Giant ship challenge for Xoliswa

WHILE many others will be trying to manoeuvre their one-ton cars into parking spots on Sunday, a Mthatha woman will be docking a vessel at least 100000 times heavier at the Port of Ngqura.

The MSC Sola, the largest vessel of its kind to dock in a South African port, makes its way to the Eastern Cape from Durban and Xoliswa Bekiswa, 29, will be at the helm to make sure the 131771 container ship enters the harbour safely.

The Sola is bigger and longer than any of the others she has had to steer. Measuring 363.5m in length, 45.6m in width and 15.5m average depth, the ship dwarfs most other container vessels.

“It’s a big jump from the usual sizes, and the length’s something you have to consider when you’re turning,” she said.

“Still, once you factor in the extra length and some of the weight, the whole process is very similar to a normal ship.”

On Sunday morning, the Sola will arrive at a demarcated fairway buoy outside of the port and wait while Bekiswa is brought out aboard a specialised pilot boat.

Once she boards the ship, she will be introduced to the captain and the two will trade notes on the characteristics of Ngqura’s waters and the ship’s layout.

“Obviously, I need to know if there is anything out of the ordinary with the vessel, and the captain and his crew won’t be familiar with our waters, so they’ll need my input,” Bekiswa said.

Bekiswa will then direct and communicate with the various parties that handle the docking. This includes a long list of navigation officers, crewmen, berthing masters and the captain.

“A pilot can’t handle the entire operation alone. Too many things need to happen at once, and there are crews for all of those processes,” she said.

“I serve as an adviser to the captain. I give instructions that the captain then takes to his crew. I also radio in instructions to the tugboats.”

The docking procedure involves four tugboats, which pull and manoeuvre the ship, stabilising it as it goes. All five vessels have to operate in unison to pull off the operation smoothly, but Bekiswa does not let the pressure get to her.

“Depending on the weather or various other conditions, you may have to make calls off the cuff. And yes, there’s a lot of communication going on. Still, we’ve been trained to handle it, so it never really gets to be too much,” she said.

The ship is guided safely into the dock, where the berthing masters take over by securing it to its moorings.

“The length’s really the only thing that makes this any more difficult than usual. It’s like driving a car, in that a little Corsa Lite is going to have a much smaller turning circle than an 18-wheel truck,” Bekiswa said.

“The operation can be delicate if you don’t plan properly. Once a ship that size starts turning in one direction, with a strong wind let’s say, it can be difficult to make it stop.”

Bekiswa, who has been a licensed marine pilot since 2008, said she was looking forward to its Sunday morning arrival.

“Getting on board the ship, that’s definitely when the adrenaline kicks in,” she said.

The Sola – which docked in Durban yesterday on its way from the Far East via Port Louis in Mauritius – will discharge 500 containers at Ngqura and load 1000. She leaves the Bay after about three days, and will return to the Far East via Port Louis.

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