Shipwrecks & Ghost Ships
Seven shipwrecks surround Danger Point Peninsula and 140 wrecks are dotted along the shores between Danger Point and Cape Infanta. The highest concentrations of shipwrecks can be found around Cape Agulhas, Arniston and Quoin Point. Yet Danger Point was given the most impressive name. Perhaps it is an applicable name for the spot where the legendary “Flying Dutchman” was first seen.
Local historian SD Fourie has recorded the story of the unfortunate Captain van der Decken:
1. The Flying Dutchman
“……..the captain is driving his ship mercilessly off the Cape in heavy weather. Sails are lost, decks are flooded, and the seamen beseech him to give up the attempt to round the Cape. Van der Decken lashes himself to the wheel and carries on, swearing that even God will not force him to change his mind. His blasphemous oath is heard. Out of the dark and ominous sky falls a brilliant shaft of light, and the Holy Ghost steps on to the deck. Van der Decken draws a pistol from his belt and fires. His arm falls withered at his side, and the Holy Ghost delivers sentence: “You have defied the wrath of God, and now you will sail these seas until the end of time. You will know thirst and hunger, but never will you know calm seas again. Henceforward you will bring misfortune to all who sight you.”
Captain Owen, R.N., who charted long stretches of the South African Coast, declared that he saw the flying Dutchman. The encounter appears in the logbook of H.M.S. Leven, dated 6 April, 1823. Owen was near Danger Point and bound for Simon’s Bay when he thought he saw his consort, H.M.S. Barracouta. This appearance surprised him as Barracouta had been ordered elsewhere. The Leven did not attempt to make close contact. When she reached Simons’s Bay she waited for a week before the Barracouta arrived. They compared log-books, and it was found that the two naval ships were three hundred miles apart when Owen intercepted the mystery ship.
Far more famous was the encounter near Danger Point witnessed by Prince Albert Victor and Prince George of Wales, later King George V. The young princes were both midshipmen, cruising in H.M.S. Bachante. The meeting was entered in the log-book as follows:
“July 11, 1881. During the middle-watch the so called Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. She first appeared as a strange red light, as of a ship aglow, in the midst of which light her masts, spars and sails, seemingly those of a normal brig, some two hundred yards distant from us, stood out in long relief as she came up.” The report in the log-book went on, describing the ship in the smallest detail. Thirteen people saw the ghost-ship, but whether it was the Flying Dutchman or one of the other few alleged phantom ships which are reputed to haunt this area, must remain unknown.
London newspapers in 1911 published a message describing an American whaler off the Cape that had almost collided with a sailing ship believed to be the Flying Dutchman. Cape Town papers early in 1939 described a queer experience in False Bay, when people on the beaches saw a sailing ship beating up towards Muizenberg. It seemed that the ship would run into the breakers, but just before reaching the shallows she vanished. They all swore they had seen the Flying Dutchman.
Koen Kano, the Baron Von Münchhausen of Gansbaai, was one of the best storytellers in the Strandveld. He used to tell that he met Captain Van der Decken and his fateful ship while fishing off Dyer Island. He thought they might like to have some fish and approached the ship. Van der Decken asked him to fetch anybody in Gansbaai who could beat him at swearing. Maybe such a man could help him round the Cape of Storms. Koen fetched a well known fisherman, full of grog at the local bar and between the two of them they helped the Flying Dutchman round the Cape. “For keeps. That devil would not dare to fish again in Gansbaai seas!” said Koen. (Almost forgotten, never told, Lawrence G. Green. Wisselstrale oor die Strandveld, Jan Fourie.)
Some ships wreck without a trace and are quickly forgotten; nobody talks or writes about them; just another blank spot in history. Other ships go down and are world news the next day. Geographical spots are named after them and they stay in the collective mind forever. Nearby Waenhuiskrans, a fishing village on a secluded small bay, to the east of Danger Point, is now know as Arniston, after the HMS Arniston that wrecked there in 19th century. The HMT Birkenhead is another ship that lives on in the minds of people. She struck a rock, 1 km out in sea from Danger Point. The fact that the rock was later named after the unfortunate ship, is only a very modest tribute: it is a submerged rock and its presence can only be noticed from shore by the waves that break over it. The name Birkenhead also lives on in the name of a guesthouse on Danger Point Peninsula and in the Birkenhead Brewery near Stanford. Neither the rock, nor the beer or the guesthouse is however the reason for the world-fame of the Birkenhead. It is the drill that was named after the Birkenhead (the “Birkenhead-drill”) that makes us remember the fate of the people on board and why some perished and some lived. It is a story of unimaginable discipline and will-power.
There were 638 people on board this troopship when she left Simons Town on the 25th of February of 1852: 138 ship’s officers and crew, 480 army officers and men and 20 women and children. The soldiers were on their way to fight in the eighth “Frontier war” that was being fought in the Eastern Cape.
When, on the 26th, she struck the rock that now carries her name, the lower deck was instantly flooded, drowning some of the men in their bunks. Captain Salmond made a disastrous decision when he ordered the Birkenhead to be put astern. As a consequence the hull ripped open further and the ship started breaking apart. It seems to be almost a tradition in the case of famous shipwrecks: the lifeboats were not maintained and thick layers of paint connected them firmly to the Birkenhead. Only three boats could be freed and the women and children were rowed from the ship. While this happened the soldiers, commandeered by Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, stood in line on deck awaiting orders. When Captain Salmond, in desperation, shouted that all who could swim should jump and make it to the boats, Seton told his man to stand firm. He was afraid that if his men would make it to the boats, the boats would become too full and this would put the lives of the women and children in danger. The boats made it safely to shore while the Birkenhead broke up quickly. Less than half an hour after she struck the rock, only the top-mast was above water with 50 hopeless men hanging on to it. 445 people died and 193 (including all women and children) survived.
On the 26th of February 1852, the principle of women-and-children-first got its name: “The Birkenhead drill”. The horses that were on board swam to shore and local folklore has it that they roamed freely as a wild herd in the plains of the “Strandveld” until well into the 20th century.
Another story tells of an enormous gold-treasure on board of the Birkenhead, but the only gold that was salvaged in later years were some coins out of private purses. A large collection of Birkenhead relics and remains can be seen in the Strandveld Museum at the cliffs of Franskraal just off Danger Point Peninsula. From Danger Point, were in 1895 the present Danger Point lighthouse was erected, the waves over the submerged rock are a continuous echo of the disaster. A remembrance plate for the Birkenhead, below the lighthouse, has an arrow pointing to the exact location.
It happens now and then. A person in perfectly good health is reading the obituaries in the newspaper and he or she -in shock- sees his or her own name mentioned erroneously as a person recently deceased. Ships cannot read, but something similar has happened to the Tyndareus. Some accounts and maps lead us to believe that the Tyndareus sank on the west-coast of Danger Point Peninsula in 1917. However, she ended her life long after that when she was broken up in 1960 in Hong Kong.
The Tyndareus did indeed strike a mine laid by the German raider Wolff just off Danger Point. The explosion blew an enormous hole in her hull and -head first- she began to sink. The 1300 officers and soldiers on board “with exemplary discipline” took to the life boats and all made it safely to a nearby hospital ship that had answered the call for help.
The Tyndareus, completed in 1916 and built according to new designs developed after the sinking of the Titanic, however refused to sink all the way. With her head under water, the Tyndareus was towed to the naval base of Simon’s Town where she was repaired and from where she embarked on her second life. In WW II she also served as a troop ship. After WW II the Tyndareus became a pilgrim-ship on the route between Indonesia and Mecca until she was dismantled in 1960, half way around the globe from Danger Point.
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