Teach Yourself

As you read through the article, you will find reference to

  • MACS (Maritime Carrier Services)
  • GAL (Gulf Africa Line) and
  • TAL (Trans-Atlantic Line)

Now make a note of

  • major events in the life of this interesting company;
  • trades on which each Line operates;
  • the type of ship operated on the various trades; and
  • cargoes carried by company ships.
Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 1 of 5

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 1 of 5

Silverfjord was one of the ships with which MACS began its South Africa-Europe service. shown here in Durban in 2009 during her time on the Gulf Africa Line’s service. She has since been withdrawn.

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 2 of 5

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 2 of 5

Originally trading on MACS’s South Africa-Europe service as Golden Isle, Viborg is shown discharging cargo on arrival in Cape Town from the US Gulf in 2009. She has been replaced by a modern ship.

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 3 of 5

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 3 of 5

Green Cape and her sistership Diamond Land provided a ro-ro capability for MACS that offered shipment of out-of-gauge items of cargo. She was withdrawn in 2012.

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 4 of 5

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 4 of 5

Purple Beach, one of the three ships custom-built in China in 1997-1998 for the MACS South Africa-Europe trade. When new ships came into service in 2013-2014, she was switched to the group’s trans-Atlantic trade. She suffered a fire in a fertilizer cargo in May this year. Photograph : Andrew Ingpen

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 5 of 5

Maritime Carrier Services (MACS) Slide 5 of 5

One of four ships built for MACS in the last few years, Green Mountain is shown sailing from Cape Town in July 2014. Photograph : Robert Pabst


Modified from an article that appeared in Southern African Shipping News, May 2015

Some years ago, I had lunch aboard the multi-purpose ship Blue Master, then on Gulf Africa Lines’ US Gulf-South Africa service. The occasion was certainly enhanced by the warm hospitality extended by Felix Scheder-Bieschin, director of GAL and its sister company MACS, as well as by the vessel’s Burmese master. Also from Burma, the chief steward had arranged an excellent lunch menu with steak, chicken and prawns, each served with an agreeable blend of mildly spiced gravies, rice and vegetables. Then came the desert, ice cream. While there were obvious elements of the Burmese cuisine, perhaps the steak came from a Texan steer and the ice cream from an American parlour since the vessel had arrived that morning from the US Gulf. A cup of special coffee capped a most delicious meal that was also an opportunity to meet the friendly officers.

At the time, Burma was suffering political turmoil that translated into hardship for most of its citizens, and the men aboard Blue Master were obviously concerned about the welfare of their families back home.

I recall that the 179-metre multi-purpose was in excellent condition, despite her completion of 37 winters prior to my visit. Her well-maintained decks, immaculate teak finishes in the wheelhouse, saloon and various officers’ quarters, as well as shining brass – and two deckhands aloft painting the twin funnels – spoke of the meticulous maintenance programme that kept the old girl in such good condition for all those years.

The 31500-deadweight Blue Master and her sisterships, Silverfjord and Viborg (ex-Golden Isle) that also traded on GAL’s US Gulf-South Africa service, were versatile vessels, with a container capacity of around 1200 teu, large bale space and two 12.5-ton cranes per hatch that could operate in tandem to give a lift of 25 tons. Those capabilities enabled them to carry a variety of cargo, ranging from heavy machinery to bulk products.

I was not surprised to see agricultural machinery and large earth-moving equipment in her holds, and from number four hatch, she was discharging hundreds of tons of soda ash into road trucks. Tightly stowed on the hatchcovers were huge truck cabs, and other heavy vehicles, some of which had been discharged temporarily while the Cape Town cargo was unloaded. They would be restowed atop the hatchcovers for the voyage to Durban.

Steaming at a leisurely 12.5 knots for the voyage from Houston to Cape Town, her friendly chief engineer told me, she had used 26 tons of heavy fuel oil a day, not a bad consumption for a fully-laden elderly ship.

Gulf Africa Line is a relatively recent addition to the group’s original and main operation, the MACS service between north-western Europe and South Africa, a service that began 36 years ago with the introduction of those three vessels, all converted bulkers built in the Uljanik yard in Pula in the old Yugoslavia, now Croatia. Once the containerised service had begun in earnest between Europe and South Africa, MACS offered to the South Africa-Europe Container Service a parallel service for break-bulk, neo-bulk and out-of-gauge cargoes that were difficult to containerise. And the ships carried containers on deck. On the northbound voyages, the company secured good volumes of export bulk cargoes from Richards Bay and Durban, as well as containers.

The new political dispensation in South Africa from 1994 brought a tsunami of trade, in response to which MACS added Green Cape and Diamond Land that had traded to South Africa on charter to Lloyd Triestino as Conti Hammonia and Conti Bavaria. They had also been chartered by Safbank for its service between South Africa and the United States as Natal and Columbine. Their significant capacity for ro-ro and heavylift cargoes, 918 teu and large bale space were ideal for those bulky project cargo items that were being imported to South Africa whose economy was experiencing a real resurgence at the time.

As cargo volumes continued rising, MACS built three 31916-tonnes-deadweight multi-purpose vessels (Amber Lagoon, Grey Fox and Purple Beach) with a 1908-teu capacity were custom-built in a Chinese yard in 1997-1998 for the Europe-South Africa trade to accommodate its variety of cargoes. The former Safmarine ships Stellenbosch and Algoa Bay also flew the MACS flag for a while.

In 2005, a service between South Africa and the US Gulf (Gulf Africa Line) began that now has six ships, including those original sisterships that were replaced on the European run by the trio of Chinese-built vessels.

In 2010, MACS bought the smaller 1997-vintage Black Rhino to operate a feeder service between Durban and Maputo, enabling cargo loaded at Lisbon (or elsewhere in Europe and the US Gulf) to be trans-shipped to Maputo, thus allowing the larger vessels to turn at Durban or Richards Bay.

The ships have become familiar sights at Cape Town’s F-G Berths and the Point wharves in Durban. I photographed four MACS ships alongside simultaneously in Cape Town.

Having carried millions of tons of cargo for MACS over 30 years, the older ships have gone, and four 199-metre replacements (Blue Master II, Golden Karoo, Green Mountain and Bright Sky) embody further improvements and innovations. Three of the five hatches are longer than usual for vessels of this size, ideal for the carriage of project cargo that is often bulky and awkward to handle. Working in tandem, the ships’ cranes can lift up to 240 tons. In their holds, the ships have multi-purpose pontoons for the stowage of heavylift cargoes, or they can be used as vertical cargo separators, a useful feature, given the variety of cargoes – especially bulk commodities – carried in these ships.

Chartered ships augment the owned fleet for the Europe-South Africa and GAL services, while a relatively new trans-Atlantic service involving two-month voyages from Europe to the US east coast and Gulf. While on this trade, Purple Beach suffered a fire in her fertiliser cargo late in May this year and was towed to Wilhelmshaven for repairs.

The South African agents, King & Sons, gained the MACS account via a request from the company to handle its container operations, but soon thereafter MACS gave its Durban agency business to King & Sons, music to the ears of the agency’s management. Indeed, the acquisition of the MACS business was a timely boost for the agency at time when it was losing considerable commission from the declining fortunes of the Greek company Hellenic Lines while another of its principals, ELMA Line of Argentina, was suffering from the effects of rampant inflation in South America and the aftermath of the Falklands war.

Indeed, with a few other pieces of good news such as increased volumes of Zimbabwean tobacco exports moving via Durban, and in the light of an exceptionally positive outlook for MACS, the agency’s board minutes in November 1982 reflect the excitement at gaining the agency for the liner company: “The company has been very successful with the MACS agency for the first quarter.” Within months, MACS appointed King & Sons as its agent at all South African ports, significantly enhancing the status of the agency for here was a reputable and expanding company that would provide regular business. To accommodate the requirements of its new principals and to cope with the volume of business generated by MACS, the agency separated its liner activities (mainly the MACS business) from its non-liner operations.

MACS has also shown its commitment to South Africa by appointing South African cadets to it fleet. As few multi-purpose ships are left on worldwide trading, a rare opportunity awaits cadets who are aboard these large vessels whose cargoes are so varied that those lads will gain rich experience in working containers, dry bulk cargoes, heavylifts and much break-bulk cargo. Similar advantages and experience is gained by the South African officers who are serving in MACS and GAL ships. Because of the nature of their cargowork, the ships usually spend several days in port, allowing time for a run ashore, reminiscent of a former era when part of the attraction of a seagoing career was that seafarers could enjoy the sights and sounds of their ports of call.

Its phenomenal growth and success on the South African trade over the last few decades led MACS to upgrade the status of its Cape Town office, thereby affirming the company’s position as the leading multi-purpose line operating to southern Africa.

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