During my time in Durban there were two pilot boats; the John Cox and RP Jackson, and I spent many hours enjoying trips out to the bay onboard them. We were very dependent on the whims of the skippers though, but generally they tolerated a heap of ship lovers like us and helped me experience what I had dreamt about my whole life. South Africa also had a rich heritage of steam powered pilot boats, and I was never able to experience them as they had already been withdrawn and the last survivors were literally on their last legs. Fortunately the Alwyn Vintcent and Ulundi survives, and along with the JR More are the last survivors of that heritage of beautiful steam powered harbour craft that used to dominate our harbours. This is my tribute to the pilot boats of South Africa.
Originally built by Globe Engineering in 1972, the John Cox and RP Jackson were twin screw diesel powered pilot boats. Each was 27,0 metres long with a beam of 5,4 m and a draft of 3,57 m. Note the white painted funnels and the old South African flag which means these shots were taken before 1994. Both vessels underwent a refit in the early 90’s and the superstructure was altered considerably and they were given more powerful engines as well as “fly by wire” steering. Recently the Jackson was renamed Inyoni and the Cox Ballito. The Inyoni was transferred to Richards Bay where she was earmarked for disposal in 2001 but by 2016 she was still in service. In 2016, Ballito was laying in Durban after having been refitted.
Outside of Durban the harbours were serviced by other vessels, and I was never much in those harbours to be able to photograph the harbour craft. In 1990 I visited Port Elizabeth where the Blue Jay was being used as a pilot boat, while in East London the HTV Horner was in service. She eventually ended her days on a beach in Mozambique.
Orient was badly damaged after being crushed by a container ship MSC Luciana in 2013, she was not repaired and was later sold.
The steam powered pilot tugs that graced our waters are no more, they have long sailed into memory. Some languished for years until their end came, and two survivors actually ended up inland (Eaglesham and Vintcent), although only one survives (Vintcent) of those two.
The Alwyn Vintcent, ended her days in Cape Town harbour. She had been bought by the South African Cultural History Museum in 1988 and returned to Cape Town in 1989 where she was restored and recommissioned in 1991. She was then used during the summer months to take tourists out into Table Bay and around the Duncan Dock and the old Victoria Basin. Operating costs and an ever declining steam plant resulted in the installation of a Caterpillar diesel alongside her old plant. Her days as an excursion vessel ended in 2001 when she was decommissioned. Sadly she was not able to compete with more trendy (and safer looking) excursion boats and by late 2006 she seemed to have been abandoned to the seagulls and it was expected that she was to be scrapped unless a suitable buyer came along. In April 2008 she was sold into Australian private ownership and was destined to be taken to Australia to be put back into service. Preservation was started but the owner suffered health problems and seemed to have forgotten about his charge so the future of this vessel was no longer secure (Oct 2009).
Fortunately the Vintcent was saved at the last moment by the Villiersdorp Tractor and Engine Club, who managed to rescue the vessel and transport her overland to Villiersdorp where she has been ever since. It was hoped to bring her back into steam eventually and run her on the Theewaterskloof Dam, which is just outside Villiersdorp. More information on the ship may be found at the Villiersdorp Tractor and Engine Club website.
One of 5 sisters built by Cantieri Navali e Officiene Meccaniche de Venezia, she was 83 feet long with a beam of 20 feet. Powered by single expansion steam engines, the sisters (Willam Weller, Alwyn Vintcent, SJ Harrison, Cecil G White, JE Eaglesham) entered service in 1959.
The RA Leigh was a pilot tug from the glory days of South African Harbours, she was in service long before I became aware of the tugs and harbour craft. When I encountered her she was under private ownership and spent long lonely years rotting at her mooring next to the JR More at the Port Natal Maritime Museum. Then they moved her up to the container berth and when I last heard she had had her superstructure cut down and after that…. I don’t know. Built by Richard Dunston, Thorne. She was 102 ft long with a beam of 21 feet and powered by twin triple expansion engines. Her sister ship was the SG Stephens. After being withdrawn from service in 1983 she was earmarked for sale to a crowd of Australians who intended sailing her “Down Under”. This never came to pass and the Leigh never left Durban harbour again. I believe her bridge is still in use in the harbour as offices.
The Ulundi is the oldest surviving pilot tug in South Africa. Built by Henry Robb Ltd, Leith, she is 75,4 long with a beam of by 18,1 ft. She was powered by a direct acting compound expansion engine and was in service from 1927. After being withdrawn she was earmarked for the fledgling Port Natal Maritime Museum. Placed on a cradle next on the quayside, she has had doors cut into the side of her hull.
© DRW. 2001-2017. Moved to blog 31/08/2014. Images of Alwyn Vintcent courtesy of Dylan Knott, Orient images by SA Transport. Images resized and HTV horner broken link fixed. 20/07/2016