South Africa’s marine industry has a rich history that connects us to the rest of the world. During the 15th century, the Western Coast of Africa served as a shipping trade route between Europe and the East.
Also read: KNOW YOUR CAPE TOWN HISTORY – ROBBEN ISLAND
This thoroughfare became increasingly busy and dangerous as the demand for exotic goods soared amongst the European elite, a fact that is reflected in the nearly 3,000 historical shipwrecks of different nationalities that are scattered around our coast.
Shipwrecks are precious resources that provide a wealth of historical information and must be managed, maintained and protected as part of our shared history.
Here are some of the wrecks that lie along our coast:
1. HMS Birkenhead – 26 February 1852:
The sinking of the Birkenhead was one of South Africa’s worst maritime disasters, with many troops losing their lives.
The HMS Birkenhead was wrecked on what’s now known as Birkenhead Rock off Danger Point during a voyage from the UK to South Africa carrying reinforcements for the Eighth Frontier War in the Eastern Cape. The instruction was to get the women and children into the lifeboats first. As the Birkenhead broke apart and sunk, their officers instructed the troops to stand fast so that the boats carrying the women and children were not swamped by desperate swimmers.
The troops awaited their fate with dignity. Their courage has set a precedent that is still practised across the world in emergency situations and is referred to as the Birkenhead Drill.
In the years after the sinking numerous salvage operations were undertaken, mainly to find the rumoured “Birkenhead treasure”. Legend has it that the ship was carrying gold to pay the troops but apart from a couple of hundred gold sovereigns thought to be from personal purses, no treasure has ever been found. “Some of the early attempts to salvage the wreck had scant regard for the historical significance and sensitivity of the wreck. This resulted in extensive damage to the site.” as stated by SAHRA Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage.
“The wreck is protected under the National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999) and may not be disturbed, damaged, or anything removed from the site without a permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency.”
2. Meisho Maru No 38 – 16 November 1982:
Meisho Maru No 38 was a motor-powered fishing trawler that wrecked at Cape Agulhas in the Western Cape on 16 November 1982. The wreckage can still be seen from the shore today and has been the subject of many photographer since its wrecking.
3. Paquita – 18 October 1903:
The Paquita was a German sailing ship that wrecked on Beacon Rocks at the Knysna Heads. It was exposed for a year and a half before being blasted with dynamite. Rumour has it that the wrecking was deliberate, part of a ploy to scam the insurance company. The wreck is one of Knysna’s most popular dive spots lying at its shallowest at about 4 metres and up to 20 metres at its deepest.
4. Jung Tai No 2 – 10 October 1982:
Jung Tai No 2 was a motor-powered fishing trawler that wrecked at Suiderstand, near Agulhas in the Western Cape, on 10 October 1982. Within 10 years, the trawler had broken up and was no longer visible above the water.
5. SAS Fleur – 8 October 1965:
The steam-powered defence vessel, Fleur, was scuttled in the middle of False Bay in the Western Cape on 8 October 1965 during a gunnery exercise. It is a diveable wreck lying at about 35-40 metres for experienced technical divers.
6. Rex – 3 October 1903:
The Rex, an iron steam-powered trawler, wrecked in a south-easterly gale where the Kalk Bay Harbour was built 10 years later. During low tides, some of the remains are still visible within the harbour.
7. Thermopylae – 11 September 1899:
The steel steam-powered freighter, Thermopylae, wrecked at Greenpoint Lighthouse in Table Bay in the Western Cape on the eponymous Thermopylae reef. It wrecked on a bright moonlit night because of an error in judgement, being much closer to land than was thought.
8. MV Aster – 9 August 1997:
Aster, the motor-powered fishing vessel, was scuttled by the Western Province Diving Union on 9 August 1997, to create an artificial reef next to the wreck of the Katsu Maru 25 in Hout Bay in the Western Cape. The vessel lies level in the sand at a depth of 30 metres.
9. BOS 400 – 27 June 1994:
The BOS 400, is a French crane barge that ran aground on the rocks in Maori Bay near Hout Bay in the Western Cape. The barge was being towed to Cape Town when its cables parted during strong currents, causing the vessel to drift onto the rocks. After numerous failed attempts were made to tow it off the rocks, it was declared a total loss. The BOS 400 lies partially on top of the wreck of the Oakburn (1906), and as it deteriorates, the two wrecks are merging.
The BOS 400 is a popular tourist attraction, with many people enjoying the hike along the coast to view it. There are lots of instances of people climbing onto the wreck to explore the inside and jumping from the wreck into the sea below.
10. Oakburn – 21 May 1906:
The Oakburn is a steam-powered British cargo ship that wrecked in thick fog and a strong current near Duiker Point in the Western Cape. The Oakburn lies at a depth of about 22 metres with many sections of the bow, and boilers still visible amongst the more modern wreckage of the BOS 400.
11. Pantelis A Lemos – 17 March 1978:
Pantelis A Lemos, the 35,500 gross tonnage motor-powered bulk carrier, wrecked on 17 March 1978, at 16 Mile Beach in Yzerfontein, in the Western Cape. It ran aground in thick fog due to poor navigation. A fire broke out because of overworked generators. A court found the master, mate and chief engineer guilty of neglect. The vessel was insured for $50 million at the time and was considered one of the most high-cost claims of its day.
12. Wafra – 28 February 1971:
The seawater intake pipes failed on the Wafra, a steam-powered 50,000 tonne oil tanker, which resulted in it losing control of its buoyancy and flooding its engine room. It ran aground near Cape Agulhas in the Western Cape after a failed attempt to tow it.
About 200,000 barrels of crude oil leaked into the ocean, which affected a colony of 1,200 African penguins on Dyer Island. To contain the oil spill’s damage, the ship was refloated and towed out to sea on March 8, and on March 10, the South African Air Force attempted to sink the tanker with AS-30L missiles but only succeeded in starting a two-day long fire before being sunken by a Shackleton aircraft using depth charges, sinking the Wafra to a depth of 1,800 metres.
Picture: SAHRA Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage