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169th Birkenhead Commemoration Trip

169th Birkenhead Commemoration Trip

Gansbaai Tourism Bureau

169th Birkenhead Commemoration Trip

The Birkenhead Commemoration is an annual event that takes place in Gansbaai, and other towns around the world, to pay homage to those who lost their lives in the early hours of the 26th of February 1852 when the HMS Birkenhead floundered off the coast of Danger Point near Gansbaai, South Africa.

This 169th commemoration was held on the 25th of February and was attended by various members of the local community, some of whom had been making the pilgrimage to Birkenhead Rock since the inception of the event. 

Those of us who attended met at The Great White House in Kleinbaai and mingled for a while before receiving a thorough briefing as to what to expect on the trip. As all of us were being strapped into comfortable life-jackets, one couldn’t help but feel grateful for this luxury, a life-saving essential not afforded to the unsuspecting passengers who were aboard the ill-fated HMS Birkenhead.

Our boat trip to Danger Point passed quickly and, for me, it was a melancholy one because I had a special connection to this piece of maritime history. In 2003 I had the privilege to dive on the site of the wreck and it was my first time going back since then. While the commemoration proceedings took place, I peered down into the water and wondered what remained of her since I had last been down there 18 years before. A Spanish friend, a dive instructor who owned a popular shark curio shop across from Kleinbaai’s slipway, had received special permission to take a few divers on this once in a lifetime diving opportunity. I had been full of anticipation as I rolled backwards off the rubber-duck and descended into the abyss that day. The water was murky but after passing the thermocline, the ocean floor suddenly reflected crystal-clear visibility and then, there she was… what was left of her. As I swam towards a large anchor sitting solemnly on the white sand, I felt a wave of emotion flow over me. I had dived many wrecks but had never felt such a presence before and still feel it after all these years when I retell the story of my adventure. After exploring as much of the area as possible, my dive buddies and I spent a few minutes digging here-and-there in the hope of finding the legendary lost treasure. Soon, it was time to leave. We reached our guideline and ascended, albeit a shorter than usual safety stop because hanging around in shark territory was not on any of our dive agendas. Climbing back on the boat I noted that my depth gauge read 29 meters and my dive had lasted all of 20 minutes (coincidently the same amount of time it took for the HMS Birkenhead to sink).

Back in the now, I took a few of the pretty proteas offered to me by the Dream Catcher’s crew, looked at the Dangerpoint Lighthouse (completed roughly 40 years after the tragedy occurred) and then back out to sea. I wondered what it must have been like to be sleeping as snug-as-a-bug in your bunks one minute and then, chaos and fighting for your life in the dark, the next. As I tossed the flowers into the Atlantic, I said a silent thank you to the brave selfless men who sacrificed their lives to save every woman and child on board.

 
A special mention and word of thanks to:

• Glenda Kitley of Gansbaai Tourism for inviting me
• The Great White House for the warm welcome
• Skipper Hennie Otto and his crew (Dream Catcher) for getting us there-and-back safely
• The Bryde’s whales that kept us company along the way
• Marine Dynamics, Dyer Island Cruises and White Shark Projects for making the boat trips possible

For more information about the history of the HMS Birkenhead and what transpired when she sank, read: The Story of the HMS Birkenhead.

169th Birkenhead Commemoration Trip

Jenny Danford

Gansbaai has become globally known as the ultimate up-close-and-personal eco adventure destination in the Western Cape. Voted by travellers as one of the top tourism bureaus in Southern Africa, Gansbaai Tourism Bureau invites you to visit their offices in Gansbaai where you will experience genuine s...

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