It was a question of building a new ice-breaker ship for South Africa, or pulling out of Antarctica, where the country has had a base since 1961 as one of the original 12 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty.
“There is nothing wrong with the current SA Agulhas,” says Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) Southern Ocean and Antarctic support assistant director Adriaan Dreyer, “but international regulations demand that ships older than 30 years not cross the sixtieth parallel into the ice there. So Cabinet decided to commission the SA Agulhas II, which will arrive in South Africa in May.
The current Agulhas has just completed her last journey to Marion Island and South Africa’s polar research base, Sanae IV.
The SA Agulhas II, built by STX Finland, will be money well spent, though, as it is a faster, more powerful, slightly longer and much wider ship that her predecessor. It also features vastly improved research facilities.
The R1.3-billion ship will bring to an end quite an investment from the South African government in its bases south of Cape Town.
Sanae IV was completed in 1997, but Marion Island last year saw the opening of a new base at a cost of R270-million. It took seven years to complete the research base, as conditions and logistics allowed for only a 50-man team working in the good-weather windows running from August to November, and March to May. Owing to marshy conditions on the island, no on-the-ground equipment, such as bulldozers, could be used either.
Marion Island is South African soil and for it to remain so the country must keep a presence on the island. However, the South African base on Antarctica is the same as all the countries represented there –merely a research and weather station far from home, perched on an icy continent that does not belong to any country.
While Sanae IV must still brave the freezing weather for quite a few years, South Africa’s position in the Antarctic was strengthened with the construction of an emergency base, or E-Base, in 2010, says Dreyer.
The base on Dronning Maud Land’s edge serves to reduce the pressure on Sanae IV’s long-haul cargo drivers, who must make several trips every summer to lug supplies from the shelf, where the SA Agulhas weighs anchor, to the station, situated on the rocky stability of continental Antarctica, some 300 km inland.
It serves as a depot and a pit stop of sorts, as well as a refuge, should something catastrophic happen to Sanae IV.
The South African base itself is surrounded by the German, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Indian bases, and is responsible for all search-and-rescue functions for these countries.
“This happened because we are in the middle of all the bases, we have helicopters on standby, and the SA Agulhas normally stays there with us,” explains Dreyer.
Apart from the Antarctic deep freeze, South Africa also has a research and weather base on Britain’s Gough Island.
All of these bases – Gough Island, Marion Island and Sanae IV – will be serviced by the SA Agulhas II.
The present SA Agulhas was commissioned in 1978 and was built by the Mitsubishi shipyard, in Japan, says Arcon Management Services SA Agulhas II project manager and DEA consultant Alan Robertson.
“She was built to replace the RSA, the very first polar supply vessel built to service the South African base on the Antarctic mainland. As you know, South Africa also operates bases on Marion and Gough islands and all three bases are serviced once a year in order to maintain the structures and to rotate the over-wintering teams.”
The current SA Agulhas was built as a so-called ice-strengthened cargo ship with capacity for 98 passengers and 44 crew members.
“It is well equipped with cargo and helicopter facilities and has been a very successful supply vessel. It does, however, lack the power required to deal with heavy pack ice and often experiences difficulty in reaching the ice shelf, although I must point out that this is not uncommon among many polar vessels,” says Robertson. “In addition, the research facilities on board the SA Agulhas are extremely limited for modern oceanographic research.”
While the 34-year-old ship has been well maintained, to sustain the ship as a polar vessel is becoming increasingly costly, he notes.
“Reliability in this very hostile environment was also a factor in the replacement rationale. In addition, there are advantages to being able to widen the summer window, through the use of a reliable, capable vessel to create more time for oceanographic and other research programmes in the summer season. An important objective for the new ship is to rebuild South Africa’s deep-water oceanographic skills.”
The SA Agulhas II has been designed to deal with heavier ice conditions than her predecessor, being capable of navigating one-meter-thick pack ice at a speed of five knots.
The hull has been significantly strengthened and the propulsion power has been more than doubled.
There are also greatly improved cargo- handling facilities and the eight permanent and six container laboratories will serve a wide range of research disciplines.
Icebreakers are not cheap, though. Robertson says they are “vastly” more expensive than other ships of similar size.
“The main cost drivers in icebreakers are the huge power requirements and the greatly increased structural strength of the hull.”
The hull of a standard icebreaker is not finely shaped like a normal ship’s, but has a more rounded, flat structure. (Dreyer says one can flip the ship over and play rugby on its hull.) Fine hull lines help a conventional ships to slice through the waves, reducing friction between ship and water. The rounded bow shape and hull form of an icebreaker may be less efficient in open water, but does allow the ship to break a path into the ice, using its mass to come down on the ice sheet, crushing the white mass.
The smooth hull then helps to push the ice out of the ship’s way, preventing it from causing damage to the vessel. As the ship moves forward, the ice moves aside, creating a clear path for other ships, should any be following.
Breaking ice requires enormous amounts of power and to build commercial vessels capable of breaking thick ice during the course of their normal trading routes is simply uneconomical, “thus the need for special ships to break ice for them”, notes Robertson.
For the SA Agulhas II, a detailed operating profile was compiled prior to the issuing of the tender in 2009.
“While the ship will spend less than 10% of its time navigating in ice,” says Robertson, “hull strength and power are much like a parachute – usage may be low, but when you need it, you need a full parachute!”
Not Just Any Old Ship
The SA Agulhas has certainly had its glory days, says Robertson.
In 2002, she was sent to rescue personnel from the supply vessel Magdelena Oldendorf, beset in the ice after mechanical failures. This happened in June, with the winter ice rapidly forming.
However, the SA Agulhas was able to navigate to within 200 km of the stricken vessel, where the supply vessel crew were evacuated by South African Air Force helicopters deployed from the SA Agulhas. A skeleton crew remained on board the stricken ship over the winter months.
The following year, SA Agulhas was deployed to assist the Australian Fisheries Authorities in apprehending a fishing vessel that had been fishing illegally in Australian waters.
In 2006, the South African vessel rescued three of the four-man crew from the yacht Cowrey Dancer and carried out the subsequent search for the missing person.
The SA Agulhas II will carry a crew of 44, made up of a number of navigating, electrical, engineering and catering personnel.
On board will be a master and three navigating officers, a chief engineer and three engineer officers, three electrical/electronics officers and a purser, who is responsible for the catering staff and passenger management.
There will also be a number of able seamen and engineering assistants on board, as well as four cadet officers.
The ship is classed as a passenger ship and all crew possess commercial qualifications as specified in the South African Merchant Shipping Act.
All crew are South African citizens and have been trained in the various maritime academies in South Africa. Officer qualifications comprise a wide range of academic subjects and practical sea time served on commercial vessels.
The SA Agulhas II can carry up to 100 passengers, comprising over-wintering teams, base maintenance personnel, heli- copter crews and scientists.
Robertson expects the ship to provide a minimum of 30 years’ service to South Africa.
During these three decades, it will spend around 180 days a year on the water providing logistical support for the three South African bases, with another 120 days dedicated to research voyages.
The captain of the SA Agulhas II will be Freddie Ligthelm.
He started his career at sea in 1996 as a cadet with mining company De Beers Marine. Following a spell with Safmarine, he returned to De Beers as chief navigating officer and mining production supervisor. In 2002, he joined what is now Smit Amandla Marine as third navigating officer aboard the current SA Agulhas.
He rose through the ranks of the DEA research ship fleet, managed by Smit Amandla, and in 2006 became chief navigating officer and in 2008 ship master.
Lighthelm has been actively involved in the design and construction of the new ship and, when not at sea on the SA Agulhas, he has been an integral part of the project team building the ship.
He has been “standing by the ship” in Rauma, Finland since September 2011, and will sail the vessel to Cape Town in the delivery voyage in April.
Different In Many Ways
The SA Agulhas II is not only an icebreaker. It is also a multipurpose logistical support and research vessel.
Engineering design started in January 2010.
The first steel for the ship was cut in September 2010, with keel laying in January 2011, and the ship functionally completed in January this year.
Sea and acceptance trials started on February 28, with full-scale ice trials scheduled to kick off on March 16.
Ownership will be transferred to the South African government on April 4, with the SA Agulhas II leaving Finland on April 5. Arrival in Cape Town is expected on May 3.
Being the first of its class to be built under the SOLAS 2009 Passenger Ship Rules, there are a number of unique aspects to its design, notes Robertson.
The first is the Safe Return to Port Rules, which require a ship to be able to navigate for a distance of 1 000 nautical miles into strong headwind and swell conditions at a speed of six knots on one engine room.
This has resulted in large-scale redundancy being built into the ship’s systems, says Robertson.
The second challenge was for the ship to carry low flash-point liquids as cargo, a practice generally forbidden on passenger ships. These liquids include polar diesel (500 m3), Jet A1 helicopter fuel (100 m3) and premix petrol.
The ship also has the ability to pump polar diesel to the Antarctic ice shelf or ashore at the two island bases.
Propulsion on the SA Agulhas II is diesel electric, using two 4 500 kW Conver-team motors, powered by up to four Wärtsilä 3 000 kW diesel generators. There are two propeller shafts, each driving a 4 500-mm- diameter variable pitch propeller. The ship also has two bow thrusters and one stern thruster.
The SA Agulhas II also features a helicopter hangar for the stowage and servicing of two Oryx/Puma-class helicopters.
On board there will also be two fast rescue craft, used to stand by during heli- copter operations, as well as two enclosed 75-person life boats.
The SA Agulhas II also has a large 35 t crane on the foredeck to load and discharge heavy lifts onto the ice shelf, and three general- purpose 10 t cranes for general cargo work.
On board is a fully integrated navigation system, including dynamic positioning, as well as an Ice Radar, V SAT satellite com-munications system for data transfer, email and Internet access.
The ship also boasts lounges for the passengers and crew, a business centre, a library, a 100-person auditorium and two gymnasia.
Research facilities include eight permanent laboratories and six container laboratories, a range of scientific winches and davits for the deployment of a wide range of samplers, facilities for vertical water column sampling and coring to 5 000 m, a moon pool for sampling in the pack ice, a drop keel to house various acoustic transducers, and a deep-water subbottom profiler and automatic weather station.
Besides all these facilities, functions and capabilities, the SA Agulhas II is 134 m long, 22 m wide, and has a displacement of 13 687 t. It has a range of 15 000 nautical miles at 14 knots.
And for those shipping boffins out there, the SA Agulhas II carries the following official notation: DNV + 1A1 Passenger Ship, Ice class IACS PC5 (ICE-10 for Hull), WINTERISED BASIC, DAT (-35), EO, RP, HELDK-SHF, CLEAN DESIGN, COMF V(2)/C(2), NAUT-AW, TMON, BIS, DYNPOS-AUT, DE-ICE, LFL.