The old Cape Point lighthouse

The old lighthouse at Cape Point
The old lighthouse at Cape Point

The old Cape Point lighthouse was commissioned 1 May 1860. A nine metre cast iron structure (same fabrication as the Slangkop lighthouse), it is painted white. The designer of the lighthouse did not visit the site, and decided that the weight of the nine metre high cast iron tower would be sufficient to keep it anchored in place without a foundation. Fortunately the construction supervisor was well appraised of the strong winds that blow year-round at Cape Point, and decided to bolt the tower to the rocks.

Southern face of the old Cape Point light
Southern face of the old Cape Point light

The lighthouse was built 262 metres above sea level – the highest practical elevation at which it could be situated. On a clear evening, the light was visible for up to 36 nautical miles. Much of the time, however, it was hidden under the blanket of fog and low-lying cloud that frequently bedevils Cape Point. The Lusitania was wrecked on Bellows Rock, below Cape Point, on just such a foggy night in 1911.

In 1919 a new lighthouse was commissioned, lower down the cliffs from the old light. This light, combined with the Slangkoppunt lighthouse, would do the job that the old light was supposed to do. The old lighthouse is now a watch room with a communications centre and lighthouse monitoring system.

It is not open to the public, but if you wish to walk around it and admire the spectacular views, it can be found at the top of the hill (or take the funicular if the power isn’t switched off for load shedding) above the main parking area at Cape Point.

Plaque commemorating period of operation of the lighthouse
Plaque commemorating period of operation of the lighthouse

As usual, everything I know about this lighthouse that I didn’t learn by looking at it (i.e. most everything), is thanks to Gerald Hoberman’s wonderful Lighthouses of South Africa book.

Visible shipwrecks: MFV Harvest Capella

The rocky peninsula at the northern end of Maori Bay, on the opposite side of the bay to the MV BOS 400 crane barge wreck, is called Oude Schip. It can be reached by walking and bouldering from Llandudno, or, as we (predictably) prefer, on a boat ride out of Hout Bay. We are usually in the area with the aim of diving the wrecks of the Maori, the Oakburn or the BOS 400.

High and dry at Oude Schip
High and dry at Oude Schip

On the rocks at Oude Schip are the remains of a Sea Harvest fishing vessel called MFV Harvest Capella. This 44 metre long diesel trawler ran aground in early October 1987, apparently during a south easterly gale. There are some pictures of her aground here and here.

MFV Harvest Capella at Oude Schip
MFV Harvest Capella at Oude Schip

Over the years, part of her bow has been pushed right up onto the rocks by the force of the waves. At the same time it has been breaking up, and perhaps in a few years will be almost indiscernible. The wreckage is quite unstable, and not really suitable for clambering about in any more.

MFV Harvest Capella on the rocks behind our boat
MFV Harvest Capella on the rocks behind our boat

Next time you’re in the area, ask your boat skipper to take you towards the rocks on the Sandy Bay side of Oude Schip to see how the Harvest Capella is looking these days!

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Visible shipwrecks: Winton and Hermes

Being (in midlife) a creature of the south peninsula, I tend to focus my attentions on False Bay and the Atlantic coast from Hout Bay southwards. But there are rewards for the shipwreck hunter who ventures further north, and even for the shipwreck hunter who doesn’t necessarily want to get their feet wet. A visit to Milnerton beach, and a walk north from Milnerton lighthouse, reveals two shipwrecks in the surf zone. Milnerton beach is surpassingly filthy, but while I was there a beach cleanup was making some headway on the mounds of rubbish tossed off ships in Table Bay that ends up on the beach. The view of the lighthouse from the beach is also far more fetching than the view from the car park, if you can overlook the garbage.

Milnerton lighthouse
Milnerton lighthouse

About one kilometre north of the lighthouse, where the beach is cleaner and pebbles roll euphoniously in the waves, you will come across the massive boilers of the Hermes in the surf. The NSRI gets calls every year from concerned locals worried that a whale is stranded near the beach; the sea spray sometimes pushes through holes in the top of the wreck creating an illusion of a whale’s blow. The Hermes was a liner, built in 1899, on her way to Cape Town with a large cargo of livestock, forage and a few passengers. When she arrived in May 1901 the harbour was full, and she was forced to drop anchor for the night. A north westerly gale came up, she dragged her anchors, and when the captain ordered her engines started, they failed.

Hermes (front) and Winton (back)
Hermes (front) and Winton (back)

Seawards and to the north of Hermes, the engine block of the Winton is visible, in much the same way as the SS Clan Stuart can be seen at Glencairn in False Bay. The Winton came aground in July 1934, carrying a cargo of wheat from Port Lincoln in Australia to Liverpool, England. Her captain was unfamiliar with Table Bay and had mistook the red lights on top of the radio mast at the Klipheuwel Wireless Telegraph Station near Milnerton for the harbour lights. Attempts were made to pull her off the beach and some of her cargo was salvaged, but the wheat ignited and efforts to refloat her were to no avail.

On a calm day, an aerial view of the site reveals the full outline of both vessels surrounding the parts that protrude from the water. When I visited, it was rough after a large swell, but the tide was low. At high tide the view will be considerably less impressive.

The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain
The boilers of the Hermes in front of Table Mountain

It is possible to scuba dive this site, and Underwater Explorers dives the Winton every year during their summer Table Bay wreck diving jamboree. Obviously very calm, low swell conditions are required because the wreck is so shallow and so close to the beach.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Visible shipwrecks: Commodore II

We first saw the Commodore II on Lagoon Beach, Milnerton, when we went to Sophie and Jacobus’s wedding. It was a summer’s day, and she had a boogie board and a pool noodle lying on her keelson, a bride and groom (not Sophie and Jacobus) posing for photos on her, and a gazebo secured to some of the rivets protruding from her timbers. I was fascinated by the strength and size of what remains of the ship, and returned on a clear winter morning, before the beach filled up, to look at her again.

The Commodore II was a four masted schooner built in the United States, with a film credit as one of the sets in the 1935 Clark Gable film Mutiny on the BountyPrivately owned, she ended up in Durban in the late 1930s and fell into disrepair after her owner died.

Commodore II in Table Bay
Commodore II in Table Bay

She was then towed to Saldanha, where she became a floating coal hulk during World War II. After the war she transported coal to South America and timber back to South Africa, but according to one of her crew, the ship ran into many difficulties and conditions on board were dire.

It was either in 1945, 1946 or 1948 (sources differ but I tend to believe the 1946 or 1948 dates) that she was set on fire and allowed to run aground off Milnerton. This was apparently considered an acceptable way of disposing of the vessel.

Not done yet, the Commodore II made an appearance in 2008, when a storm uncovered her remains at Milnerton. At the time the Cape Argus published an interview with one of her former crew, who described his love for the ship and described some of her history. I’m not sure of the status of the wreckage between 2008 and 2013, but the NSRI suggests that during that time the wreck washed into Milnerton lagoon and was secured inside the lagoon by residents who feared for the safety of water users if she was left to move about at will.

Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun
Steam rises off the Commodore II in the morning sun

In September 2013 she came loose and washed out of the lagoon onto the beach. City officials promised to remove her, but two years later they still have not (for which I am glad). Today she lies in front of the Lagoon Beach Hotel, at times right on the edge of the Milnerton lagoon mouth (which moves around on the beach a bit). It is quite conceivable that another storm will wash her off the beach, back into the lagoon, or to a slightly different location, but for now she makes for an arresting sight on a crisp morning.

Finally, because it’s special, here’s one of the official trailers for Mutiny on the Bounty, featuring the Commodore II. I assume that’s her in the long shots, and perhaps the deck and below-deck scenes were also filmed on her. Enjoy –

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Visible shipwrecks: Nolloth

The engine block of the Nolloth in the foreground
The engine block of the Nolloth in the foreground

The second visible shipwreck along the Cape Point Shipwreck Trail, about three kilometres from the start in the Olifantsbos parking area, is the Nolloth. She was a Dutch coaster carrying a cargo of (mostly) liquor, and struck a submerged rock (probably Albatross Rock, nemesis of many ships) off Olifantsbos in April 1965. Her captain ran her aground to save the cargo and prevent loss of life. Customs officials swiftly salvaged the cargo!

Engine block of the Nolloth
Engine block of the Nolloth

The Nolloth lies just in the waves at high tide. We visited a couple of hours after high tide, and were able to walk all the way around the wreckage without getting our feet wet. She lies at an angle, with much of her seemingly buried in the sand. Her engine block is partially exposed, and for the mechanically minded, prolonged examination of the cogs and gears will be rewarding.

Ribs of the Nolloth
Ribs of the Nolloth

The wildness of the location lends a very special quality to this wreck that is lacking in Cape Town’s visible shipwrecks that are situated in more urban environments – RMS Athens comes to mind. It is a remote and very beautiful spot, but would be possessed of far fewer benign qualities on a dark and stormy night.

There are some fantastic pictures of the Nolloth in Brian Wexham’s Shipwrecks of the Western Cape, taken, I suspect, within 20 years of her running aground. There is far more of her visible – she looks like a ship on the beach rather than a ship in the beach! There is also evidence of some low wreckage in the shallows that might still be visible when the tide is at its nadir, but I would caution against too much barefoot exploration of rockpools unless the water is very clear and your tetanus shots are up to date.

The Nolloth on the beach south of Olifantsbos
The Nolloth on the beach south of Olifantsbos

The Nolloth signals the point at which one turns back along the Shipwreck Trail to head towards Olifantsbos once more. Tami, Maria and I spent a wonderful morning on the Shipwreck Trail exploring the Thomas T Tucker and the Nolloth. As an aside, I would like to apologise to the resident chacma baboons for disturbing the peace when I realised that – with the help of a Slingsby Map – I had in fact successfully navigated us (along a marked and named trail, mind you) to not one, but two shipwrecks.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Visible shipwrecks: Thomas T Tucker

The first boiler of the Thomas T Tucker you'll come across
The first boiler of the Thomas T Tucker you’ll come across

If you’re a fan of visible shipwrecks, may I recommend the Shipwreck Trail in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park? I’ll write a separate post just about the trail, but this post and the one that follows (about the Nolloth) concern two shipwrecks, high and dry on the shore, that can be see on the route.

Three large pieces of the Thomas T Tucker on the rocks
Three large pieces of the Thomas T Tucker on the rocks

The SS Thomas T Tucker was an American-built Liberty ship. These cargo vessels were of a standardised design and were built in great numbers, and at great speed, during World War II. They were used to transport war materiel to the Allied troops, and this is what the Thomas T Tucker was busy doing when she found herself off Olifantsbos in November 1942. She was on her maiden voyage from New Orleans to Suez, hugging the coast in a thick fog for fear of German U-boats.

The Thomas T Tucker's second boiler, high on the beach
The Thomas T Tucker’s second boiler, high on the beach

When she ran aground on 27 November (our wedding anniversary!), her captain reported that the ship was aground on Robben Island, which is over 40 kilometres to the north. The ship’s compass was found to be out by 37 degrees, which may have contributed to the accident.

Today the Thomas T Tucker is beautifully spread out on a beach about two kilometres from the parking area at Olifantsbos, inside the Cape Point Nature Reserve. She was 135 metres long, so there was a lot of ship to distribute. There are some great pictures in Shipwrecks of the Western Cape by Brian Wexham, from (I think) the 1980s. They give a good idea of how the wreck has deteriorated.

You will first come upon one of her boilers, high up on the beach, close to a small headland. If you look back the way you’ve come (first photo, above) you can see Misty Cliffs, Scarborough and – perhaps – Slangkop Lighthouse. Beyond that she is in several large pieces on the rocks, and higher up the beach. A third (bonus!) section of wreckage lies a couple of hundred metres further along the Shipwreck Trail (also called the Thomas T Tucker trail), so isolated from the rest of the wreck that I at first thought that it came from a different ship.

The "bonus wreckage" of the Thomas T Tucker further along the beach
The “bonus wreckage” of the Thomas T Tucker further along the beach

We visited the wreck of the Thomas T Tucker an hour or two after high tide. At low tide, all the pieces of the wreck are accessible; we could not reach the most distant piece without getting our feet wet! There is some wreckage that isn’t visible, lying in the shallow water, which you can visit on a scuba dive if you get the appropriate permission to have dive gear on a boat within the exclusion zone around Cape Point. We were lucky to have fairly dramatic skies for photography. The way in which the wreck is scattered is a testament to the exposed nature of this coast, and the power of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Seli WHAT?

After our team of relay swimmers completed the Lighthouse Swim, Tony and I made our way back towards Granger Bay via a meandering route that included a search for the buoy marking the Seli 1, off Blouberg beach. We did not find it.

The Seli 1 under Table Mountain
The Seli 1 under Table Mountain

What we did find was quite disturbing: a hissing, pulsating patch of water beneath which the rusty wreckage of the Seli 1 lies, very close to the surface. There was no wind and very little swell when we were searching for the wreck, and initially we thought it was a school of baitfish disturbing the surface in that way. Fortunately we approached the spot slowly, because if we’d ridden over the wreckage this would be a different kind of blog post altogether.

The sea reveals the Seli 1
The sea reveals the Seli 1

We rode around the spot as close as we dared, watching the image of the objects below us on the sonar. The buckled plates of the wreck, where the SA Navy divers did their work with explosives to reduce it below the waterline in 2013, were clearly visible. The wreckage – particularly the shallowest part pictured above – is a definite hazard to any boat with a keel. We couldn’t tell exactly how much clearance there is between the top of the shallowest part of the wreck and the surface, but it didn’t seem to be more than half a metre. I hope it’s more than that, and I also hope that SAMSA pays attention to our request for a replacement marker buoy on the wreckage to warn ships (but considering how many channels of communication I had to try before not getting some kind of error, I haven’t a lot of hope).

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Visible shipwrecks: RMS Athens at Mouille Point

RMS Athens seen from the sea
RMS Athens seen from the sea

An observant visitor to the promenade between Mouille Point and Green Point may notice something man-made sticking out of the ocean, less than 100 metres from shore. This artifact is the iron engine block of the Royal Mail Steamer Athens, which ran aground here in the great north westerly gale of 17 May 1865. Seventeen ships were wrecked during this colossal gale – reports of the events of that day (including a mention of the Athens) can be seen in this historical newspaper.

The engine block of RMS Athens is barely visible
The engine block of RMS Athens is barely visible to the left of this image

It is possible to dive the wreck; indeed, owing to its accessibility from shore, it has been extensively “salvaged” in the last 150-plus years! There is more information about diving the wreck on wikivoyage, but suffice it to say it’s a shallow dive best done when there is no swell to speak of. The wreck is very broken up and overgrown with kelp and invertebrate life, by all accounts.

There’s a great article on the history of RMS Athens on the Submerge website: click here to read it.

If you want to go and see the remains of the wreck, I’ve geotagged this instagram picture of the engine block.  My photos of the engine block as seen from the sea were taken while we were aboard the Ocean Adventurer. If you’re interested in other visible shipwrecks around Cape Town, you could visit the Kakapo, the Clan Stuart, and (by boat) the BOS 400, to start with!

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Seli… gone!

Panorama of the beach at Blouberg where the Seli 1 lies
Panorama of the beach at Blouberg where the Seli 1 lies

Our obsession with shipwrecks that stick out of the water is well documented. We keep a beady eye on the BOS 400, and while the Seli 1 was visible at Blouberg, Tony and I would take a drive out to visit her every few months. We haven’t been out to see her for well over a year, so I was delighted to find myself at Blouberg recently to get an update on her condition.

Look for the orange buoy - the Seli 1 is under it
Look for the orange buoy – the Seli 1 is under it

The wreck had gone from being intact when she ran aground in 2009, to looking a bit ropy, to separating into three pieces (above the surface, at least). After rough winter in 2012, a minor oil spill issued from the wreck, as part of it toppled over. That was the last we’d seen of her, but furious activity was going on behind the scenes as efforts were made to secure her removal.

Divers from the SA Navy were tasked with detonating explosives on the wreck to break her up, which they did in March 2013. This opened a compartment in the wreck from which oil leaked, necessitating a clean up operation. Finally, the remaining wreckage was cut into smaller pieces to expedite its collapse and dispersion on the sea floor.

The Seli 1 is under the orange buoy to the right of this image (hard to see!)
The Seli 1 is under the orange buoy to the right of this image (hard to see!)

Today, the resting place of the Seli 1 is marked by an orange buoy, that is hard to spot from land – let alone in my photographs above. The site has been dived by a group of adventurous locals, and apart from a lengthy surface swim it’s a possibly promising wreck for Open Water divers to dive from shore (these are in short supply in Cape Town – the only others I can think of are the Clan Stuart and the Antipolis, and perhaps the Romelia).

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out my ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!

Some close ups of the wreck of the BOS 400

First view of the BOS 400 when entering Maori Bay from the south
First view of the BOS 400 when entering Maori Bay from the south

I spent a relaxed day out on the boat in mid April with some casual divers and a couple of my Divemaster candidates, looking for clean water in the Atlantic and doing bounce dives. While searching for a good place to dive, we passed through Maori Bay where the SS Maori, SS Oakburn, and the BOS 400 wrecks are. The BOS 400 is a massive crane barge that is grounded on the boulders at the entrance to the bay. Much of the wreck is already underwater. In the picture below, you can see right through to the rocks behind the wreck.

Winch drums on the BOS 400
Winch drums on the BOS 400

The BOS 400 is spectacular to view from the surface, and has undergone some changes in the years we’ve been diving her. One day this entire wreck will probably end up submerged, and the diving will only get better. She’s a huge vessel with a complex, visually interesting structure.

Here’s an update of what the wreck of the BOS 400 looks like from the surface. These photos were taken on 13 April 2013.

If you’re interested in visible shipwrecks, check out Clare’s ebook Cape Town’s Visible Shipwrecks: A Guide for Explorers!