Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias named it Cabo das Tormentas, the Cape of Storms, having experienced its ferocity first-hand. King John II of Portugal later renamed it Cabo da Boa Esperança, Cape of Good Hope. The countless captains who saw their ships sink beneath the waves probably would have sided with Dias on that one, but the willingness of men like them to brave the storms made it possible for the good hope of King John II to flourish, and grow into the reality we now witness.
Shipwrecks represent the ultimate failure; the flipside of the discovery and romance that we associate with adventure on the high seas. Of course, not all of the ships featured here belonged to intrepid explorers; some offer a glimpse into the evils of the slave trade, while others were merely humble tankers and transport ships. But each tells the story of a particular period in human history; and together they provide a glimpse into the rich history of the Cape.
The Wreck of the Birkenhead by Charles Dixon
Where Danger Point, Gansbaai
Date of wreck 1852
Survivors 193 people survived the wreck, out of 643 passengers and crew.
The story The Birkenhead HMS was en route to Algoa Bay, carrying British troops and some civilians, when it struck a submerged rock off Danger Point. The lower compartments were flooded as water poured in through the breach, and many soldiers drowned before they could even reach the deck.
Captain Robert Salmond gave the order to evacuate, but instructed his men to “hold fast” so that the women and children could board the lifeboats first. The conduct and courage of the soldiers onboard would go down in legend, as they obeyed the captain’s orders without question. Survivors later testified that they had never seen embarkations – let alone evacuations – carried out with such composure. The troops and sailors suffered heavy casualties, but thanks to their bravery, all women and children aboard the wreck survived.
Rudyard Kipling paid tribute to the bravery of the Birkenhead’s crew in his poem Soldier an’ Sailor Too, and the phrase “Birkenhead drill” became synonymous with standing strong in the face of death.
Interesting fact We take for granted that “women and children first” has always been the case during evacuations, but the sinking of the Birkenhead is actually the earliest recorded instance of that protocol.
Location of the wreck The rocks where the ship met its end can be seen from the Danger Point lighthouse at Gansbaai (the lighthouse itself was built 43 years after the wreck, and has a plaque commemorating the vessel).
The wreck itself lies in 30 meters of water, around 1.5km from the nearest shore. As a dive site, it is only accessible by boat, with Gansbaai Harbour being the preferred departure point.
Date of the wreck 1815
Survivors Only six people survived the wreck, out of 378 passengers and crew.
The story The ship – an East Indiaman built in 1794 – had made eight uneventful voyages from England to the Far East, but the ninth voyage was to be its last. On the night of 30 May 1815, The Arniston was on its way home from Ceylon (in Sri Lanka), when it was caught in a violent storm off the Southern Cape coast.
Captain George Simpson gave the order to make for shore, incorrectly assuming that they were just off Table Bay, when in fact they had not yet passed Cape Agulhas. A fatal miscalculation, and one that might have been avoided if the ship’s chronometer had been replaced before the journey (the captain had requested a new one, but the ship’s owners had deemed it an unnecessary expenditure).
So The Arniston, with 100 wounded soldiers, some wealthy passengers and their families aboard, struck a reef. A handful of survivors managed to make their way to the shore, where they sought shelter in a nearby cave, living off whatever supplies happened to wash up on the beach. A farmer’s son discovered them a few days later, and they were able to make their way back to Cape Town.
Interesting fact The nearby town of Waenhuiskrans was renamed Arniston in honour of those lost in the shipwreck.
Location of the wreck The wreckage lies about 900 meters offshore, under six metres of water. An underwater excavation in 1982 recovered a number of artefacts, which are on display at the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum.
A plaque near the beachfront, erected by the wife of Lieut Colonel Andrew Giels, commemorates the loss of her four eldest sons, who were returning home from visiting their father in Ceylon.
Sao Jose Paquete Africa
Where Camps Bay
Date of wreck 1794
Survivors The captain and crew all survived, but an estimated 212 of the 500 slaves aboard were left to drown, probably still trapped in their shackles as the ship went down.
The story The Portuguese slave ship was bound for the sugar plantations in Brazil, with its human cargo imprisoned below deck and subject to abhorrent conditions. They had been rounded up and bundled aboard the ship at the Portuguese outpost in East Africa (now Ilha de Mozambique).
The ship collided with submerged rocks around 100 metres from shore. Some of the slaves were extracted, but only so they could be sold in the Cape Colony. The rest were callously abandoned as the ship began to break apart.
The wreck was discovered by divers in the 1980s, though it was at first mistaken for a Dutch merchant ship. The true nature of the discovery was only announced in 2015, and a memorial service was held on Clifton Beach, during which soil from the victims’ homeland of Mozambique was carried out by divers and scattered upon the wreck site.
Interesting fact The Sao Jose Paquete Africa discovery is unique, in that it is the only as-yet-discovered wreck of a slave ship that sunk with its prisoners aboard.
Location of the wreck Around 100 metres from the shore at Clifton, in a particularly turbulent spot that divers compared to “swimming in a washing machine”. Artefacts recovered from the wreck will soon be on display at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum, and some are on loan to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington DC.
Where Duiker Point, near Sandy Bay
Date of wreck 1994
Survivors All members of the crew survived.
The story The BOS 400 was a French Lay Barge, and the biggest floating crane in South Africa at the time of its wreck. With no engines of its own, the barge had to be towed around the world by tug boats. In this case, a Russian boat named the Tigr had the unenviable task of hauling the BOS 400 from the Republic of Congo to Cape Town.
Unfortunately, the Tigr was not up to the job. The tow-rope snapped during a storm off the Cape Peninsula, and the BOS 400 ran aground on the rocks at Duiker Point. Attempts were made to recover the wreck, but it had incurred too much damage and was eventually abandoned, making for a rather expensive loss.
Location of the wreck Most of the remains are still visible above the surface at Duiker Point, though you’ll need to hike for about two hours from Sandy Bay Beach to reach it. The wreck has been gradually sinking into the ocean since 1994; but the crane and a rusted portion of the ship still loom above the rocky coastline.
Check out this footage of Chris Rogers (from GoPro Adventurers) and his crew swinging from the BOS 400 shipwreck. Yeah, you heard that right. They attached a rope to the crane and leaped from a 30-foot platform, swinging under the crane and launching themselves into the turquoise blue waters. Pretty impressive.
SS Thomas T Tucker
Where Cape Point Nature Reserve
Date of wreck 1942
Survivors All members of the crew survived.
The story One of many ships churned out by the American industrial powerhouse during World War II; the SS Thomas T Tucker was on her maiden voyage, and bound for North Africa, when she met with mishap off the Olifantsbos coast.
While hugging the coastline in an attempt to avoid German U-boats, the ship was caught in heavy fog, and ended up running aground at Olifantsbos Point after the captain mistakenly assumed they were nearing Robben Island. Later investigations revealed that the compass was off by 3 degrees, which may have played a part.
Interesting fact As with most ships of its class (dubbed Liberty Ships), The SS Thomas T Tucker was tasked with transporting troops and supplies to assist in the Allied war effort. Its cargo included six sherman tanks.
Location of the wreck Chunks of the vessel are strewn across the beach at Cape Point, making it one of several wrecks for which the Shipwreck Trail is named.
Important note In order to access Cape Point Nature Reserve, where the wreck is located, you will need to pay a conservation fee. You can contact Table Mountain Nature Reserve at 021 712 7471 or TableM@sanparks.org for more information.
Date of wreck 1900
Survivors All members of the crew survived, although legend tells that the captain was in such shock, he refused to leave the wrecked ship, and may even have lived on it for three years.
The story The 665-ton steamship was bound for Sydney with a cargo of coal, and was facing extremely poor visibility as it prepared to round the Cape. The captain thought he spied Cape Point in the distance, and ordered the ship to turn hard to port, full steam ahead. Unfortunately it wasn’t Cape Point, it was Devil’s Peak.
The ship ran aground with such force that it skidded a few meters up the beach. Well, at least the crew didn’t have to swim to shore.
Interesting fact The wreck was used as a backdrop for some of the scenes in the film Ryan’s Daughter (1970), which was actually set in Ireland.
Location of the wreck Long Beach, Noordhoek. It’s one of the few wrecks you won’t need diving gear to find, as the engine block and some other bits and pieces are partially buried in the sand, close to the Kommetjie side of the beach. You can even take your dog along.
Important note The stretch of beach between Noordhoek and Kommetjie has seen an increase in criminal activity in recent times, including several reports of violent incidents. Visitors are urged to be cautious and alert if they choose to travel through this area. You can contact Komwatch for more information.
Where Mossel Bay
Date of wreck 1505
The story Seventeen years after Bartolomeu Dias became the first European explorer to round the Cape, fleet commander Lopo Soares de Albergaria became the first to lose a ship in the Cape.
Luckily for Soares, he was not aboard the particular ship that sank, but it was one of 13 under his command, and one of two that he sent ahead to scout as his fleet sailed past Cape St Blaize on a return voyage from India. The ship is believed to have run aground during the night, and though the wreck was sighted by Soares’ fleet as they sailed past it, there is no record of what befell it or its crew.
Around a year later, supply ships bound for the Portuguese base at East Africa (now Mozambique) stopped off at the wreck site to look for survivors. All they found was a mast and a skeleton.
Interesting fact The Soares was the first of many Portuguese ships lost in the Cape over the course of the next 150 years. Survivors of these wrecks would try to make their way overland to Portuguese trading posts on the Eastern coast, but many would end up settling among the locals instead, deciding they preferred life in Africa after all. This makes them the earliest known European settlers in South Africa, predating Jan van Riebeeck by about 100 years.
Location of the wreck Little is know about the shipwreck, other than it being the earliest recorded maritime disaster in the Cape. It is believed to have occurred somewhere between Mossel Bay and Dana Bay, as shown on this map provided by VisitMosselBay.co.za.
SS Clan Stuart
JMC610a – Clan Stuart: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Where Simon’s Town
Date of the wreck 1914
Survivors All members of the crew survived.
The story This sizeable steamship was built to ferry cargo across the ocean, yet its structure was ill-suited to its purpose. The owners figured they could save some money by building a vessel that had the majority of its hull hidden below the waterline (ships passing through the Suez Canal were taxed according to the breadth of their beam).
Unfortunately, this unconventional design made the ship difficult to control in choppy waters. While en route to deliver a shipment of coal, the SS Clan Stuart dropped anchor in False Bay and prepared to wait out the night, but a strong southeasterly wind suddenly swept across the bay and blew it towards the shore. The ship ran aground on the rocks near Glencairn Beach, sustaining significant damage.
The crew and cargo were rescued and the ship towed back to Simon’s Town for repairs, but attempts to restore her to working condition proved ineffective, and she was eventually scuttled.
Interesting fact The unconventional design makes the SS Clan Stuart a rarity among steam ships.
Location of the wreck About 100 metres off the shoreline at Mackerel Beach, where it was grounded after being refused entry to the dry dock at Simon’s Town. The only part of the wreck that is visible above the surface is the engine block; the rest lies submerged beneath about eight metres of water.
It’s a popular dive site, easily accessible from the shore and ideal for beginners. The wreck has gradually been transformed into a colourful manmade reef, populated by a wide variety of sea life including squid, shysharks and cuttlefish.
Where Camps Bay
Date of wreck 1977
Survivors All members of the crew survived.
The story The Antipolis was one of two ships (the other being the Romelia) bound for the scrap heap in Taiwan. A Japanese tugboat named the Kiyo Maru 2 had the arduous task of hauling the two tankers all way from Greece, and the misfortune of running into a strong northwesterly gale as it approached Robben Island.
The tow-cable attached to the Antipolis snagged on the seabed, and the Romelia exacerbated the situation by moving ahead of the Kiyo Maru 2 and getting the cable stuck under the tug boat’s hull.
Needless to say, the situation ended with both tankers being blown ashore, after the crew of the tug boat was forced to cut through the cable with a gas torch. The top portion of the Antipolis was scuttled, but the remains are still visible above the surface.
Location of the wreck Oudekraal, near the Twelve Apostles Hotel. The wreck is partially visible from the hotel entrance, and it’s one of three popular dive sites on the Atlantic Seaboard (the other two are Sandy Cove and Justin’s Caves).
Good to know Divers need a permit to explore the site as it forms part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area. For more information, contact the TMNP Marine Unit (021 783 0234).
JMC675c-Commodore II: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Date of wreck 1946 – 1948
Survivors The wreck was intentional, so the ship’s crew was not in any danger.
The story The four-masted schooner was built in the United States in the early 20th century, converted into a floating coal hulk during World War II, and a coal transport thereafter.
During a 1945 voyage to South America and back, the ship was almost destroyed several times, even catching fire at one point. One member of the crew describes how two of his shipmates rescued him from being swept overboard during a violent storm.
The ship and its crew somehow managed to reach home safely, but the vessel was no longer seaworthy and had to be scuttled. It was stripped, set on fire and allowed to run aground near Milnerton.
The remains of the ship were uncovered by a storm in 2008. This prompted still-living crew members to come forward with stories of having served on the famous vessel.
Interesting fact The Commodore II was used as a set for the film Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable.
Location of the wreck Milnerton lagoon, where it’s become a familiar fixture for the locals.
Explore more of the Cape with the help of our weekly newsletter.