Debmar Pacific sailing from Cape Town.Picture: Debmarine
Durban - South Africa, although it lacks its own merchant marine in terms of ships registered in this country, has never lacked for ships of interest, right back into the days of sail during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the little coasters that kept our ports and harbours supplied, the whalers that Durban in particular was famous for, our fascinating tugs and the grand Union-Castle liners and other passenger ships linking South Africa to the world.

This hasn’t changed in recent years.

A ship that has our attention this week is not new - she was built in 1977. Her name is Debmar Pacific, a 9 000-ton mining vessel owned and managed by Debmarine Namibia - a joint venture between De Beers and the Namibian government.

The ship is basically a dredger and her task is to dredge or mine the seabed for diamonds off the coast of Namibia just to the north of the Orange River mouth. She is in the news right now on account of receiving new generating sets from the firm of Wärtsilä in order to extend her working life and assist in reducing her fuel oil consumption.

According to Wärtsilä, the new equipment is more reliable and needs less maintenance, reducing disruptions in operations and expenditure.

“Offshore mining operations require reliable, cost-effective power,” said Domingos Valbom, general manager, De Beers Marine. “By investing in efficient, modern generating sets, we can significantly improve the availability of Debmarine Namibia’s vessels and thereby increase productivity. In addition, we are unifying the engine base to Wärtsilä engines on some vessels, including a recently completed new build.”

Last year De Beers Marine and Wärtsilä signed similar types of agreements to outfit new Wärtsilä gensets to Debmarine Namibia’s diamond mining vessels Grand Banks and Debmar Atlantic.

Wärtsilä is also engaged with an engine control system upgrade involving Debmarine Namibia’s diamond-mining vessel MAFUTA.

These diamond-mining vessels are unique and have a special place in South African marine history, and are the result of one man’s pursuit of a conviction that he could mine the seabed off the mouth of the Orange River to recover the diamonds washed downstream and into the ocean.

It was well-known that the seabed contained these diamonds flushed out to sea along the long course of the river, with its origins in the mountains of Lesotho. The difficulty was in recovering them, but this one man, a maverick named Sammy Collins, believed he could do it. His interest was sparked when bidding to lay an offshore pipeline off Oranjemund and despite scepticism from the experts, Collins pressed ahead with his barges and by 1962 was producing diamonds from the sea with a concession that extended from the Orange River mouth to Cape Diaz at Lüderitz.

Collins was eventually bought out by De Beers, which now controls much of this sector of the diamond mining industry. Debmarine, the shipping arm of the company, has introduced a number of its own innovations, including ships that can mine in deep water as opposed to shallow water mining.

The new ships not only dredge the sea floor but sort the diamonds from the sand, pebbles, shells and other objects on and in the seabed.

Staying with Sam Collins, lots can be written about this man who truly thought out of the box on most things. He and his company were involved in several contracts along the South African coast including the laying of pipelines at Saiccor on the South Coast and another off Durban.

It was during one of these latter contracts involving the then Durban Corporation that the wheels came off and he found his small working ship arrested and his company facing liquidation.

His little vessel was duly detained in Durban harbour on a berth at the Point, with the crew remaining on board pending some decision about moneys due to them. A guard was posted ashore to watch that nothing got taken from the vessel.

Collins was never short of enthusiasm for his own bright ideas, even if not shared by his detractors. Those who knew him well and worked for him would follow him anywhere and so when he visited the vessel on the pretext of a meeting with his crew he spun them a story of sunken treasure in a shipwreck off the Wild Coast. Would they sail with him and go look for it - he had a map, he assured them. All said yes and so a plan was hatched.

Stores were taken on board, with the security guard on duty ashore told that these were rations for the crew and necessary parts for some repairs on board. That explained why the engines had to be started to test those repairs. They were blocked in with another fishing boat on the outer side of Collins’ vessel, but quiet arrangements were made for the other to “sail” on the chosen morning - although apparently it never went far before returning to its mooring with a feeble excuse or two.

With the guard ashore not too concerned with all these comings and goings, Collins and his crew slipped their lines and pulled away.

By the time the city authorities had been alerted, the little ship was well on its way along the harbour entrance and the radio switched off, leaving them oblivious of calls to return.

Off they sailed down the South Coast and as has been the case in more recent times, there was no pursuit and the next few weeks were spent looking for the so-called treasure ship which was never found before returning to Durban and a rather unfriendly welcoming party.

Durban and its port have certainly had their characters over the years. The above events took place around the 1970s, not that long ago in the memory of some.

Whatever else he was, Sam Collins was an unforgettable man who left his mark on this country and should not be forgotten as the real pioneer of a now successful offshore diamond mining industry along the South African and Namibian west coast.

The Mercury