no longer remember or recorded his name).


At 1.30 pm the various parties gathered on the foredeck of the AV for a final briefing. The NSRI, striking in their red wetsuits, their speed boat alongside primed for action. Officials from the Department of Nature Conservation were also present with their small boat as a stand-by. The congenial Costa, owner of the Swedish built, gaff-rigged tops'l schooner Nancy, which was moored alongside the AV was ready to cast off his lines. The mate from Kuswag had come and board and was satisfied with the configuration of the towing bridle. On the quayside, a camera crew from SABC TV and a group of curious onlookers. Knysna has known this much excitement for ages! Everything was in place to proceed, the weather good, the tide up.


The captain in charge of the NSRI vessel then dropped a bombshell. “No go chaps, the operation is off!” He declared the wind had freshened and he wasn’t prepared to take the risk.


With the wind taken out of our sails in a few brief seconds we packed up and drove back to Cape Town too tired to feel the full disappointment of being so close but yet so far from achieving what we had set out to do.


In hindsight the decision not to lash the AV to the NSRI speedboat and get the two vessels through The Heads was probably the right one. The operation would have been very risky and I don’t think the NRSI vessel had the size, mass and speed to manoeuvre the AV which was considerably bigger, heavier and without any power of her own. There was a high probability something could go wrong and we’d become another shipwreck statistic. Not a good look!


Two more attempts were planned over the next couple months but both were aborted because of bad weather.


It was time to consider a Plan B. Through the help of a Minister and after much negotiation Bernie Swemmer, the Harbour Master in Mossel Bay, agreed to sail Strandloper, their resident tug, to Knysna when the weather was suitable. Strandloper would lash the AV along its side, take her through The Heads, and once in open water, tow her back to Mossel Bay. The tug would then remain in Mossel Bay until one of the Kuswag vessels would tow her to Table Bay.


This was a far better and less risky plan. The Strandloper was far more powerful and larger than the NSRI vessel and the two staged approach meant she could operate independently when the weather and tidal conditions were right and not be tied to Kuswag’s fortnightly coastal cycle.


I was in Knysna over the Easter Weekend and learnt that, weather permitting, Plan B would be set in motion on Tuesday 28 March 1989. I had to return to Cape Town on the Monday so could not stay for the long awaited and highly prepared event.


Back in Cape Town on Tuesday, annoyingly I was given the message late in the morning that the weather was good and Strandloper had indeed left Mossel Bay for Knysna (you must remember these were the days before mobile phones!) I decided to jump into the museum’s kombi and drive back to Knysna vainly hoping I would get there in time to witness the tug leaving the estuary for the final time. It was a futile chase and knowing I wouldn’t make it decided to divert to Brenton-on-Sea, an elevated resort west of Knysna. Upon arrival I saw the two vessels heading out to sea. The AV had finally made it through The Heads.


The operation which had taken so much effort to prepare and had so many postponed attempts had finally succeeded. As per plan the Strandloper made a trouble free journey and entry into the lagoon and once there tied the AV to her side. Mike Elliot, the Station Master of the local NSRI, acted as pilot and the two vessels safely navigated through The Heads and out to sea. At one point the two vessels did drift apart and collided causing some minor damage to the wheelhouse of the AV. All in all it was a highly successful operation and the AV arrived safely in Mossel Bay harbour at 8.30 pm that evening. The worst part – I was a couple of hours late to witness it!


Through Pentow Marine we arranged for Kuswag IV to collect the tug on Saturday

8 April 1989 and tow her back to Cape Town. This time, armed with advanced notice, I made the four hour trip to Mossel Bay accompanied by Dave, Joao and Louw Roodman, who worked for ICAL Offshore, one of the companies involved in building the MOSSGAS drilling platform. MOSSGAS was the owner and operator of South Africa’s first offshore production platform on the FA field, 85 km south of Mossel Bay. Louw became a good friend, a great supporter of the AV and the Maritime Museum and together we initiated and implemented several interesting projects.


Upon arrival we visited Captain McCawley on board the Kuswag IV and attended to three final logistical tasks: set up emergency lights for night time visibility, fitted a portable pump to the deck and reinstated a canvas air vent cover which had been lost during the first towing operation.


Shortly after 2.00pm the AV was lashed to the port side of the Strandloper and sailed out of Mossel Bay with Kuswag IV in their wake. Through a skilled manoeuvre the Kuswag moved ahead of the other two vessels, lines were thrown across and the tow line fixed to the bridle. Strandoper released the AV, the tow line took hold, and the two vessels disappeared, enveloped by a thick coastal mist.


The next time I saw the AV was through a pair of binoculars a day-and-a-half latter as she lay off Sea Point, waiting to enter Table Bay Harbour. It was roughly 30 years since the AV had been towed into the same harbour for the very first time. On the 26 May 1959, at 7.59 pm, the Hudson, a Dutch tug, entered the harbour with two brand new tugs in tow: the Alwyn Vintcent and her sister ship the SJ Harrison. The two tugs had made their first and only Atlantic crossing from the Cantieri Navali shipyards in Venice, Italy. The event was given limited coverage in the daily newspapers the following day.


By contrast the arrival of the AV on a cold, cloudy morning on Monday 10 April 1989 drew strong media coverage, making the front page of Die Burger and featured prominently in the Cape Times and evening Argus. The AV, at 30, had suddenly taken on celebrity status.


The next task was to make her operational once more.


To be continued………..