Powerful Winds Prompt Cape Town to Consider Moving its Seaport
During the final week of March 2021, elected municipal officials from the City of Cape Town, South Africa asked the nation’s national ports authority to relocate the container terminal from Table Bay to Saldanha Bay, located 60 miles north of Cape Town. Such relocation would be the alternative to expanding the container terminal at the Port of Cape Town.
The history of the Port of Cape Town located at Table Bay began during the 17th century when wind driven sailing ships carried the spice trade from the East Indies to British and European markets. It served as a food and water resupply station for the ships. Cape Town’s unique climate and location allowed for the cultivation of a wide variety of fresh food while suitable wood was readily available for ship repairs. While the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 diverted much ship traffic away from Cape Town, sufficient ship traffic continued to sail via Cape Town.
During the 1930’s, a new larger ship terminal was required as ship dimensions increased. Table Bay was dredged and the material was used to reclaim land from the sea in the area now known as Cape Town’s foreshore district. The original dock area has been developed into a premium waterfront tourist district while the port area was expanded to include a container terminal. Weather conditions that includes powerful winds that blow across Table Bay are viewed as being detrimental to shipping, hence the discussion about relocating the container terminal north to Saldanha Bay, mention in a 2016 Maritime Executive article.
During winter, winds can blow across Table Bay at speeds of over 50-miles/hour (80-km/hour) while calmer winter winds of 20-miles/hour blow across the well-protected and semi-enclosed port area at Saldanha Bay. A deep-water sub-bay already exists at Saldanha Bay and is home to bulk transportation terminal where iron ore is transferred from the railways to bulk carrier ships. An oil terminal has also operated at Saldanha Bay where there is potential to develop a substantial container port and even container transshipment terminal. The port area and the bay offer a refuge for ships during severe south Atlantic storms.
The close proximity between Table Bay and Saldanha Bay provides several transportation connections that include a main roadway, a railway line and short-sea shipping. There is scope for ocean-going tug-barges to carry containers between a container transshipment terminal at Saldanha Bay that serves an extensive region and a future small container terminal that will only serve the local Cape Town market. It would be possible for wing-in-ground (WIG) effect craft to offer fast passenger transportation service between Cape Town docks area and Saldanha Bay, with fast hydrofoil ferry vessels being another alternative.
South Africa is presently reeling from the combination of the pandemic and revelations that pertain to how a small group of people connected to the office of a former president literally pillaged the nation’s treasury. There has been considerable mismanagement of some of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises with the result that the once renowned national airline is bankrupt. Development of a container terminal or container transshipment terminal at Saldanha would likely require foreign investment and to avoid needless squandering of financial resources, top elected officials may need to ensure that foreign developers manage their own financial resources.
During the early post-apartheid years, foreign investors supported reputable private developers in converting the original Port of Cape Town that dated back to the era of wind driven sailing ships, to the very attractive Victoria and Albert waterfront tourist district. Private investment has achieved much of worthwhile value in the absence of political involvement or involvement of people connected to government officials. Relocating the container terminal from the Port of Cape Town would provide opportunity for private development of an expanded waterfront tourist area or development of high-rise waterfront residential accommodation.
Relocating the container terminal to Saldanha Bay has potential to increase the number of container ships that presently bypass Cape Town. A much larger container terminal and/or transshipment terminal would be possible at Saldanha Bay compared to Cape Town where the protective breakwater might already be at its maximum length, with limited scope to extend it. While the breakwater at Table Bay protects the dock and terminal areas from severe wind-blown waves, it provides a comparatively small shielded area from severe ocean waves than the much larger size of shielded area offered by Saldanha Bay.
The prospect of a safe refuge from severely stormy seas has potential to encourage some shipping companies to carry some container trade to and from Saldanha Bay. Providing ships with the prospect of safe refuge during severe South Atlantic Ocean storms increases the number of destination ports for Cape Town’s export sector and ports of origin for the import sector, allowing both sectors to increase their international trade. Relocating the container terminal from the storm and wind swept Table Bay to the calmer Saldanha Bay offers possible economic benefit to Cape Town and the surrounding region.
Despite South Africa’s and the Cape Town area’s severe social and economic problems, Cape Town remains a premium tourist destination. There is potential for the area’s tourism sector to recover following the end of the pandemic. Transferring more cargo trade to Saldanha Bay provides additional quayside space for more cruise ships to make Cape Town a port-of-call. Investors and developers could transform the space vacated by the cargo trade to tourist attractions and tourist districts. Table Mountain is a premium visitor destination with chronic road traffic congestion to the aerial tramway cable that carries visitor up the mountain.
There may be scope for future investment to further develop an additional aerial tramway that includes a series of overhead supports to carry visitors between a location near the waterfront tourist area and the top of Table Mountain. Cape Town tourism employs a substantial workforce. Given the economic setback caused by the combination of the pandemic, government mismanagement of state owned companies and pillaging of the nation’s economy by friends of the former president, tourism represents a very significant economic area that would contribute to Cape Town’s post pandemic economic recovery.
Relocating the container terminal from Table Bay to Saldanha Bay offers potential long term economic benefit for the City of Cape Town and surrounding region. Foreign investment managed from overseas represents a method by which to develop a container transshipment terminal at Saldanha Bay without mismanagement and related squandering of financial resources.
Powerful winds at the Suez Canal may have contributed to the recent grounding of the Evergreen container ship Ever Given, highlighting the risk of high winds in confined waterways. Ongoing climate change is likely to cause more powerful winds to blow across Table Bay and the Port of Cape Town. Several years ago, powerful winds blowing off the South Atlantic toppled a double decker bus parked at a terminal at Port of Cape Town.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.