This article was originally written for KZN Industrial & Business news as a report on the current state of shipbuilding in Durban. It follows on from a previous article on this site, written late in 2006, in which I reported that things were looking hopeful for the industry. It's great to see that things have worked out this well, since then. Allan Jackson.

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Huge boost for shipbuilding in Durban

By Allan Jackson - October 2008

An order for five harbour tugs valued at over R400-million is currently under construction for the Transnet National Ports Authority. This has made the future for shipbuilding in Durban look brighter than it has for many years.

This is according to Louis Gontier, MD of Southern African Shipyards.. The firm, located at Bayhead in the city, is currently hard at work building the first five tugs in tandem, and expects to launch the first in July 2009 and complete it in October 2009. Gontier said that he was proud to receive the order from the NPA as this showed that the firm had earned the approval of the TNPA.

The tugs under construction at SA Shipyards
Picture by Jurgen Cobarg - courtesy SA Shipyards
Click picture to view enlargement

The TNPA has called for tenders for the building of eight additional tugs and adjudication is imminent. SAS are confident that they will secure at least part of this order, and possibly the entire order.

The five tugs, or water tractors as they are sometimes also known, will be built to a design by Naval Africa, around principles laid down by Voith Schneider, whose propulsion systems will be installed in each of the vessels. Instead of normal screw propellers, the Voith system uses two counter-rotating discs, each fitted with 5 symetrical blades, mounted vertically.

A propulsion unit similar to the ones that will be installed in the tugs.
Picture courtesy Voith Schneider
Click picture to view enlargement

The system, which was invented over 100 years ago, gives vessels the ability to sail in any direction and turn on their own axis, ensuring the highest levels of maneuvrability and safety. Each tug will be equipped with two MAN engines giving a total of 5300KW of installed power, and will be able to perform a bollard-pull of 70 tons, making them the most powerful tugs in the TNPA's fleet.

The quality of workmanship on the tugs is equal to anything available in Europe due to extremely stringent quality checks carried out at all stages of the building. South African Shipyards is ISO 9001/2000 certified by TUV Rheinland. In addition, the TNPA has a technical representative permanently onsite to conduct checks and he is backed-up at all stages by an inspector from French standards organisation, Bureau Veritas.

Gontier says he still cannot really believe how rapidly South African Shipyards has taken off since it was bought by himself, another private investors and BEE partner Hlahlindlela Investments in January 2006. The company also allocated 12% share to its employees trust. Using finance obtained from the KwaZulu Natal Growth Fund, the investors obtained the prime Bayhead property, complete with buildings and equipment.

The NPA was about to order a number of tugs and the purchase was made with a view to winning the orders or, if that failed, of establishing a marine and ship repair park to attract tenants. In the event, a number of tenants did move in but it wasn't long before an order for three tugs was obtained and, six months later, an order for two more.

No ships had been built in Durban for a number of years but the company found that there were still a sizeable number of people available with the necessary skills. This includes Jurgen Cobarg, who became the company's shipbuilding general manager.

The construction of the first vessel started in August 2007 and others have followed at regular intervals since then. The vessels are being built in a 320m long and 30m high building on a production line large enough to beggar my imagination when I visited it. A second hall of some 300m long is being used to fabricate smaller components.

The company is not immune to skills shortage faced by industry as a whole, and recently embarked on an apprenticeship program. Regular intakes of apprentices are now being taken on for training in various disciplines including boiler-making, electrical, fitting, welding, mechanical, and rigging. It is generally accepted that each shipbuilding job has a downstream multiplier effect of eight. This means that around 2000 people are depending for their livelihoods on the vessels now being built at South African Shipyards.

Gontier is very optimistic about the future of his company, saying that enormous interest is already being shown by foreign owners in Durban-built vessels. He also said that the company had recently played host to Vice Admiral Mudimu, Chief of the South African Navy, and he said he was hopeful that the company would get involved in the building of inland and offshore patrol vessels for the navy.

The signs were also good, he said, that foreign organisations were becoming interested in the company's expertise in building Voith-pattern harbour tugs and that, after completing the five on order from the TNPA, the company would hopefully be in the running for international orders for the same type of tugs.

Also helping to secure the company's future and create even more jobs is their recent establishment of a ship repair division, which completes afloat and dry dock repairs and provides riding gangs which can perform repairs while vessels are on the move. Management are astonished at the growth in that side of the business, which started off from a zero-base in November 2007 and grew rapidly to the stage where turnover burst over the R12-million mark in July, just over six months later.

Regarding proposed plans to do with digging out the area at Bayhead, to build more container handling capacity for the port, Gontier said that, as far as he was concerned, the company had a lease on the land until 2022. He pointed out that it had been estimated that it would cost around R300-million to move South African Shipyards to another site, and provide it with the same facilities it currently has.


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