The 33-year old SA Agulhas entered a new phase of operation in the early hours of Wednesday morning as it started its first voyage from Cape Town harbour as a dedicated training vessel under the control of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa).
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) handed over the SA Agulhas to Samsa earlier this year, as the DEA had recognised the value that could be gained in the training of maritime cadets, explained Samsa CEO Commander Tsietsi Mokhele.
The vessel started its voyage with 32 Cape Town cadets and was on route to Durban to collect a further 15 cadets. In the next few months, the vessel would sail to Namibia, Angola, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria to collect further cadets to join the South Africans already on board for training.
According to Mokhele, the number of South African maritime studies graduates had diminished noticeably over the past years with a key factor being a lack of any South African-owned vessel of sufficient size on which cadets could complete their practical training. Owners of foreign vessels had to assist in this regard limiting opportunities for cadetships.
With only 120 marine officer candidates being produced a year in South Africa, Mokhele said the intention was to increase this number by at least ten times in years to come. Already by 2013, the tertiary institutions offering maritime studies would double their intake to start combating the dwindling numbers of qualified South African mariners.
“Skills shortage is a major challenge for the country, particularly in the maritime sector. This has contributed to a drop in active shipping companies in South Africa, but we believe that with the acquisition, we have the potential to double or even triple the size of the industry and contribute to job creation in years to come,” said the executive head of the Centre for Excellence at Samsa, Sindiswa Nhlumayo.
As under the DEA, the SA Agulhas would continue to be used for environmental studies while being operated by the cadets, providing a better understanding of the vulnerabilities of coastal and ocean ecosystems. The research would be supported by the DEA, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Science and Technology. These funded studies would contribute to covering the R56-million-a-year running costs of the vessel, which excluded the cadet training costs, which was handled as a separate budget.
“We have chosen a working vessel concept, where the vessel is out there trading and somebody will be paying us to avail the vessel to them . . . we will put it out on charter with our own cadets on board, with our own fuel, and then we charge it out,” explained Mokhele. He said the charter business model was sound and should allow Samsa to meet all the financial needs of the training vessel.
Mokhele added that the conversion of the SA Agulhas from a DEA research vessel to a training vessel was achieved at little cost to Samsa as the bulk of the upgrades required had been funded through a partnership with the CSIR. For the conversion, additional radar and navigation technology were installed, along with expanded workshop facilities for use by the engineering cadets.