The crew of a southern Cape fishing boat had a close call when a warship taking part in Exercise Good Hope VI accidently fired on them in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Commercial fisherman and skipper Anthony Day, with nine crew members, launched from Struisbaai harbour at about 02h30 in his 28-foot ski boat. They intended heading to Twelve Mile Bank, SSW of Struisbaai, to fish for Geelbeck.
However, in the pitch black of night and without warning, three cannon rounds landed in the water less than 15 meters in front of them.
Describing his “pretty horrific and very stressful” experience to defenceWeb, a traumatised Day explained that while he was waiting for his crew before launching, a charter boat operator arrived, towing a 14 foot radio-controlled speed boat. The black-painted boat featured a radar reflector and a German technician commenced pre-launch activities. Day spoke to them and was informed that the boat was going to be used as a target at the Denel Overberg Test Range, approximately 20 nautical miles to the northeast.
Another source told defenceWeb that although boats in the area of the test range are warned of shooting activities; those from Struisbaai Harbour don’t because “it’s quite a distance away from where they conduct their exercises.”
Day launched his boat whilst the target boat was still tied up alongside the quay. He headed in a south-south-westerly direction opposite to that of the Denel test range.
Approximately two miles from the fishing bank, and ten from the coast, Day saw, in the darkness, a ship with lights on approximately one nautical mile away, about to cross paths with him. Lights of another ship was seen further in the distance.
“All of a sudden, shots were fired,” Day recounted. Three heavy-calibre rounds, fired in quick succession, landed less than 15 metres in front of them. “My ears were ringing, my legs were shacking, I could smell the gunpowder,” Day said as his crewmembers began shouting at him, “there was pandemonium.”
Day immediately put on his bright deck lights so that the people on the boat could be seen. Day says that immediately after he turned his deck lights on, the warship “switched its lights off.”
“I immediately changed my course away from him and opened up to full throttle in a westerly direction.”
When they arrived at the fishing bank, Day radioed the naval ship twice, but without reply. He contacted Cape Town Radio, telling them he’d been shot at.
Cape Town Radio made contact with the warship and reported back to Day that he didn’t “have to worry as the commander of the ship says that they won’t be firing at me anymore. It was an error.”
It was at this stage, looking back at the ship with the lights of Struisbaai and Agulhas in the background, that Day could clearly see the outline of a warship moving slowly to the right, with only the mast and starboard lights visible.
Although Day has submitted a report to the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), he has yet to be contacted by the SA Navy.
SA Navy fleet headquarters in Simon’s Town said it was investigating the alleged incident and a statement would be issued in due course.
This week was the third operational week for Exercise Good Hope VI with German and South African frigates doing live fire exercises off the coast of the Overberg Test Range, a declared live firing area. Both tactical phases and missile firing were done using RIM-7 Sea Sparrow short range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons and RIM-116 rolling airframe missiles as well as Umkhonto infrared homing missiles, 76mm guns and smaller weapons.