Mysterious NamibiaFebruary 1, 2017
Skeleton Coast by Amy SchoemanFebruary 3, 2017
Text Servaas van den Bosch | Archival photographs Walvis Bay Museum
Several hundred years of shipping have seen some weird and wonderful visitors docking in the port of Walvis Bay. One of few as well as one of the earliest ports on the west coast of Africa, Walvis Bay attracted the first Portuguese explorers, and today remains a port of call for many outlandish vessels
T he first and most famous visitor to Walvis Bay was the São Cristóvão, the flagship of Bartolomeu Dias, which anchored in the natural harbour in December 1487. Dias was on his way to find a new trade route to the East around the Cape of Good Hope. The explorer originally named the bay O Golfo de Santa Maria da Conceição, but the Portuguese subsequently changed it to Bahia das Baleas, or Bay of Whales, which evolved into the current Walvis Bay.
“We take this to mean that whaling already started in the early sixteenth century when the name change occurred,” says Floris Steenkamp, former editor of coastal gazette, the Namib Times. From his years of reporting on ships coming and leaving the port, Steenkamp recalls some illustrious visitors.
First – obviously before Steenkamp was on the shipping news beat – there were the whalers, mostly American ships that started coming to the area in as early as 1783, after the American War of Independence. They were joined by other whaling ships from France and Britain. “But typically it was the Americans who established whaling stations here and between 1789 and 1795, having a fleet averaging seven ships in the area every hunting season,” says Steenkamp.
In 1923 the whaling station was still active, with 296 whales being caught that year, but in the 1930s, with whaling ships becoming more advanced and processing their catch at sea, Walvis Bay became a repair facility for whaling ships.
Not many years later, in May 1943, the American merchant ship Cape Neddick ran into the German submarine U-195 in the waters off South Africa. The Cape Neddick was torpedoed three times, but somehow didn’t sink. Heavily damaged and on the verge of going down, it just made it to the safety of Walvis Bay a few days later.
In more recent decades, as the commercial importance of the port increased, a wide array of vessels made Walvis Bay their port of call. The port is a well-known stopover for naval ships transiting the South Atlantic. German warships again frequented the area, but this time on a goodwill tour. Almost every year since 2006, flotillas of three to five German navy ships have been docking in the harbour.
In 2010 the multi-purpose frigate Brandenburg, the anti-submarine frigate Niedersachsen and the support vessel Frankfurt am Main visited and organised tours for the Walvis Bay community.
“Other famous warships to frequent the port were the South African SAS Galeshewe, named after a famous hero in the fight against apartheid, and British and French ships such as the Cornwall and the Bougainville,” says Steenkamp.
A business that Namport embarked on – and which saw some out-of-the-ordinary vessels landing on Namibian shores – is the repair of oil rigs from West African and Angolan offshore fields.
“One of the first platforms to come was Transocean’s Sedneth 701,” recalls Steenkamp. The Sedneth is a semi-submersible vessel with a maximum drill depth of 7 260 metres.
“Later the large rig, Pride Cabinda, came to Walvis Bay. This was a jack-up rig, which means it has adjustable legs to make sure it sits stably on the seabed.”
“Sometimes brand-new oil rigs from Singapore also stop at Walvis Bay to take provisions and crew members on board before making the long crossing to Brazil or the Gulf of Mexico. Old, decommissioned rigs from South America call in at the port on their way to be scrapped in India.”
In recent years Walvis Bay with its impressive sand dunes and wetlands has become an attractive stopover for cruise liners. While the port is too small to accommodate giants like the Queen Mary 2, other passenger lines, including those of the Cunard fleet, often visit the town.
One of the more special cruise ships to visit was the Japanese Peace Boat. This ship, owned by a Japanese NGO, travels the world, giving its passengers the opportunity to experience new cultures, foster relationships and promote sustainable development.
“Another very special visitor was the Duyfken,” relates Steenkamp. “It’s a replica of a ship belonging to the East India Company that visited the area in the early seventeenth century.” The Duyfken, built at a Dutch shipyard in 1595, became the ship that discovered Australia for the Europeans. In a re-enactment of the historic voyage, a replica built in Australia in 1999 visited Walvis Bay.
“The Bible library ship Doulos visited several times,” remembers Steenkamp. “This was also a special ship. It had lots of books on board, mostly of a religious nature, and people from Walvis Bay could go on board to buy the books.”
Further research shows that the ‘World’s largest floating book fair’, as the Doulos is called, is actually the oldest seagoing passenger vessel in the world today. Built in 1914, just two years after the Titanic, the ships cruises the shores of Africa and Asia with over half a million books aboard for people who often lack direct access to bookshops.
In the same vein is the SV Concordia, which has also laid anchor at Walvis Bay. This sailing vessel hosts the Canadian Class Afloat Programme, on which 50 students sail around the world while being taught English literature, psychology, globalisation and physics.
Walvis Bay was also the port of call for the RMS St Helena, a ship that regularly brought passengers and goods to St Helena, the obscure island in the South Atlantic to which Napoleon was exiled.
“For many years ‘the Saints’, as we called the people from St Helena, would come to Walvis Bay and shop and dine here. It was a boost to the local economy. Unfortunately, after the 2008 financial crisis, it was no longer viable for the ship to dock here. Now it sails straight from Cape Town to St Helena.”
And then there is the story of the mysterious disappearance of the Michael S, the former MV Umfolozi.
“In September 2005, the dredger Ingwenya collided with the South African container ship MV Umfolozi near the port,” Steenkamp tells the story. “The ships made it to the dock, but the 133-metre long Umfolozi was too damaged and sunk. Over the next few months the ship was repaired using a technically difficult procedure and returned to the water. While still seaworthy it could no longer function as a container vessel. Now renamed the Michael S, it remained in Walvis Bay under a South African Court order because the owners couldn’t pay the bill for the repairs.”
The stories of what followed vary. According to some, the ship’s owners flew in a special team to ‘abduct’ the ship. Others say that the shipowners had been granted permission to conduct sea trials when it disappeared.
From newspaper accounts of 2006 it becomes clear that the Michael S made it out of port limits under ‘inexplicable circumstances’. Some crew members made it on board under false pretenses, tossed two security guards overboard and steered for open sea. The Michael S was never seen again.
This article was first published in the Flamingo June 2011 issue.