Durban’s 90 year-old Prince Edward Graving Dry Dock is about to enter a new era.

The R30-million repair of its outer caisson – the 35 metre long, 900 ton gate that shuts off the entrance between the sea water and the dry dock – is just the beginning of a major refurbishment that will include a concrete refurbishment programme, replacement of crane rails, replacement of two aged electrical overheard cranes and refurbishment of the inner caisson, the procurement of new Jib cranes, a mechanical pump house upgrade, replacement of workshop equipment, installation of a new fire-fighting system, installation of new capstans, replacement of the non-operational floating dock and procurement of six compressors. 

This will all take place at a facility that has seen little, if any, investment since it was conceptualised in 1911 as the largest dock of its kind in the world. It was initially created to repair Royal Navy war ships and eventually commercialised in June 1925.

The four month long repair project is expected to begin in earnest once the hospital ship Africa Mercy which is currently occupying the dry dock departs.

However, to minimise the impact on the local ship repair industry, Transnet will only close the dry dock for two months in August and September. It will accept its next vessel on October 6.

Deputy port engineer, Dumisani Mkhize, believes that the massive repair is the result of the dry dock’s advanced age.

Basic maintenance revealed that the outer caisson was in “severe structural disrepair” and unsafe. It was decided to remove and completely rebuild it to original specs.

The massive outer caisson is now positioned at the back of the dry dock where it is being prepared for its complete overhaul. The second caisson that is usually positioned in the middle of the dry dock to divide it into two compartments to accommodate more than one ship, has replaced it to keep the ocean at bay.

The dry dock’s current market includes cargo vessels and TNPA’s own fleet of marine vessels. Last year, it accommodated 37 vessels – a number that Durban port manager, Moshe Motlohi, believes will increase substantially as this repair forms part of a wider Transnet plan to fast-track investments in ship repair facilities nationwide.

He says that Transnet has identified R16.8 billion worth of projects that are expected to grow the local ship repair, ship building and oil and gas sectors. All are set to be operational by 2019.

Refurbishment of existing ship repair facilities at all South African ports will see an estimated R2.2 billion invested in mechanical, electrical and civil infrastructure upgrades at the Ports of Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Mossel Bay.

Earlier this month TNPA appointed Durban-based engineering firm Channel Construction to carry out the repair. The company will work 24 hour shifts with the majority of the work carried out offsite at the contractor’s Bayhead workshop. It expects to create 43 new positions on site and 26 additional jobs in its workshop.