Named by Bartholomeu Dias in 1488, Danger Point (so called because of the rocky seas known to steer ships off course and onto a path of peril) is home to one of South Africa’s most historical lighthouses. 1895, it was decided that this area of Gansbaai’s coastline was to have a lighthouse, placed there to guide ships safely to their destinations. These days, Gansbaai is a world famous great white shark cage diving destination, but the lighthouse still stands as tall and as proud as it did all those centuries ago.
A far cry from the cage diving Gansbaai paradise that it is now, more than 140 ships were wrecked in Gansbaai’s waters before the lighthouse was built. Most famously, the HMS Birkenhead met its tragic end just off the coast in 1852. This was the first shipwreck in which the term “women and children first” was used, and while all of the women and children were saved from the wreck, most of the men died. The ship was carrying British soldiers and their families, and was one of the very first metal ships commissioned by the Royal Navy.
The Danger Point Lighthouse’s beam gives off three flashes every 40 seconds and expands roughly 25 miles out to sea, alerting ship captains of just how close they are to the deceptive, rocky shoreline. Only since 1937 has the light beam been run off electricity, and prior to that, a paraffin burner was used.
The Birkenhead’s wreck is one of the world’s most famous, with tourists coming from far and wide to have a look at what is left of the ship. It numbers amongst many other shipwrecks near Cape Town’s coastline, with most of these wrecks resulting from Cape Town’s Great Gale of 1865. May of that year saw some of the strongest Cape wind in recorded history, and as many as ten ships were unable to steer or hold anchor, resulting in the loss of every ship on the water that day.
As morbid as shipwrecks may be, they form a vital part of history, and of the way in which shipping has progressed by learning from these mistakes. The HMS Birkenhead forms an integral part of boating history, as the famous Danger Point Lighthouse was built as a beacon of hope to other ships, and has saved many of them from meeting the same tragic end.