“…ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape:Thomas Carlyle; Latter-Day Pamphlets, The Present Time. 1850
if you cannot, the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again…”
Cape Town, and in fact the whole Cape Peninsula, occupies a very important place on the nautical maps of our planet. We may not lie at the most southerly point of the continent – that honour, as we have written about before, lies with Cape Agulhas, but our positioning has made rounding the Cape a notable sailing objective. Cape Point is a spectacular geographical feature, both from the vantage point of the ocean or from a land based perspective from the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park.
There are in fact two ‘Capes’ that mark the end of the Peninsula: the higher cape is the eponymous Cape Point (in fact, to confuse the issue a little more, Cape Point has two peaks, the lower slightly to the south, bordering a small bay), and a little over two kilometres east lies the Cape of Good Hope, the first peak visible to sailors aiming to round the point from the Cape Town side. The whole is a rugged sandstone ridge, and this feature has occupied the minds of navigators and sailors since the fifteenth century. Named variously – according to the weather and other factors – the Cape of Storms, the Fairest Cape and the Cape of Good Hope, the tip of the peninsula has variously enchanted, petrified and – sadly – drowned, many am intrepid sailor. The known list of wrecks of ships that have foundered on the Point and on the notorious Bellows and Anvil Rocks – reefs that lie off the point – runs to over twenty vessels, and some of the skeletal remains of these vessels can still be seen on the beaches and rocks near the points. The Thomas T. Tucker, a Liberty ship carrying ordnance to the troops in WWII, is the most prominent – she ran aground off Olifantsbos in 1942, and her twisted metal remains on the rocks there are a poignant reminder that the ocean at Cape Point is not to be trifled with.
The fog at Cape Point is the most cited cause of wrecks, the Thomas T. Tucker mentioned above being one victim. Fog also caused the sinking of the passenger ship SS Lusitania in April 1911. (Not to be confused with the later passenger vessel Lusitania notoriously sunk by a U-boat in WWI off the coast of Ireland.) The SS Lusitania hit Bellows Rock off the point in a fog, and foundered in 37m of water. Remarkably, only eight of the 800 people aboard drowned. This accident resulted in the old lighthouse, positioned at the top of the point, being relocated to a position 162m lower down. During foggy weather the higher light was totally obscured by the mist, and rendered the lighthouse useless. A strange good weather phenomenon also mitigated against the higher positioning: on clear nights the light could be seen ‘too early’ by ships rounding from the east and its distance miscalculated, causing ships to misjudge the turning point around the Cape. Not an advisable navigational error: the sandstone cliffs were (and are) pretty unforgiving.
These days the shell of the old lighthouse remains at the higher position, looking down on the newer light some 700m away. The round metal structure serves as a convenient lookout point for the throngs of tourists who make the trek up the hill from the carpark, or, more usually, make use of the Flying Dutchman Funicular, which hauls itself and occupants up and down all day long. This little electrical railway is a tourist attraction in itself – it was the first commercial funicular of its kind in Africa, and it replaced a 16 seater bus in the late 1990’s. Its track is 585m long and rises 87m over that distance; an incline of 16%, the thought of which gives cyclists cold shivers. On second thoughts, it’s no wonder the bulk of tourists don’t walk up the hill. More trivia; the whole enterprise is named after the Flying Dutchman, the legendary Ghost Ship that plies the ocean fruitlessly attempting to round the point, and the two cars are named after wrecks that happened nearby; the Thomas T. Tucker (again) and the Nolloth, also wrecked off Olifantsbos, in April 1965.
It would probably surprise you to know that this was intended to be a story about oceangoing yachts. The recent Cape To Rio Yacht Race left Cape Town harbour for Rio (obviously), and from March 2nd to the 6th we will see the Cape Town TP52 Super Series week of yacht racing here in Cape Town. This is followed in short order from March 31st to April 4th by the Rolex TP52 World Championship. It was thoughts of these state-of-the-art racing yachts with their incredible navigational systems and safety equipment that got us to thinking about how life used to be at sea, and rounding the Capes of the world was always an experience to be feared and celebrated in equal measure.
Waterfront Charters was there at the two starts of the Cape To Rio Yacht Race, acting as marshals and spectator vessels; we will be involved with both the Rolex Championship and the Super Series events. Whether you are a hardened yachtie or just fascinated by the spectacle of these amazing vessels, we recommend that you keep an eye on our website for details of our participation and spectator cruises. Don’t miss out: we won’t be rounding Cape Point, but we will give you spectacular views of all the action as well as the stunning Cape Town scenery.