The SAS Durban – a 60-year-old wartime ship– partially sunk at the Durban harbour in June of this year. Thankfully, no one was on board at the time, and the ship had not fully submerged. The recently refurbished minesweeper is a significant floating exhibit at the Durban Maritime Museum – a space that offers insight into the importance of, and influence on, nautical culture in the city. However, the cause of the accident remains a mystery, with the eThekwini municipality employing professional diving teams to ascertain the exact cause.
Acting harbour master at the port, Captain Justin Adams, revealed that the SAS Durban took in water overnight and partially sunk as a consequence. While the reason for this accident remains unclear, pollutants are not believed to be the cause since the ship was clean and no oil was on board.
The Remarkable History of the SAS
While this maritime mystery prevails, the history of the ship is worth remembering. Its impressive history spans six decades, and it was the first ship to be built explicitly for the South African Navy. Prior to this, the South African Navy received old Royal Navy ships from Britain. The Royal Navy built about 120 of these wooden-hulled minesweepers and a quarter of these were sent to Commonwealth countries.
The SAS Durban is one of the few remaining ‘Ton’ class minesweeper ships in existence today. These warships were built to detonate or remove naval mines and thus ensured that waterways remained safe. Minesweeper ships, however, have a much longer history. They have been around since the 1800s, with the earliest recorded use being in the Crimean War. They were deployed by the British during this time – albeit in the form of rowboats.
Refurbishment of the ‘Two Old Ladies’
In 1998 the SAS was given to the Maritime Museum, where it could rest peacefully after decades of maritime service and also offer enjoyment to the general public. The SAS and the JR More, a tug ship from the same era, recently underwent extensive refurbishment processes to repair damages, including rotten woodwork. These repairs were imperative to prevent the ingress of water and inevitable deterioration of the vessels. Ship repair manager, Natasha Ramdhanee, highlighted that this was a lengthy process:
“We took our time refurbishing the ladies because of the delicacy of the vessels. We had to treat them like old ladies and with the respect they deserved… After spending more time than we initially anticipated with the repairs we have now given them both new leases on life and they can once again take pride of place at the museum.
Boat supervisor at the museum, Zamakhize Mkhize, suggests that these older vessels be dry-docked every few years to ensure longer preservation. While the partial sinking remains perplexing, the preservation of our maritime history is crucial to give people a glimpse into the past and enable them to learn about the exciting lives of those who bravely traversed the seas. These ships offer a rich history and visitors will be delighted by the compelling stories of adventurers and their trusty vessels. Children will be especially surprised by the pirate room!