The inside story of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

Recollections of an old sea dog — Captain Bill Shewell

Sailing up the River Torridge to Appledore from Bideford in Dad’s small dingy in 1946 fired some deep unconscious desire that attracted me to sea life and an awareness of the “theatre of movement”.  As an immigrant in 1948, my family was allocated an abandoned holiday house in Victoria Bay near George and after six months Dad found employment at the Gamtoos River Mouth holiday camp.  The whole family worked there during holidays and I acquired a 16ft clinker rowing boat and earned 2 shillings a trip taking excited campers for rowing rides on the river to the mouth. I loved this and it was lucrative pocket money!   It was a sense of the maritime life to come.


High school in Port Elizabeth was not a success and the City Council finally sent me to the General Botha training college at Gordon’s Bay on a grant.  How I loved that! 

After eight years at sea getting my Master’s Certificate and also meeting my future wife (a passenger on the Edinburgh Castle) I abandoned the ship life and started teaching the local fishermen how to reach Hout Bay from Cape Town without running their boats ashore. On the top floor of the Missions to Seaman Institute (today’s Waterfront Theatre School) without an Afrikaans qualification which upset the government of the day, I was teaching navigation to solid down-to-earth non-white crayfish skippers. This was seen as a threat to the Government of the day and I could not get accreditation and was closed down. 

Cadet Bill Shewell
Cadet Bill Shewell

So off to the only job offered in the harbour service at Walvis Bay as relief mate on the tugs.  Twenty four years later, through various port grades, I was promoted back to Walvis Bay as Port Captain and then Port Director with simple instructions to sort out Walvis Bay’s gremlins so that government would have an efficiently operating harbour ready for the political negotiations if the Walvis Bay enclave was to be returned to South West Africa. 

Bill’s short CV

1968 -1978 —  Senior Marine Harbour Pilot, Durban

1978-1985 —  Assistant Port Captain, Durban & Richards Bay

1985-1986 —  Port Captain, Walvis Bay

1987-1989 —  Port Director, Walvis Bay

1989-1991 —  Port Captain & Deputy Port Director, Cape Town

1991-2006 —  Harbour Master, V&A Waterfront

I really enjoyed looking forward to a new challenge. Being the only English-speaking employee with a 90% white Afrikaans staff in itself raised many eyebrows. The harbour required urgent dredging of tons of fish scales, and the in-house staff did not want change.  They were a small tight-knit community with no TV, and catching good fish was far higher up the scale of life than work. 

Top management was very supportive, for upgrading everything from staff homes in the town and townships, to approving new sports equipment, etc, and that very quickly had all my apprehensive staff smiling. Walvis Bay town was divided strictly in half – the white half and the others. In this scenario my challenge as the only local staff I needed were in the other groups who lived in these sand-swept township homes, with no sport facilities nor a seaside beach.  Here is where my challenge really emerged. What could I do?   Fortunately, the SA Navy base commander understood my issues, so we became a good team.

 At the far lagoon beyond the exclusive golf course and adjacent white yacht club lay a beautiful stretch of open protected beach bordered by some 50 traditional homes but frowned upon should any tourists from the other half dared to enjoy this beach on their weekends. Together with the Naval Commander, Town Engineer, fire department and the Mayor we decided to build an area for sport and leisure starting with a low-level simple jetty. 

Now here were two senior mariners having no experience in building a jetty setting off with an idea. The 16 new naval diving recruits were given a new exercise – two to a wooden telephone pole each and jog 4 kilometres to the open beach. Tape measures and compasses as each pole was inserted into holes blown out by fire pump jets into the deep fish-scale/mud/sand, with each pole tilted into these holes. We came back the next morning to find all 20 poles lifted out with the rising tide. The second attempt succeeds as each pole is secured with connection joints and the top laid with planks carried out with enthusiastic trainee recruits. 

The Raft Restaurant & Esplanade, Walvis Bay
The Raft Restaurant & Esplanade, Walvis Bay

The result was amazing and this area became the free weekend home-base for many of the less fortunate, bored families tucked into deplorable township areas. The mayor donated two huge palm trees and my challenge became my new phrase. Theatre of Movement. Open day, free braais, music and laughter showed one and all this was a free fun place which has been fully recognised by the town fathers, and remains the same 20 years later. 

Walvis Bay port by 1990 had the potential for great expansion and results is history.  Senior government politicians between Windhoek and Pretoria took over and I was offered a transfer to a similar post in the Port of Cape Town. I knew full well what politically was developing with independence etc, and it was time to move.

I was interviewed by well-known shipping reporter Ian Shipman on my second day as Cape Town’s Port Captain.  I was asked, “What is your first plan?”  

“Oh, get the seals and dolphins back over Table Mountain into the harbour,” I replied. “How will you do that?” Shipman asked.  “Quite easy, during periods when the heavy mist hides the rivers flowing down the  gorges, the seals will return in these rivers swimming down.”  Incredibly polite.  Shipman was completely taken in and, blow me down, printed these comments in his shipping section of the Cape Times.  I’ve never been allowed to forget it, but the hidden reply really meant that until Duncan dock’s filth is sorted out, nothing will live in that water. 

Shewell - the champion of the seals

The port cleansing team of eight then swept from A berth on the west to
the east end of the Salt River mouth — the port’s limits — by removing every unidentified
item of loose equipment, selling useful scrap for the welfare home while the
rest into yellow DZ trucks. This also included two unidentified abandoned ships
engines and steel tug tow bars.  It provided twenty-four full railway trucks of used dunnage!

 Customs refused to clear unidentified trucks without documentation out the gates.  In those days all senior Cape Town officials took their five day Easter break.  The berthing staff team happily agreed to work over Easter on double overtime to have the trucks shunted to an end site beyond the Blue shed and build a bonfire burning all the used dunnage emptying truck by truck. This work continued day by day through Easter break till a returning fire officer called on Tuesday afternoon, annoyed that we had not posted a duty fireman or obtained their approval.

Well, by Wednesday 6 days later all railway trucks were emptied and my first goal to get the “seals” back was achieved. 

Staff meetings followed with one senior official, reclining in his plush office, fired back at me after one of my rather tactless remarks. “Captain you see that mountain? Well, it’s been there long before you came here, and I’ve been here the same time and I am not changing my rules. Is that clear?  Three months later a key change of personnel occurred and the next step for my seals had been achieved.

The marine budget was way overrun. My senior team meeting was taken aback when I apologized for disrupting them with my unexpected transfer to this top chair but assured them it was not my intention to stay here long, with one of them taking over when I get promoted. My four Assistant Port Captains looked alarmed after telling them we were going to operate differently. One volunteered to take promotion to Richards Bay, a second one accepted retirement, the third one moved to tugboat fleet management vacancy and fourth to marine pilot’s trainee officer leaving me with a leaner budget prospect. My newly appointed typist /manager/general secretary was delighted to now have her hands full while normal maritime pilotage and mooring duties settled down.

The harbour engineering team suggested fitting a cargo net over Adderley Street’s huge 4 metre square stormwater outlet beneath the Duncan dock wall and this was a huge success. It was so full of everything from tennis balls to running shoes and everything inbetween that the harbour crane was needed to lift and tip the net into waste trucks for the dump. Another step to allow for cleaner harbour waters, while daily scoops in the yacht club helped us in that area. A tight watch on vessels oil spillage kept the water surface clear, one more step for the seals.

I saw an opportunity to take over my very own harbour so I made an offer to David Jack to help develop the V&A basins, ensuring my permanence in Cape Town.  Harbours Head Office suggested that I retain the post of Port Captain and look after shipping in the Victoria and Alfred basins. I appointed a relief Assistant Port Captain to manage shipping  in the Waterfront.  I had reached eligible retirement age and decided to retire from Harbours and formally accept a one year contract with the V&A Waterfront. i was given total freedom to run my very own harbour and make all decisions on maritime aspects on my own. This was my dream come true!


I was given an empty office room on second floor of the Old Port Captain’s Building by Derick van der Merwe, the financial director, with nothing but a chair to sit on and two windows looking out onto Victoria Basin – the one onto the tugs on Jetty One and the other  across The Cut where the Penny Ferry operated.

I had just left a plush, fully-equipped 10th floor office with two Assistant Port Captains, secretary and typist, tea and coffee twice a day and two telephones.  In the office across the passage, there was the equally plush Port Manager’s office and the appropriate staff. What on earth had I come to in my career in maritime services.?  The Assistant Port Captain was retained by the Port Captain in a new position to manage the tugs, pilot boats and small craft inside the Victoria & Alfred sections.

I had a new career, a new life, with seemingly only maritime decisions to support the Waterfront management team. I had told them back in Head Office that I was going to apply for a position as a postman in the Eastern Cape — so much for ending my enjoyable 30-year career in the Transnet’s harbour division.

 A knock on the door of my near-empty office and a nervous lady offered me a cup of morning tea on my huge old-fashioned desk — borrowed from the maritime museum where it had been standing covered in dust.  I briefly wondered if I  looked out of place on this floor with the furtive glances of a young office staff each with a computer in front of them. 

Thus, as I pondered what next, the best thing seemed was just to go for a walk on my new quays, introducing myself as the new marine guy for the waterfront to anyone that did not look like a tourist.  I soon realized that this historical harbour created on the beaches below Signal Hill was and is far greater than me. I had been offered to add something special to further develop the mandate of the development team, similar but not the same as the vacant open beach front at Walvis Bay.

I started with the ride on the Penny Ferry – the rowing boat that linked the old Pier Head to the Clock Tower and the new, very popular Bertie’s Landing pub and restaurant.  Walks took in the Collier Jetty and the Portuguese trawler fleet, leaving me pondering how such an area would be incorporated for City inhabitants?  Three hours later I was back at the office with my note recorder full, and a range of appointment messages waiting for me. My temporary secretary answered calls for me simply said he is out doing his MBA — Management By wandering Around.  Progress with introductions to other department heads soon had my days very full.

One classic meeting involving the ship berths was to discuss the plans for the new Table Bay Hotel which showed a footprint that stretched on to my No 2 jetty.   This was my first contribution and dispute.  I objecting strongly as my jetty was for me to berth vessels and particularly the planned world-famous tall ships race where sailing ship spars would clash with the hotel bedrooms.

After much thought and trying my best to influence office-bound planners tactfully, the point was taken. (Tact was not my best asset) The hotel footprint was moved off my quay and I believe the many planners around that table realised David Jack had a new marine team member. 

Now I had my own quay to entice ship’s agents to bring their own passenger vessels into our
waterfront instead of to the main harbour, with special attractions and deals low enough to win the day. Being a past qualified ship’s pilot I felt confident to repeat the history of the earlier Union Castle mailships which only berthed in the Victoria Basin — so why not modern passenger vessels with ultra-modern engines aided by advanced tugs?

Another meeting  that week came from  Royal Cape Yacht Club, asking me to consider the East quay area outside the breakwater for the use by yacht club members’ yachts. From time to time the Port long-term strategy was to better utilize their leased section. To me this anchorage development request would clash with my theory of a “Theatre of Movement” and a floating garage would risk safe entrance to Victoria Basin for other vessels. My decision did not go down well.

Ships & Charter Boats

The upkeep and cleanliness of the water area incurred expenses of both equipment and maintenance staff so the public on charter boats could enjoy the environment and take home a memory of good experiences. Most of these expenses were handled by the works and estate division. To keep their support, I had to create a fair financial return from all forms of boating and shipping activities while at the same time giving entrepreneurs their chance to be part of the waterfront activities I was after. 

One of the very first social requests was for a lifeboat to use for the Itubha charity Christmas fund for deserving children and… would I also act as Father Christmas on the bow of the lifeboat full of presents and play the appropriate part?  Here was I in full regalia thrown into acting as Father Christmas as one of my first jobs. The Port Captain also had kindly made available the huge port floating crane for Itubha activities, so from here I departed Itubha on the old Victoria, a clumsy old ship’s lifeboat, to arrive at the corner where the shopping centre was growing. Highly successful with hundreds of happy kids — an introduction to the use of a working harbour for simple but attractive charter boats operated by qualified skippers. 

I accepted business proposals from interested sailors to build and operate their own charter boats with appropriate leases. I started with three operators with five-year leases and no turnover clauses.  For the particular berth rate to cover my budget, the lease contract required each charter boat to be available to cruise throughout the year offering rides, annual maintenance periods excluded.

No boats could look the same above the waterline and each boat could only berth at its own designated site where ticket sellers would offer seats.  The effect was that tourists could stroll along a quay without being harassed to buy tickets. This approach worked very well, and I was able to steadily increase berths for a variety of charter boats year to over six hundred bums on seats year-round with without the need for boats from other ports gate crashing the Christmas season.  It recognised that the commercial harbour did not charter boats for the public. The bonus attraction always was the building of the sixty-metre floating pontoon jetty extending from the Clock Tower for Robben Island catamaran cruises. This catered for two hundred passengers a trip. 

Now with the continual movement during the day and evenings of charter boats berthed from the Aquarium to outer end of Victoria Basin, coupled to the harbour’s tugs, pilot boats, mooring launches and a giant crane with the Port on Jetty One made this a natural “Theatre of Movement” — for all our visitors, whether out on the pier head just gazing or enjoying a meal in full view of activities. Always a treat was the dragon boats their crews’ paddles clipping the water training hard for annual races, or even the youth training swimming to qualify for Midmar Dam amongst the seals in Alfred basin startled visitors. Great excitement captured every person as Pilots navigated the narrow Victoria Basin entrance with massive stately passenger ships to berth in front of the Table Bay Hotel Jetty, passengers lining the ships rails overawed by this sight and excited just to be finally moored here in the Cape of Storms. My special harbour was growing my way, but lots still to tell you and do.

Having a working knowledge of harbour pilots, (having been a marine pilot myself) I felt no quibbles in contacting ship’s agents to offer an equally competitive passenger ship berth inside the Waterfront on either side of Jetty Two. Also, this included any other type of vessel not loading or discharging freight ranging from Foreign Naval Squadrons to Antarctica suppliers or Research ships or whalers. All these smaller vessels fascinated the tourist while the ships crews loved the freedom to shops or enjoy music or local food within the sound and sight of visiting tourists pervading the area

Walking by day and long into the weekend evenings, I realised that my backwater needed much attention on the water to match the on-land activities of the emerging growing shopping centre or Bertie’s landing or Ferryman’s Tavern.

Recent new trips on charter boats such as the old ships’ lifeboat Victoria or sailing yacht Alter Ego or the catamaran Lady Jane or the open traditional brown sails open seats wooden yacht Esperance were all a safe variety to choose from and allow excited families to sail out to sea even beyond the breakwater, but more was needed.

A call to my humble office one day from a Consular Officer for a Berth Inquiry for a medium size British naval craft wishing to make a formal entrance with all their pomp and ceremony. 

To me a perfect opportunity for their HMS Norfolk on Jetty Two followed later by the RFA Grey Rover then the two masted Polish training sailing ship STS Frederik Chopin and the French Frigate Germinal followed by the magnificent German Passenger liner Hanseatic. I raised no fee for such berths, they were a big attraction. Seeing all this from any city vantage point inside the first two months of the new year was a physical awakening for the tourists and especially for the excited waterfront staff.  The city now realising access to their waterfront harbour was a real “theatre movement” including hidden secrets of ships, tugs, birds, seals, wind, chattering voices, sea smelling salt air all so close to the sea really urged me to improve an old historical backwater.

Passing alongside the shopping lane opposite the historic Union Castle building is Cape Union Mart in the shed of the original old slipway and boat repair yard and look closely during spring low tide clear water to see the old original wood slipway rails that will tell you of the hard work of those old seafarers. This seafront by activity proved it was always the start of our working harbour.

The New Basin

The removal of the empty fuel tanks started in 1991, and subsequent removal of the oil residue was remarkable and is a separate story. By using certain species of grass, nature’s sunshine and rain to consume the residue before allowing this huge hole to be filled with rubble up to Six meters depth and turned into a marina basin proved best choice.

Careful slope design of both the initial concrete rubble and topped with a sand fill to allow the natural flow of the basin water across the New Basin via the Bascule bridge opening into Alfred Basin was vital to avoid areas of stagnant water to accumulate. An interesting occasion with the assistance of HRH Duke of Edinburgh during his visit to South Africa when he was again invited (as his name’s sake did in 1860 to tip the first truck of rubble for the new Breakwater) to set off the explosives to crack open this New Basin wall to allow water inflow from Alfred Basin to equal the level of the New Basin. 

Prior to the water input, contractors kindly sponsored twenty heavy concrete mooring blocks with steel ring eyelets below ground level in positions that could be used to ultimately anchor yacht bows head into wind. How useful that early move turned out to be for safely mooring large yachts.

Sets of floating mooring pontoons installed with water and electrical boxes allowed for a variety range of craft giving the Cape Grace hotel and Residential Units residents a peaceful atmosphere from yachts in the basin and a sustainable financial return for the large investment incurred. Unexpected problems such as an irate guest leaving a message to ask the Harbour Master to please control the seagulls screeching wildly at three in the mornings, or hotel guests unable to sleep when a fishing trawler came alongside to discharge their catch. Other complaints came in over the engine noise vibrations or refrigeration systems hum during the night.

 This challenge we had to resolve as also at the number two Jetty passenger ship berths which we did by having heavy duty used tractor tyre fenders as insulation between ships hulls and the concrete structures.  

During the planning and construction of the residential apartments surrounding the New Basin, the canal level had to be maintained while the New Basin level being tidal waterway canal was envisaged between the New Basin and the City centre entailed the design and building of a unique operational lock allowing a ferry boat and residential owners small yachts to exit the canal during set times.  The lock level had to be at the canal level to allow boats entry to the locks, after which the operator had to bring the level of the lock water to that of the New Basin top open and allow exit of the craft. 


Click on any of the images below to open a full-screen image gallery.

In 1998, an English Major student named Ms Lundgren shadowed Bill for a class project.  Here is her story:
Bill’s thoughts on possible expansion ideas into the future.
  1. Possible double story level above quay 7 opposite Cape Grace for relaxing restaurant facing the afternoon sun and sheltered from S.E wind.
  2. No 2 jetty opposite Table Bay Hotel.  The extension of the present building into two further double story sections with ground floor for marine student education facilities and meeting facility with essential upper floor for the maritime artifices now hidden in out of view store warehouse and liable to historical loss. Both facilities would be financially sustainable and contribute to the social conscious of the waterfront business.  Neither building being a threat to the smaller non-commercial visitor ships yet a financial source. Note the Jetty already has ablution facilities connected underground to manhole at hotel area.
  3. The creation of a huge satellite growth node between Salt River mouth and north beach line to Woodbridge island… combining the beach for a yacht club and motor boat club and sun blessed beach by walk-over road/rail bridge for residents of new high rise living facing sun, with SE behind, in areas now in use at Paarden Island. Time frame twenty-five to fifty years.
  4. Hovercraft facilities from Milnerton to the main harbour or Salt River mouth.

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