The Alwyn Vintcent Revisited: Part 2

Thomas Graham – Former Manager of the SA Maritime Museum


The establishment of the SAMM, and the re-steaming of the AV, coincided with the development of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront (V&A). The V&A was established as a company in 1988, the Pierhead precinct opened two years later, and thereafter it evolved rapidly, with additional development phases, notably Victoria Wharf, to become the highly successful retail, recreational and residential facility it is today. Its impressive annual visitor growth reached 21 million in 2006 – equivalent to the total current population of Australia!


I was fortunate to witness the V&A change from a working harbour, without any visitor facilities, other than the fantastic view of Table Mountain, the odd historic building, ubiquitous seals and seagulls, to become the city’s premier tourist destination. The AV was one of the prime visitor attractions of the V&A.


When she arrived the AV was double banked, alongside the Somerset, at west quay. In those days west quay was solely a working harbour. It was dirty, seedy, and smelly; without tourist amenities (the Cape Grace Hotel was only built seven years later). No less than five tall grey derelict cranes stood side by side, on the quayside next to the vessels (within a few years they were cut up and sold for scrap).


The fully operational Robinson Drydock was alongside and the rest of the quay was shared with Irvin & Johnson fishing trawlers. The trawlers were a menace and one weekend both the Anemone and Erica collided into the AV while turning circle within the basin; fortunately with limited damage.


The north quay, with its warehouse, later to be converted into the Victoria and Alfred Hotel, also acted as a berth for a number of fishing trawlers from a rival company. At the southern end of the basin was the syncrolift, one of the harbour’s main repair facilities, to which both vessels would pay future visits (the AV annually).


Behind west quay was a large quarry containing huge petroleum storage tanks. The storage tanks were removed several years later and the quarry flooded in 1996 to create another inner basin which today is encircled by residential apartments, the Two Oceans Aquarium and One-and-Only.


In 1989 the Somerset and AV were located where the future cut to flood the quarry was to be made. Today there is a drawbridge across the cut where the two vessels used to be moored.


By the time the AV arrived at the V&A the SAMM had a year’s experience restoring the SAS Somerset, the museum’s first floating exhibit. The Somerset was a former Royal Navy and South African Navy, Boom Defence Vessel, built in 1941. I think the SACHM purchased the vessel for one rand from the SA Navy (an administrative necessity!). She had been decommissioned in 1986 and laid up in Simons Town, her fate uncertain, until transfer to the museum. Captain Bob Hind, her last commanding officer, towed the vessel to Table Bay in May 1988, where she was moored at west quay.


A couple of months later the museum appointed David MacIlroy, a former Royal Navy and retired SA Navy warrant officer, who had served as an engineer aboard the Somerset for many years, to oversee her restoration. It was a good appointment as ‘Mac’ knew the vessel intimately and had many contacts within the Navy, which he used to secure extra parts and support for the vessel. More importantly, his experience and pride in naval tradition and standards motivated him to ensure the vessel always looked her best. Under Mac, and principally his crew, the Somerset (and the AV) was painted from stem to stern, funnel to decks; every piece of brass shone brightly, every cabin carefully made up, woodwork and stores flawlessly maintained and the decks spotlessly clean.


Mac was provided with a manual labour force of four. He was a strict task master and went through a string of staff as a consequence of his tough command and the hard physical nature of the work. In time, a good, stable and reliable team remained: Victor Amos, Derek Green, Morgan Andrews and his father Joseph. When Joseph retired he was replaced by Chris Adams. In addition, the museum appointed a day time attendant to deal with the public, Frank Crosbie, and two night security officers, David Ngcelwane and B. Zilwa, who together with the day crew provided all important 24 hour, 365 day surveillance.


This was the team (to be joined later by Dave Clarke [ship model builder] and Jaco Boshoff [maritime archaeologist]) and environment the AV became a part of when she returned to Cape Town in 1989.


It would be another two years before she would steam again and much work remained to be done.


For the rest of the year four additional casual staff were employed to repaint the superstructure and internal compartments (we managed to keep two positions on a permanent basis). Armed with manual chipping hammers and needle scalers operated by compressed air, layers of rust were removed from the vessel before a primer was applied followed by fresh coats of gloss paint. To paint the funnel, scaffolding was erected on deck around it to provide safe and easy access and, at the same time, to fit a specially made galvanised iron cover to stop the entry of rain water. The wooden wheelhouse was sanded down and new layers of varnish applied. All compartments were thoroughly cleaned and painted. An inventory was made of missing or broken furnishings and equipment which over time was either replaced or repaired. Electro Marine checked her wiring to ensure it was in good working order.


The AVs plans, all important for assessment and operations, were tracked down. They arrived from Portnet in large black tin cylinders, about a metre long, with a cap lid. Inside were leaves of large linen plans, neatly rolled and kept together by two wooden batons fastened by brass screws. The most relevant ones were copied for general use and the originals stored.


Once the superstructure, wheelhouse and many of the internal compartments were cleaned and painted preparations were made to slip the vessel to inspect and paint her hull.


I was supported in these preparations by the collective expertise of members of the South African Maritime Museum Advisory Committee (SAMMAC). The committee had been established to guide the museum’s direction and development. It was chaired by Bruce Black, an engineer at the Cape Town City Council, and generally met monthly, initially at the SACHM, but later on board the Somerset and after the SAMM opened in Workshop 17, in December 1990, within the museum itself.


Its membership included representatives from:

South African National Maritime Museum Trust (Bruce Black).

Portnet (Captains Antrobus, Shewell and Spengler).

Master Mariner’s Association of South Africa (Captain Ridge).

South Africa Navy (Admirals Singleton and Kramer).

South African Ship Society (Ian Black).

Cape Town City Council (Alderman Rabinowitz).

South African Institute of Marine Engineers and Naval Architects (Theo Moekli).

Community/Independent representative (Gawie Fagan).


Anton Roux (Director of SACHM) and I, as museum staff, were ex officio members, and I served as secretary to the committee in addition to my broader duties as manager/curator of the SAMM.


The SAMMAC, particularly Bruce Black, its chair, played a significant role in championing the acquisition of the Somerset and the restoration of both vessels.


Coordinating the contributions of the various members I organised to slip the AV in the first week of April 1990. She was moved to the syncrolift by the Kestrel, one of Portnet’s harbour craft, and removed from the water for the first time in many years. To protect her newly painted superstructure it was covered by thick tarpaulins and all her doors securely fastened and padlocked, for dust protection and to prevent theft (24 hour security was also a necessity).


Nautilus Marine was contracted to high pressure hose, grit blast and repaint her hull and clean her propeller. An NDT survey showed the hull to be sound except in three small areas where sections of metal plate were cut out and replaced. In other places badly pitted areas were strengthened through spot welding. New zinc anodes were fitted. This work was completed by a team from ICAL Offshore, thanks to the involvement of Louw Roodman. In addition, Valvetech checked all the sea valves and the Department of Transport completed their own full survey.


The tug remained on the lift for twenty days, longer than initially planned; the extended stay and thorough inspections, painting and minor repairs were well worth it considering this was her first major slip in many years.


Although covered with tarpaulins fine particles of black grit found their way into most spaces and took the shine off the superstructure motivating Mac to get his team to give it another coat of white and yellow paint. They also needle scaled all the bunker lids, replaced any damaged handles and applied new seals - important for below decks to remain dry.


For several months the SAMMAC had been canvassing and drawing up a list of people the museum could approach to work as volunteers to get the tug operational once more. The museum’s limited resources required this approach.


The re-steaming initiative received a major boost in September 1990 when Richard Carne, a retired Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander, and then Secretary of the Cruising Association of South Africa (now SA Sailing), stepped forward to begin and lead a work party. The group met fortnightly, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm aboard the Somerset to plan tasks, discuss technical detail, report on progress and to solicit additional help and support. Bruce Black and many other members of the SAMMAC got involved to share their contacts and expertise, and valuable contributions came from Hamish Matheson, Louw Roodman, Captain Powell, Garnet Audi, Clive Nessling, Tim Parkes, Cedric Hunter and Dave Clarke.


Discussions were energised, focused and robust. The commitment, despite hurdles, and handicaps, unwavering. Many of the team had trained on steam, had a passion for steam or were mechanically minded. There was a great spirit amongst the group and at the end of the meetings we’d walk across the caisson of the drydock and along the cobbled stones to Ferryman’s Tavern, the first pub in the V&A, operated by Mitchell’s Brewery, a family business based in Kynsna. They brewed excellent beer and many a pint of Forrester’s Lager, or Bosun’s Bitter, quenched our thirsts, and invigorated the banter of post meeting camaraderie and festivities.


Work parties were organised over weekends, generally on Sundays. In many instances Richard Carne cast a solitary figure as he worked through the engine and boiler room checking machinery, his oil smudged white overall testimony to many long hours of work. His hard work did pay off with the vessel passing a series of inspections in January 1991. In the same month a new rope fender was sourced from Portnet, winched and chained into place on the bow of the tug to complete her functional look.


There was regular communication and consultation with Captain Dernier at the Department of Transport who ultimately had to declare the vessel sea worthy and issue a craft licence for 60 passengers. The white canister life rafts were serviced and renewed; new life jackets and flares purchased and stored on board; a-man-overboard iron ladder built and fitted when sailing; stainless steel stanchions and a protective wire fitted around the vessel for passenger protection; a new radio and clock fitted and gangway ordered. 


An initial target date, to raise steam, was set for the 4 December 1990, the day the SAMM opened its land exhibitions inside Workshop 17. It was hoped we could add to the festivities of the opening by blowing the AV’s whistle and to turn auxiliary machinery.


It took a little longer and was worth the wait.


On the last weekend in April 1991 preparations were complete and the hard work done. The fires were lit, the boiler slowly heated, steam gradually raised, moorings released and the AV left the Somerset under her own power. With Captain Powell at the helm, Garnet Audi controlling the engine and Ian Moreland stoking the fires, as the senior crew, the AV embarked on her first sea trials after many years. She sailed through the cut into the Victoria Basin, with a blast of her powerful whistle, soon to become her distinctive trademark sound, out into the Duncan Dock and then the larger Ben Schoeman Dock of Table Bay Harbour.


It was wonderful to witness the throb of her triple expansion engine; the smell of oil mingled with steam and coal; the hot glow of her burning fires; the thrust of coal shovels into her bunkers; the blast of her whistle; and the telegraph bells ringing changes from her bridge, accompanied by commands through the voice pipes: ‘Half ahead!’; ‘Slow astern!’. The instructions repeated in turn by the engineer.


With the old South African flag and colourful bunting flapping briskly in the wind she looked a perfect picture as she eased across the water trailing a light plume of smoke.


The AV was back in business!


Over the next four years, generally over the Easter and December school holidays (when visitor numbers were at a peak), the museum operated the vessel as a passenger vessel taking tourists on pleasure cruises through the various basins of Table Bay Harbour (our licence did not extend beyond the Breakwater).


By this time both the Somerset and the AV had been moved to north quay, in front of the V&A Hotel, to be part of the main tourist stream, with west quay left for future development. We continued to use west quay for coaling, itself an interesting exercise.


Coalcor delivered 12 to 16 tons of coal and dumped it at west quay. Collectively, the SAMM staff, myself included (especially in the early days) used to manually load coal onto the ship with shovels and wheelbarrows. In time we perfected the art by building a chute made from large, round, rubber waste bins. We cut out the bottom of the bins and chained a long line of bins together, creating a long funnel which fitted neatly into the bunker hole and rose up to the top of the edge of the quay. We shovelled coal into the wheelbarrows and then dropped the load down the chute straight into the bunkers. Depending on the size of the load and number of staff available it took us between 3 – 5 hours to complete.


Added tasks were to trim the bunkers. This meant climbing into the bunker compartment and spreading the coal evenly within it. And to keep the vessel trim, coal had to be loaded on both the starboard and port sides, in equal amounts. To do so we needed to have steam up and a captain and engineer onboard.


De-ashing was a task that needed to be done daily when the tug was operating. After the 5.00 pm cruise the vessel would go out to sea beyond the breakwater and drop the ash overboard. Like many other tasks, it was labour intensive, as the stokers had to fill individual buckets with ash, which were winched up to the door in the superstructure and then manually emptied by the deck hand. The empty bucket was lowered again to the boiler room for the next load.


Once west quay was developed and provided an additional tourist precinct we had to coal the AV at a ‘dead’ pier in the Victoria Basin.


The first daily cruise left the Somerset at 12 noon and additional cruises departed on the hour until the last trip at 5.00 pm. Trips lasted between 40 – 45 minutes, cost R10 for an adult, R5 for a child under 16, and it was made clear babies in arms, or in prams, were not allowed on board for safety reasons.


There were a number of other craft, some sailing, others diesel, offering similar cruises so competition was strong.


Finding qualified and available crew remained an issue. Captain Powell and Garnet Audi, key players in the initial re-steaming and sea trials, both had full- time jobs and families and as much as they loved the tug and were addicted to steam, weren’t available each spring or summer holiday season.


We were fortunate when another champion stepped forward: Captain Peter Moon, an experienced master ticket holder took control of running the vessel during the cruising season. This included taking the wheel, organising the crew and providing me an update of supplies required or if any repairs needed to be done.


The Department of Transport had stipulated the following crew to operate the vessel: Master, Chief Engineer, 2nd Engineer, 2 x stokers and 3 x deckhands.


In addition to Captain Moon, we had Captain Nixon as relief Master, and in the engine room various personnel, including Richard Carne and Tim Parkes. For stokers we drew on a wide variety of casual staff, including Cedric Hunter, an illustrator at SA Museum, and SAMM staff Derek, Victor, Morgan, Chris, Michael, Paul, Dave – even I had a go!


Similarly, deckhands were drawn from local shipping craft although we generally used our own day staff as they valued the additional pay by working overtime.

In addition, day staff on the Somerset assisted with selling and checking tickets, handling the gangway between the two vessels and releasing the moorings.


The AV was a popular choice for tourists as she was the only steam vessel in the harbour, had good open clear decks and offered a nostalgic flashback to the past as many visitors were familiar with the fleet of SAR&H tugs that supported the mailship era.


As the V&A grew in popularity, expanded and drew more tourists, smoke became an issue! When operational in season the tug’s furnace remained burning 24/7. It wasn’t good practice to let it die and the boiler run cold. For efficiency and to put less stress on the boiler a smouldering fire was kept going around the clock. Inevitably there were times when fresh coal created fresh smoke, which at times almost invisible, could still be smelt. Patrons in the second floor rooms of the V&A Hotel began to complain.


On a second front the City’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Michael Popkiss, began to show an interest, particularly when the V&A considered bringing the Rovos luxury train, pulled by a steam locomotive, to the waterfront as a regular tourist attraction. The city was keen to keep air pollution levels low and was out to penalise offenders. To their credit V&A management supported us in defending the merits of the tug and minimising the pollution threat. To placate hotel guests the VA was moved to a neutral quay at night, in the Victoria Basin, in the last couple of seasons.


Looking back at the re-steaming project and the tug’s tenure under my watch much was achieved over the six years. More than 20 volunteers and over 50 sponsors contributed, alongside the SAMMAC and SAMM staff, to restoring the vessel and to operate successfully as a coal fired steam vessel. The tug was extremely well cared for; her integrity kept intact without any major modifications.


I am pleased to say that the volunteers’ and sponsors’ contribution was publicly acknowledged at a Mayoral reception, by Gordon Olivier in his Mayor’s Parlour in December 1990. An honours board was also hung on the Somerset acknowledging the invaluable contribution of the maritime businesses who contributed, primarily in kind, to the project.


I also salute my SAMM team of David MacIlroy (and David Burr who took over in 1993 when Mac retired), Victor Amos, Morgan Andrews, Derek Green, Chris Adams, Jaco Boshoff, Dave Clarke, Michael Hendricks and Paul Andrews who played their part in keeping the vessel in tip-top shape, operational and a valuable asset within the V&A. Further SACHM staff provided administrative and logistical support.


I ended my formal association with the SAMM and AV in mid 1995. I didn’t know at the time that her Christmas ’94 season would be her last as a coal fired steam tug operated by the museum. Sixteen years on the tug - now over 50 - has more to offer. I wish her, and her new owners, well.