The recent crisis in the Suez Canal with a large container vessel blocking this important sea route between the West, the Middle East and the East brings back memories of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. It was in fact the era before the large scale introduction of container trade – when it was not massive vessels getting stuck in the canal, but rather the wars between the Israeli’s and their neighbours which caused the problems.

Back in the last century – it does sound like an awfully long time ago – the Suez Canal crisis caused most vessels to be diverted around the Cape at the Southern point of Africa. It was a booming time for the shipping business and newspapers reported every day on the buildup of ships in Table Bay where they had to wait to take on bunkers. We came across an old photograph showing the old port of Cape Town filled with vessels in 1957 – many of them the mail ships which serviced the North-South trade between South Africa and Europe.

The scene in Cape Town in 1957

This diversion of traffic around the Cape also had its dangers. The Southern Seas are notoriously rough and large tanker of between 200 000 and 300 000 tons often got into trouble. One shipping source once told us that these large vessels got many ‘beauty spots’ or major dents in their hulls – caused by the massive waves rolling up to the Southern African coast from the deep South Atlantic.

During these times there were major disasters too. Think of the famous Wafra affair – the massive tanker that eventually had to be scuttled by the South African Navy off the cost due to damage during a collision.

In Fredo’s radio and tv journalist days he remember clambering into the holds of another huge tanker that had been involved in a collision off the Tzitsikamma Coast and had been brought to Cape Town. The part of the ship had been gutted by fire and the crude oil had left a sticky mess. As good journalists should do, we climbed all the way down through this sticky mess with our cameras untill we stood in the gaping hole caused by the collision – just above the water level. Through this hole we looked at Table Mountain across the harbor.

During these years the South African government supported the deployment of two massive tug boats, the John Ross and the Wolraad Woltemade to be on standby to deal with these disasters. Shackleton aircraft of the Air Force were equipped to fly for up to 22 hours in a single flight to deal with search and rescue operations in the South Oceans. If, as a journalist, you were invited to fly with the aircraft, you had to be prepared to sit in your tiny seat for all this time. Searching for stricken vessels in these waters was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Searching the oceans for stricken vessels

More often than not – after 22 hours – you would step onto the ground at Ysterplaat Air Force base in Cape Town – having seen nothing but the expanses of the blue ocean below you. Tomorrow the Shackleton would fly again – and having had such a long day, you would almost gratefully offer your colleagues this exciting opportunity ‘to see the Southern Ocean’ from the air.

When we heard of the latest blockage in Suez, we thought here we go again. This time however it would have been entirely different. The trades by sea has probably increased 100 fold since the 1970’s. The shipping vessels are much larger. One wonders if these massive container ‘floats’ would be able to sail around the Cape. There has been reports of these massive vessels breaking in two in mild and meek waters – what would happen if they have to face the massive ‘rollers’ of the Southern Oceans? With the massive increase in shipping over the past fifty years, surely the risk of these massive disasters would have increased by ten fold by now.

As it is, under normal conditions, many containers are lost overboard every year in these waters. Yachtsmen will tell you that in their sailing boats there is nothing more scary than hitting a submerged container.

These days we also do not have large powerful tugs to help in times of disaster – and one wonders if the Shackleton aircraft can still fly.

The whole shipping world probably sighed collectively in relief when Suez was cleared. Without it there would be a distinct possibility that world trade as we know it today would implode.