Cape Town’s Shipwrecks: SS Lusitania (April 18, 1911)

Iconic Cape Point punctuates the south western tip of the African continent. To the tourist, this is the southern tip of the “Fairest Cape”, providing some of the most breathtaking ocean and coastal vistas in the world. To the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias, in 1488 this was the “Cape of Storms”, to be later renamed by his king as the “Cape of Good Hope“. It is also ground zero for alleged sightings of the fabled ghost ship, the “Flying Dutchman”.

Cape Point

Cape Point

This implies that this spot on the map provides mariners with a mixed reception as they navigate around the Cape. Many have faced gale force winds, monstrous waves and driving rain storms. Others have faced a placid sea enveloped by dense fog and unseen ocean currents. As a result, the treacherous reefs in the vicinity of Cape Point are home to 26 recorded shipwrecks.

Tourists ride the Flying Dutchman funicular railcar up to view sites high up on the Point, above the sea cliffs that rise more than 800 feet above the waves crashing against the rocks far below. A short distance off the south west shore, the rise and fall of the swell alternately hides and reveals Bellows Rock, just one of the notorious reefs surrounding the peninsula.

On 18th April 1911 the Portuguese ship SS Lusitania*, sailing en route to Cape Town with 774 souls on board, took a wide turn in calm seas around Cape Point shortly before midnight (*not to be confused with the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk during the 1st world war off Ireland). The Cape Point lighthouse at that time was set high above the cliffs and after starting the turn, sight of the light was lost in fog over the land. With a break in the fog came the realization that the ocean current had carried the vessel northwards towards the reefs. The captain immediately put the helm over to head out to sea and ordered full power from the engines. Within minutes the vessel hit Bellows Rock with a tremendous impact. Firmly perched on the rock, evacuation of the stranded vessel was able to proceed in an orderly way.

Lifeboats however were faced with the prospect of making safe landfall along a shore lined with precipitous cliffs and wave-swept rocks, in the dark and fog. Attempts to land could result in disaster, so not everyone boarded the boats. For those that did, lighthouse staff up on the cliffs signaled with lanterns, trying to direct the boats to land at Diaz Beach, a small stretch of sand between Cape Point and Cape MacLear.

Cape Point vista, Diaz Beach

Cape Point vista, Diaz Beach

Two boats made it to Diaz Beach, but one capsized in the rough surf, drowning three of the occupants. All other passengers and crew in boats and still aboard the Lusitania were rescued that night at sea by the tugboat Scotsman and the warship Forte out of Simons Town.

In the morning, the Lusitania slipped off Bellows Rock and sank below the waves. What remains of the wreckage of the Lusitania lies in deep water east and north of Bellows Rock and is a renowned deep-dive site for local scuba divers.

Diaz Beach Cape Point

Diaz Beach Cape Point

As a result of the loss of the Lusitania, a new lighthouse was constructed further south on the Point and much closer to sea level, below the level of low cloud and land fogs forming over the higher elevations.

Diaz Beach is the southern-most of Cape Town’s beaches. This beach is unsafe for swimming and surfing.

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Author: Principle writer – James Corrans

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