Nineteen miracles later and one of the last hand-fired steam tugs, the Alwyn Vintcent is set to become the star attraction of Villiersdorp.
Words: Marianne Heron
Pictures: David Morgan
Trying to summon up a miracle is tricky business. I suppose you could put up a sign saying ‘Miracle Required’ but that’s hardly likely to work. Until recently I was familiar only with one-off Irish miracles involving moving statues or weeping effigies of the Virgin Mary, but have now found a place in South Africa where miracles have turned up by the score.
It’s Villiersdorp in the Western Cape. And correction, make that 19 miracles. One more miraculous event needed to get to a score. But the sheer number of propitious events, wishful thoughts come true, prayers answered or whatever you like to call them, was enough to convince the pastor in Villiersdorp to invite local Eniel Viljoen, former chairman of the Western Cape Vintage Tractor and Engine Club, to recite from the pulpit the 19 miracles around Alwyn Vintcent.
Now the Alwyn Vintcent is neither saint nor sinner but a more than 100-ton steam tug, one of the last hand-fired, coal steamships built. And Eniel is one of the leading lights involved in plans to save the tug for posterity.
Now the pride and joy of the Villiersdorp branch of the Vintage Tractor and Engine Club, the tug rests in the yard of the Viljoen family’s engineering business. And the story of how the vessel arrived there is nothing short of, well, miraculous.
Having served a useful working life in Mossel Bay since 1959, as one of five pilot tugs commissioned by the South African Railways and Harbours administration, the Italian-built Alwyn Vintcent was retired in 1983. At this point an extraordinary chain of events came into play, in which the tug, along with two other tugs, was bought by an Australian, and the plan to sail them off to his homeland was narrrowly avoided by complications and red tape.
The Alwyn was then bought by a South African who had plans to use the tug as a tourist attraction in Knysna but red tape put paid to that scheme too. In 1988 the tug was purchased by the South African Maritime Museum and became an attraction used for tours around the harbour in Cape Town. In 2008, another Australian bought the boat after it had been moored for quite some time in Cape Town Harbour, and planned to load it onto another boat and take it to Australia. But that owner became ill and the project came to a standstill.
Then Cape Town Harbour Master Stephen Bently came up with a bright idea and got in touch with the Western Cape Vintage Tractor and Engine Club and persuaded the committee – not that these enthusiasts need much persuading – to come to the Alwyn’s rescue.
(That’s five or six fortuitous events or miracles so far… )
Now it might sound like the height of madness to try to move a 27 metre-long tug of such tonnage, 100 kilometres by road to Villiersdorp, but not to Eniel and his merry men. To lessen the load and height, the tug’s superstructure had to be removed. “We had to take out 10 tons of pipes,” Eniel tells me in his Villiersdorp office, where a scale-model of the Alwyn Vintcent has pride of place.
It took volunteers from the Tractor and Engine Club two years to take the tug apart and prepare her for the epic four-day journey to Villiersdorp. And while they were working on the tug, the men had a miraculous escape. One of the steel props holding the boat upright slipped just seconds after the volunteers had been called away for a tea break. If they hadn’t moved away they would have been crushed.
And further miracles? “Absolutely everyone came to the party and everyone did what they said they would,” says Eniel. And then there was the extraordinary good fortune in obtaining sponsors, in return for festooning the tug with sponsor adverts on its road trip.
Finally the great day came and the tug was launched with a bottle of champagne by Stephen Bently. This time it wasn’t out to sea but on to her epic four-day journey to Villiersdorp, at the head of a triumphal procession that would put that of a victorious Roman emperor in the shade. Towed by two behemoth trucks, with dozens of vintage tractors as guard of honour, and hailed by sirens and cheering crowds, the Alwyn Vintcent was a sight to make strong men weep. Many did.
What happened next was a blessing in disguise. The original plan to sail the restored tug on the Theewaterskloof Dam outside Villiersdorp was scuppered for a variety of reasons. “And we thank God for it,” says Eniel, explaining that the novel idea of having the tug as a land-based attraction means it can be preserved far better than on water.
“Basically we want it for tourists. It’s something unique with all the history and all the 19 miracles. It would have been no good just to take the engine and say look we have the last steamboat engine on register in South Africa. We have to be able to tell our children that this is the last steam tug.”
And it just so happened in an extraordinary piece of luck that one of the oldest houses in Villiersdorp came up for sale. Even more fortuitously, the property turned out to a have a long strip of land fronting onto the main road, the perfect ‘anchorage’ for the Alwyn Vintcent.
There are also ambitious plans for a future visitor attraction there. “In the tug we want to have a farm stall, a restaurant, a guest house where you can sleep in the captain’s quarters, and wine tastings in the wheelhouse,” says Eniel. “Something really special for Villiersdorp.” says Eniel.
The tug’s engines will be restored and run a couple of times a year, and a hot-air system might be used to simulate the puffing of the steam tug. (At this stage I have lost track of the number of miracles.) But one more miracle is needed – to unite the superstructure and its handsome wheelhouse with the hull of the tug. It’ll complete the restoration but will likely take several years since the members of the Tractor and Engine Club work on a voluntary basis in their free time. And when restoration is complete, the tug will have to be moved from the engineering yard to its final resting place.
It’s a Herculean task, but I won’t be a bit surprised if that miracle turns up.
How the Tug got its Name
The tug was named after a much-loved Mossel Bay businessman Alwyn Vintcent (1862-1918), member of a Dutch family. He was chairman of the Mossel Bay Boating Company, head of major import/export company Price Vintcent & Co, and a member of the legislative assembly for Riversdale. He died tragically on the return journey from seeing off his son in Europe to serve in WWI. The ship he sailed home on was torpedoed by a German U-boat.