SA Navy ensures continuous hydrographic services amid capability gap

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Last week, the South African Navy (SA Navy) hosted a seminar in Cape Town to celebrate World Hydrographic Day, underscoring the critical role of hydrography in ensuring maritime safety and efficiency. Despite facing capability gaps, the SA Navy continues to deliver quality hydrographic data and charts to the fleet, the local and international maritime communities without interruption.

World Hydrographic Day, observed globally on 21 June, focuses this year on the theme: “Hydrographic Information – Enhancing Safety, Efficiency and Sustainable Marine Activities.”

In his opening address, Rear Admiral Musawenkosi Nkomonde, Flag Officer Fleet of the SA Navy, highlighted the critical role of hydrography in various maritime activities, from safe navigation to environmental planning and maritime defence. He illustrated hydrography’s historical significance by referencing its pivotal role in the success of the D-Day landings during World War II, particularly in the creation of Mulberry Harbours to supply invading forces.

Tsepiso Taoana-Mashiloane from the Department of Transport provided insights into South Africa’s international obligations under the Convention on the International Hydrographic Organisation, ratified in 1968. South Africa is also a member state of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and bound by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Commander Nicolette Le Roux, Acting National Hydrographer, elaborated on the synergy between the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the SA Navy Hydrographic Office (SANHO), stressing the importance of hydrography.

Former SA Navy Captain Theo Stokes, appointed the first National Hydrographer under the Hydrographic Act in 2020, shared his perspective on the progress made in South African hydrography. He highlighted the successful upgrade of the Hydrographic Office and the transition to a new production system, which ensured uninterrupted service.

Commander Carina Grove, Acting Project Officer for Project Hotel, discussed the future of hydrographic capabilities, focusing on the replacement of the aging Hydrographic Survey Vessel (HSV) SAS Protea, which has served for 52 years, with a newer vessel.

The contract to acquire a new HSV was signed in December 2017 with Durban-based Sandock Austral Shipyards. Project Hotel is more than just a single vessel replacement. It includes acquiring smaller survey motorboats, a sea boat and upgrading SANHO infrastructure.

While the main HSV is only 55% complete, Survey Motor Boat (SMB) 1 has been delivered with SMB 2 and 3 ready for delivery alongside the main vessel. The Sea Boat has successfully completed Sea Acceptance Trials and is in preservation. The SANHO upgrade was completed in late 2020, ensuring continuity in providing hydrographic services.

In response to a question by defenceWeb, Nkomonde addressed the delays with the new HSV: “Yes, it is true that there is a delay in the delivery of the hydrographic survey vessel. However, the function hasn’t stopped. Through the use of the Survey Motor Boats that have been delivered and the upgrade in the Hydrographic Office, the capability is being continued. We are also partnering with other states … so that we to close the gap where we will be lacking until delivery [of the new HSV].”

“Training, work is carrying on. Nothing has stopped,” he emphasised, “You cannot stop providing the services.”

Le Roux added that using Survey Motor Boat One is not only valuable for obtaining data for the Navy’s own surveyors, but also as a training platform to gain experience.

Despite challenges, SANHO has maintained uninterrupted service delivery. Stokes explained that SANHO transitioned from the old legacy system to a new production system, ensuring no disruption in service. The introduction of a print-on-demand system allows the production of charts in-house, moving towards a data-centric approach.

He highlighted the proactive measures taken to maintain hydrographic services: “We (via Simon’s Town-based Institute for Maritime Technology) installed data loggers (on merchant vessels) and established data-sharing agreements with the survey industry. In the last two years, we’ve made significant progress in establishing partnerships and ensuring continuous service delivery despite limited survey capabilities.”

The Hydrographic Office adheres to strict bilateral agreements for data sharing and sales, contributing revenue to the National Treasury. Stokes noted that the Hydrographic Office, unlike the rest of the Department of Defence, meets its financial obligations and faces minimal budget cuts.

“So despite the fact that there is a limited survey capability, the actual delivery of products and services, from the branch itself, has not stopped and in fact, the only finding (of a recent) IMO audit made against the Hydrographic service in delivering the way it’s supposed to in terms of SOLAS was the fact that we’ve got a diminished survey capability at this point.”

Despite facing capability gaps, the SA Navy’s commitment to providing reliable hydrographic services remains steadfast, ensuring the safety, efficiency and sustainability in marine activities.