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Court saves diamond giant De Beers millions after robotic submarine mishap

The owner of a towing vessel initially wanted R10 million as a ‘salvage reward’ for towing a robotic submarine belonging to De Beers. Picture: File

The owner of a towing vessel initially wanted R10 million as a ‘salvage reward’ for towing a robotic submarine belonging to De Beers. Picture: File

Published Jul 21, 2023


Pretoria - A robotic submarine owned by diamond giant De Beers and used by it to map the seabed in its mining operations was the subject of a legal wrangle after it ended up washed ashore on the rocks near Simon’s Town.

The robotic submarine was re-floated and towed by the towing vessel called Nkwaza to Simon’s Town harbour. The owner of the towing vessel initially wanted R10  million as a “salvage reward” for towing the robotic submarine.

That amount was later reduced to R7  647  231.54, which De Beers Marine refused to pay. The Western Cape High Court subsequently ordered that De Beers pay slightly more than R5.5m.

De Beers, however, appealed against this ruling in the Supreme Court of Appeal. The SCA this week ordered that it had to pay R80  000 as “salvage fees”. The work boat, MV Nkwaza (the Nkwaza), is owned and skippered by Harry Dilley.

De Beers earlier concluded an agreement with Dilley’s company, Harry Dilley (Pty) Ltd, for the charter of a work boat to assist De Beers in conducting sea trials in False Bay, Western Cape, to commission new equipment installed on the robotic vessel.

The court was told that on the morning of October 27, 2017, the robotic vessel was launched for sea trials without any difficulty. At Dilley’s insistance, the area in which the trials were being conducted was moved north and east, because the wind was too close to the rocks at the Lower North Battery.

Dilley was not willing to operate his vessel near the rocky area. A short test dive was conducted at that site and no problem was encountered.

The robotic vessel then commenced a long dive of about three hours. Everything seemed to be in order, until it was discovered washed ashore on the rocks at the Lower North Battery near Simon’s Town.

It was decided that the robotic vessel had to be recovered as soon as possible to prevent further damage. The Nkwaza proceeded to the location of the robotic vessel. A diver secured a rope from the Nkwaza and the vessel was towed into Simon’s Town harbour.

The court was told the entire recovery operation lasted just over an hour.

The judge added that the salvaged value of the AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) at the relevant time was R2  766  000. The salvage operation was successful and carried out promptly.

He said looking at all these facts, it seemed to him that a salvage reward of R80  000 was appropriate.

Pretoria News