by

C.R.F. KINGON #2692 – 1980


From the early 70’s until the early 90’s, there was once again a vessel on fixed moorings in Simon’s Bay. This was the Cable Ship “Cable Restorer”. She was owned by the South Atlantic Cable Company and her purpose in life was, strangely enough, to repair the South Atlantic Cable. This is the telecommunication cable that entered the sea from Melkbosstrand and then made it’s way Northwards to Tenerife and finally Lisbon. In it’s 20 odd years on station the ship was called upon barely once per year to effect a repair to the cable. When the cable did become damaged it was generally during the winter months when the movement of the sea from NW gales would disturb the cable in the first few miles of shallow water off Melkbos or when a fishing boat caught it’s nets in the cable.

The ship was launched as HMS Bullfrog in 1944. After the war she was sold and renamed Retriever before being sold again in 1955 and renamed Cable Restorer. She saw service in Singapore and then in, 1972, she was bought by the SA Cable Company and stationed in Simon’s Bay. She was a steamship with twin triple expansion, open crankcase engines. Builders specs claimed 10 knots but in her later life she could only open up to a more sedate 7/8 knots. The story was told that on one passage to Cape Town into a stiff NW’ly, the 2nd Mate was surprised to note that when he took over the watch the ship had actually moved 2 miles astern in the previous 4 hours.

The ship was manned by Safmarine staff apart from the Master and Chief Engineer who were SACC employees. The deck and engine senior ratings were generally permanent staff as well as the Chief Officer and 2nd Engineer whilst the junior officers usually had short tours of duty as they were all chasing sea time which was the one kind of time one did not earn on the ship while lying in the Bay. I was privileged to serve not one, but 2 tours of duty, on the Grand Old Lady, each of just over 2 months. This was more than enough time to spend on her as time certainly did tend to hang heavy on one’s hands. As 2nd Mate I was the Navigator onboard and became adept at managing to take a full 2 days over the week’s chart corrections – quite a feat bearing in mind that the ship only carried a very basic South Atlantic folio ! This was quite a change having spent 6 months on a tramping bulk carrier with a world-wide folio.

The other major job was the weekly testing of the bridge gear, remembering to first warn the engineers so that they could get enough power “on the board” before switching on the radar. If I ventured out to assist the Third Mate with his safety gear, I was generally met with snarls as he, equally bored, jealously guarded his patch of (limited) work. Not that I’m complaining mind, I felt that I recovered a fair whack of the (unpaid) overtime I had put in for Safmarine through the years. A bonus was the small boat handling which one seldom gains experience of in modern cargoships today. The duty coxswains were generally only to happy to sea new junior officers join as they would be keen to “drive’ at every opportunity.

It was an easy life on the buoys. One duty night onboard a week and every 2nd weekend on duty which was followed by a weekday off. We worked on our suntans and feasted on calamari when the squid were running.

I was not onboard for a repair job as my time was served in the summer months but we did have an exercise about 20 miles south of Cape Point so I was able to see the engines in action. In my first year at sea I had been onboard the battleship “Texas” – a permanent museum off the Houston Ship Canal. She had been built at the end of WW1 and apparently her only shots fired in anger had been during the Normandy landings when she was used to soften up the shore defences. After WW2 she was laid up and eventually found her way to her namesake State. She had triple expansion, open crankcase engines and I remember wondering then how they would have sounded. Nearly ten years later I found out on the Cable Restorer, needless to say one cannot hold a normal conversation on a motor ship whilst standing between the main engines running at full speed !

There were many amusing incidents on the ship, on one occasion the 2nd Engineer was on annual leave and his relief was a UK resident who was living onboard. (engineers with steam experience are rare these days, at that time Safmarine only had one steam ship left in service) One Saturday afternoon the 2nd decided he would like to run ashore for a few beers at the Lord Nelson. I was the duty officer for the weekend so I called out the boat with the duty crew and put him ashore, arranging to send the boat to pick him up at 2200. However, come nightfall, the wind got up very quickly as it is wont to do in the Cape and by the time 2130 came along we had a howling gale. I was not going to put the crew and boat at risk so they double lashed the moorings and secured ship for the night.

After rounds I then settled down in the snug Wardroom with the phone at my elbow and watched the TV while listening to the wind through the open port. Sure enough, around 2230, the phone rang. It was only because I was expecting the call that I was able to recognise the voice, the Lord Nelson had done well out of our 2nd that night. Needless to say I learnt a few new Glaswegian words, maybe they were new to the 2nd as well.

In the morning I sent off the boat for the Sunday papers and it returned with a cold, bedraggled, wet and smelly 2nd. The wind had turned to rain and the Lord Nelson had declined to offer him a room for the night, hardly surprising considering the state he was in, so he had sought shelter in a fisherman’s “bakkie” that had a tarpaulin over it.

I kept upwind of him as he came up the gangway, he muttered a few Hebridean sayings and headed for the showers. I wisely had a cool beer waiting for him once he emerged from the shower and he seemed to accept my decision of the night before.

In the early 90’s the ship was finally decommissioned as a new fibre optic cable had been laid to replace the original copper-cored cable. This new technology was beyond the capability of the “destroyer” as she was fondly known so she had to go. She is now being used as a floating hostel for boarders attending the Simon’s Town High School.