Maritime historian Brian Ingpen’s latest book recalls his intimate experiences of the Mother City’s harbour.
Cape Town’s Dockland is Mr Ingpen’s ninth book, and it contains many historical images of the harbour precinct as well as his own recollections.
In the early 1950s, his father would take him to the docks, which were open to the public back then. The father’s interest was yachting, but the son preferred the cargo ships loading fruit bound for Europe, unloading bags of sugar from Durban and car parts from the East.
Nights were spent in the Mowbray family home sorting his collection of ships’ postcards. On weekends, he would cycle to the docks or go on family outings to the harbour, taking tea and biscuits. He would watch the hive of activity in the dry dock and cadge rides on tugs whenever possible.
He remembers the old steam trawlers – their smoke and smell would be frowned on today – lying herring-bone in Alfred Basin, bows to the quay.
Those were exciting times in shipping. In 1956, the Suez Canal was closed during the Suez Crisis, meaning that thousands of ships came around our coast, sometimes with about 40 ships anchored in Table Bay, among them many passenger ships on lengthy voyages from Europe to Malaya, India or Australia.
The Suez Canal was closed again from 1967 to 1975. “This caused me to fail a year at university – so many interesting things to see in the docks,” laughs Mr Ingpen.
At 18, he joined the SA Navy but only for nine months’ national service.
He then worked at Safmarine in the marine personnel office for three years.
In 1968, he changed direction and went into education for 46 years, first as a teacher at Wynberg Boys’ High School, and finally as principal of Pinelands High School.
In December 2019, he retired from Simon’s Town’s School’s Lawhill Maritime Centre, which he helped found 25 years earlier.
Since then, he has spent his days completing his coffee-table book and writing his weekly shipping column, Port Pourri, in the Cape Times, which he has been doing since 2005.
He first worked for the Cape Times in the 1960s under then shipping editor George Young. He was paid R22 a month. It was a stepping stone that led to him becoming one of a handful of local maritime journalists to write about shipping along our 2 954km coastline.
When Mr Young died, his son Rob, who had a distinguished career culminating as the marine director of the Grindrod Group, handed over his father’s files, including his collection of over 8 000 images, many of which have been used in Cape Town’s Dockland.
Since completing this book, Mr Ingpen has been working on two others, which are due for release during the next 18 months.
As for the future of Cape Town docks, Mr Ingpen says that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent announcement that the country’s ports will operate more independently is good. With port revenue going into new harbour equipment, maintenance and generally improving harbour services – rather than repairing broken railway infrastructure elsewhere – harbour operations should improve. He say that, generally, the new container terminal is well run, but systems need to be beefed up so that ships can move when they need to and not be delayed by extraneous factors.
His hope is that Cape Town will get a big dry dock, 460m long and about 90m wide. About 40 very large ships pass the Cape between Brazil and China with iron ore and return empty.
“It would be ideal for them to dry dock here for maintenance. At the moment, it’s done in China. We have to be competitive. There’s no large dry dock in Africa and nothing in the southern hemisphere. If one of these large ships is damaged at sea, the nearest large dry dock is in Bahrain, Singapore or Lisbon. A local large dry dock could also be used by two to three smaller ships. We’re turning away ship maintenance business worth about R2bn each year – which we desperately need.”
Mr Ingpen and wife, Margaret, have twin sons, Andrew and Graeme, who have sent their father a congratulatory message on his latest book, saying: “Our dad has always had a passion for anything related to shipping and maritime from a young age. During the last 30 years, he has written nine books for various shipping and travel companies, as well as the weekly maritime column, Port Pourri, in the Cape Times. These books have taken him many hours late into the night, but growing up as his sons, he always managed to have time for his family. Congratulations on your amazing work and dedication, Dad.”
Copies of Cape Town’s Dockland are available at email@example.com