Dramatic start to French frigate’s visit to South Africa


French surveillance frigate Le Nivose arrived in Cape Town on Tuesday, ahead of her regular patrol to the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, a patrol that has already seen bilateral cooperation with a medical emergency occurring before the vessel reached South Africa.

Under the command of Commander Arnaud Bolelli, the frigate left its base in Port-des-Galets, Reunion Island on 13 January 2020 for Cape Town, its one and only stop before returning to Reunion in a month’s time.

Bolelli explained to defenceWeb that due to the westerly winds, they start their patrol from Cape Town and then head south to patrol the French Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands of Crozet, Kerguelen and St Paul and Amsterdam in a counter-clockwise direction before returning directly to Reunion.

Whilst transiting to Cape Town this past Friday night, 200 nautical miles (370 km) off Durban, one of the 95 sailors on board took ill. So serious was the situation that the doctor onboard stated that the sailor required surgery within six hours.

Contact was made with the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in La Reunion, who in turn provided the details of the South African MRCC at Silvermine, Cape Town, in order to organise the evacuation of the sailor to the nearest hospital.

As the frigate made maximum speed for the KwaZulu-Natal coast, the South African Navy speedily arranged diplomatic clearance for the onboard Airbus Helicopters AS565 Panther to fly in South African airspace. Early that Saturday morning, at 150 nm (277 km) from Durban and in darkness, the ship launched the helicopter to take the sailor and accompanying doctor to the hospital. Having dropped off the ill sailor, the helicopter refuelled and returned to the ship.

“In less than six hours the sailor was in a hospital in Durban, which was what we needed,” said a relieved Bolelli, “We had great help from the (South African) MRCC, the South African Navy for the clearance and our Defence Attache to organize all of that.”

The sailor is recovering from his successful operation and will return to La Reunion shortly.

As for the mission, Bolelli says they will operate around the Kerguelen Islands, “which are natural reserves, so we try to protect them as much as possible.”

This includes maritime surveillance, fishing patrols and anti-piracy missions.

“We go there to make sure we have no we have no illegal fishing in these areas. On our way we will transit through South African waters (the French islands are near the South African Marion Island and Prince Edward Islands) and so we will report what we see to South Africa.

It is the close proximity of the two Economic Exclusive Zones that presents another opportunity for the French and South Africans to cooperate.

For this particular patrol, Sub-Lieutenant Kgabo Thamaga, a South African Navy Combat Officer under training, will join the ship for a month, until the Nivose returns to La Reunion.

Bolelli explained that she will work on board as an Officer of the Watch, “see how we work and we will also learn from her. So it’s a great opportunity to cooperate.”

An excited Thamaga says that she is looking forward to engaging with the Nivose crew, as well as looking forward to the French food.

It will be her first time at sea, so naturally she is a little nervous, but even with her little knowledge of the French language, she says that the experience will be “Amazing!”

The frigate will also take the opportunity to board ten French infantry to conduct a mission on Kerguelen Island. As the troops must learn to operate in harsh environments, they will endure a ten-day mission ashore with little assistance.

Says Bolelli: “Kerguelen, even in summer, is very harsh conditions!”

The importance of protecting and patrolling the EEZ is not lost on the French.

“It’s very important to be able to sail south like this, otherwise you cannot control what’s happening in these areas,” Bolelli explained. “You have illegal fishing or other activities like pollution and satellites are not enough, we have to (physically) conduct our mission.”

The frigate uses the onboard Panther helicopter to conduct surveillance flights, supported by satellite pictures.

Another example of the growing links between the French and South African navies is the opportunity afforded to Sub-Lieutenant Karabo Maleka who will join the French Navy B2M Multi-Mission vessel Le Champlain for three days when she transits from Durban to Port Elizabeth in mid-February.

The French Navy will be back in South African waters in early November this year for Exercise Oxide 2020, the joint maritime exercise held between the French naval forces stationed at Reunion Island and the South African National Defence Force. The exercise will take place in the Gordon’s Bay area of the Western Cape.

Le Nivôse departs Cape Town on 26 January 2020.