Shipwreck of the BOS 400, which ran aground in 1994
They lie on the rocks like the carcasses of strange, beached sea creatures. Hulking wrecks of metal, tossed up by the ocean, slowly disintegrating in the wet, salty sea air. The water behind them may look calm in these photographs, but don’t be fooled: this is one of the world’s most dangerous coastal stretches for ships – as indicated by the broken relics that litter the shoreline or lie beneath the waves.
A ship stranded on the rocks
The original name given to the Cape of Good Hope was the “Cape of Storms”, and as the moniker suggests, it’s a place with violent, turbulent waters and notoriously treacherous gale force winds. The coast around the Cape is rugged and rocky but also spectacularly beautiful – although the crew of the many ships that have been wrecked on its shores could be forgiven for having missed that last point.
An entire section of this ship is missing.
The first recorded sighting of the Cape by explorers was in 1488. Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias was on his way back to Portugal, after surveying the southernmost point of Africa. Following a journey fraught with conflict, Dias’s ship was almost wrecked on the rocks, inspiring him to name the area the “Cape of Storms”. Clearly, this was not a moniker to inspire great confidence in sailors, so it was later renamed the “Cape of Good Hope” in order to encourage exploration.
Not much is left of this wreck.
Although the so-called Cape of Storms was not the southernmost tip of Africa Dias thought it was – in fact, it’s Cape Agulhas, which is 96 miles southeast – he nevertheless correctly deduced that sailing around it would provide a route to India. So it was that a few years later, in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed out of Lisbon and into the history books as the first European ever to travel by sea to India.
The swirling mist or sea spray around these rocks gives this picture an eerie feel.
The Cape Peninsula is buffeted by giant cold swells and strong winds from Antarctica, which clash with the South African anticyclone as well as the strong, warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean. As testament to the perilous nature of these conditions is a long list of ships that have failed to negotiate this treacherous coastline. Bartolomeu Dias himself perished near the Cape when his own ship and three others sank during a massive storm in 1500. No trace of the vessels has ever been found.
A close-up of dangerous rocks
Sailors are a superstitious bunch; and as a result of all the destruction it has caused, the Cape of Good Hope has its own creepy legends. For one, it is said that famous phantom ship the Flying Dutchman sails these waters. Legend has it that the ship is manned by the ghosts of men who committed a terrible crime and are doomed to sail here forever. According to literary great Sir Walter Scott, to see the ship “is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens.” More mundane accounts suggest that the ship is some kind of mirage or other optical illusion.
Nothing but debris remains.
Another dangerous specter said to lurk around the Cape of Good Hope was mythological being Adamastor. Written about by Portuguese poet Luís de Camões in his poem “Os Lusiadas”, Adamastor is described as resembling a menacing storm cloud. According to the poem, the phantom had to be overcome by sailors on their voyages of discovery around the Cape. It’s not hard to understand why some might have conjured up frightening monsters out of the dark clouds and violent waves, given how hostile such conditions proved to be.
Photographer Dillon Marsh took these amazing photographs between Cape Point and Robben Island, two notorious shipwreck sites. Cape Point has both the debris of wrecked ships and a collection of crosses to remind people of its deadly waters. Because of its height, the old Cape Point lighthouse was ineffective: it sometimes caused ships to move too close, while in fog it could be invisible. After the Lusitania, a 5,500-ton Portuguese liner, was wrecked in 1911, a new lighthouse was built.
Robben Island has also seen the demise of its share of ships. The raging swells of the Atlantic Ocean ensure that any ship foundering offshore is soon pounded into oblivion. In one incident, a Dutch vessel carrying a shipment of gold coins to pay the salaries of Dutch East India employees was reportedly smashed to smithereens on the reefs. The precious cargo would be worth a fortune today, but so far no one has been able to recover it from the turbulent waters.
Pieces of wreckage in the sand
These days, clipper ships still sail via the Cape of Good Hope. And yacht races also pass through its churning waters – which, we imagine, must be extra thrilling. At least today most oceangoing craft use modern techniques to help them navigate. Still, as recently as 2009, strong winds around the Western Cape drove Turkish ship the MV Seli 1 aground off Bloubergstrand, which lies on the shores of Table Bay, at the northern end of the Cape Peninsula. So, the Cape of Good Hope and its environs are still, it seems, a place to be approached with caution.