HMS Bullfrog not ready to croak yet
But war relic is scrap unless a new home and use can be found
The Nazis couldn't sink it. Nor the Japanese. But one of South Africa's best-loved and longest-surviving ships is heading for a watery grave unless it finds a new owner - and soon.
The 75-year-old, 2,000-ton museum ship the Cable Restorer has been berthed precariously between a towering navy frigate and a yacht marina in Simon's Town for 24 years.
Now the man at the helm, former Simon's Town mayor Harry Dilley, has been told to dispose of the vessel as soon as he can, even if it means selling it for scrap.Dilley said this week he was running out of options to save the ship, which he has maintained for a quarter of a century. In that time it has served as a restaurant, a wedding venue, a film set, a floating dormitory for maritime college pupils and an office for Dilley's boat charter business.
Before that it laid undersea cables off the South African coast, ploughed the seas of the Far East and assisted the Allied effort during World War 2. It was built in England in 1944 and started life as HMS Bullfrog.
"I've been told to alienate the ship timeously," Dilley confirmed this week. "The last thing I would be thinking about is to take it to pieces."
The ship has Burmese teak decks, antique furniture, 100 bronze portholes and triple-expansion steam engines in its belly. But its impressive history is now a liability: without a commercial or heritage partner she is a financial millstone for the owner, the Simon's Town Museum, which falls under the Western Cape provincial government.Dilley charters the ship from the museum in terms of an agreement signed in the 1990s that gives him a deciding say in its future. The province and the museum trustees have given the go-ahead to sell.
Dilley said the decision was due to financial concerns. Not only is the vessel costly to maintain, it is unclear how long the navy will host it inside the military base, next to the False Bay Yacht Club.
To date, military officials have been accommodating, but a similarly historic vessel - the SAS Pietermaritzburg, which took part in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France - has been turned into a protected underwater heritage site.
Other historic ships have been scrapped or are tied up in obscure corners of commercial ports, such as the former SAS Somerset at the V&A Waterfront.
"We don't have a good record with this kind of thing," said Brian Ingpen, maritime educator and co-founder of the Lawhill Maritime Centre attached to Simon's Town School.
"To my thinking it would be wonderful - absolutely first prize - if we could preserve her. But it costs a lot of money. A lot of work has to go into a ship like this. Maintenance is just horrific, and then insurance - it all has to be taken into account.
"The problem is that the navy would have to come on board and allow the public free access to the vessel. It is so important for that to happen," Ingpen said, adding that the navy's decision to close a popular submarine museum in the dockyard did not augur well for the Cable Restorer.
Arne Söderlund,, a former submarine museum director and a former naval director of Fleet Force Preparation, commended Dilley for maintaining the vessel.
"He has done a great job in preserving the ship - the restaurant was a wonderful place to go to. It is an asset to the town and we just have to find a way of making her accessible."Compounding the ship's problems is that it is difficult to move with no functioning rudder. It would need to be declared seaworthy to move to a suitable home should it be evicted from the dockyard.
Veteran Hout Bay ferry operator Ken Evans said the Cable Restorer had commercial and developmental potential.
"You would hope that the navy and heritage people might get together and say: 'Let's work together on this.' She is one of the few ships of her kind in the world," he said.
"Here is a wonderful opportunity for uplifting people and extending training opportunities. I would be horrified to hear that the Cable Restorer is going to be scrapped."
Nigel Campbell, South African Maritime Safety Authority executive head of shipping, said the country already had a training vessel in the SA Agulhas. Preserving historic ships - as other countries had done - was possible but required substantial investment, he said.
"It is a difficult one. You actually need a bunch of philanthropists to keep it alive."
The navy declined to comment.
Undersea cables transmit information by means of light impulses. The first South Atlantic undersea cable to South Africa, SAT 1, was laid in 1968. It was taken out of service in 1993 and replaced with a fibre-optic cable, SAT 2, which was fully utilised by 2012. SAT 3 is under way and will total 28 800km. Cable is still preferred to satellite communication in many instances as the cable time delay on SAT 3 will be less than 60 milliseconds, whereas satellite transmission’s delay is typically 250 milliseconds.