We had a lovely early morning trip out to sea today to commemorate one of the area’s most notable tales, the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. Although we’re most famous for being the home of the Marine Big 5, Gansbaai and the Greater Dyer Island Eco System is rich in history and as a team, we’re incredibly passionate about sharing our heritage with all who join us.
With this in mind, both Slashfin and Dream Catcher set out at around 8 am from Kleinbaai harbour with the intention of taking us back in time to 1852. The HMS Birkenhead was a troop ship traveling from Simon’s Town to the Eastern Cape where a war was waging against the area’s local people. It is estimated that the ship was carrying over 500 passengers when it left Cape Town and set sail towards the East. As the story goes, the Captain wanted to reach his destination with haste so it was decided that they would hug the coast, moving along the rugged bays of the Western Cape. This decision turned out to be a fatal one, with the ship striking an uncharted rock in the early hours of the morning on the 26th of February 1852. The rock, now known as Birkenhead Rock, sits only metres below the surface of the ocean and during the day, one can often see a wave break directly overhead.
When all hope was lost in recovering the ship, the men were instructed to stand back, allowing the women and children on board to make their way onto the life rafts. It is believed that over 400 men lost their lives that day, with all the women and children making their way to safety. This iconic shipwreck is most famous for this very reason, having been one of the first ever ships to implement the “Women and children first rule” out at sea, leaving a legacy that is now practiced internationally.
The memorial of the Birkenhead has become a very important celebration for our community, as we see it as a day to honour not only those brave soldiers who lost their lives but all those who are willing to sacrifice of themselves for others. As per tradition, four boats made the voyage out today towards Birkenhead Rock, stopping just above the site of the wreck. Once we had all arrived, we were lead in prayer by a reverend which was then followed by the sombre tone of a trumpet. After this emotional tribute was made, the wreath laying ceremony started. Kelp wreaths, made with beautiful fynbos flowers are placed into the water by members of the community. Following this, the last order of the day was to release flares as a final tribute to one of South Africa’s largest maritime disasters.
We made our way back to the Great White House after this, where a lovely breakfast was served followed by a very informative talk about all the events surrounding this iconic wreck.