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Docking in the dark — Sanctioned Russian ship drops anchor at Simon’s Town Naval Base

Docking in the dark — Sanctioned Russian ship drops anchor at Simon’s Town Naval Base
Russian Ro-Ro cargo ship, 'Lady R' docked inside Simon's Town Naval Base.

A Russian cargo ship, sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control since the war in Ukraine, docked between 8 and 10pm on Tuesday, while the town was under the cover of rolling blackout darkness. It is unclear what the reason for the docking was, although some claim the vessel had been in distress.

Residents of Simons Town in Cape Town awoke to an unexpected guest on Wednesday morning — a Russian Ro-Ro (roll-on/roll-off) cargo ship by the name of Lady R. The ship reported docked at Simons Town Naval Base on Tuesday night.

According to a former South African Navy (SAN) admiral, who wished to remain anonymous, it is not normal for a commercial vessel to dock in a navy port — let alone in the dead of night. The former SAN admiral said the ship docked during rolling blackouts. Lady R is a Ro-Ro cargo ship built in 2004, currently sailing under Russia’s flag. 

'Lady R', Simon's Town

Russian Ro Ro cargo ship, ‘Lady R’ docked inside Simon’s Town Naval Base. (Photo: Tony Kiley)

Curiously, Lady R’s automatic identification system (AIS) — the tracking system capable of providing position, identification and other information about ships to other vessels and coastal authorities — was also offline. According to the ship monitoring services, Marine Traffic and Vessel Finder, the ship’s last-known position was recorded at 2:41pm SAST on Monday, 5 December 2022, south of Agulhas. 

According to the information recorded on Monday on Vessel Finder, Lady R is en route to the port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and is expected to arrive there on 8 December at 4pm. 

That Lady R’s AIS appears to have been switched off, DA Shadow Minister of Defence Kobus Marais told Daily Maverick, “is most certainly concerning, because all commercial vessels AIS should be on at all times.”

Marais said the information he had received was that Lady R was a vessel in distress and was escorted to Simonstown as the nearest port. 

Simon's Town Naval Base

‘Lady R’ docked inside Simon’s Town Naval Base. (Photo: Tony Kiley)


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“This apparently was in terms of international obligations on the South African Navy to assist any vessel going around the Cape,” he said.  

“I suspect what will happen is — depending on the evaluation of the vessel — they will either tow the vessel to Table Bay, or repair it and it will be on its way again,” said Marais. 

Marias said he did not know what Lady R’s cargo was. 

In response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the United States has, over the past months, placed sanctions on dozens of Russian vessels and shipping companies. Lady R is among those sanctioned by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac). The company with which the ship is linked – Transmorflot – is also sanctioned.

Read in Daily Maverick: Russian superyacht Nord may have given Cape Town a wide berth

“The problem that it is on the sanction list of the US… that’s probably one of the reasons why her AIS was switched off; to make sure it couldn’t be tracked. However, unfortunately, in South Africa, there is no sanction on any Russian vessel and that could be one of the reasons why it was taken to Simon’s Town and not Table Bay; because in Table Bay it would attract a lot of attention”, Marais said. 

'Lady R', Simon's Town

‘Lady R’ (left) docked inside Simon’s Town Naval Base. (Photo: Brenton Geach)

Daily Maverick sent questions to South African National Defence Force (SANDF) head of communications, Siphiwe Dlamini but had yet to receive a response by time of publication. Daily Maverick also sent queries to the South African Navy but had not received a response. Cornelius Monama — spokesperson for Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise — referred us to SANDF’s Dlamini.  DM

This is a developing story.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Brian Van Der Vijver says:

    Is SA in a conflict situation with Russia? I don’t think so. So why the big nonstory?

    • Michael Clark says:

      Well not with Russia clearly, it seems we welcome a country that attacks, rapes and plunders an innocent country. Amazing how quickly we forget how we counted on the world to help us end apartheid, but now we have sided with the a brutal bunch of thugs and think its OK!

    • Johan Buys says:

      Brian: one issue is that a private commercial vessel is sitting in a national naval port. Look at the pictures : no weather distress emergency. This is a repeat of the Guptas landing their private plane at Waterkloof. Why Simonstown? Probably to reduce risk of somebody that likes putin less than you scuttling the ship as a protest.

  • R S says:

    ANC welcoming their Russian funders with open arms? Considering how desperate they are for funds…

  • jim says:

    Looking at the state of the vessel from the photos, I would venture to suggest that there may be some military hardware arriving or departing. After all, Denel has quite a lot going on in Simonstown.
    Perhaps a photographer with a long lens might like to get another view?

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    1/ The Lady R appears to be light ship, not carrying any or much cargo.
    2/ The forward crane (#1) is up and in use. Why?
    3/ The hatch covers are off #1 hatch (the forward one) and stacked on #2 hatch. Why?
    4/ To me it looks as tho’ she is going to load cargo. What cargo? Where to? Why? It would not be a commercial load but something military. Fishy but not fish.
    5/ Dear Simons Town people, please check the draft of that ship as the days go by. That will indicate whether it is loading cargo or not.
    6/ IF the Lady R was in distress it would be common knowledge and highly unlikely that it would dock at a military port unless the destress was extreme and very urgent. It does not look like that to me.
    7/ Does Russia want to take over Simons Town Dockyard???

  • Chris Taylor says:

    A media storm in a little teapot. Why the excitement? South Africa has no quarrel with either Russia or the Ukraine, it is not our war, so our ports are available to both sides. I commonly see large fishing vessels in Cape Town harbour with Cyrillic writing on the sides and no-one complains.
    The ship is empty, judging by how high out of the water she rides.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      There is nothing illegal about a Russian ship docking and handling cargo in South Africa. BUT a cargo ship doing what? In a military port in South Africa this IS OF INTEREST! If it is loading cargo I bet it will only do that at night, so satellites will not record it.

      The Russian Bear is busy grabbing the Ukraine. Why has the ANC not condemmed them for human rights reasons? Why is that ship in SA? Does Russia want to set up shop in Simons Town?

    • Michael Clark says:

      It is very much our war. The moment we let this ship dock we declared war on Ukraine. If we were attacked for no reason you would be comfortable with our enemy getting support from a country run by gangsters?

    • Alley Cat says:

      How short sighted. As per all the comments below, how can we support even tacitly the Russia that invades a sovereign country? But, more to the point, The sanctions imposed by the US and MOST other countries will soon spread to countries that are breaking the sanctions, with heavy penalties for the leaders of the organisations and companies that do not comply with the sanctions as is the case currently with any entity that deals with Iran. Be mindful of the fact that we need investment from the West as promised for green energy etc. or do you think that Russia will step in and provide that investment? Even if they wanted to, Russia will not have the resources to provide any investment once the sanctions really take effect.
      I would rather side with the countries that are on the moral high ground!

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The navy has been very busy the last few days. Usually ‘busy’ is a misnomer, because nothing happens at this ANC fiefdom except if you count moving dysfunctional ships from berth to berth as something ‘happening’. Every few weeks the frigates, the Agulhas and the supply ship change berths. This would have been a great source of intrigue to me, were I one of the thousand or so retirees spending their last days on earth playing bridge, walking, drinking gin or watching the dockyard for suspicious activity – though any activity would do, too – but, as it is, I am not, and therefore I am just slightly puzzled. What is the reason for this exercise of naval musical chairs? To entertain the retirees? To keep the Western Imperial Spy Agencies in a state of perpetual puzzlement? To keep the pilot captains in practice? Or is to fool the Chief Admiral into thinking something is actually going on here in Simon’s Town? It’s a mystery, truly. The rest of the time, the navy treads water, as it were.
    Yesterday, apparently, the new chief commander of the Navy was sworn in with some fanfare, and of course the usual lavish junket for the new elite at Admiral House. All the ships were brightly dressed in bunting, and the streets filled with badly marching boys in blue. This morning it took two pantechnicons to remove the party paraphernalia of the night before. Or perhaps they were there for whatever is contained on the Russian ro-ro?
    Which begs the question: Is the new commander’s swearing-in party and the ro-ro’s arrival combined with the extremely rare occurrence of no less than TWO navy vessels at sea at the same time merely a co-incidence?

  • Peter Dexter says:

    The ANC is really struggling to understand that Russia is the polecat of the world and South Africa’s reputation is tarnished by associating with the thugs.

    • Michael Clark says:

      That is what attracts the ANC/gangsters to nations like Cuba and Russia both currupt and treat human life with total dis-respect. Why else would the ANC send billions to Cuba as “aid” when in fact it goes into unmonitered bank accounts. Cuba has over a 1000 political prisoners Russia is worse and in SA we just starve people to death in hospitals or just shoot them in cold blood. Birds of a feather.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    Lady R’s AIS switched bcos of the usual forces of evil. A long time friend in need and he is getting help.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    It must have been completely unexpected or surely the Minister of Defence and a military band would have been in attendance if only to show support for the Ukraine’s vicious and unprovoked war against the Russian comrades?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    The stupidity and aloofness of some of our brethren is truly astounding at best and disgraceful at worst. Not our war??? Nothing wrong with Russian ships docking at our ports!! So in the minds of these wayward individuals, Nazi Germany didn’t attack SA, so it was not our war and we should have stayed out if it and opened our ports to them if they came calling etc!!! If we can’t tell right from wrong, and the evil and diabolical Putin and his Russia are clearly the vile aggressor and mass-murderers, then these individuals are the same as our government – idiotic in the extreme. That such people are dismissive of the pain, suffering, destruction, rape, torture and mass-murder of another country in an unjustified war is again truly astounding at best and disgraceful at worst. Being neutral and turning a blind eye to such heinous acts and behaviour is in reality siding with the aggressor- something the people of Zimbabwe know only too well when we hypocritically remained silent, turned a blind eye to the violence and stolen election by Mugabe. The rest is history, the consequences of which are still with us all and a shameful example of: it is not our war, it’s not our problem etc.

  • Gavin Brown says:

    Note to sub-ed – ships don’t “drop anchor’ when they are moored to a dock !

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    A watchful eye should be kept on this ship. There was too much action surrounding it in the dead of the night – several vehicles, including a large pantechnicon joined the massive crane which had been positioned alongside the ship on the quay. To my knowledge, Simon’s Town harbour is the only non-commercial one large enough to accommodate a ship of this size. And where you can get away with unloading or loading without customs or police interfering?

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    Unless you believe in coincidences, its also interesting to know that at a ceremony in Simon’s Town less than 12 hours earlier, the SA Navy was handed over to its new chief, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese.

  • johanvanderwalt07 says:

    Came to fetch Gadaffi’s gold.

  • Confucious Says says:

    The new Admiral probably thought it was the latest aircraft carrier on late delivery from the Arms Deal!

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      And our poor but vigilant journalists jump to or at least provoke all manner of conclusions ! It might well be they are bringing much needed equipment to rescue our beleagured and maligned ESKOM … but so as not to get our hopes too high …. so that pot bellied Gwede can claim to have rescued things and brought us out of the dark !! We might yet even buy into that “better life for all” mantra that has been doing the rounds for over two decades ! What state capture ? … it is a bigger hoax than even Trump can conjure !

  • SAM VAN WYK says:

    we expect assistance from western countries but assist russia/ bad move!

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