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Coast Of Hard Knocks

Coast Of Hard Knocks

Mar 2014

Words & pics Jean Tresfon

At first glance the Weskus is a harsh and barren coastline, an area comprised of sand, sea and wheeling seabirds. Travelling north along the R27 you soon realise that this is the place to find huge expanses of sky, wide windswept beaches and the strong salty smell of the ocean. The landscape is sparse yet undeniably beautiful, a good place to rediscover some of the things that are really important in life. It’s also a really good place to find shipwrecks!

Safe anchorage sites on the West Coast are few and far between. This, combined with the tricky inset currents, many offshore blinders (rocks lying just under the surface) and giant winter storms that pound the exposed shores have made this area a graveyard for shipping. And if that were not enough, the icy seas and the hot semi-arid landmasses combine their forces to produce thick advection fogs on otherwise calm and placid days, reducing visibility to just metres. It really is not surprising that many seafarers have come to grief on this unforgiving coast, and continue to do so even in this modern age of electronic navigation systems. 

Possibly the first recorded shipwreck on the West Coast was The Schollevaar, a Dutch sailing ship of 90 tons which wrecked in a north west gale on 31 May 1668, just north of Bokpunt. Since then, there have been many others; there are now approximately one hundred and fifty recorded shipwrecks along the West Coast. We will concern ourselves with just seven of those, enough for a three-day weekend’s diving without having to dive the same wreck twice!

Diving on the West Coast is always an interesting exercise. The sea is cold, often quite rough and usually fairly dirty (visibility can be less than five metres). Having dived this coastline for years, some friends and I even coined a phrase, “West Coast Yellow” to describe the usual colour of the water. Help is usually a long way away and divers should be conservative in their approach. Most of the wrecks lie in the impact zone and are fairly broken up. The diving is generally pretty shallow, but surge combined with sharp rusty wreckage can make it hazardous. At least one diver has had his shoulder impaled on a long rusty spear of iron wreckage. One or two of the wrecks lie in deeper water and here no-decompression limits should be strictly observed. This diving is definitely not recommended for novice divers. 

The first wreck to dive is The City of Hankow, a British cargo vessel of 7 360 tons. She was built in 1915 and owned by the Ellerman Line. On 18 December 1942, during her fourth visit to the waters of the Cape, she wrecked at Danger Bay just north of Saldhana when caught in a dense fog. There was a wartime sunset entry rule that prevented ships entering Saldhana Bay after dark. The ship had just missed this cut-off and was forced to steam slowly east and west until first light. However disaster struck when she overran her distance on an easterly leg and struck a blinder. She was carrying a cargo of 8 000 tons of military equipment including ten battle tanks, armoured cars, £2 million in bank notes and of course a large amount of ammunition. All seventy-one crew were taken off the wreck and put ashore in Saldhana Bay. The salvage lasted two months and much of the equipment was recovered. According to Malcolm Turner’s Shipwrecks and Salvage, in the 1980’s the SA Navy put a ban on diving on the wreck because of the ammunition. 

Back in the day there were some fit and tough divers that used to shore dive this wreck, but it is easier and safer to access it by boat. The site is open to the sea and in anything less than perfect conditions does get pounded by large waves. 

The best place to launch a boat is from the concrete slipway controlled by Fisheries at the Saldhana Bay harbour. A short ride takes you out into the bay, and after passing between Malgas Island and Jutten Island you head about two nautical miles to the north until you get to a small exposed bay, just before Danger Bay, and here lies the last remains of The City of Hankow. The wreckage has been pounded by the worst that seventy-one winters could throw at her, and as such is no longer really recognisable as a ship. Wreck diving aficionados will instantly recognize the boilers around which the site is scattered, looking for all the world like a scrap metal merchant’s yard.  There are still large brass shell casings lying on the bottom, but these are best left alone. Looking into the open end of a shell you can see what looks like welding rods inside. This is the remains of the cordite propellant and after all these years it’s very unstable. In one memorable incident a Cape diver tried cleaning one of these shells in his bathtub and managed to blow up a sizeable portion of his house! 

The next wreck on our list is The Haddon Hall, a 4 177 ton British steel screw steamer. Built in 1895 she was also owned by the rather unlucky Ellerman Line and wrecked just two and a half nautical miles north of The City of Hankow (although technically she was the first of the two shipwrecks).  On 1 February 1913 she was on a voyage from Liverpool to Cape Town with a cargo of motorcars, tramcars, railway tracks, sleepers and copper wire. An error on the ships chronometer was given as the reason for her grounding, as she was set in by an inshore current and the navigation officer did not notice the proximity to the shore in the dark. Panic broke out amongst the seamen and three jumped overboard and were drowned. The rest of the crew got off safely but the ship was a total loss. 

The best access to the site is from the small sheltered bay at Jacob’s Bay. After dodging the rocks at the entrance to the bay you head south for less than two nautical miles to find another very exposed site. The wreckage is less scattered than that of The City of Hankow, and the layout of the wreckage is fairly simple (as she steamed bow on to shore). The railway tracks and sleepers are still scattered on the seabed.  It is an interesting and infrequently dived site, with a palatable sense of history. Recreational divers recovered the ship’s bell in 2004. 

Having completed diving The Haddon Hall a change of location is required and the next base of operations is the beautiful Tietiesbaai campsite in the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve. Situated just south of the Cape Columbine Lighthouse, this campsite is the perfect place from which to explore the next two shipwrecks. The campsite has a small beach launch site just to the left of the main beach as one looks out to sea. Launching here is easy and exiting the small bay leaves you are free to explore the area by boat.

The Lisboa (sister ship to the better known Lusitania wrecked at Bellow Rock off Cape Point in 1911) was a Portuguese twin-screw mail steamer of 7 700 tons, built in 1910 and owned by the Empreza Nacional de Navegacao. She wrecked on Soldier’s Reef almost a kilometre offshore of Duminy Punt on 23 October 1910 after being set in by strong currents during a southeast gale while carrying a cargo of spices, mail, bulls and olive oil. Of the two hundred and fifty crew and passengers,  seven people drowned during the wrecking. This occurred when the davits broke whilst lowering a lifeboat. Interestingly enough, it was during this disaster that wireless telegraphy (radio) was used for the first time along the South African coast to save the crew of a wrecked vessel, when the radio officer made contact with another vessel berthed in the Cape Town docks. There were no coastal radio stations at the time. The ship stayed on the reef for three weeks before breaking up, and much to the delight of the locals there were many barrels of Vino Blanco that drifted ashore!

The wreck site is a four and a half nautical mile run by boat from Tietiesbaai. The site lies far from the shore but due to the surrounding shallows is very exposed and subject to strong surge. Descending to the bottom, the twin propeller shafts are immediately obvious, as are the fancy floor tiles confirming this as a passenger ship. Many large portholes adorn the seabed and some crockery is still visible, almost identical to that found on the Lusitania and it still bears the shipping lines’ emblem. This is an amazing site and in the right conditions it is a very rewarding dive. 

The next stop is at the wreck of The Ismore, a British four masted single screw transport steamer of 7 744 tons, built in 1899. She was wrecked later the same year at night on a blinder during a southeast gale while on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Cape Town. There were five hundred people aboard, including the 10th Hussar Regiment and the 63rd Royal Artillery, and also three hundred and fifty horses. All the people made it safely off the ship but most of the horses were lost. The bay where the soldiers came ashore was subsequently called Soldatebaai. 

After clearing Tietiesbaai and heading north out to sea you must follow the coast for just over two nautical miles before arriving at Soldatebaai. The wreck site is marked by the blinder and is some way from shore. The wreckage is scattered around the base of the blinder in all directions, with the propeller shaft, to the northeast. Depth at the base of the blinder is around twenty metres. After one hundred and fourteen years a lot of the wreckage has been grown over with mussels and other marine organisms. Looking carefully one may still see brass wagon wheel hubs from the carts and stirrups from the horses. It is hard to imagine the scene as all those soldiers and horses tried to escape the wreck during the dark of night, but diving on this site definitely gives one an inkling of the scale of the disaster.

The next base of operations is Sandy Point Harbour in St Helena Bay. Accommodation is easily found in the nearby Shelly Point or Britannia Bay. The harbour features a large concrete slipway and a convenient jetty to assist with the boarding and loading of the boat. From the harbour you must head west along the coast to find the next three wreck sites.

The Saint Lawrence was an iron steam troopship of 2 090 tons, built in 1874 and on hire from the Temperley Line. She was on a voyage to Cape Town with the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Bluffs when she wrecked inside the Groot Paternosters on Groot Paternoster Point on 8 November 1876. On board were four hundred and eleven men and forty-three women, along with an additional crew complement of sixty-seven people. The cargo included nine mountain guns, fifty tons of gunpowder and other government stores. 

The wreck is fairly intact, which is unusual for the West Coast, being in a more protected area has obviously helped. The visibility at the site is usually poor, but it is easy to orient yourself on the wreck as the propeller, shaft, engine block and boilers all lie in a straight line. The bow sits in the shallows at around six metres and the propeller marks the end of the site at around a depth of twenty metres. Underneath the shaft crates of ammunition still sit where they were left.  The bow features some beautiful small brass portholes. It boggles the mind to think that this wreck happened one hundred and thirty seven years ago and we can still explore the site as if it happened recently. 

Less than a nautical mile from The Saint Lawrence lies The Haleric, a British steamer of 5 169 tons. (These two wrecks are best done as a two-tank dive starting with the Haleric as she lies much deeper). Built in 1918 and owned by the Bank Line, she sank four kilometres south west of the Cape St. Martin Lighthouse after striking Cape St. Martin in the fog on 5 April 1933. She was in ballast at the time on a voyage from England to Australia to take on a cargo of wheat. 

The wreck stands proud of the seabed only aft of amidships. The decks towards the bow have concertinaed and collapsed. The remains have spread over a large area. The deepest point on the site lies at thirty-three metres and, as mentioned previously, one should avoid going into decompression due to the remote nature of the site. The giant boilers mark the mid point of the wreck and one can follow the propeller shaft astern to where the huge rudder still lies. Just forward of the boilers the remains of the bridge and the steering column can still be found. This is a spooky wreck to dive, largely because the cold water, poor visibility and depth combine to leave most divers a little uneasy. Surfacing next to the boat one often finds many seal pups from the nearby colony at the Groot Paternosters hanging around keen to play.

The last dive on your trip will be the wreck of The Seatrader. A Liberian motor vessel of 5 562 tons, she was built in 1949 and belonged to the Seatrader Shipping Corporation. She wrecked north of the Cape St. Martin Lighthouse on 3 June 1971 in thick fog. The ship hit the shore doing twelve knots and grounded firmly. The site lies seven nautical miles from Sandy Point Harbour and two nautical miles from the Haleric. The Seatrader was on a voyage from Antwerp to Kuwait with a cargo that included ten thousand tons of reinforcing steel. No lives were lost and the crew of thirty-eight men made it off the wreck. This ship had modern (for 1971) navigational aids and the Captain should have been aware of the ship’s position to within a few metres. The Captain blamed the wrecking on a faulty gyrocompass, but still had a perfectly good working radar system at his disposal. 

At low tide the Seatrader’s engine block stands proud of the surface so it is an easy site to find. She lies on the west side of Britannia Bay not far from the point.  The site is shallow and when jumping into the water near the engine block the first thing to be seen are the bundles of reinforcing steel. The wreckage is scattered over a large area and the site can take more than one dive to explore properly. 

If there is still time left for one further dive, the remains of a fishing trawler lies within St. Helena Bay just three nautical miles from Sandy Point Harbour. However there is usually close to zero visibility and the wreck is covered in billowing fishing nets waving around in the current so it is not recommended for the faint hearted.

Before leaving this stunning coastline, take the time to contemplate that the history of the West Coast is not complete without the story of its shipwrecks. Many of the place names come from the wrecks themselves or from the circumstances of the various disasters. Danger Bay, Soldatebaai, Cape Columbine, Britannia Bay, Paternoster and Soldier’s Reef all got their names in this manner. (Paternoster is derived from the Latin for “Our Father”, the words from the Lord’s Prayer supposedly offered up by the shipwrecked seamen). 

Once you start to explore the West Coast underwater you will want to go back for more… and don’t worry, there are many more shipwrecks still to explore!


Source: The Dive Site