Not the Reef Knot (5). A Voyage on the Kuiseb

Unicorn Lines made space available on their cargo and feeder voyages around the South African coast, and  Howard Burr from the Transvaal Branch of the World Ship Society was one of the many who took advantage of the offer. The voyages were very relaxing and you got to see an aspect of sea travel outside of the the organised world of the cruise ship. I took a similar voyage on board the Berg in 1990. The voyage report below appeared in The Reef Knot of November 1991.

A Coastal Voyage on the MV Kuiseb of Unicorn Lines. By Howard Burr.

At very short notice, my wife and I decided to do a coastal voyage by sea. We had a week’s leave, so were looking for something of a reasonably short duration. Our choices were either the “BORDER” or the “BARRIER”, Unicorns two large RO-RO’s sailing regularly between Durban and Cape Town or the smaller “feeder” vessel “KUISEB”. We settled on the latter and after hasty arrangements through our travel agent, drove down to Durban on Saturday morning 28th September. We had been told by the ships agents in Durban to board the vessels between 16h00 and 17h00 on the Saturday. She was due to sail at 10h00 the next morning the 29th. 

MV Kuiseb/Swakop

We duly arrived at the ship just after 16h00 on the Saturday and I went aboard to find the duty officer to inform him of our arrival. The second mate was D/0 and on telling him who we were, I was met with a blank look and told that nobody had bothered to inform him. Anyway, he duly showed us tb our, cabin, situated on the boat deck on the port side directly under the bridge. The second told us to “make ourselves at home” as most’of the crew were off duty and the Master was only due aboard the next morning before sailing time. 

Our cabin was a delightful little affair with two portholes looking forward and one looking out to port. There were two bunks, one above the other, a table, two chairs, plenty of cupboard space and a ‘settee. The “shower and toilet” were just outside the cabin and reserved exclusively for the use of passengers. 

Passenger cabin

Dinner that night was very much a “help yourself” affair as the steward was off duty, so my wife and I climbed into a delicious curry and rice which was lying in the warmer oven in the pantry. After dinner, we met some of the officers in the little “pub” situated astern, including the Chief Engineer, Second Engineer, Electrical Officer, Third Engineer and the three Cadets. After a couple of “ales” and some good conversation it was time to retire for the evening. 

Officer’s pub

The next morning we were up early and after breakfast, met the Master and “Chief Officer”. Soon it was sailing time and at 10h00 a tug duly pulled us away from our berth. The sea was fairly calm and we soon settled into a routine, where we would perch ourselves on the lifejacket locker on the boat deck and watch the coast go by as we headed for East London, our first port of call. Mealtimes were strictly observed, Breakfast was at 07h30, Lunch at 12 noon and Dinner at 17h30. No dressing up was necessary for any of the meals. Tea and Coffee were served in our cabin at 07h00, 10h30 and again at 15h00 every day by the steward.  A note for prospective “sailors” at this stage – if you do wish to do such a voyage, be prepared to spend a lot of time “doing nothing”. This is not a detrimental comment by any manner of means, as what goes on in the running and operation of a cargo ship is very interesting to say the least. 

We docked in East London at 06h00 on Monday morning 1st October,  where we were to offload 24 “boxes” (a “box” being the common reference to a container.) and were to load one box. The vessel uses her own gear for these operations as particularly in East London, modern facilities are rather lacking. 

East London harbour photographed from MCV Berg 1990

We sailed from East London again at 15h00 and made a leisurely run down to Port Elizabeth at about 8 or 9 knots, arriving off port limits at around midnight. There we dropped anchor to await our docking time of 06h00 on Tuesday 2nd October. We were berthed by breakfast that morning and the offloading of our cargo started immediately, once again, the vessel using her own gear for the job. On enquiry as to why we used our derricks and not the container cranes at P.E., I was told by the Master that Portnet charged R56,00 per container to offload using their cranes. Here, I tend to agree with everyone who said that that is a total “RIP – OFF”. 

Port Elizabeth Harbour (SA-Transport)

We were to be in Port Elizabeth for two days as we had to wait for cargo from Safmarine’s S.A.SEDERBERG. Unfortunately, soon after her arrival, quite a strong wind blew up and loading operations had to be suspended for a while. My wife and I went ashore for a few hours to have a look around P.E. For shiplovers, both E.L and P.E. are somewhat of a disaster, the only ships in P.E. being the S.A. SEDERBERG, a beautiful Saudi Reefer called URANUS and a little later after the SEDERBERG bad sailed, the BARRIER. 

Unicorn’s ro-ro Barrier

The time spent in P.E. was interesting from the part of loading operations and everything went quite smoothly. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for East London, which on our return to that port proved to be the absolute highlight of the whole trip. I have never in my whole life witnessed such absolute and total incompetence on the part of anyone before, but more about that a little later. 

Approaching Port Elizabeth (MCV Berg 1990)

After a pleasant and totally relaxing two days in P.E., we sailed for East London at around 20h00 on Wednesday 3rd October. Once again, a leisurely pace was maintained up to E.L. and we arrived off the port at 06h00 on Thursday morning. We were alongside by 07h00 and offloading commenced. As there is not much to do in E.L, my wife and I decided ‘to stay aboard and watch the offloading and loading operation from close range. This proved to be the very best decision we made on the whole trip. We were to offload 74 boxes and load 43. The estimated time to do this task was about 5 hours. Little did anyone realise that at that stage, the total incompetence of certain stevedores and Portnet officials would come into operation. A very apt comment was made that whilst the rest of the world was in 1991, East London harbour officials were in 1961. 

We had six 40ft. boxes on our foredeck, and the first one was lifted onto the quayside by the ships derrick, picked up by one of the gantry type machine loaders and put onto a truck. The same smooth operation went on with the second and third boxes. That unfortunately is where the efficiency stopped dead. 

Straddle Carrier in PE

Firstly, the gantry machine seemed to develop a problem, so off it went for repairs. I counted five others sitting around doing nothing, but not one of them was used at all. 

The trucks were now driven alongside the ship and the derricks were used to load the boxes directly onto these trucks. It is however not an easy task to put a swinging forty foot box onto a truck, particularly when it has to be exactly positioned to seat properly, and is swinging from a hook attached to the ships derrick. It took 17 minutes to load the first one 32 minutes to load the second one and an average time of 27 minutes for those thereafter. That is until they got to the second last box in the hold. This one set what must be an all time record for offloading a container from a ship. It took them just short of 84 minutes to complete this one task. All of this time, five gantry machines were standing doing absolutely nothing at all. We could not believe our ‘eyes at the incompetence shown by the officials on the quayside responsible for the offloading of the ship. 

This was not the last of our amusement for the day, as the time had now arrived to load us. All of a sudden, one of the “idle” gantry machines roared into operation and proceeded to lift up the boxes to be loaded. In roared the trucks and the boxes were quickly loaded onto the trucks which then drove to the ships side where the ships derricks loaded them into the various holds. This would seem a normal operation, until we tell you that the furthest box for loading was situated no further than 25 metres from the ship. Question? Why did every box have to picked up by the gantry machine, loaded onto a truck, driven in most instances less than twenty metres to the ship, when it would have taken half of the time and the manpower and cost a hell of a lot less money for the gantry machine itself just to have dropped the box next to the ship? I’m sorry, but whoever was responsible for this “farce” should really be taken to task. I’m no expert, but if I were Unicorn Lines, I really would have a word in Portnet’s ear. A job that should have quite comfortably have been done in less than five hours, instead took twelve hours! 

Approach to Durban Harbour entrance from MCV Berg 1990

We eventually sailed from E.L. at 19h00 and arrived back of the port limits at Durban at 13h30 on Friday 4th October. We were then told to anchor as no berth was available and we eventually docked at 23h00 on the Friday night. 


I would encounter Swakop in Walvis Bay in 1990 when she was doing the salt run. This voyage was from Durban straight through to Walvis and back and took roughly 2 weeks  At the time of Howard’s trip she would do the run from Cape Town instead of Durban.

Swakop loading salt in Walvis Bay

The “gantry type machine loader” referred to  is probably a straddle carrier

DRW © 2002. Written by Howard Burr, reproduced in The Reef Knot of November 1991. Views expressed by the author are not the official view of anybody but the author. OCR creation by  Some images are reproduced  from the passenger voyage brochure produced by Unicorn Lines.  Straddle Carrier and PE Harbour image by Dayle Coomb from the SA-Transport website.

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