The name change of a port comes with significant costs and legal processes, writes Brian Ingpen.
The name change of a port comes with significant costs and legal processes, writes Brian Ingpen.

Gqeberha name change casts seals among the pilchards in the maritime family

By Brian Ingpen Time of article published Mar 3, 2021

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Cape Town - At the stroke of a pen, Port Elizabeth has become Gqeberha.

The name change is very politically correct, but so too would renaming the city Nelson Mandela Bay, thus further honouring South Africa’s Colossus among world and local leaders.

While name changes may suit political agendas and earn ticks in boxes, the process miraculously will not rid Gqeberha of its litter, its road potholes and other consequences of failed municipal services.

Apart from its effects on the wider commercial sector, the name change of a port casts seals among the pilchards in the maritime family.

How does a foreign ship’s officer call up port control – especially in an emergency – when the name of the port has a uniquely South African pronunciation?

Important also are the significant costs – inter alia expensive legal processes – associated with re-registering local vessels. By law, the port of registry is emblazoned on the stern of every ship.

Where the port’s name was simply painted on the stern, a seasoned deckhand with a pot of paint can paint out the old port of registry and replace it with the new port’s name.

Even then, a steady hand and eye will be necessary to ensure that the level of the name complies with the shape of the stern and that the letters are evenly-spaced, of even height and are upright.

Some shipowners will prefer to engage professional signwriters to replace the name of the port on the sterns of their ships – at a cost.

In many other cases, the port of registry – in welded-on steel letters – stands proud of the stern plating, the letters being affixed when the ship is built or renamed.

To change it, each letter of the name of the old port of registry – in this case 13 letters – will need to be cut off by an experienced oxy-acetylenetorch-bearing artisan, and the new name either painted over the scarred plating or new letters will need to be crafted and welded in place.

All the ship’s official papers will have to bear the new port of registry.

Every lifeboat, liferaft and lifering will need to have the old port’s name expunged and the new one painted on it, taking valuable time of the crew.

If a ship has one, her brass bell will need to be replaced at considerable cost.

Gqeberha has a fascinating maritime history. From early times, it served as an anchorage, and as the settlement and activities in the hinterland grew, shipping volumes increased.

Open to the south and south-east, the anchorage where ships worked cargo overside into lighters was exposed to occasional heavy swell and strong winds.

Before the harbour opened in 1935, more than 165 ships were driven ashore, plus 21 that went ashore in a three-day spell of frightful weather at the start of September 1902.

Even on relatively calm days, those operating the ships’ derricks had to be careful lest cargo was damaged or lost overboard.

Activities in the bay drew dozens of lorries and wagons to the Gqeberha waterfront that became extremely busy, especially when the Union-Castle mailship arrived in the anchorage with cargo from Britain.

Some merchants would auction cargo as it was landed from the ship; others repacked cargo for onward movement by train or overland transport.

Pressure from US car manufacturers who wanted to establish assembly plants in the area forced the construction of a harbour to land huge packing cases of knocked-down vehicles, too bulky to discharge safely into lighters in an open roadstead. The first large passenger ship to berth was Union Castle’s mail ship Warwick Castle in October 1935, and work on Quay No 2 and the tanker berth commenced.

Gqeberha harbour is very different now. To export iron ore and manganese from the Northern Cape, a bulk-handling facility was completed in 1963. When Saldanha Bay became the site for the major iron ore export terminal, the existing facility at

Gqeberha was converted to export manganese, a most successful operation that soon will move to Ngqura, 10 nautical miles from Gqeberha.

The fruit-growing regions of the Langkloof and nearby river valleys also moved large volumes of exports through the port, as did the arid central Karoo and Eastern Cape Midlands from which come thousands of tons of wool and mohair. The container terminal served the motor industry that imports vehicle parts from Europe and the Orient for the cluster of factories making vehicles, vehicle components and tyres.

The vicissitudes in container volumes, especially during the trade sanctions period and in recent slumps, plus the loss of most container shipments to Ngqura have caused a decline in container throughput. Vehicle carriers frequently dominate the skyline of the port as thousands of locally-produced cars are exported globally.

For real success, the future of Gqeberha’s harbour, currently declining in importance and scheduled to have other functions relocated to Ngqura, will need to be carefully planned, in tandem with its newer sister port across the bay.

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* Brian Ingpen is a freelance journalist and the author of eight maritime books.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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