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The Shipwrecks of Cape Point

When he rounded Cape Point in 1580, the great English explorer Sir Francis Drake famously described it as “A most stately thing and the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the Earth.”

He must have caught it on a good day. When it is calm, Cape Point is idyllic. The sun shines on calm blue waters that look inviting to those who have not tested their freezing temperatures. The cawing of sea birds sounds lazy and melodious as it echoes off the cliffs.

But these days are deceptively rare; far more seafarers around Cape Point have found it to be a frightening and treacherous corner of the Earth.

The notorious winter storms of the Cape Peninsula are the result of weather patterns that take place hundreds of kilometres below South Africa. Beginning at the latitude of 40˚ south, a westerly wind blows the entire circumference of the Earth.

One of the reasons for the wind’s prevalence is that, apart from the tip of South America, there’s not much land in the way to stall it. It’s this constant gale that gives the latitude its popular name – the Roaring Forties.

Every now and then, a circulating low pressure system – a storm – will wobble off the Roaring Forties in the Atlantic Ocean and head in an easterly direction, towards the western coast of South Africa.

In summer, another wind that blows off the coast of southern Africa – from the land to the sea, in a westerly direction – keeps these storms at bay. But in winter, when the temperature of the landmass drops, this easterly wind disappears, and this allows the storms from the Roaring Forties to lash the Cape Peninsula with a consistency and ferocity that earned it the name ‘Cape of Storms’.

On these days, heaving swells cause the ocean to foam and a layer of electric haze settles over a salty ocean, often thickening to a fog.

These winter storms are what caused the Dutch East India Company to seek shelter in False Bay during the colder months, giving birth to Simonstown. But the treacherous coastline of the southern Cape Peninsula remained a perilous stretch.

Captains were caught in a conundrum: stay close to the shoreline for safety and risk crashing into one of the shallowly submerged rocks, or head out to sea and prolong the journey by several days.

At Cape Point alone, a total of 26 shipwrecks tells the story of how many captains made the wrong decision.

There are two primary culprits. One is Bellow’s Rock, which you can see as either a dark patch or whitewater approximately three kilometres directly south of Cape Maclear. The other is Albatross Rock, one kilometer due west of Olifantsbosch Point.

Between them, these two submerged reefs have claimed no less than 12 of the 26 wrecks of Cape Point.

 

Three victims of Cape Point

  1. The Lusitania

 Arguably the Cape’s most consequential wreck. It was the sinking of the Lusitania which finally convinced the South African government to shut down the original lighthouse on Cape Point Peak, and replace it with a second lighthouse further down the point.

The first lighthouse was built in 1860, only to discover that it was shrouded in low hanging clouds for up to 900 hours per year. To make matters worse, these low clouds were the result of stormy weather – precisely when ships needed a light to guide them around Cape Point the most!

The weather was not particularly stormy on the night of 18 April 1911, when the Portuguese ocean liner Lusitania – a 5557-ton twin-screw liner known as the “pride of Portugal” – made its way around the Cape on the way back from the calm and warm waters of Mozambique en route to Lisbon.

As he approached Cape Point, the ship’s Captain Faria spotted the light of the lighthouse and set a course that would take him safely around it. Soon after that the weather got worse, a mist descended, obscuring the light of the lighthouse, and a light rain began to fall.

At 11.40pm, Captain Faria saw the light again. But it was a closer than he expected. A lot closer. The captain was shocked to see the cliffs of Cape Point rearing up black in the night. He realized that he had been carried off course by a strong current, and was now dangerously close to the land.

Faria immediately set a course back out to see but it was too late. Ten minutes later the ship smacked sickeningly into the hulking spine of Bellow’s Rock.

The crew quickly raised the alarm and began emergency procedures. One third of the 800 passengers of the Lusitania were wealthy European holidaymakers on their way back from Maputo and two thirds were African labourers commuting from eastern to western Africa.

Flares were fired and all the passengers were herded onto lifeboats. The flares were spotted by the lighthouse keeper at the Cape Point lighthouse, JE Allen, who immediately telephoned Simonstown for help. Allen then grabbed a lantern and rushed out into the misty, rain-soaked cliffs, where he saw several lifeboats approaching Dias Beach.

No boat had ever safely landed on Dias Beach. The steep drop-off there creates barreling waves and strong currents. Allen rushed down to the beach and onto the rocks, yelling and whistling and waving his lantern frantically to warn the crowded lifeboats to turn back. His efforts, however, were misinterpreted as a signal to approach. One of the lifeboats came careening onto the shore. It capsized. Eight people were killed.

Allen helped the survivors onto land, and the other lifeboats, having witnessed the first one’s fate, turned around and headed back out to sea. They were soon rescued by an Admiralty tug which had been dispatched from Simonstown after they had received Allen’s phone call.

Two days after the incident, at 10am on 20 April 1911, the Lusitania slipped off Bellows Rock. She now lies submerged in 37 metres of water on the southeast side of the reef.

The Portuguese government awarded JE Allen with a silver medal for his efforts, as well as a cash bonus of £50 – a not insubstantial amount at that time. A new lighthouse was built below the cloud-line in 1919. The Lusitania was the 71st wreck in ten years off the Cape coast.

For some time after this incident, every time another Portuguese liner that belonged to the same company that owned the Lusitania (namely the Empreza Nacional De Navegacao) rounded Cape Point, it would give three blasts of its sirens in acknowledgement to the newly placed lighthouse and a salute to its sunken predecessor.

And they would steer well clear of Bellows Rock.

  1. The Nolloth

It’s not often that a shipwreck becomes the cause for much happiness and celebration in the years after its sinking, but that’s exactly what happened in the case of the M.V. Nolloth.

One of the most visible wrecks of Cape Point, large parts of this wreck can still be seen on the beach at Olifantsbosch.

The Nolloth was a 347 ton Dutch coaster which struck Albatross Rock on 30 April 1965. The ship was loaded with fine whisky which the captain was wise enough to appreciate, so after the ship struck the rock and began to take on water, he steered it onto the beach in an attempt to save its precious cargo.

A Wasp helicopter was sent to identify the exact location of the ship, and it was then decided that the helicopters would transport the crew to safety as the ship was being battered by high seas.

It was the first time in South African maritime rescue history that helicopters were used to save the crew. (Until then, the rescue method was to launch ropes onto the ship and use a pulley to transport the crew onto the shore.)

The captain’s efforts were not in vain – most of the liquor on board was salvaged, and jealously guarded. But some of it made its way to an occasional lucky local.

“In spite of this precaution,” writes Eddie Odden in his book Cape Point, “some of the liquor undoubtedly found its way to various hiding places. For weeks afterwards, parties of fishermen would go down to the Reserve, only to emerge at the main gate several hours later with flushed faces, boisterous laughter, and their fishing gear still quite dry…”

Cheers to that.

  1. Thomas T. Tucker

Like the decaying corpse of a fallen behemoth, the wreck of the SS Thomas T. Tucker lies on the rocks of Olifantsbosch Point, its back broken, its stern twisted towards the land and its bow tilted forward in defeat.

The Thomas T. Tucker – named after the first freed American slave – was a Liberty Ship built in 1942 by the Houston Ship Building Corporation in Texas. In New Orleans, the ship was loaded with a cargo of Sherman tanks, spares, lorries and barbed wire and she set sail for Suez, where the Allies were engaged in the North African campaign against the Germans.

On 27 November 1942, the captain was rounding Cape Point when he thought he had seen the Italian submarine, the Ammiraglio Cagni, which had been reported to be patrolling these waters. In an attempt to dodge the submarine, the captain changed course and, in thick fog, ran directly into Olifantsbosch Point.

The captain thought he had run aground on Robben Island. His confusion was later explained when it was discovered that his compass was faulty by a disastrous 37 degrees!

The recovery of the Thomas T. Tucker’s cargo was an epic exercise. A road was bulldozed through the pristine dunes of the beach and a large cable system was erected. Most of the cargo was successfully recovered, but the salvage effort took five months to complete.

In April 1943, there was an attempt to refloat the ship. As you can see today, it was unsuccessful. Fortunately, much of the fynbos and nature has regrown, and today the wreck is a haven for sea birds and crabs.

 

You’ve read the stories, now visit Cape Point where you can:

  • Get an excellent view of Bellow’s Rock. If you stand at the old lighthouse, facing west (with the tip of Cape Point to your left and the funicular/restaurant on your right), it will be directly in front of you, about 3 kilometres out to sea. On calm days, it will look like a dark patch, otherwise there will be some whitewater as the waves crash over it.
  • Take the hike from the Olifantsbosch parking lot to the beach and along the rocks, where you can view the wreck of the Thomas T. Tucker.
  • A little further up the beach lies the wreck of the Nolloth. Make sure to open your water bottle and toast the captain of the Nolloth for his forward thinking!
  • Notice the birds that have made their nests in the wrecks.
  • The hiking trail to the wrecks can be extended to visit the Sirkelsvlei pan, one of the best freshwater sources on the Reserve.