The poor condition of the fisheries research and patrol vessels taken over by the South African Navy has meant is has taken six months for the majority of the vessels to be brought to operational readiness.
Briefing the media at Simon’s Town Naval Base on Friday, Rear Admiral (JG) Bravo Mhlana (Director Force Preparation) noted that the South African Navy (SAN) was not happy with the standard of the vessels received from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).
As DAFF had been experiencing problems with awarding a tender to civilian maritime companies to operate their patrol and research fleet, an Inter-Ministerial Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed with the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans on 30 March 2012. This entailed the SAN taking over and performing the shipping management functions of the DAFF vessels (previously administered by Smit Amandla Marine) with effect from 1 April 2012, for a period of 12 months.
A subsequent Implementation Protocol dated 13 April 2012 designates the SAN as the managers of the DAFF vessels and by implication transferred responsibility for operations and technical upkeep of the vessels to the SAN.
The DAFF fleet includes the fisheries research vessels Africana, Algoa and Ellen Khuzwayo and the patrol vessels Sarah Baartman, Lilian Ngoyi, Victoria Mxenge and Ruth First. The Algoa was subsequently transferred to the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Mhlana said that prior to the signature of the MoU, DAFF had indicated to the Navy that the vessels were seaworthy and in excellent condition. “But when we received them,” Mhlana explained, “the meaning of ‘excellent condition’ was then under question.”
Upon inspection it found that the vessels were not up to the required naval maintenance standards. Mhlana noted that the vessels were classified seaworthy by the Classification Society, which determined the safety of vessels going to sea. “DAFF were of the view that the ships were in excellent seagoing condition. But we found out that there are items that need maintenance before we can actually take them to sea according to our laid down maintenance articulations,” added Mhlana.
“Safety standards, naval procedures and readiness inspections applicable to all SAN vessels are being strictly enforced aboard all DAFF ships. In addition, defective equipment onboard these vessels identified upon delivery, and categorised as critical to safety and operational effectiveness had to be repaired,” said Mhlana.
“But maybe to be fair to the merchant side of things, I think their focus is on the business side and getting ships to go and do what they are supposed to do,” Mhlana added.
When the Implementation Protocol came into effect, the Navy was put under pressure by DAFF to put the vessels to sea immediately. Such was the case with research vessel SAS Africana, which put to sea to conduct a survey, only to cancel the voyage and return to harbour a few days later.
Mhlana explained that the Navy hadn’t had enough time to learn and understand the systems of the ship and upon detailed inspection by engineers, found that, according to the Navy’s standards, it was in a poor state.
Mhlana said that the Navy was given two months to sort out the issues before the next sailing. “Within that two months we turned that ship around to levels where now…we felt safe to put our people on board and conduct the work that needs to be done.”
Whilst conducting repairs, training and readiness inspections on the vessels, the Navy was forced to utilise its own warships, namely the minehunter SAS Umzimkulu, strike craft SAS Galeshewe and Valour Class frigate SAS Amatola to undertake the role of the fisheries patrol vessels.
“We have now reached a stage where vessels from the DAFF fleet are now able to conduct their designated operations safely and successfully under naval command,” said Mhlana.
The Navy noted that since SAS Africana had been brought up to the required standard, she has had an extremely busy schedule, currently due to conduct her third (pelagic) survey, which is due to be completed on 14 December 2012. The West Coast survey is due to commence on 8 January 2013, which will be completed just prior to a scheduled Scientific Charter which will span the period 5 to 26 February 2013.
However, SAS Africana suffered a power failure when water got into her tanks. The SAS Amatola was sent to fetch her and power was restored just as Amatola arrived. She is in port for two to three days for investigations and rectification. She will then go back out on research duties.
Two of the fisheries patrol vessels, namely the SAS Ruth First and the SAS Victoria Mxenge, are currently back in service. The latter is now busy in her third patrol. These vessels have a small contingent of DAFF inspectors onboard in order to police fishing.
However, the other three vessels are still undergoing maintenance. The status of these vessels, as noted by the SAN, is as follows:
Research vessel SAS Ellen Khuzwayo is presently undergoing scheduled engine overhaul, due for completion by 5 November. Readiness inspections will be carried out after the maintenance work and prior to deployment.
The patrol vessel SAS Sarah Baartman is scheduled to be docked in mid-December for her Lloyd’s class inspection. Class inspections are mandatory for “non-naval” vessels. Extensive maintenance for these inspections is necessary.
The patrol vessel SAS Lilian Ngoyi is about to have a W6 level service. As her engines have reached the nine thousand hour mark, they will have to be completely overhauled. This will mean that the engines will have to be removed from the ship. This is extensive work that has never before been undertaken on this class of ship and the estimated completion date is 15 January 2013.
The vessels alongside in Simon’s Town, Mhlana was quick to point out, “are busy with maintenance activities determined prior to their transfer to SAN Command and would have been in a similar condition in the care of any other appointed vessel manager.”
The SAN provides approximately 90% of the crew for the patrol vessels and 85% for the research vessels, with the balance of the crew made up of DAFF members who carry out the fishery inspections and specialist researchers respectively.
In terms of the MoU, the SAN provides DAFF with a monthly invoice for all the personnel, operational and maintenance costs. This includes the additional training naval personnel had to undertake in order to qualify on the civilian systems fitted aboard the vessels.
Mhlana confirmed that the monthly invoicing was indeed taking place, but hinted that the reimbursement from DAFF may not be as timeous as the Navy would like.
Mhlana would not be drawn into commenting on the possibility of the SAN continuing to operate the DAFF vessels once the existing contract concludes on 31 March 2013.
Mhlana explained that it will always be a challenge for any organisation like the South African Navy to receive six ships on one day and to think there will not be any issues. “I can tell you that we have managed to staff the DAFF vessels up to the requirements that we agreed on between ourselves and DAFF. All the ships that are now on patrol are actually fully manned, fully staffed with competent people, with the right qualifications for the job. That is why I think we’re successful so far in those patrols and the service we have already undertaken,” said Mhlana.