A Future Option for the Port of Cape Town

By Harry Valentine 2014-02-03 11:03:00

In early January 2014, the New York Times identified the port city of Cape Town, South Africa as one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert waterfront development is one of the city’s premium tourist attractions, having being developed from a dockyard that had originally been built to accommodate wind-driven sailing ships that at one time, had carried the world’s trade. Despite the Suez Canal having captured east-west maritime traffic that sails between Europe and Asia, Cape Town is still a major seaport on the maritime trade route between Latin America and Asia.

At the present time, much discussion is underway about the future of the Port of Cape Town. These discussions include plans to develop a larger terminal for passenger tourist ships as well as a new industrial area across Table Way, from the waterfront of Cape Town’s central business district. While tourist ships of 1500-passengers sail to and from Cape Town, there may be future scope for the largest tourist ships of over 6,000-passengers capacity to call there. Since the fall of apartheid, Cape Town has become an attractive tourist destination.

While the Port of Cape Town is busy, the Port of Durban that is located on South Africa’s northeastern coast inside a comparatively small bay with a narrow entrance is Africa’s largest and busiest container terminal. Durban is located some 400-miles from Africa’s largest stock exchange and largest financial district at Johannesburg, centre of Africa’s most productive mining region. Overland transportation links between Durban and Johannesburg often operate at near full capacity, with an increasing proportion of the container freight business being diverted via the Port of Elizabeth, with intermodal transfers occurring at the Melford container terminal.

As larger container ships begin to sail between growing economies of Asia and Latin America, there may be merit in transferring containers between these ships while en route, briefly stopping at an offshore container transfer terminal located inside a wave-protected zone near the Port of Cape Town. These ships will sail a shorter direct distance between Cape Town and several Asian ports, than to sail via Durban. An expanded wave-protected area at Cape Town’s Table Bay could simultaneously serve the present and future maritime container trade, tourist trade, ship repair as well as several other maritime related businesses.

Storm Vulnerability:

During winter, powerful winds blow from the west and northwest, often directly into Table Bay where the seawater surface becomes energetic, including to the point where anchored ships have broken loose from mooring cables. Such ocean conditions have in the distant past, actually sunk ships in Table Bay and drove several ships on to the coastal rocks. There may actually be scope to build new breakwaters at Table Bay to increase the size of the wave-protected zone that will include the Port of Cape Town and offer new business opportunities to the numerous and diverse sectors within the maritime industry.

Future Breakwaters:

The present day commercial dock at the Port of Cape Town was built after dredging the seafloor of Table Bay, transferring material on to the shore so as to reclaim land from the sea, Cape Town’s foreshore. There may be scope to further dredge the seafloor of Table Bay to obtain the material needed to build new breakwaters at Cape Town. Railway lines radiate from Cape Town’s docks and pass through mountain areas that are a source of rocks and boulders that may be transported to Cape Town harbour to build new breakwaters.

Large boulders and rocks also lie along South Africa’s coast. Tug barges may collect rocks and boulders from coastal mountains, material that may become part of future breakwaters at Table Bay. A breakwater may radiate to northeast from Robben Island and connect to land, with a 2nd breakwater extending south toward a possible future entrance to an enclosed section of Table Bay. A companion breakwater may extend north from a coastal area located to the west of Victoria and Albert waterfront development and extend to a possible future entrance to the Port of Cape Town.

Future Wave-Protected Zone:

Future breakwaters would shield a portion of Table Bay from the energetic wave conditions that frequently occur. Ships may moor and layover within a protected, breakwater-enclosed area where wave conditions may be comparatively benign. The enclosed area may accommodate offshore floating docks along with floating cranes capable of transferring containers between super-size container ships. When dock space is occupied, tourist ships may moor within a future wave-protected zone in Table Bay, perhaps next to a mobile floating dock from where with passenger ferries may shuttle tourists to and from land as greater numbers of tourists visit Cape Town.

An enclosed calm-water zone at Table Bay can allow for ships to undergo a variety of repairs and maintenance, without occupying space at a dry dock or at portside. There is oil exploration underway in the mid and south Atlantic, with the option to repair, retrofit and modify oil-drilling platforms in a future calm water zone in Table Bay. An old breakwater may lie within a future calm-water zone and perhaps serve as a future runway for commuter aircraft, with the option of a designated future seaplane runway in the same zone.

Private Investors:

In this modern era, several companies have developed maritime terminals using private capital. This is especially the trend in areas of high traffic volumes. At the present time, the rate of exchange between the more dominant monetary currencies is very attractive when converting to the South African Rand. The combination of an attractive rate of monetary exchange along with projected high future volumes of container and tourist traffic could encourage private developers along with private financiers to examine possible future prospects at Cape Town that would include ship-to-ship container transfer and a variety of ship maintenance and repair.

At the present time, there are upscale apartments and premium hotels located at Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert waterfront area along with a variety of other tourist attractions. There may be scope to construct offshore islands within a future calm-water zone to accommodate hotels and apartments, with related future development being aimed at a larger tourist, visitor and upscale residential market. There would be scope for investors connected to the tourist sector and maritime transportation sector to cooperate in the construction of nee breakwaters at Cape Town’s Table Bay, to develop a large calm-water zone that will benefit both sectors.

Ship Repair/Maintenance:

While the Port of Cape Town has a dry dock, a wave-protected zone allows for the operation of a semi-submersible mobile dry dock. Such technology could partially submerge under a ship hull then raise the hull out of the water to allow maintenance and repair personnel access to areas of the hull that are usually submerged. Laying a ship over inside a calm water zone would allow divers with welding torches and possible inside shark cages or inside mini-submarines, access to usually submerged sections of hull that may be in need of repair.

Renewable Energy:

There would be scope to erect towers for wind turbines along an extended breakwater at Cape Town, with ocean wave conversion technology secured near the breakwater and outside of the wave-protected zone. Powerful low-altitude winds blow directly above the ocean and over large bodies of water, which is why Denmark has developed offshore wind turbines. During the southern winter when demand for electric power is highest at Cape Town, prevailing winter winds blow toward Cape Town from the west and northwest. These winds could activate breakwater mounted wind turbines, while wind–driven choppy seawater may activate ocean wave-conversion technology.


Discussions are underway in regard to the future of Cape Town and the Port of Cape Town. The concept of new breakwaters and an expanded calm-water zone inside Cape Town’s Table Bay is a contribution to that discussion. While the concept presented in this article is ambitious, more modest versions are possible to produce a smaller calm-water zone that could benefit the commercial maritime, tourist, energy and waterfront development markets. The rate of exchange between the South African and foreign currencies invites foreign investors to consider investing in worthwhile future development at the Port of Cape Town.


Harry Valentine is a frequent contributor to the MarEx newsletter. He can be reached at harrycv@hotmail.com for comments/questions.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.