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Grand plans attached to the sale of a grand old lady

Grand plans attached to the sale of a grand old lady

Seafarer training will continue on the SA Agulhas

This week marks the official handing over of the SA Agulhas to new owners, having served as South Africa’s dedicated training vessel for almost 12 years. Editor, Colleen Jacka, spoke to both Sobantu Tilayi of SAMSA and Captain Stefan Bülow of J*S Maritime Partners about the sale and was pleased to discover that the plans for the vessel will continue to provide and even expand the training opportunities for aspirant South African seafarers.

There was much fanfare when the icebreaker was repurposed into a training vessel to anchor the national cadetship programme in 2012 during the first ever South African Maritime Industry Conference (SAMIC) hosted by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA).

In July 2012 SAMSA invited guests to see off the first batch of cadets heading out to get a taste of a life at sea.  While all due pomp and ceremony was observed as officials provided background to the new venture, it was the shrieks of delight from the cadets on the vessel as she slipped her moorings and moved off berth, that heralded the true importance of the initiative.

At the time, the maritime authority was under no illusion as to the costs associated with running the training vessel and were already actively seeking commercial opportunities for the vessel to help fund the training capacity.

But by 2018 it had become obvious that the vessel had become a financial drain on SAMSA’s resources, and the initial delight experienced by the first cadets gave way to a Board decision to dispose of the SA Agulhas. Fortunately, thanks to several champions within the authority, ambitious plans were launched to seek a buyer that would continue to uphold the training mission associated with the ship.

Speaking to Sobantu Tilayi, COO of SAMSA, in Cape Town recently, he admitted that some aspects could have been handled differently. “Did we do what we set out to do? I think so. Could we have done more? I think so too,” he said pragmatically.

But he also emphasised the efforts to find the perfect purchasing partner. “We knew that whoever bought the ship must continue to deliver the cadetship programme,” he told us. And, against all odds, as well as with considerable patience, SAMSA has succeeded in finding a company that is more than keen to invest in the continued legacy of the SA Agulhas.

Acknowledging that the stringent requirements put in place by SAMSA would decrease the pool of potential buyers, Tilayi says that he could not be swayed. “When I set my sights on something I will hardly ever walk away from the situation. I am a big dreamer,” he says admitting that he likes to push the boundaries. “For me it made sense.”

With tender documents for the sale of the SA Agulhas stipulating that interested parties should “demonstrate by means of a detailed plan how the sale of the vessel will positively impact the Republic of South Africa” and quantifiable terms for training cadets as well as maintaining the current crew complement – it could have been a very hard sell for the authority.

“The aim is not to forgo the purpose of the ship. It was acquired to anchor the cadetship programme and we want to continue this.”

“The aim is not to forgo the purpose of the ship,” he explains. “It was acquired to anchor the cadetship programme and we want to continue this.”

Fortunately, Tilayi may have met his match when it comes to dreaming big. The new owner of the SA Agulhas, J*S Maritime Partners is led by an equally ambitious visionary. Maritime Review Africa spoke to Captain Stefan Bülow this month about his plans for the vessel as well as how he intends to meet the training obligations set out in the conditions of sale.

From our discussions, it is clear that the purchase of the SA Agulhas will give the iconic ship a completely new lease on life as well as amplify her contribution to maritime training for the country.

“We are building something completely new and extending the life of the SA Agulhas at the same time,” he says before launching into a descriptive account of what the future holds for the vessel, which is already undergoing a significant upgrade and refurbishment programme.

Describing himself as “a man of the ocean” and, with a long and illustrious maritime career that was launched on board research ships in the Antarctic, Bülow has long been fascinated with the need to buoy maritime research and understands the appeal of the polar regions.

This, coupled with the urgent need to address the predicted shortfall in ratings and officers as well as his interest in greener shipping, led him to establish J*S Maritime Partners in 2018 with ambitious plans to build a company that could begin to address these issues.

Bülow is the first to admit, however, that the journey to acquire the SA Agulhas has required significant patience. Having embarked on the process back in 2019, it has been marred by the global pandemic as well as more than a little bureaucracy. But, with the help of numerous champions within government he is pleased to be finally taking positive steps towards realising his continued vision for the vessel.

Praising the new Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, for her commitment to the project since taking office, Bülow says that, after the successful awarding of the tender, the contract was eventually signed in October of last year.

“We were finally ready to move ahead,” he said explaining that the need to begin drydocking was paramount. “She was in a bad condition, and we have undertaken to completely overhaul some of the machinery including the engines and gensets.”

The current refurbishment of the 47-year-old vessel represents a massive investment and includes thruster repairs, hull blasting, ballast water tank work, hull repair as well as an upgrade of the sewage system and refurbishing of the cabins.

Training and seafarer development

The agreed condition to provide training and employment for South African cadets for five years seems to excite Captain Bülow who highlights plans to tap into the German shipping sector to provide access to some 600 potential ships for cadets and ratings.

Even more remarkable is the commitment from J*S Maritime to guarantee employment to cadets that successfully complete their training.

What could very well have been a deterrent to a potential buyer appears to offer a solution to the maritime ambitions for his company. And he is partnering with institutes such as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) to ensure a pipeline of training for the country. Future partnerships with other tertiary institutes will follow.

“I think we can help deliver on the vision to work towards establishing South Africa as a maritime nation.”

“I think we can help deliver on the vision to work towards establishing South Africa as a maritime nation,” he says adding that promoting the country’s ship registry to the network of German shipowners forms part of the plan.

While the training on the vessel may have been somewhat constrained in the past, Bülow’s vision is to significantly scale the scope of what can be delivered using both the SA Agulhas as well as the network of German shipowners. In addition, he also has plans to acquire further vessels to expand his own fleet in the future.

In addition, according to Tilayi, the conditions for cadet training attached to the sale of the SA Agulhas, form part of a larger initiative to promote South Africa as a source of seafarers for international shipping.

Outlining the plans to launch a Seafarer Employment and Development (SEAD) initiative in the coming month, Tilayi says that this will expand the earlier Maritime Youth Development Framework that has successfully partnered with several maritime stakeholders and seen the employment of at least 1,000 youth.

“We believe that we can multiply the numbers very quickly,” he says, adding that SAMSA will seek to establish MOUs with private companies as well as training partners and municipalities. “We are fine tuning the programme to ensure that it is well thought through and it will be properly constituted,” he adds, explaining the broader ambitions attached to the sale of the SA Agulhas.

Commercial viability

Bülow’s vision for the SA Agulhas is built on a business model that sees the vessel operating under charter to researchers and he confirms that contracts are already in negotiation.

Highlighting the scarcity of available research vessels, he says that the newer research ships are much larger and capable of carrying more researchers, but that fewer, larger vessels mean there is less opportunity to cover different regions at the same time.

“Many countries are opting to purchase one large research ship to replace two smaller ones,” he explains. He sees this as an opportunity to fill the gap where more survey and research is needed especially within the offshore energy and mineral markets as well as within environmental marine research.

“The ocean remains almost completely unexplored,” he says referring to a plethora of undiscovered compounds and raw materials that represent a potential ocean pharmacy.

“We need to support the drive to explore the ocean and it is our aim to support ocean research,” he says.

Grand plans

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the sale of the SA Agulhas centres around longer-term plans that include a major conversion in the relatively near future that will see the vessel transformed into a nett-zero ship.

“Our aim is to comply with and be ahead of the upcoming GHG requirements,” he says as he confirms that this will require a complete overhaul of the engines to diesel electric options as well as the refit of gensets to run on green methanol or other green fuel as it becomes more readily available.

“She is an historic ship, and we are committed to preserving her legacy.”

Describing the full conversion plans, it is clear that Bülow is committed to seeing the iconic ship’s life extended well beyond what SAMSA could have hoped for. “She is an historic ship, and we are committed to preserving her legacy,” he says.

With a preliminary amount of $55 million budgeted for this conversion, the SA Agulhas will be transformed into a modern polar explorer and be ready to launch the next chapter in not only its own life but also for J*S Maritime Partners.

With a slight tweak to the business model, the vessel will still operate as a research vessel, but will aim to offer scientists free voyages to undertake qualifying projects.

Bülow explains that the refitted vessel will provide an opportunity for paying tourists to engage in unprecedented experiences on a working research vessel that allows them to engage with vital ocean research in comfort – as well as to explore the high seas and contribute to a body of knowledge for the benefit of the planet.

It's an ambitious vision, but Bülow’s enthusiasm and confidence are infectious. He seems to have the global maritime contacts as well as the passion and drive to turn this dream into a reality.

 

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