Thursday, July 19, 2018

Maritime Natal, its problems and its people

The steam tug Pioneer can be seen to the left of the photo, flag flying astern,ca 1860.
One encouraging event at Port Natal was the arrival of the tug Pioneer in 1859, the first steam tug in Africa. This acquisition, recommended by Milne, was used to tow a 'rake' across the bar at ebb tide. It sounds rather a Heath-Robinson notion but dragging the heavy rake across the  bottom disturbs the sand, the ebb tide carrying it out to sea. The Pioneer was fairly small but when the more powerful tug, Forerunner, was put into service it had a significant effect. It was however not enough to deepen the channel.

There were those in the Colony who were opposed to opening a channel e.g. the owners of the lighters that unloaded the ships in the outer anchorage and charged high fees for doing so. A deeper channel would mean loss of their livelihood.

Between the departure of Milne from the Harbour Works's stage several engineers tried their own ideas, largely unsuccesfully, to solve the entrance channel problem. They included Captain Vetch (the remains of whose pier can still be seen), James Abernethy, Sir John Coode, and C W Methven. The only obvious result was that Natal's treasury became depleted. Apathy set in, despite the increased volume of shipping due to the Zulu War and the First Anglo-Boer War. Edward Innes was appointed Harbour Engineer in 1881 and started to drive piles for the continuation of Milne's North Pier, believing, like Milne, in tidal scour being the answer to the entrance difficulties.

Innes unfortunately died in 1887 at the early age of 34. Was there a curse on the port and all connected with it? Innes's friend and colleague Charles Crofts carried on Innes's work capably but depths of water over the Bar had increased only marginally. Methven was brought in, and dredgers were acquired and put to work. By 1904 the fleet of dredgers at Durban was the largest in the world. There was the Platypus, the Water Rat, the Otter, the Beaver, the Sand Piper and two hoppers, the William Bell and the John Milne (too little too late these memorials to the men concerned).

Acknowledgement: African Keyport, Capt Tony Pearson

No comments: