Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Great Gale, Table Bay, 17 May 1865

On Tuesday,16 May 1865, 28 ships were anchored in Table Bay, Cape Town: of these, seventeen were to be lost in the storm which was about to strike with shattering force. Contemporary news reports bring home to us the dramatic and tragic series of events, as well as the frustration and disbelief of those on shore who watched helplessly as vessels were driven ashore and crews and passengers drowned in the surf.

The Cape Argus reported on Thursday, 18 May:

On Monday ... (15 May) the wind blew strongly from the westward, and in the evening heavy rains fell.   Tuesday was showery, with the wind still blowing from the same direction as on the previous day, but in the course of the night a change took place, and a gale commenced from the north-west.   By daylight yesterday a tremendously heavy sea was setting in, while the wind came down in terrific gusts, and the vessels anchored in the bay rolled and pitched with great violence.   As soon as there were sufficient light for the purpose, a signal was made from the Port Office, directing the vessels in harbour to strike top-gallant masts, and to point yards to the wind.   As daylight increased several cargo-boats put off with anchors, and two or three vessels, which had parted, were supplied with extra holding gear.   At half-past eight an anchor was run to the Esther. The sea, however, continued to rise, and many larger boats which were at their moorings parted, and were driven ashore.   Between nine and ten o’clock one of these was observed to be adrift when one of the Water Police, a young man named Charles Bryce, who had gone on board the police boat near the North Wharf, for the purpose of throwing out the ballast, conceived the idea of going to her assistance.  With this in view he got into the dingy, and pushed off, but before reaching the cargo-boat, the dingy capsized, and the unfortunate fellow was thrown out.   The accident was witnessed by some hundreds of people, and an attempt was at once made to render him assistance; it was seen that he had struck out manfully and was making for the Central Causeway, but owing to his being burdened with his oilskin his progress was slow.   Efforts were made to launch a fishing boat from the front of the Sailors Home, but it was discovered that no oars were to be obtained.   In the mean time a couple of life-buoys were procured from the Port Office, and were conveyed to the end of the Causeway, and a gallant fellow named Maderasse, stripped himself and plunged himself into the waves from the beach.  Most gallantly did he breast the waves, dipping his head on the approach the breakers, and when he had accomplished about one fourth of the distance from the beach to the point at which the drowning man was struggling, the people on shore saw the latter go down.  He had battled hard for life, but was at length overcome and perished within sight of hundreds anxious to render him assistance. Shortly after this, the cargo-boat Stag ...  was capsized while in the act of going about, and it is feared that out of a crew of nine men two only were saved.
At 11h00 the Galatea brig parted her anchor but was safely beached on the sands beyond the Castle.
The Galatea was shortly joined by the brig Jane, and the cutter Gem, and before two o’clock five other vessels were on shore; they were the bark Star of the West, the schooner Fernaude, the schooner Clipper, (the latter having dragged her anchors), and the bark Frederick Bassil.   About two o’clock, the barks Alacrity and Deane also parted and drifted down upon the steamer Dane.   The former carried away the steamer’s boat, and the latter her jib boom, losing her own top-mast, and sustaining other injuries. Both vessels then drifted helplessly down upon the beach. Later still they were followed by the bark Royal Arthur, which took the ground near the south wharf, and she again was followed by the brig Kehrweider, the schooner Isabel, the Dutch brig Maria Johanna, and the brig Figilante.
During this time the bay was one sheet of foam, the seas breaking at least two miles from the shore. The wind blew with almost unprecedented violence, and the men in charge of the few anchor-boats which remained fit for use hesitated in risking their lives by going off.   One fine boat, the Providence, was dismasted about the middle of the bay, but having an anchor on board, pitched it out and hung on by the warp. There are said to be seven men on board of her, who are almost utterly without provisions, but hitherto no attempt ... has been made to rescue them from what appears a hopeless position. No ordinary boat could live in the tremendous seas which are coming in, while one life-boat is high and dry on the beach, and the others are said to be unfit for use. It appears that the Providence had gone off with an anchor to the Figilante, and while in the act of putting the warp on board, the brig parted her anchors and came into contact with the boat, carrying away her mast. One of the men succeeded in reaching the brig, and came on shore when the vessel grounded, but the remaining seven are believed still to be in the boat. The mail steamers Dane, Athens, and Briton keep their engines going, but the former labours a good deal, and is apparently in distress.  On the beach the scene is a very painful one; the seventeen vessels, together with the cutters and a large number of cargo-boats, form a dismal picture. Unless the wind changes there will hardly be a vessel left in the bay tomorrow morning.
This was no exaggeration.
The wind has freshened somewhat, and the swell is tremendous.   Another vessel, supposedly the brig Esther, has parted.  The night is intensely dark, and huge bonfires have been lit upon the beach, as some guide to vessels which may still part.   It is rumoured that the mail steamer Athens is on the rocks at Sea Point.   The rain is falling in torrents.   The City of Peterborough is said to be breaking up.
The following is a list of the vessels now on the beach.
Alacrity, bark, 817 tons, Captain Goouch.
Clipper, schooner, 75 tons, Captain Carsens
City of Peterborough, bark, 300 tons, Captain Wright.
Deans, bark, 91 tons, Captain Brabour
Esther, Hamburg brig, 341 tons, Captain Bottschen
Frederick Bassil, bark, 341 tons, Captain N. Glendising.
Figilante, Danish schooner, 74 tons, Captain N. Claster
Fenande, schooner, 86 tons, Captain Giles.
Gem, cutter, 42 tons, Captain Parew
Galatea, brig, 155 tons, Captain Kingston.
Isabel, schooner, 97 tons, Captain Nelson.
Jane, brig, 215 tons, Captain Picot.
Kehrweider, brig, 150 tons, Captain Havenberg.
Maria Johanna, bgtne, 204 tons, Captain Driest.
Royal Arthur, bark, 301 tons, Captain McDougal.
Star of the West, bark, 386 tons, Captain Edlery.
Benjamin Miller, schooner, 25 tons.
Worse was to come. The mail steamer Athens was rumoured to be on the rocks. The night was intensely dark and there was torrential rain. Huge bonfires had been lit on shore as a guide to any vessels that might still come to grief. The fate of the Athens was soon discovered:
... the wreck was lying between the two light houses ... a crowd of Green Point residents assembled, with lights, ropes, and life-buoys for the purpose, if possible, of rendering assistance, but quite unable to do so. The ship was lying sixty or eighty yards from the shore, grinding heavily on the rocks with every sea, and evidently fast breaking up, for pillow cases and cabin doors were washing ashore, so as to leave no doubt that the wreck was complete.  No dead bodies could, however, be found on the beach, but in the face of the tremendous seas and the boiling surf, it appeared impossible that any single one of the unfortunate people on board could reach the shore alive.  It was supposed that the hands had taken to the shrouds, but the darkness was too intense to allow them to be seen. Occasionally, however, as the heavy sea struck the ill-fated vessel, loud wails of anguish were heard proceeding from it, and the effect upon the crowds of spectators was terrible.  The Athens ... carried about thirty hands, including Captain David Smith and officers.  She was to have sailed for Mauritius yesterday, and some fear is entertained that part of her passengers embarked on Tuesday. This, however, is hardly likely to have been the case, and embarkation yesterday was impossible.The storm still rages with unabated violence; and the probability is that at daylight not a vestige of the Athens will be left above water.

We have since learned that the steamer has entirely broken up, and not one of her crew has come ashore either alive or dead.  The wind continues to blow fiercely.
The remains of the Athens - a portion of her boiler and cylinder - can today be seen between rocks not far from shore, a mute reminder of the disaster of 147 years ago.


 Photos at

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