Home > Destination > Heritage > Shipwrecks

A Maritime Graveyard

The Southern Tip of Africa is littered with the wrecks of over 140 ships that met their violent end along its tempestuous coastline. Thousands of lives and precious cargoes have been lost in its raging storms and ravenous waters.

Gail force winds and strong ocean currents join forces to create rouge waves 30 meters (100ft) high. These terrifying conditions combined with treacherous reefs, inaccurate maps and primitive navigational technology often proved too overwhelming for the sea-weary crews of yesteryear, throwing their vessels onto the jagged rocks like cheap toys and scattering them onto a wild and alien shore.

Women and Children First!

The highest concentrations of shipwrecks can be found around Cape Agulhas, Arniston and Quoin Point although the most famous wreck must be the HMS Birkenhead of the Danger Point Peninsula in Gansbaai.

The Birkenhead, which met her doom in 1852, earned her fame by being the first to employ the “women and children first” protocol. The men, who were mostly soldiers, were ordered to “stand fast” while the woman and children were given priority over the lifeboats. Of the 638 passengers, only 193 were saved while the remaining men stood solemnly and obediently on the deck as the Birkenhead slowly went under. Death by drowning came quickly to most while many were allegedly taken by Great White Sharks. All of the women and children were saved.

A commemorative plaque of this tragic and heroic event was set into the wall of the Danger Point lighthouse in 1936. The rock that sunk the Birkenhead, since dubbed Birkenhead Rock, is visible from the lighthouse at about 1,5km from the shore. The largest private collection of Birkenhead relics can be found at the Strandveld Museum in the nearby suburb of Franskraal.

The Phantom Ship of the Flying Dutchman

Many fanciful stories have been told about the fabled Flying Dutchman and his doomed vessel. The legend goes that Captain Hendrik Van der Decken was rounding the Cape on a homeward journey from Batavia to Holland when he came up against a raging storm. Mercilessly he drove his ship on, ripping the sails and flooding the deck. The terrified seamen beseeched him to turn back, but he lashed himself to the wheel and swore defiantly that even God would not stop him. The Holy Ghost heard his blasphemous oath and descended onto the deck in a brilliant beam of light. Van der Decken drew his pistol and fired a shot at the divine deity but his arm fell withered at his side. The Holy Ghost boomed an everlasting curse on the captain, sentencing him to sail the raging seas of the Cape for an eternity and bring bad fortune to whoever lays eyes on him.

Many claim to have seen the Flying Dutchman’s ghostly ship from Danger Point. Mariners consider a sighting of those blood-red sails the worst possible omen while artists, poets and novelists have immortalized the legend through countless art works - including an opera by Wagner.

Sailing Through History

Join Grootbos on a guided tour to discover the forlorn wrecks and fantastic tales of these ill-fated ships. Visit the commemorative plaque of the Birkenhead at Danger Point or take a scenic drive to the shipwreck museum in Bredasdorp on the way to the Southernmost Tip of Africa, the mystical meeting place of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.