EXCLUSIVE: Robben Island Museum 'not aware' of its own weather warning for ferry that nearly sunk

2017-09-20 15:19
Crew and passenger transfer taking place at sea. (NSRI)

Crew and passenger transfer taking place at sea. (NSRI)

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Cape Town – The Robben Island Museum appears to have overlooked a warning contained in one of its own reports that a ferry, which on Friday partially sank in choppy seas and high wind with more than 60 passengers aboard, "only be used in fine weather conditions".

This week, when asked about the report, Regine le Roux, speaking on behalf of the museum, said: "We [are] not aware of this."

The report, a proposal request for a new high-speed passenger ferry, is available on the government online tenders site and is dated 2016.

Robben Island Museum on Wednesday said in a statement that the weather had changed suddenly last Friday, September 15, the day the chartered ferry, Thandi, started to sink about 3km from the V&A Waterfront, with 64 passengers and five crew members aboard.

A dramatic rescue operation ensued and everyone was brought safely ashore.

ALSO READ: 68 people aboard sinking Robben Island ferry 'safely ashore'

An internal Robben Island Museum investigation into the incident is underway.

The South African Maritime Safety Authority will also probe what happened.

On Wednesday the Democratic Alliance also reiterated its call for an independent investigation into the incident.

DA MPL Beverley Schäfer, who heads up the standing committee on economic opportunities, tourism and agriculture, said the museum not being aware of the proposal request was "further proof of the alleged corruption at the heart of [its] management which has trickled down to ferry operations." 

"I echo an earlier call for an independent investigation into this incident to root out the source of such severe negligence by an entity run by the ANC national government in the Western Cape province," she said. 

Robben Island Museum ferries have for years been dogged by controversy, and the issue of whether to use its own vessels, or chartered ferries, has been a long-running debate.

The museum owns a few vessels, but also charters a few.

As of Tuesday, one museum-owned ferry was in use, while four chartered ones were operational.

Weather warning

While it appears that weather conditions may have quickly changed for the worse last Friday, impacting on the functioning of the Thandi, the museum does not appear to be aware of what is contained in the proposal request about the Thandi, and how weather conditions could affect the vessel.

The Robben Island Museum's statement on Wednesday said it had daily consultations with ferry masters, as part of safety protocols to determine if a ferry could proceed.

"The consultation on Friday confirmed that the forecast for the day was not a reason for concern," it said.

"However, the weather is very unpredictable and the strong winds soon caused unplanned adverse conditions that exceeded that of the forecast. A dramatic rescue operation ensued and everyone was brought safely ashore."

The statement did not go into further details about the Thandi.

The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) said it had responded to the sinking of the Thandi at 14:18.

News24 has established, via the South African Weather Service, that a "severe weather watch" for possible gale force winds along the Cape Town coast was issued at 16:22 on Friday.

This was about two hours after the ferry started taking on water.

On Friday, South African Weather Service forecaster Stella Nake had said sea swells of up to 2m were being reported in Cape Town that afternoon, with winds of up to 65km/h.

The Robben Island Museum’s proposal request report had warned about similar rough weather conditions and the Thandi.

In the 2016 proposal request for the manufacture and delivery of a new high speed passenger ferry, the museum had said, in addition to owning four vessels, it chartered four others.

One of the chartered vessels is the Thandi.

According to the museum’s proposal, during 2015, full surveys were done on all the museum-owned vessels by independent marine surveying company, Paul Coxon and Associates.

'Only be used in fine weather'

The proposal request included a section on the Thandi, which was described as a 13.7m small passenger vessel.

While it said no detailed information on the Thandi was provided, it included paragraphs about the conditions in which the Thandi should be used.

"This vessel was joined for a return trip from Robben Island, during which time no passengers were carried due to adverse weather (wind 40 knots and swell 2 metres)," the proposal request said.

"This vessel was found to not be suitable for operating with non-seafaring personnel on board during that sort of weather conditions and is [recommended] to only be used in fine weather conditions."

The Thandi at the Cape Town floating jetty. (www.etenders.gov.za)

The museum’s senior ferry manager Sandresan Thandroyan told News24 last Friday that the Thandi had been used for the first time that morning, after undergoing lengthy maintenance work.

He said a "technical problem" could have been made worse by severe weather conditions.

On Wednesday, Thandroyan said chartered ferry companies conducting business with the museum had to have a maintenance plan to ensure they were in perfect running condition.

"They are also required to have all the safety certificates for the vessels," he said, adding that vessels also had to follow strict maintenance requirements before carrying Robben Island passengers.

Certified to operate

Thandi is owned by Yacoob Yachts, which is run by Esa Yacoob.

In response on Wednesday to News24 questions, Yacoob Yachts said Thandi was surveyed by the South African Maritime Safety Authority on September 12 "and obtained the necessary certificates in order to operate". This was three days before the incident.

"On the morning of the incident, all vessels were operating as weather conditions were favourable. All vessels, including the other Robben Island ferries, were operating," it said.

"Our skipper did sea trials before commencing operations."

In response to the weather warning about Thandi contained in the proposal request for a new vessel, the company said: "All vessels were operating and no directive had been given that the weather conditions were unfavourable."

Ferries transported political prisoners

Robben Island Museum’s proposal request for a new vessel said that, as a World Heritage Site, Robben Island attracted local and foreign tourists.

"Currently (Robben Island Museum) ferries these passengers/tourists using old ferries, some of which were used to transport political prisoners during the years of political struggle and unrest," it said.

"(The museum) aims to reduce and potentially eliminate the need for chartering in vessels."

However, it appears that the museum has been unable to stop using chartered vessels.

Le Roux said this week that four chartered vessels – the Sea Princess, Jester, Madiba 1 and the Tigger 2 – were in use.

One museum-owned ferry, the Dias, was also operational.

The proposal request said an external condition survey had been conducted on the Dias by independent marine surveyors in August 2015, and it was found that it had a limited operational life, "with no safe and reliable capabilities".

It said negatives about the Dias included that it may need increased maintenance over time due to its age.

However, a positive with the Dias was that it "has been operating for over 56 years and the heavy mono hull is suited for the weather that is experienced in Table Bay".

The Thandi was not operational following last Friday’s incident.

Price-fixing claims

Yacoob Yachts, which owns Thandi, and other ferry operators are the focus of price-fixing allegations.

At the end of May, the Competition Commission announced that five vessel owners who ferry passengers between the Robben Island Museum and the V&A Waterfront were referred to the Competition Tribunal for alleged price-fixing and collusive tendering.

The commission conducted an investigation after the museum complained about the vessel owners.

Among the owners was Silverbuckle Trade 21 CC, which trades as Yacoob Yachts.

The commission wanted the tribunal to declare that the five companies had contravened the Competition Act, and were liable to pay a penalty equal to 10% of their annual turnover.

This matter is still pending.

Le Roux this week said: "[Robben Island Museum] has not received any correspondence from the Competition Commission yet."

Yacoob on Wednesday was not yet prepared to comment on the price-fixing allegations, as the matter was still being reviewed.

Hired vessels relied on

The Robben Island Museum’s 2015/2016 annual report detailed how procuring a new vessel would reduce its costs of hiring ferries.

But it also said that it needed to hire vessels for operations to run more smoothly.

"It must be noted that the [Robben Island Museum] Council has made a decision that, in the short to medium term, boat hire will remain part of [the museum’s] business as [its] ferries (in their current form and number) will never consistently ferry tourists to the island on their own, they will always require external boats to provide extra capacity to ensure… consistency of ferry operations," it said.

The annual report said that, from January 1, 2016, a one-year contract had been signed with ferry service providers.

"Soon management will be going out to the ferry service providers to negotiate a further 3-5 year contract."

History of ferry breakdowns

The annual report said ferry operations had "rarely operated smoothly" in the 2014/2015 period, as well as the 2015/2016 period.

It said: "The constant breakdowns of [Robben Island Museum] owned ferries, including the decision to stop running the largest ferry due to a technical problem, resulted in hiring private boats for 2015/16. This implies a decline in revenue generation."

Problems with the ferries and other issues which have dogged the museum go back much further.

During a 2011 meeting in Parliament on the Robben Island Museum’s 2009/2010 annual report, Sibongiseni Mkhize, then its chief executive officer, detailed its administrative developments since its 1997 inception.

He also mentioned "the historical difficulties in governance, management and organisational structure".

A summary report on the 2011 meeting said Mkhize had "emphasised the challenges associated with unfunded mandates and their financial sustainability, in particular the challenges connected with maintaining ferries".

"He touched on the past negative publicity associated with the mechanical breakdowns of the ferries, and reported that there had been improvement in this area, but still maintained that operating boats fell outside of the capacity of a museum and that privatisation was an option that should be considered," the report on the meeting said.

Mkhize’s view had therefore contradicted the museum’s 2016 proposal for a new vessel, which said it aimed to potentially eliminate the need for chartering vessels.

WATCH: Robben Island ferry operation 

Read more on:    cape town  |  accidents  |  maritime accidents

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