Naval blunder

David Erickson, Simon’s Town

After a 10-week deployment to participate in Exercise Ibsamar V with the Indian and Brazilian navies, including courtesy calls in Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Tanzania, it might have been expected that SAS Spioenkop (F147) would arrive back in Simon’s Town on Thursday March 24 with a degree of naval tradition and fanfare.

What actually happened was something of a travesty, and had more to do with lack of discipline and poor seamanship.

The SA Navy’s two newest tugs, Imvubu (ZSWL) and Inyathi (ZSXK) were positioned off the harbour entrance in a stiff south easterly breeze, ready to take up their escort positions off Spioenkop’s starboard bow and stern respectively.

It was immediately obvious that there would be no smart line-up of officers and other ranks, equispaced at the ship’s rail, to acknowledge the greetings from the small crowd of dignitaries, relatives and loved-ones that were awaiting the ship’s arrival at the Bullnose. All that was offered was a motley collection of a few dispirited “passengers” in various modes of casual dress, mooching around on the afterdeck.

Admiral HH Biermann SAN, in his foreword to the book Historical Simon’s Town, wrote: “It is history which supplies the tradition which is the mainstay of morale in any fighting service and gives to each member a pride in it.”

To many observers, it seems that the navy has now abandoned “tradition” as the once familiar rhythm of sounds, sights and activities progressively fall away.

What happened next as the trio of vessels headed for the harbour entrance, was an outstanding example of rank bad seamanship and lack of discipline. Both tugs started to spray water from their fire-fighting monitors to demonstrate “welcome home” to Spioenkop. This simple display then deteriorated as the lead tug unleashed its full deluge directly on to the stern tug. This must have reduced visibility to zero, on a vessel positioned a mere couple of metres from a frigate moving at some speed. Loss of station in poor visibility has in the past led to disaster – a real and unnecessary risk to the Inyathi, but no doubt the crew of Imvubu enjoyed their sister vessel’s discomfort as they continued to direct the deluge for some minutes.

Altogether, a sloppy and sad epilogue to the smartly-executed boatwork and ship manoeuvres that once characterised Simon’s Town as a Naval Port in days of old.

* This letter was sent to the South African Navy for a response, but by the time this edition went to print, they had not yet responded.