A diagram of Project Hotel.
Durban - So the SA Navy is to finally get its new hydrographic survey ship. On Friday, November30, the first steel was cut in a ceremony to mark the beginning of Project Hotel, the code name given for the building of a new ship to undertake surveys on request, not only along the South African coast, but elsewhere in Africa as well as the seabed of the vast Southern Ocean.

These include the South African dependencies of the Prince Edward group of islands, which includes Marion Island.

The project has huge ramifications for the local shipbuilding industry as the ship is to be built here in Durban at the Southern African Shipyards, which will simultaneously build a large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) barge for an energy company, bringing employment and generating large amounts of income to the Durban region.

The cost of Project Hotel, though not disclosed, is believed to be around R1.7 billion and will, together with the barge, create about 650 jobs for the duration, or part of the duration, of the building.

The history of hydrographic ships in the SA Navy goes back to the birth of the navy when a former Royal Navy survey ship HMS Crozier was sent out to Simon’s Town in 1921/22 along with two minesweepers that had been converted from trawlers, Eden and Foyle.

The crews of the three ships were “borrowed” from the Royal Navy for the journey to Simon’s Town, after which they were to join HMS Thistle, one of the two gunboats of the Africa Station based in South Africa.

Commanding the Crozier was Commander DE St M Delius OBE, who as an experienced hydrographer was to remain in command of the survey vessel once in South Africa. Once in Simon’s Town, Crozier would be renamed HMSAS Protea with a new South African crew, augmented where necessary with personnel of the Royal Navy.

This arose from a decision in 1921 at the Imperial Conference held in London in which South Africa’s annual contribution of £85000 (£50000 from the Cape and £35000 from Natal) would be replaced by South Africa undertaking responsibility for the hydrographic survey on local waters and the setting up of its own naval service, hence the two converted minesweepers accompanying the survey ship.

The minesweepers were renamed HMSAS Sonneblom and HMSAS Immortelle. All three ships would be manned from an expanded South African Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Thus the Hydrographical and Fishery Survey was at the very beginnings of the fledgling SA Navy, a proud if humble start that has gone unbroken ever since and is bound to reach new heights with the development of a new hydrographic survey ship.

Today it is other ships of the navy that attract much of the attention, the big and powerful missile-carrying frigates or the sleek silent killers of the deep, the submarine service. Even the three remaining ageing former missile boats, now converted into offshore patrol ships and based here in Durban, attract greater attention than does the current bearer of the proud SAS Protea name.

That is something that will always be the case - if a naval ship carries a gun she looks potent, whereas one that is painted white and lacks anything resembling war-making ability is likely to receive less attention. That won't change with the advent of the new ship, but nor will it detract from the highly improved capability of the ship to undertake vital surveys of the ocean floor.

Nobody knows when the first chart of the ocean was made, but it must surely have been not too long after the first seafarers began crossing wide sections of water, either to trade in goods or to carry people. Early charts would have been basic, we imagine, but on the other hand who knows. The ancient, but secretive, Phoenicians of 4000 years ago were noted for their ability to navigate long distances, which surely tells us that they made observations and kept records.

As did other Mediterranean peoples who used the “Middle Sea” to travel between islands and continents. And then there are the Chinese navigators - we know too little of their exploits but evidence again exists that tells us of their prowess. The Polynesians travelled immense distances across the Pacific Ocean; so, too, did the Indonesians and Malaysians who used the Indian Ocean to trade and settle other lands.

By the time the Portuguese arrived around Africa from Europe, traders from Oman and from India were already criss-crossing the oceans to and from East Africa. All these early travellers would have made charts showing where it was safe to sail and where it wasn't. Our modern-day hydrographers may have much more sophisticated equipment to pinpoint where points of danger exist, but the basics are the same.

Our new hydrographic survey ship and the men and women who will one day sail in her are carrying on a long and vitally important tradition. So the next time you see the all-white hull of the present SAS Protea sailing serenely along our coast, or entering port, give her more than a passing glance.

She is just as worthy as one of those grey-hulled frigates or all-black denizens of the deep, and her history goes back further.

The Mercury