Visible shipwrecks: the barge Margaret

One of the most spectacular shipwrecks I’ve ever seen was that of the 100 metre long unmanned barge Margaret, which ran aground at Jacobsbaai on the West Coast on 24 June 2009. Margaret was carrying two halves of a floating dry dock and twelve river barges (positioned atop each other in side by side pairs, with two rows of three at the bottom). She was under tow by the tug Salvaliant from the Chinese shipyard where everything was manufactured, to Rotterdam. The barges were destined to transport cargo up and down the navigable rivers in Europe. During a winter storm, the tow parted, and Margaret and her cargo ran hard aground on the rocky reef just outside Jacobsbaai.

The eight storey pile of barges in December 2009
The eight storey pile of barges in December 2009

Salvaging the barges proved to be an almost intractable problem, so Margaret was still sitting firmly a couple of hundred metres off the beach when Tony and I visited six months after her grounding, in late December 2009. The stack of barges and two halves of a floating dry dock (the blue parts of the structure in the images) was clearly visible from a great distance. The sight was even more incongruous than that of the Eihatsu Maru aground on Clifton beach, which was  a wreck-lover’s dream (but unfortunately not a permanent arrangement).

View of the barge Margaret from atop the sand dunes at Jacobsbaai
View of the barge Margaret from atop the sand dunes at Jacobsbaai

I wish I’d taken a picture of what the wreck looked like as we drove down the hill into Jacobsbaai, but you can see one here if you scroll around a bit. It looked like an office block rising out of the ocean. The wreck was so large that it was visible from almost every point in the sleepy town, and the brain struggled to make sense of the sight. It’s clear from the images what a challenge it must have been to tow the barge in the wind, as the forty to fifty metre high, perfectly flat sides of the stack must have provided tremendous resistance in a gale.

Portion of the barge wreck at Jacobsbaai
Portion of the barge wreck at Jacobsbaai

The owner ran out of money to continue salvage in February 2010, and Margaret was becoming increasingly damaged and unstable as time passed. The risk of the upper barges coming loose during another storm, and drifting away to cause a hazard to other ships or coming ashore on the beach, was great. It was decided by SAMSA to persist with an attempt to reduce the wreck, at taxpayers’ expense. Any money obtained by selling off the salvageable barges would go towards defraying costs.

During the salvage work on the barge Margaret
During the salvage work on the barge Margaret

Salvage

Tony and I visited the wreck again in April 2010, after the demolition that freed six of the topmost barges. The seaward wall of the upper piece of floating dry dock, weighing 91 tonnes, had been cut away to allow the barges to slide off freely.

The remains of the barge Margaret in April 2010
The remains of the barge Margaret in April 2010

Over two tons of explosives were used in total.  Small (125 kilogram) explosive charges were set off one after the other to create a ripple effect that dislodged the top six barges. These were towed to Saldanha, and then sold.

The wreckage of Margaret and her cargo in April 2010
The wreckage of Margaret and her cargo in April 2010

If you like reading court judgments, here’s one in which the owners of the barges attempt to claim damages (massive ones) from the owners of the tug Salvaliant. There’s also a great collection of photos of the wreck in her various incarnations here.

The wreckage of Margaret in late April 2010
The wreckage of Margaret in late April 2010

In late April 2012, Tony snapped this lucky shot of two of the barges leaving Simons Town harbour under tow. They’d been moored against the harbour wall for at least a month, to the consternation and fascination of the local paddling community.

Two of the salvaged barges leaving Simons Town harbour in April 2012
Two of the salvaged barges leaving Simons Town harbour in April 2012

The remains of Margaret and her cargo were further demolished down to sea level and below, and now comprise an artificial reef. Fortunately there was no fuel or other pollutants in the stack of barges, which made the process significantly less polluting than it might otherwise have been.

The barge Margaret today

Tony and I visited Jacobsbaai to check out what remains of Margaret and her cargo in September 2018. The path to the wreck, which was formerly blocked off by hazard tape and “salvage in progress” signs, is wide and easily walkable. One can go right up to the rocks and view the wreckage from reasonably close up. Watch your foothold here, as it can be slippery and the rocks aren’t all firmly packed.

The remains of the barge Margaret and her cargo
The remains of the barge Margaret and her cargo

Look out for a small memorial to one of the salvors, who passed away in an accident on the wreck during the course of the salvage operation.

Sharp wreckage sticking out of the sea
Sharp wreckage sticking out of the sea

Parts of the wreck look like shark fins in the water, and it is possible that even more of it is visible at low tide.

The remains of the barge Margaret in 2018
The remains of the barge Margaret in 2018

You can find the wreck by turning off the R399 towards Jacobsbaai, and continuing towards the coast until the road becomes gravel. Carry on this road, and when you reach a T junction take a right turn to circle around the tiny, sheltered bay in front of you. When you can’t drive any more – there will be a small housing development in front of you – park the car and either walk up the steps on the dune to get onto the beach, or, preferably, through the houses. The paved area will give way to a wide gravel path that the salvors used to access the wreck. Continue straight along it and you’ll soon spot the wreckage on the rocks ahead and to your right. Co-ordinates are approximately -32.964140, 17.881612.

Path to what remains of the barge Margaret
Path to what remains of the barge Margaret

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks, and this post.

Seli WHAT?

After our team of relay swimmers completed the Lighthouse Swim, Tony and I made our way back towards Granger Bay via a meandering route that included a search for the buoy marking the Seli 1, off Blouberg beach. We did not find it.

The Seli 1 under Table Mountain
The Seli 1 under Table Mountain

What we did find was quite disturbing: a hissing, pulsating patch of water beneath which the rusty wreckage of the Seli 1 lies, very close to the surface. There was no wind and very little swell when we were searching for the wreck, and initially we thought it was a school of baitfish disturbing the surface in that way. Fortunately we approached the spot slowly, because if we’d ridden over the wreckage this would be a different kind of blog post altogether.

The sea reveals the Seli 1
The sea reveals the Seli 1

We rode around the spot as close as we dared, watching the image of the objects below us on the sonar. The buckled plates of the wreck, where the SA Navy divers did their work with explosives to reduce it below the waterline in 2013, were clearly visible. The wreckage – particularly the shallowest part pictured above – is a definite hazard to any boat with a keel. We couldn’t tell exactly how much clearance there is between the top of the shallowest part of the wreck and the surface, but it didn’t seem to be more than half a metre. I hope it’s more than that, and I also hope that SAMSA pays attention to our request for a replacement marker buoy on the wreckage to warn ships (but considering how many channels of communication I had to try before not getting some kind of error, I haven’t a lot of hope).

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Flying the drone at Glencairn

The Else river at Glencairn
The Else river at Glencairn

We took the drone down to Glencairn Beach one evening so that I could stroll and enjoy the sunset, and Tony could fly a bit. The SA Agulhas (now a SAMSA training vessel) was in False Bay, seen near Roman Rock lighthouse. Tony hoped absently that it had run aground, thus supplying us with a new wreck to dive.

Roman Rock & SA Agulhas in the distance
Roman Rock & SA Agulhas in the distance

There had been a bit of winter rain, so the Else River was in full flood. The waves on the beach were small and quiet. The sand seemed impossibly smooth and glossy. The colours of the sea and sky melted into one another near the horizon. It was one of those evenings that calms you down, regardless of how the day has been.

Here’s a little bit of Tony’s video from the evening:

Surviving underwater in an air bubble

A news story in June resonated uncomfortably with me: a Nigerian sailor survived for two days in a pocket of air trapped beneath the tugboat he was in, which capsized in heavy seas. The tug was servicing an oil platform off the Nigerian coast.

I was immediately reminded of the Miroshga, an unseaworthy whale watching vessel that capsized in appalling conditions off Hout Bay in October 2012. The boat had its bilge pump installed UPSIDE DOWN, and was rated for over 40 passengers when it’s only five metres longer than our boat – which can take seven passengers (and when Seahorse is fully loaded, she feels full). Furthermore, the Miroshga hadn’t had a SAMSA inspection since fundamental changes were made to the vessel and its engines. The money-hungry decision to head out in a 25 knot south easterly wind and high seas was incredibly irresponsible.

Most people who go on seal cruises, whale watching or cage diving don’t spend half their lives on or near the sea, and simply don’t have the tools to assess whether conditions are safe and whether the boat is seaworthy. The passengers trusted the charter operator and SAMSA, and were badly let down. One man drowned, and three women were trapped under the boat in pockets of air for several hours, their limbs dangling in the freezing water, until rescue divers brought them out. I cannot imagine how traumatic the experience was for them. The rest of the passengers were rescued by a boat full of poachers, and by some incredible NSRI volunteers. It was a shameful day for the boat charter operators, and for those responsible for legislating and enacting maritime safety provisions in South Africa.

I digress. What happened in Nigeria? Out of the twelve crew on board the tugboat, ten bodies were recovered, one was lost, and the twelfth crewmember, Harrison Okene, was discovered alive, under the boat in 30 metres of water, surviving by breathing from an air pocket. Upon being rescued by divers sent to retrieve the crew’s bodies (can you imagine their shock at being greeted by a living person when they were expecting only corpses?), Okene had to undergo sixty hours of decompression in order to avoid being bent. He’d been breathing air at four atmospheres for two and a half days!

The incident prompted a fascinating discussion on StackExchange, a discussion forum for a variety of disciplines (I lurk in the statistics and quantitative finance forums). A user posed the question:

How large does the bubble have to be so that a person in it can have indefinite supply of breathable air?

The reason it’s even possible to have an “indefinite” supply of air is that if the bubble is large enough, oxygen will diffuse out of the surrounding water back into the bubble, and carbon dioxide won’t build up to fatal concentrations. You can read through the discussion if you want to (fun to see physicists arguing, nice if you like formulas!) or there’s a news article here about the theoretical bubble size that would be required for survival. Turns out the actual air bubble was close to the size calculated by the physicists that would allow survival for at least the time that Okene was submerged. Lucky, lucky man!

Update: Here’s the helmet cam video from one of the rescue divers who brought Mr Okene to the surface. The text at the beginning is wonky – persist. Note the South African accents! The diver’s voice is squeaky – I think because he’s breathing a gas mix with helium in it. It gets good at about 5:30 but it’s extremely interesting to watch in its entirety to see what sort of conditions these divers work in, and how the surface support talks them through their tasks and keeps them calm.

A tour of the SA Agulhas II

SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town
SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town

When the opportunity arises to go aboard a ship, we like to take it. Our most recent ship tour was of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior vessel. In celebration of World Oceans Day on 8 June, the Department of Environmental Affairs opened the SA Agulhas II polar research vessel to the public, and we popped down to the V&A Waterfront to see her.

The SA Agulhas II replaces the SA Agulhas, now in use as a training vessel by SAMSA. The SA Agulhas has been in service for many years, and was recently chartered by the organisers of The Coldest Journey to transport the personnel and machinery to Antarctica before the winter.

The SA Agulhas II was built in Finland at a cost of R1,3 billion, and is state of the art as far as safety features and redundancy is concerned. She has two completely separate main engines, and is capable of continuing underway if one engine room floods. The decks and outdoor staircases of the ship are heated to prevent ice build up, and her hull is capable of pushing through one metre thick ice at a speed of nearly 10 kilometres per hour. She will service Marion Island, Gough Island, and the SANAE IV base on the Antarctic continent.

Tony on the helicopter pad
Tony on the helicopter pad

The ship has room for two helicopters, with a large helipad and a hangar in which the choppers can be housed with their blades folded down. The hangar’s walls are heavily fire proofed, and look like a couch or quilt. The ship can carry 100 scientists and a crew of 45. The accommodation is lovely, with every cabin having natural light. I was ready to run away to become a polar explorer after seeing the cabins, but when we stepped out on deck into the freezing wind (remember, the ship was still at her berth in Cape Town) I changed my mind.

There are eight permanent laboratories on board, and six containerised ones which can be lifted on and off the ship depending on what experiments are to be performed. Members of the scientific personnel spoke to us about some of the work that is done on board, including sampling the carbon dioxide content of water at various depths and locations (the levels are affected by global warming), and collection of plankton in special devices that enable the scientists to measure the fecundity of a particular part of the ocean. Tony and I kind of hoped that the intern who told us that they give that information to fishing company I&J was joking or wrong, but sadly I suspect he wasn’t.

A CTD water sampler hanging over the moon pool
A CTD water sampler hanging over the moon pool

In the centre of the ship is a moon pool – just like a James Bond movie – through which instrumentation can be lowered into the ocean. It’s essentially a hole all the way through the hull, surrounded by the ship. The advantage of this is that it won’t ice over, and there is no chance of a heavy piece of machinery hung over the side of the ship causing problems of balance. There is a large door in the side of the ship through which instruments can be sent, a feature shared with the old SA Agulhas, but during long experiments it’s possible that the ship gets iced in and the instruments crushed. The device hanging over the moon pool in the photograph above is a CTD, or conductivity, temperature, depth water sampler. It measures those three variables at different depths by taking water into the cylindrical Niskin bottles that make up the array. These close at predefined depths, and the water thus obtained can be analysed on board.

The ship has thrusters and multi-directional propellors that enable her to move in almost any direction, rotate on the spot, and hold a position with incredible accuracy for hours on end, even in unfavourable sea condtions.

I was amazed by this ship, but also worried by her, half waiting for something to go wrong. We have a very sad habit in South Africa of completely dropping the ball environmentally (I’m thinking of the fisheries patrol boats gathering dust at the quay in Simon’s Town while the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries goes on fraudulent trips and accepts bribes), and squandering technology that could otherwise be used for great good. My hope is that the recognition from other nations that this is a special, one of a kind ship with capabilities unmatched by many other vessels will apply a form of peer pressure to keep the powers that be from wasting the SA Agulhas II’s capabilities. The scientists and crew who we spoke to on board are passionate, dedicated people. I hope they will be well served by those who set the maintenance budgets, scheduling and priorities of this special ship.

Buying a boat

We decided late in 2011 that we were ready to add a dive boat to our dive school. If you are buying a new boat it’s relatively easy as you just give the boat builder a budget, a list of requirements – this should include the “must have” items as well as the “nice to have” ones. The boat builder will come up with a solution to your problem and within 6-8 weeks you can be on the water.

Buying a 2nd hand boat

Buying a used boat is a little different. Again a budget and list of requirements is needed and then the hunt begins. Initially there seems to be an abundance of suitable boats and the next step is the arduous task of driving out to each and every one and looking at it, testing it, and deciphering the language and terminology used in the sales pitch. Some things are a given – things seldom look as good as they did on the internet. The “hours” on the motors always seem to have an angle that makes you feel you can’t quite believe the numbers and then the biggest catch is the buoyancy certificate. Be careful that the authority that issued the buoyancy certificate has the right to do so.

Finally make sure the person you are buying from is the registered owner and that there is no money outstanding on the boat.

We looked at lots of boats during our search...
We looked at lots of boats during our search…

Seaworthy

To operate a boat commercially a SAMSA seaworthy is required. The guidelines for the type of boat you have are found on their website and you can request a check list prior to presenting the boat for its inspection. This gives you the chance to ensure you meet all the requirements. It seems daunting at first but essentially it is a set of safety requirements that need to be met, and starting with a sound boat with valid documents is a good start.

... some more awesome than others
… some more awesome than others

Newsletter: All systems go

Hi divers

The rain has started and with it should come winter weather, clean cold and crisp water – yet its not quite here. I launched the boat in Hout Bay today and looked at the BOS 400, Duiker Island and the area of the MV Aster, and saw very brown water. False Bay is not looking all that great but it will certainly be the better option for this weekend.

Chapmans Peak this morning
Chapmans Peak this morning

Last weekend was a pretty dry weekend (I stayed indoors) and we did not dive at all. We took the boat out on Friday and ran down to Cape Point and back, on the way passing a dive boat full of very cold and unhappy divers as the visibility was very poor everywhere and the wind was howling. Sadly using Facebook as a guide to dive conditions is a little hazardous as in many instances the reported visibility is in direct proportion to the number of bookings for the next day that the poster has.

I have done a lot of work on the boat, a fair amount of testing and today secured a SAMSA seaworthy certificate. This was celebrated with a launch in Hout Bay. I do not intend competing with the current regular dive charters for a finite amount of divers but will instead focus on the dives no one else wants to do. Some of the plans we have will include midweek launches, diving sites seldom if ever dived, longer dives for those with good air consumption and perhaps cameras, and some exploration of places that appeal. So if diving to the limits of your computer rather that the limits of the rest of the divers on the boat appeals to you then watch this space. The boat is certified for eight people but we will try and keep the number of divers to four and will primarily do double tank dives. The practice of hauling the boat in and out of the water between dives has never appealed to me and I will do my best to avoid this.

Mozambique

Mozambique is booked, and this being a quiet time of the year the camp and dive centre is not full so if you have a change of heart there is still time to add you on. Flights will start becoming more expensive but are currently available. Those of you who are confirmed will hear from me in the next day or two.

Looking out to sea in Hout Bay this morning
Looking out to sea in Hout Bay this morning

Cape Town Dive Festival

This is going to be quite an event and bookings are coming from all over the country. We are going to book the following dives so if you want to dive with us go to the dive festival website and book:

Friday 10 August

1150 SAS Pietermaritzburg

Saturday 11 August

0920 Fan Reef

1220 Seal Rock

For the Gerards, Cecils and Goots, book yourselves on the SAS Fleur post haste as it will soon be full. You can in fact choose any of the dives that interest you and we will arrange gear for anyone that needs.

Weekend plans

Our weekend plans are as follows, Saturday, Long Beach to finish a few Open Water students, Sunday boat dives (I think with Underwater Explorers) for those that need a boat. Where we launch from on Sunday will depend on water colour and wind conditions but this call we will only make later tomorrow or Saturday. Neither False Bay or the Atlantic are looking their best today so we will wait and see.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!