Land Ho, Me Hearties!

‘And soon, too soon, we part with pain,
To sail o’er silent seas again

Thomas Moore, Irish Poet: Meeting of the Ships (1807)

Cape Town’s harbour is an agglomeration of industries. While most of the world’s ports are single-minded in their function, our historical harbour has grown, changed and developed into one of the most visited tourist destinations on the planet. Of course, Cape Town itself has something to do with this: the bay that is named for and fronts the iconic Table mountain that enfolds the city was far from being an ideal port – the prevailing winds on the peninsula would drive sailing vessels away from safe docking during summer month gales, and the winter northwesters were deadly on occasion, with many a wooden hull being forced onto the beaches during stormy squalls. But for those early sailors rounding the Cape of Storms, it was the only viable option. There was water (not a lot, admittedly, but more than the False Bay harbour options) and land under the mountain slopes that was arable enough to plant the vitally required gardens to resupply the sail-driven ships as they wended their way slowly to Dutch East Indian ports.

We can skip over the centuries that saw the harbour grow and flourish; it would take a large book to cover this fascinating development. The mole that was laid out into the bay to calm the swells, built largely by convict labour; the development of the Victoria and Albert basins that held forests of masts during the 18th and 19th centuries; the pier that used to stretch out from the base of Adderley Street that was covered over as land was reclaimed to increase the foreshore and form the dock for the new commercial harbour; the container basin that was constructed to keep up with the changing of cargo transport. For those intervening centuries Cape Town Harbour was essentially just that: a hardworking place that facilitated the coming and going of cargo, passenger and fishing vessels.

With time the two first basins, Victoria and Alfred, had become too small to handle the new ironclad behemoths and their cargos, and this was the beginning of the V&A Waterfront as we know it today. The new port area took over, and as the old stone wharves and quays were redolent of earlier times, and as the buildings ceased their primary functions, they were converted into spaces that lent themselves to tourism, entertainment and commerce. Many Capetonians will look back at those early days with fond memories; visiting the Harbour Café meant driving through customs, and uniformed officers took their jobs very seriously. Taking in a bottle of wine (the Harbour Café, being a working café during the day, was not licensed) meant getting scrutinised very closely. Were you perhaps a smuggler avoiding export tax? No officer: merely a connoisseur of Cape Vintages. But the food in the restaurant made the effort worthwhile. From quirky sandwiches for famished fishermen (the epically named ‘Apartheid Sandwich’ was a combination of white and brown bread enclosing wedges of tuna), to superb crayfish, perlemoen and paella dishes that would have satisfied Gordon Ramsey, it was a rough and ready gourmet’s delight.

Bertie’s Landing, across the way – only reachable by oared Penny Ferry from the Harbour Café side – became the pub and restaurant to frequent in the 90’s, and is still spoken of in awed terms to this day. Don’t ask. And so the V&A grew; with a new shopping centre, a world class aquarium and office blocks; the clearing of the old ‘tank farm’ and conversion to a marina led to the building of some of the most desirable residences in the country, and now in the 21st century the V&A is a thriving combination of old and new, fun and work, awesome spectacle and epicurean delight. We are proud to say that Waterfront Charters have been there virtually since day one; the vision of Nelson Girdlestone to set up a cruise operation in the early years has proven to be inspired; with seven vessels ( but watch this space…) and a host of cruise options, we remain at the forefront of Cape Town cruise operations.

But we must not forget that the Harbour remains one of the most important ports in Africa. The second busiest in South Africa after Durban, the harbour is operational 24 hour a day, seven days a week. With around 3000 vessels docking annually, tonnage handled on the working side amounts to over five million tons of bulk cargo and over fourteen million tons of container cargo per annum – that’s a lot of stuff. Helping the ships in and out are four Voith Schneider tugs, two workboats, two pilot boats, four launches, a pollution boat (the aptly named Pelican) and a heavy-lift floating crane. There are 34 berths available for vessels (excluding the Victoria and Alfred basins), and if you want to dock in the harbour you must make use of the pilot facilities – no exceptions. There are state of the art repair facilities available, including the 161 meter dry dock and 61 meter syncrolift.

There is so much more to see and learn. The Cape Town Port Authority run a very tightknit operation, and their professionalism helps to keep those at play and those at work safely separated and free to enjoy their pursuits. We salute them! Join us at Waterfront Charters – your choice of vessel and cruise opportunity – and get a personal view of one of the most attractive and well-run harbour operations on the planet.