Captain Kevin Tate Photo: Supplied
After meeting his huge, exuberant Rottweiler, I chatted at length with Captain Kevin Tate, recently retired from Smit Marine South Africa after an illustrious 44-year career in the conventional shipping, salvage, ocean towage and offshore sectors.

On two large tables in his home lay umpteen files, each meticulously encapsulating various operations in which he played a part.

Promoted to master of the anchor-handling tug Causeway Salvor in 1989, Captain Tate later commanded the bigger tugs, Wolraad Woltemade and John Ross (subsequently renamed Smit Amandla and currently SA Amandla).

He also commanded the polar ­supply and research vessel SA Agulhas on several voyages to the sub-Antarctic islands and to the Antarctic itself, where, apart from the usual responsibilities of a shipmaster, he also had to bear in mind the remoteness of the area in which his vessel was operating and the added pressure of knowing that, despite taking all precautions, ice navigation can be extremely hazardous.

The South African polar vessel undertook a special rescue mission down south in winter in 2002, when the ice-breaking multipurpose freighter Magdalena Oldendorff became trapped in the ice.

Tate took his ship on a 996-nautical-mile round voyage through “growing” ice to a position about 200 nautical miles from the trapped vessel so that the South African Air Force helicopters aboard could ferry 89 scientists and non-essential crew members from the ship to SA Agulhas. And they did it!

Hastening to sea in June 2004, Smit Amandla stood by the 149533-deadweight ore carrier Cape Africa that, when west of Cape Town on passage from Brazil to China, had reported water ingress in number 4 hold.

After establishing that Cape Africa had lost portside plating, and trans-shipping her fuel while the vessel was still well out to sea, authorities ordered Smit Amandla to tow the damaged vessel into False Bay, where the cargo would be trans-shipped to the side-geared bulker, Bandar, brought specially from the Arabian Gulf.

With a line made fast between the tug and the two ships in False Bay, Captain Tate had to keep them heading into the swell. In all, the tug was contracted for 78 days on a Lloyd’s Open Form, the international maritime no-cure-no-pay salvage agreement.

Bandar made two trips between False Bay and Saldanha Bay, carrying Cape Africa’s ore for discharge in the west coast port. Once her cargo had been trans-shipped, Cape Africa was towed to Cape Town for strengthening before heading to a foreign shipyard for permanent repairs.

In 2007, Captain Tate was exchanging pleasantries with friends in a restaurant near his tug’s berth at Quay 500 when his phone rang.

A car carrier, Tigris Leader, had suffered engine failure off Bakoven, and 17 minutes later, Smit Amandla cleared port. Off a lee shore, Tigris Leader’s large windage area compounded the danger of the situation, as she had grounded in an exposed position and may have become a total loss, while any leakage from her bunker tanks could have been catastrophic for the beautiful coastline.

However, the tug arrived, connected up to the ship, towed her clear of the granite outcrops along that coast, and held her about 20 nautical miles offshore until engineers had fixed the problem. The tow was released and she resumed her voyage.

During this operation, Captain Tate gained a rare achievement for a tug master by signing his third Lloyd’s Open Form salvage agreement, usually signed by shore-based personnel on behalf of the salvor.

In the international offshore sector, Tate also enjoyed many towing operations and the positioning of several FPSOs and offshore installations.

In 2017 he was the senior tow-master for another challenging operation: towing the large Dolwin Gamma HVDC transformer from Warnemunde to its float-over position in a North Sea wind farm, via Eemshaven, for shelter during a severe storm.

With only metres to spare on either side, the huge structure was towed through a narrow gap before its final installation.

In 2015 he was also the senior tow master from Haugesund to the North Sea during the earlier installation of the semi-submersible HVDC transformer Dolwin Beta.

And there are more. In the final decade of his career, Captain Tate was involved, as salvage master, in more than 20 international and local operations.

Among local projects were the wreck reduction of the barge Margaret in Jacobsbaai in 2010, and refloating the tanker Phoenix that grounded north of Durban the following year.

His last salvage operation, last year, was as on-scene commander and tow master during the devastating fire aboard the huge container vessel Maersk Honam in the Arabian Sea.

These are mere glimpses into Captain Tate’s illustrious career involving more than 100 operations of various kinds, and including command of SA Agulhas to one of the most remote and hazardous parts of the world.

These, plus his pioneering work to document salvage, towage and other procedures, make his career unique. He is maritime leader of our time.

Ingpen is a teacher at Lawhill Maritime Centre