/ 27 November 2023

Down to the wire: The ship fixing our internet

Leon Thevenin

It is past midnight. A four-person repair team is working a double shift to splice together one of the undersea cables that carries the internet between Africa and the rest of the world.

It is delicate, highly skilled and labour-intensive work. The speed of your internet connection depends on them getting it right.

The four are among the nearly 60 crew members on board the Leon Thevenin, sub-Saharan Africa’s only dedicated fibre- optic repair vessel. This is its longest-ever voyage – close to four months almost continuously out at sea. It will head for Cape Town in the morning – provided the four-person repair team, and the crew supporting them, get the job done.

As they work, they joke and laugh, but they are desperate to get back to their families. Shurro Arendse has never been

away this long before, and his children are aching to see their father. Birthdays have been missed, school exams come and gone. Several of the other men on board have infant children. They talk about their children all the time, but it’s not the same as holding them.

The repair team were trained, at a specialist institute in France, to handle the hair-thin fibre optic cables that carry the internet itself and to operate the many machines necessary to fix the break.

They work through the night with glass, copper, steel, plastic, and rubber – some of it electrified, some of it fragile and all of it interconnected. When the cable returns to the seabed, each section must be able to withstand multiple tonnes of elemental force in all conditions.

It is along these cables that all your emails, YouTube videos, Google search results and irreverent memes must flow.

Upstairs on the bridge, the ship’s chief mate holds the vessel steady in the water so that it does not drift. In the engine room seven storeys below, a team monitors the old but trusted engines that power not only the ship but also the specialist cable-moving equipment.

The crew are mostly African and conversation flows in isiZulu, French, Afrikaans, Malagasy, English and Tagalog. Between them they share critical and rare skills. At one point, the air-conditioning unit breaks, and we sweat until the team sorts it out with new parts manufactured on board the ship.

From the deck, which towers above the sea, a small Ghanaian navy boat is visible. It is protecting the Leon Thevenin from pirates, and keeping small fishing vessels far away so that fishing nets don’t get tangled in the propellers.

On deck, other crew members are on standby, chatting softly, watching the stars and letting their muscles rest after a day spent hauling cables, ropes, buoys and chains in and out of the ocean. The lights of Accra twinkle in the distance.

Under the sea, not in the cloud

The physical infrastructure of the internet consists mostly of thin tubes that stretch through oceans between continents.

In the open sea, these may be about the size of a garden hosepipe, consisting of little more than a few fibre-optic threads surrounded by a protective layer. Each thread is no thicker than a single human hair, and they are encased in a thin layer of copper and aluminium which is sheathed in plastic.

The aluminium is necessary to block the faint electromagnetic signals they emit, which sharks misinterpret as food. In the past, shark-bites were a source of cable breakages, though with new technology this is much more rare.

Light is transmitted through the fibres to a network of landing stations that dot the African coast. This light carries with it the information that powers our contemporary world. When a cable breaks or gets damaged at sea, it is easy to trace where the light stops moving.

For repair, the cable is hauled above the water from depths ranging from a few metres to five kilometres or more. For some retrievals, the crew deploys a Land Rover-sized remote-operated submersible . At other times, they use a Deniell, which is a specialised grappling device that has been in use since the first undersea copper cables were laid with the invention of the telegraph.

When the cable is “caught”, it is carefully raised to the surface. It must be cut – without damaging either the repair ship or the greater cable network – and then the problem must be diagnosed and fixed. Ingenious engineering, sheer physical strength and careful coordination are required. Sometimes the cables carry live current, which heightens the danger.

Teams work in shifts through both day and night. Depending on the complexity of the fault, its location, weather conditions, maritime security – pirates are a real threat – and paperwork, repairs can take anything from a few days to weeks.

Near to the shore, cables often break due to human interference (being sliced through by an anchor, for example). Here, the cable is “armoured” with concentric layers of metal to protect it from both people and the ocean itself.

Deep at sea, breaks are more rare – but when they happen they are usually the result of geological change such as undersea rockfall. One of the most recent was caused on 6 August by rockfall in the Congo Canyon – one of the world’s largest undersea canyons, located just off Africa’s west coast – which snapped three of Africa’s most important fibre threads.

The Leon Thevenin was in Mombasa at the time. It took the crew a month to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to make the repairs. Shortly after that, they restored another three cables in Angola which brought 750,000 people back online.

The Leon Thevenin is part of a fleet of six cable repair ships belonging to Orange Marine and is named after a famous scientist (Leon Thevenin was a French telegraph engineer).

It is the second-oldest such ship, having been at sea for 40 years.

Meticulously maintained and regularly retrofitted with new technology, it is an example of the best of both old world machinery and cutting-edge technology.

This has been its busiest year yet. Flagged in Mauritius but docked in Cape Town, the ship used to do three or four repairs per year. So far in 2023, it has done nine repairs.

This is a sign of progress: more cables have been laid to respond to Africa’s increasing digital connectivity, and more cables mean more breakages.

The real remote work

Conditions on board are good: each crew member has a cabin, there is a dining hall and a gym, and plenty of recreational equipment. The crew was even able to watch the rugby World Cup final through a satellite link.

But working in a confined space, in close quarters, for months at a time can be challenging. “You really get to know yourself,” says third officer Siphelele Ncube.

“You miss a lot,” agrees cable engineer Nigel Murray, who started out on deck 20 years ago and has worked his way up to management. “But you know it’s worth it because of what it brings to everyone: all that information, TikTok, Netflix. Sometimes you see beautiful things at sea, but we miss home, of course, all the time.”

According to his colleagues, steward Nkosi Gayeka has one of the most important jobs on board: he helps make the food. He wants people to understand that the internet does not just exist in the air somehow. “Without our work, there is no internet. We are working and sacrificing so they can go online.”

Speaking of which: after days of hard work, four tiny glass threads are melted together. They are placed into a steel holder, which is used to join up the remainder of the cable. Plastic is moulded around it, and then it is X-rayed and tested multiple times before being encased in an orange covering that looks like something between a traffic cone and a missile.

With tremendous care – and heavy, hot, physical labour – the cable is returned to the ocean.

The crew cheers as the final rope is cut and the cable sinks to the ocean bed. The ship pulls back. Operators at the network’s many landing stations test that the pulses of light are travelling as they should be, and give the Leon Thevenin a thumbs up.

Suddenly, your recipes load quicker. Your Spotify does not buffer. WhatsApp messages deliver without missing a beat. Africa’s internet is working as it should – and we have the crew of a single ship to thank for it.

Jess Auerbach Jahajeeah is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town. She is writing a book about Africa’s internet infrastructure.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here