Graf Goetzen turns 100 as overhaul efforts stall

Graf Goetzen prior to being dismantled 100 years ago. Note the rivet markings and plate numbering for later re-assembly
Graf Goetzen prior to being dismantled 100 years ago. Note the rivet markings and plate numbering for later re-assembly
A century later, the old Graf Goetzen is now a transport lifeline for many as Liemba in Tanzania
A century later, the old Graf Goetzen is now a transport lifeline for many as Liemba in Tanzania

In the 1950s cinema classic African Queen, gin drinking Humphrey Bogart, bible punching Katherine Hepburn and a clapped out river boat join forces to sink a German gunboat in the middle of Africa during WW1.

However, the German ‘gunboat’ Luise wasn’t a gunboat at all but a passenger steamer called the Graf Goetzen and Bogart and Hepburn didn’t actually sink it. In fact, the vessel is still sailing today as Liemba  on Lake Tanganyika and has just celebrated its 100th birthday.

But whether the 67m long, 10m wide steamer will celebrate many more birthdays is now in the lap of the Gods. It depends on Tanzanian and German officials getting together soon to talk about refurbishment and who will fund it. The talks are stalemated and a lack of cash is not helping.

A Liemba overhaul in 1993-5 by Danish development workers included the €3.5m strengthening of the hull and the replacement of the two original circular steam boilers and 500 hp triple expansion engine. Two MAN five cylinder diesels of Type 5L 23/30, providing total of 1,836 hp were installed. In 20 years of operation since then, vibrations from the powerful new engines have damaged the hull and the vessel’s original 100 year old rivets.

The German state of Lower Saxony, home of Meyer Werft, which built Graf Goetzen in 1913, has a cooperation agreement with Tanzania and is concerned about the plight of the old ship. Spokesman Heinz Davidson in Hanover told MJ the vessel was part of the historic heritage of Germany and Tanzania and was unique.

“The one thing preventing a swift start to a general overhaul is a lack of cash”, said Davidson.

He said Meyer had put the cost of a general overhaul at €10-12m. Heidelberg Cement had pledged €2m while engine builder MAN had indicated it might provide engine overhaul help. Meyer’s Werft’s own comments were disappointing given its long professed interest in its own history. “Our policy is clear, we build new ships”, spokesman Peter Hackmann told MJ. He said many other superb old ships from Meyer were still in service but that the yard had no resources for their renovation or refurbishment.

More sponsors were being sought for Liemba, Davidson told MJ, particularly from among German firms in Tanzania. The Tanzanian Transport Ministry has also been trying to raise funds, which makes sense in an area where the ship remains a weekly transport lifeline for many.

Any renovation will also take place in Tanzania. Unrealistic plans aired earlier in Papenburg to bring the ship home appear to have been abandoned.

Michael Berg, head of the volunteer run Liemba Association in Germany, knows the ship inside out. He told MJ refurbishment would need to cover basic cleaning of the hull and superstructures and a complete replacement of the electrical and technical equipment on board would be necessary.

Interior rooms also needed refurbishing, as did the air conditioning and safety technology. The wooden deck needed replacing, work that will also have to include repair to the steel deck below. Finally, the engines and auxiliaries on Liembza needed replacing, Berg said. When he spoke to MJ in June, Berg, put the cost of the refurbishment at €8-9m – quite a bit less than the Meyer estimate.

Launched in Papenburg, Graf Goetzen carries 600 passengers and 200 tons of cargo and was one of two built for the German Imperial Colonial Service.

After being built and checked in Germany, the plates were marked and the vessel was dismantled, packed into 5,000 wooden crates and shipped to East Africa. The crates were then transported by rail to Lake Tanganyika where Meyer shipbuilders re-assembled it.

The ship had not been re-assembled long however when war broke out. It was used to carry troops and horses under the flag of the Imperial Navy and had a gun mounted on the bow. To prevent it from falling into the hands of the approaching British, the Germans prepared to scupper it. But before they did, the Meyer team greased all the machine parts. When the British raised and restored the steamer after the war it was little the worse for wear after its underwater stay.

The vessel went back into service on Lake Tanganyika as Liemba, where John Huston came across it in the 1950s and transformed it into the Luisa for his famous film. It is today still doing the job for which it was built, ferrying people and goods around the giant lake. The vessel is still going strong, which is more than can be said of the two empires it once served.

The latest word on refurbishment comes from Lower Saxony. It put together a team of German experts to inspect the ship and detail the work required. Heinz Davidson said the team, including delegates from Meyer Werft, German Lloyd and TECHNOLOG, had planned to visit Tanzania in June.

“Unfortunately, however, Tanzania postponed the visit at short notice. We don’t know why and can only surmise that it lacked the means to pay the experts”, Mr Davidson said.

Michael Berg at the ‘Run Liemba’ foundation confirmed the postponement of the visit. He also told MJ that not only Lower Saxony but many other political groups in Germany “generally were in favour of the renovation of the ship” because of its historical significance.

Despite the interest, however, raising money for the overhaul remains in doubt as does the future survival of this colourful old ship.

By Tom Todd

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