Famous shipwrecks of the cape
It is said that the first name given by the European sailors to what we now refer to as Cape Town or the Cape Peninsula, was ‘The Cape of Storms’. With good reason, as the winter storms are more accurately ‘tempests’. It was also described, by Sir Francis Drake as ‘a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth’. Drake might have called forth a more tempestuous, Shakespearean, description had he arrived in a typical winter storm, his ship pounded ferociously by the north-wester gales.
Many ships and sailors perished in these waters, and the Cape peninsula coast is a veritable graveyard of shipwrecks, some with interesting stories ..
KAKAPO, May 1900, Chapman’s Bay, Noordhoek
After rumours of a ship having run aground either in Hout Bay or Simonstown, the Kakapo was finally seen 50 metres from the shore of Noordhoek Beach. Attempts to contact the captain were unsatisfactory. He refused to allow newspaper reporters to board and never did explain how his ship had run aground so far inland from Hout Bay and Kommetjie.
Towing attempts were made but the lines snapped; the ship eventually settled into the soft sand of the beach, where parts are still to be seen today.
It is said that the railways company removed her steel plates for their own use. She was on her maiden voyage from England to Australia and had put into Cape Town for coal.
SS LUSITANIA, April 1911, Cape Point
The most famous of such-named vessels, the SS Lusitania was responsible for highlighting a rather unfortunate maritime bungle at the Cape.
This 5,557 tonne Portuguese ocean liner was carrying 774 souls, a mix of cruise passengers and South African labourers, from Maputo in Mozambique, when she struck Bellows Rock, just off the point known now as the Cape of Good Hope. Bellows Rock is treacherous as it is often submerged. Thick fog caused the captain to not see the lighthouse that would have warned him of the proximity to the coast and the rock.
Everyone was rescued by lifeboat, but eight people died when one of the lifeboats capsized.
And the bungle? After this incident the authorities realised that the lighthouse was useless in thick fog and low clouds as it was too high on the cliffs of the tip of the peninsula; so, a new lighthouse was erected, further down. All visitors to Cape Point enjoy a walk up the hill to the old lighthouse with its 360-degree views and there is a wonderful short hike along the cliffs to the new lighthouse.
THOMAS T. TUCKER, November 1942, Olifantsbos, Cape Point
This Texan ship was on her maiden voyage from New Orleans to Suez with a cargo of war material, barbed wire and ammunition for the Allies engaged in the Libyan desert. The waters off the peninsula were dangerous at the time as German U-boats were actively operating off the coast, but it was fog and a broken compass that caused the TT to run aground at Olifantsbos. The ship’s captain thought he was at Robben Island but it was never satisfactorily explained how this could be, despite the compass error.
The cargo was removed first, then attempts were made to pull the ship off the rocks but the lines broke and the ship was swept onto the rocks and totally wrecked, All the crew were saved.
Some sections are still to be seen at Olifantsbos on the Shipwreck trail.
NOLLOTH, April 1965, Olifantsbos, Cape Point
Also partially visible on the shipwreck trail of
Olifantsbos, the Nolloth Dutch coaster beached on jagged rocks after she was holed by an unidentified submerged object. Rough seas prevented the crew from leaving and a tug was dispatched from Table Bay but by the time it arrived the crew had been rescued by helicopter.
Her cargo – general goods and cargo – was valued at R50,000 and required guarding by Customs officials while a road was specially constructed to transport the cargo by road to Cape Town.
Parts of the coaster were salvaged, and the rest was left to the elements.
SEAFARER, July 1966, Mouille Point
This dramatic wreck, observed by thousands of locals all night long, happened just a few months after my family and I had moved house, directly in front of where this took place!
Despite the Cape Town Harbourmaster’s instructions to the Seafarer captain to stay away and not enter port due to very bad weather, the Seafarer nonetheless tried to enter port at around 01h00. To this day, we have a saying in Cape Town when it concerns weather and nature : Always take locals’ advice. On this day this was well illustrated as the ship struck the rocks violently and was soon thereafter doomed. In addition to the crew and a cargo of tetra-ethyl lead – needing to be handled with care – the ship had 12 passengers.
As the weather worsened and the ship was bashed again and again against the rocks, rescue efforts were hampered by the wind. It was only at 08h00 that a helicopter was able to begin rescue efforts. One by one the passengers and crew were rescued, the captain last. The ship broke in two just as the last person was rescued.
The Captain was eventually found responsible and lost his master’s Certificate for 2 years. The cost to the underwriters was substantial – R4,5 million. Nothing is left of the wreck; the hulk was removed and smelted.
ANTIPOLIS and ROMELIA, July 1977, Oudekraal and Llandudno
This fairly recent event caused much interest to Cape Town residents who clogged the coastal roads in attempts to see these ships.
The two derelict tankers were being towed from Greece to Japan for scrapping when they encountered a winter storm whilst waiting to enter Cape Town Harbour. Despite enormous efforts, the tankers broke all their tug-lines and ran aground not far up the coast.
The storms damaged the tankers to such an extent that salvage was impossible. At low tide, Antipolus can barely be seen as it is firmly wedged against the rocks, near Oudekraal on Victoria Drive. Of Romelia, not much is left but small sections can still be seen jutting out at Llandudno.
The photo used here is actually a painting by Jeremy Day – look at his wonderfully diverse art here.
DE JONGE THOMAS, June 1773, Table Bay, Cape Town
Most South Africans may not recognise the name of this ship, but it is the name Wolraad Woltemade that is known to many South Africans. He famously rode out on his horse to save the lives of sailors aboard the wreck.
De Jonge Thomas should not have been in Table Bay at this time. It was law that after May 15 all ships had to put in at Simon’s Town, in False Bay, as this was the safer, ‘winter harbour’. The De Jonge did not make it out in time and was caught in a savage north-wester gale. Despite dropping extra anchors, the ships lines broke and the captain decided to attempt to reach the beach. Mountainous waves broke as she beached and within minutes she broke her back.
The Governor’s first assistance was sending soldiers to the beach to salvage cargo and erect a gibbet to hang looters. Dutch East India priorities of the time!
Wolraad Woltemade, a local dairy farmer, had come to the beach to bring some refreshments to his son, one of the soldiers. When he saw sailors perishing in their bid to swim ashore he rode out on horseback, through the raging sea. The horse reached the ship easily and Woltemade urged two sailors to hold the horse’s tail – or did he throw them a rope? History is not clear on this detail. Whichever, he carried them to safety. He did this 7 times, saving 14 men, until both horse and rider collapsed, exhausted, on the beach. But he rode out once more. The sailors, in their panic at this last chance, threw themselves at the horse, causing horse, rider and sailors, to drown.
The weather cleared the next day and the last men waded to shore, but the sea was full of bodies, including that of Woltemade, whose horse was never found. Of 191 on board, only 53 survived.
At the time, little was made of this heroic deed, but the name Wolraad Woltemade has come to become one of South Africa’s most loved legends, with his name immortalised in a railway station, several medals for bravery, and the S.A. Wolraad Woltemade, a salvage tug built in 1976.
Woltemade’s home, Klein Zoar, still stands to this day; a quaint historic building under constant threat of being lost due to lack of funds and surrounding urban sprawl.