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The Battle of the Bar

By Allan Jackson (Facts About Durban - 2007).

The reason that the early white settlers chose to come to Port Natal is because of its sheltered harbour. Durban would never have reached its full potential if the authorities had not managed to win the battle again the sandbar, which choked the mouth of the bay.

The problem was caused by currents in opposition to the south-flowing Mozambique Current, which sets up a littoral drift moving sand northward along the East African coast. A fair bit of that sand ended up as a bar across the mouth of the bay, where the littoral drift curled around the end of the Bluff.

The bar made entering the bay highly hazardous for all but the smallest vessels, and substantial numbers of ships were wrecked in the attempt to cross it. Larger vessels were forced anchor outside the entrance to the harbour.

This made it difficult to load and offload cargo and passengers and, furthermore, left the ships at the mercy of the elements, which often didn't show them any. The authorities were well aware that the bar had to go before the town could fully come into its own, but many years were to pass and many attempts were to be made, before the task was finally accomplished.

The names of those responsible for making the various attempts were still remembered on street signs around town, at the time of writing, at least. One had a restaurant named after him and another gave his name to a pier on South Beach, which unexpectedly became a reef.

John Milne

First to think he could solve the problem of the bar, was Scotttish emigrant John Milne, who arrived in Durban in 1849. He was a harbour engineer who had worked on harbours in Britain and he became convinced that tidal scour would solve the problem. This idea was based on the fact that, due to the rivers flowing into the bay, there was more water moving out through the entrance at ebb tide, than there was when the tide was coming in.

The principle worked to the extent that the mouth of the bay was never totally blocked, and Milne thought that scour could remove the bar altogether, if he increased the speed of the out-flowing water by building two piers to narrow the width of the mouth.

One necessity for the piers was rock, which could conveniently be obtained from the Bluff, and Milne designed and had built South Africa's first railway, out of wood. The one-mile long railway was to bring the rock to a loading dock so that it could be ferried across to where the north pier was to be built.

The arrival of Lieut. Governor Scott in the Colony of Natal, resulted in Milne being called before the Legislative Council in 1857 to answer questions about his theories and the work done. Some work had been done on the north pier but, by 1858, he had either jumped or been pushed from his post as harbour engineer.

James Vetch

Scott appointed a commission to report on the problem and then, once the report had been compiled, sent it off to London where ended up on the desk of Captain James Vetch at the Admiralty. He concluded that the way to go would be to build a breakwater enclosing an area outside the bay, for ships to anchor.

Vetch, who didn't visit Durban, believed that the seas off the town were comparatively gentle and that a structure of timber and rubble would be strong enough as a breakwater. Work began in 1861 but it was soon found that the structure would be too fragile, and the contract was cancelled in 1864, amid great controversy.

The remains of Vetch's pier are still there just off South Beach where they have formed a reef, which is very popular with divers. The existence of the reef was threatened by the mooted development of a yachting marina in almost exactly the same location as Vetch's harbour, but it had been reprieved at the time of writing. One only hopes, if the marina is ever built, that the developers aren't planning to use timber and rubble for their structure!

Edward Arthur Innes

Edward Innes was appointed as harbour engineer in Durban in 1881, by the Harbour Board under the chairmanship of Harry Escombe. Innes endorsed the general view that tidal scour would conquer the sandbar, if only a north and south pier could be built.

It had long been believed that rock underlay the sandbar and that this would have to be removed before the entrance channel could be deepened. Innes went along with this idea and designed and built a diving cylinder and barge to protect the divers who would drill it for blasting.

The port did acquire a dredger during Innes' tenure, and he even supervised its assembly, but he did not realise the vital role that such machines would play in defeating the sandbar. Innes died in 1887 at the age of 35, having made great progress on the both the northern and southern piers.

Charles Crofts

Innes was succeeded by his friend Charles Crofts, as acting harbour engineer. His first move was to disprove the theory that rock underlay the entrance channel by hammering a metal pole into the bed of the channel with a 7lb hammer.

Cathcart Methven

Escombe was unable to have Crofts confirmed in his appointment as harbour engineer, and a Scot called Cathcart Methen, was appointed in 1888. Crofts continued the work in the harbour, including the piers and the dredging of the channels in the bay.

Tidal scour did not seem to helping in removing the sandbar, and Methven was eventually removed from his post in 1895. John Wolfe Barry and Sir Charles Hartley were then commissioned by the government of Natal to report on a solution for Durban's harbour. The report once again advocated tidal scour, supplemented by the dredging of the bar beyond the harbour entrance.

Charles Crofts

Charles Crofts was appointed harbour engineer in 1895 and continued the extension of the north pier and the dredging of the sandbar. He was perhaps fortunate that, by the time he assumed office, dredgers capable of working in open water had been developed.

Methven had ordered a trailing suction dredger, the Octopus, but it only arrived after his removal. The dredging gradually bore fruit and, in 1904, the 12967-ton Armadale Castle was able to enter the harbour, a mere 58 years after John Milne kicked off the battle of the bar.

In his book Who Saved Natal, Colin Bender gives Charles Crofts the lion's share of credit for beating the bar, having done much of the work under Innes and Methven, and during his own tenure as harbour engineer. Having won the battle through persistent dredging, Charles Crofts was put on early retirement by a grateful Natal Government in 1907.


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