Durban reels in its biggest fish

The MSC Sola is the largest container ship in the world, and its docking in Durban was made possible by re-development at the harbour.

A typical tug boat can be seen off the coast of Durban. Tugs are useful to port operators as they help direct the ships to their berthing posts.

Containers being offloaded at one of the terminals at Durban. Containers handled at Durban represented 67,4% of the total number of containers handled at South African ports in the 2008/09 financial year.

An aerial view of the port of Durban.
(Images: TNPA Facebook page)

Lunga Ngcobo
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Valencia Talane

Africa’s busiest and largest port, Durban, saw a lot of firsts on Thursday 5 July. The largest container ship ever to dock at a South African port, the MSC Sola, was ushered in by an all-female crew that included a marine pilot and, for the first time, four tug masters.

The operation was originally scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon, upon Sola’s arrival, but was delayed because of what Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) referred to as ‘safety considerations’ in a statement released on Thursday morning.

Ladies in charge

Bongiwe Mbambo (30) was the lady in charge of the massive exercise. She received her marine pilot open license in 2011, along with colleagues Precious Dube and Pinky Zungu, and thus the trio joined the only other two female marine pilots in South Africa.

To assist with the exercise, four tugs were used to navigate the vessel, and these were all operated by female tug masters. This was the first time this number of tugs had ever been used, an indication of the sheer size of the ship.

Mbambo was transported to the deck by helicopter, where she guided the captain to berth 105 at New Pier.

Asked by Durban’s Mercury newspaper how she felt about making history, she said: “It is exciting, as a woman, to be given a chance to do this maiden voyage. I hope it encourages other women.”

Developing the port

The whole operation would not have been possible prior to 2010, when a R2.9-billion (US$357 941) expansion project that was overseen by state-owned TNPA saw the port’s entrance channel widened and deepened to enable plus-size vessels such as the Sola through.

The ship, which belongs to the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), was built in 2008 and measures over 300m in length and 45m in width, more than the length of three and a half rugby fields. She carries cargo with a gross tonnage of 131 771 and a slot capacity of 11 660 TEUs (the equivalent of a 20-foot container). Sola came in from the Far East via Port Louis in Mauritius.

Having an open license means that Mbambo can navigate ships of any size and type into the port, the entrance channel of which is now 222m wide at its narrowest point.

It also measures 19m in depth in the outer entrance, and rises to 16.5m draught in the inner channel.

“The introduction of these vessels to our waters indicates the confidence shipping lines such as the MSC has in our ability to operate in an environment that is effective, safe and efficient,” said TNPA CEO Tau Morwe.

““With the ever-increasing number of large vessels visiting our ports, we are ideally positioned as a leading trans-shipment point between the emerging markets of the eastern and western seaboards.”

Morwe also mentioned that to ensure that the country remains competitive and well ahead of demand, the NPA needs to increase the port handling facility by more than 50% over the next seven years. By doing so, container capacity will increase from approximately 2.7-million TEUs annually to more than five-million TEUs.

The role of ports in the region

The Southern African region relies heavily on the healthy state of its ports because they play a big role in the economies of its countries, all the while providing transportation value for the landlocked countries of the Southern African Development Community.

Approximately 95% of all trade to the region passes through its ports and those of East Africa, providing a vital link in the logistic chain that binds southern Africa together. If one port experiences any sort of delay or interruption, the effect is often felt across the entire region.

At the recent Africa Ports and Harbour Show held in Johannesburg, Morwe asserted that regional port organisations need to get together as a bloc to boost development and cooperation. He also alluded to the fact that shipping companies are manufacturing bigger vessels, and the pressure was on to develop ports and harbours that can keep up with the trend.

Transnet Port Terminals CEO Karl Socikwa, who attended the same function, had good news to share about his division’s plans for Durban going forward.

“Durban’s Pier Two will take delivery of seven new tandem-lift ship-to-shore cranes,” said Socikwa. This is a continental first and allows for the simultaneous lifting of two 12-metre containers or four six-metre containers.

The Maydon Wharf terminal, also in Durban, is scheduled for new container handling equipment such as mobile cranes.