When the 11,000 ton Athelcrown docked at the East London Buffalo harbour on 30 July 1949, the foremast yardarm read in code: "Have brought drinking water and very good wishes."
Carrying an estimated 12.5 million litres of water (3.3 million gallons), the ship was commissioned by the East London City Council on 24 June 1949 to augment the city's water supply when residents were forced to live on 15 litres (4 gallons) of water per day.
At the time, the local Daily Dispatch newspaper described the drought as the worst "since the settlers arrived more than a century ago" with "catchment areas so dry that pine trees are dying in the Isidenge forest".
"To bring home the alarming position at the Umzoniana and the Amalinda reservoirs, pictures of them are to be screened at local cinemas," the newspaper reported on 25 June 1949 — 37 days before the Athelcrown arrived.
The Athelcrown, diverted from its maiden voyage in the Mediterranean, was commissioned to carry water donated by the Durban City Council to the East London for two months.
"The ship saved the city from a dirty thirsty future," the Daily Dispatch read on the day of its arrival.
In East London, the water was pumped into specially-built tankers before being pumped directly into the City's water supply. Surplus water was pumped into the Umzoniana reservoir which only had enough water stored for two months.
Celebrations were specifically banned for the Athelcrown's arrival.
"There will be no functions or celebrations when the Athelcrown arrives on Sunday. The tanker is on charter to the city and her arrival and the discharge of her water is purely a routine affair," Deputy Mayor R. de Lange told the Daily Dispatch on 30 July 1949.
The tanker was policed throughout her stay and nobody was allowed within the area without a permit issued by the System Manager of the South African Railways and Harbours.
On 2 November 1949, following days of heavy rain in East London, the City Council lifted all restrictions on water usage by 12 votes against six.
On 12 October 1971, at the tender age of 22, the Athelcrown arrived in Burriana, Spain where she was broken down.
* Compiled with extensive help from Glenn Hartwig, Assistant Reference Librarian at Buffalo City Municipal Library Service.