On the Waterfront

Whate’er the final harbour be
’T is good to sail upon the sea!

The Voyage: John Kendrick Bangs

Vessels in the V&A Waterfront have changed somewhat over the past two centuries. The Victoria and Alfred basins were formed from the original Port of Cape Town piers, and construction started in these in 1860. Prior to that, most mariners visiting Cape Town learnt that Table Bay is really a misnomer: it wasn’t so much of a bay as an offshore anchorage, and was then – as now – subject to both summer south-easterly and winter north-westerly gales. The shores of the Peninsula were littered with the wrecks of vessels that fell foul of the Cape of Storms. In 1858 things came to head when a particularly vicious winter storm drove no less than 30 vessels on to the shore in one disastrous night. Lloyds of London coughed up the insurance where it was applicable, but then said: enough. They declined to issue cover for any vessel visiting or rounding the Cape. This put ship owners in an invidious position, given the risks of sending expensive cargoes to and from Africa and India. The message to government was loud and clear: build a harbour.

Once the Victoria and Alfred basins were completed, tall-masted ships docked in great numbers, and photographs from the last years of sail show veritable forests of masts crowding the harbours. The V&A Waterfront in the 21st century is a bustling hive of activity, but in no ways can it be said to resemble those years when sail ruled the seas and wooden and iron-clad ships jostled for position at the quays. The harbour was a vital part of the Cape’s burgeoning economy, and many are the tales of those times that evoke the romanticism of the era. Nowadays the Ben Schoeman dock takes the large liners and container vessels that power into the harbour, and the Duncan Dock alongside the V&A handles the fruit terminals, multi-purpose docking, fishing vessels and smaller cargo vessels that need to utilise the drydock. Although Cape Town is not one of the world’s busiest harbours by a long stretch – we are not even in the top fifty – it does handle over 4000 ships a year, and averages over 12 000 000 gross tonnage of freight if we add in containers. (Ningbo-Zhoushan harbour in China, by comparison, loaded and landed 923 000 000 metric tons in 2016, and Shanghai Harbour – the busiest container port on the planet – handled over 42 000 000 containers last year. That’s over 115 000 per day.)

These days the V&A is more noted for its varied collection of vessels, ranging from visiting billionaires mind-boggling yachts to small craft that ply the docks. The Waterfront Charters seven vessels are proudly arrayed among their peers, and we have been part and parcel of the V&A virtually since its inception. In our twenty seven years of operating we have learnt a great deal, and our commitment to excellence has made us the preeminent cruise company in the harbour. One of our greatest advantages is our range of cruise opportunities: with seven boats we can arrange virtually any cruise that our clients desire. Our range of catamarans offer scheduled sunset cruises, coastal cruises and sailing in Table Bay to Clifton parties and bespoke chartered cruises. Our rigid-hulled inflatables combine 400 hp induced adrenaline with ocean safari opportunities, and our twin-masted schooner is perfect for that pure sailing experience. Our harbour tours have been central to the V&A for decades. Most importantly, we are flexible: we will work with our clients to create the perfect cruise experience, whether it’s a small function or an important product launch; whether it’s sail or power they desire or even a combination of both.

With the iconic Table Mountain overlooking it all and the Atlantic providing the platform, Cape Town, the harbour, the V&A Waterfront and Waterfront Charters create a superb combination for any form of celebration, party, adventure or romantic cruise. As we take you out into the Bay and you look back at the harbour environs, you can let your imagination take you back in time to that era of tall ships…and realise that all the magic is still there.