Supreme Court reduces boat charter’s R5.5 million High Court reward to just R80 000

Outside the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Outside the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Published Jul 21, 2023


Cape Town - A Simon’s Town boat charter that towed a robotic submarine owned by mining firm De Beers back to safety after it ran aground on rocks, has had its R5.5 million salvage reward from the High Court reduced to just R80 000 by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).

The matter goes back to 2017 when De Beers, which owns an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that it uses to map the seabed in its mining operations, signed a charter agreement with Harry Dilley (HD) for the charter of a work boat, the MV Nkwaza.

The boat, owned and skippered by Harry Dilley, the sole director of HD, was to assist in conducting sea trials in False Bay to commission new equipment installed on the AUV.

During the trials, the AUV ran aground near Simon’s Town.

When this happened, two commercial divers assisted De Beers in recovering the AUV, for a fee of R10000. The Nkwaza took up a position about 150 metres offshore.

One of the divers swam to the AUV with a rope which he secured to it, and using a rigging sling, he attached himself to the AUV.

The Nkwaza then towed the AUV with the diver on top of it to Simon’s Town harbour. The entire operation took about an hour.

Subsequently, HD sued De Beers for a salvage reward of R10m, later reduced to R5.5m, relying on Article 13(1) of the International Convention on Salvage to which South Africa is a signatory.

De Beers denied that the recovery of the AUV was a salvage operation, and argued that HD was obliged to tow the AUV under the charter agreement.

The High Court ruled that HD’s towage of the AUV was voluntary, and that it was therefore entitled to a salvage reward and fixed the reward at R5.5m.

On appeal, the SCA decided that the High Court was correct in finding that HD’s services were rendered voluntarily and that it engaged in a salvage operation, but R5.5m was out of proportion to the services rendered.

As the towage was uneventful, the SCA ruled a reward of R80 000 was fair to both parties.

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Cape Argus