Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Last Sailing Vessels

The last hurrah of the sailing ship was the Anglo Boer War. Large numbers of sailing ships laid up in their home ports, were spending their dotage in quiet contemplation of their imminent and final demise in a wrecking yard, or if they were lucky, as a tour ship or museum exhibit. 

Instead these superannuated vessels were drafted back into service to transport troops and supplies of the British Empire to the Cape. In a strategically inept move, the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had displayed their temerity in invading the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape. 

Main picture:  The last sailing ship to be wrecked along the South African coast, the Colonial Empire came ashore at Cape Recife in 1917

Age of sail

From the dawn of time, man had utilised sails in numerous shapes and forms to power their seaborne vessels. The advent of the first successful steam-powered vessels were built in the early 1800s for use on canals and rivers. On early steamships, the steam engine turned paddle-wheels that propelled the ship forward, but by the 1850s, most ships were instead using propellers, which were first fitted to a steamship in 1839.

Sail might have been more romantic, but it was captive of the vagaries of the weather. Steam powered ships were reliable and speedy. No more would the south-easter winds in Algoa Bay drive ships onto North End beach like they done to the sailing vessels during the great storm in 1902.

1902 Gale with wrecked sailing ships on the North End beach

After the two and half year-old war was concluded at the Peace of Vereeniging in May 1902, far fewer sailing vessels were required as the more reliable and faster coal-fired steamers could cope with the load. The number of sailing ships dropping anchor in the Bay declined precipitously, although they would continue to call for some years to come. Sailing ships were now put out to pasture like old race horses no longer able to muster a winning speed.


A windjammer is a collective name for a general class of large sailing ship built to carry bulk cargo for long distances in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Windjammers were the largest of merchant sailing ships, with three to five tall masts and square sails, giving them a characteristic profile. They usually carried lumber, guano, grain or ore from one continent to another, typically following the prevailing winds and circumnavigating the globe during their voyages. Several survive, variously operating as school shipsmuseum shipsrestaurant ships, and cruise ships. Due to rising fuel costs and environmental concerns, there has been consideration of constructing modern cargo ships utilizing wind energy in various ways.

Four-masted barque Herzogin Cecilie, an archetypal windjammer

One of the last of its era, the fifteen-year-old Colonial Empire of the shipping line Demean’s Empire, was headed for Delagoa Bay via Port Elizabeth from New York. Unmistakeably a windjammer, she was typical for her class possessing four masts with square sails with a crew including her Captain, James Anthony Sanders, numbering twenty-seven. In her holds was a cargo consisting of tinned case oil, petrol and paraffin for the Anglo-American Oil Co (Vacuum Oil), which at the time had its South African headquarters in Port Elizabeth.

The sailors were supposed to awake on the morning of Thursday 27th September 1917, elated that they would be setting foot on dry land later that day. Just after dawn, their wishes were shattered when the steel-hulled barque struck the south-western end of Thunderbolt Reef. According to Chief Officer William Findley, who signed the ship’s logbook, she “struck a submerged reef” about a mile west of the lighthouse, slid into deeper water and began to settle. With a light westerly wind blowing at the time, 5 ½ metres of water already in her holds and the sails still set, Sanders’ stratagem was to attempt to run her into the Bay and beach her. He managed to sail her around the Cape but just north of the lighthouse, was compelled to run her onto a submerged reef some distance offshore. With great speed and urgency, the crew clambered into the life boats without their possessions and pushed off from the sinking vessel.

Cape Recife from the air

Meanwhile, cruising in the Bay was the Talana, an anchor/tender boat owned by Messrs. Messina Bros, Cole & Searle. Her name was derived from Zulu for a little, shelf-like hill near Glencoe, Natal. The Talana was to end her days as a trawler for a Durban-based fishing company having been sold to them in 1931. Having witnessed this calamity, the Talana rushed to assist the floundering vessel and its crew. With the survivors safely on board, volunteers were requested to return to the ship to retrieve their personal possessions. Not only did they retrieve their belongings, but they also rescued one of the two cats on board and several chickens. The cat was later reported to have adopted the Talana as its new home.

The Ulundi II, Itala and the Talana coming alongside the North Jetty

Flotsam and jetsam

With the passage of time, literally thousands of tins of Laurel Paraffin and Pegasus Motor Oil and petrol, began to float free and drift ashore. Being wartime, paraffin and other oils were in great demand locally. A large team of labourers was drafted to salvage as many of the undamaged tins as possible. They were carried, balanced on the men’s heads, overland through the surrounding Driftsands Forest Reserve to waiting wagons. The path cut through the undergrowth soon became known as the “Paraffin Trail,” parts of which can still be dimly discerned from the air.

At the ensuing Board of Enquiry, Captain Sanders was found guilty of poor navigation and seamanship. As a punishment his certificate was suspended for three months but in light of his “long and incident free service spanning some 38 years”, he was granted a first officer’s ticket for the period of his suspension. To prevent the exposed hulk from becoming a danger to other shipping, the Colonial Empire was blown apart.

It was the lighthouse keeper at Cape Recife, Charles Hansen, who had front row seats to this unintended spectacle. Being only one month away from official retirement, he could count on at least this one story to relate to his grandchildren.

Hansen had also witnessed another historical event: the last sinking of a sailing vessel anywhere along the South African littoral.


Algoa Bay in the Age of Sail 1488-1917 by Colin Urquhart (2007, Bluecliff Publishing, Port Elizabeth)


  1. Dear Receiver,
    I would be appreciated if I could get some info or advice whom I should contact about barque Liitto.
    To my knowledge barque Liitto had a major accident in the area of Port Elizabeth in the beginning of 1900 century and served thereafter as floating Café in Port Elizabeth.
    Any kind of info available would be highly appreciated.
    With best regards
    Jouni Leppänen


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