In the age of sail, the South-Easter in Algoa Bay could be treacherous, driving vessels onto North End beach. Saturday 18th September 1869 was to be no different. At 2:15 p.m. on this fateful day, the officials at the Algoa Bay Port Office put out the signal “wear cables” for the benefit of shipping lying in the roadstead.
The only unanswered question was whether some or all of these vessels would survive the impending storm. Later during the age of the steamship, riding out a storm was often gut-churning but never fatal. During the age of sail, it was quite another matter.
After suffering a tragic flood in 1867, this gale was to once again test the mettle of the town
Main picture: Ships in Algoa Bay
The barometer had been dropping alarmingly. With few exceptions, a storm of immense proportions was foreseen. By 4 p.m., the Harbour Authorities changed the signal from “wear to a whole cable and prepare for bad weather.” By now, white horses – foam and spray – flew off the wave tops as the gusts battered the waves. For some time now, the set of signals unique to Algoa Bay – known as Marryat’s signal – had been the in use. Presumably, these were form of communication with the vessels at anchor in the Bay. Probably even prior to being notified of the change of status, most ships had already begun to pay out more anchor cable to enable them to ride out the storm more easily.
The Sarah Birch leads the pack
A night of high drama was anticipated as the gale struck in the evening. Except for the foolhardy, warnings seldom went unheeded. The ship’s crews literally battened down the hatches preparing for a night of woe. As if things couldn’t get any worse, before morning the wind velocity had exceeded 100 kph battering the vessels at anchor. It goes without saying that the ship with the chain with the weakest link would be first to part company and bid adieu to their stabilising anchor. At about 10 p.m., the first ship parted ways with its anchor and commenced its final act; a slow drift inshore towards the beach north of the sea-wall. This was the barque, “Sarah Birch.” Her final destination was near the gasworks where she grounded being battered by heavy seas as she lay supine and prostrate.
The Volunteer Artillery Brigade brought down their Manby Apparatus, a rocket-firing mortar, attached to a line. As luck would have it, the wind was so fierce that the rope which was fired across the ship, was instantly blown out of reach. To top it all, one of the members of the lifeboat crew broke his leg whilst launching the lifeboat. In spite of the heavy seas, the lifeboat managed to reach the wreck and save everyone on board.
So far so good. But which ships would still fall foul of the storm?
More follow the Sarah Birch
Much like the Sarah Birch, at 3 a.m. on Sunday 19th September 1869, two further cables snapped under the incessant strain. The barque Forres ran aground to the north and again the crew were rescued; instead of it being by the lifeboat it was by a whaleboat manned by local seamen. The Forres was swiftly followed by the barque, England. In rescue operations it is foolish to make any hard and fast predictions as to the probable success of an action because in this instance the Manby Apparatus proved to be highly effective and the crew were hailed ashore by this lifeline.
The carnage was not yet over. At 7 a.m. the German barque, Major von Safft also ran aground. Again it was the whaleboat which came to the crews’ rescue. Included amongst those rescued was the captain’s wife, a young lass of 20 who had dressed herself in sailor’s clothing. In case the rescuers’ boat capsized, she wound a long towel around her waist so that rescuers would have something with which to grab her.
The Meg Merrilies
Lying out in the bay at that time was an old ship, the Meg Merrilies, which had been condemned as unseaworthy and was awaiting disposal. It goes without saying that once her anchor had parted company with the ship, it too would follow the well-trodden path to the shore.
Meanwhile by mid-morning the gale had reached 120 kph. Several smaller vessels were also in jeopardy. Two of them, belonging to a local businessman, Mr J.C. Kemsley, the anchor boat, the Mariner’s Pride and the pilot boat, the Annie Eliza, also piled up on the shore. Later on, another anchor boat Sailor’s Friend and several lighters belonging to various boating companies were wound up on the shore.
Worse was to follow
By a grave turn of events, the worst disaster to befall the ships in the Bay occurred at about 8 p.m. that night. The Swedish barque, Sea Snake, which had battled courageously for hours, was at last overwhelmed and driven ashore. In a desperate bid to lighten the ship and to make it less susceptible to the wind, the crew chopped down two of the three masts. Nonetheless soon the mizzen mast went overboard with a crash. Thereafter the ship proceeded to break up in the raging surf. The Manby Apparatus again proved to be ineffectual, and of the seventeen members of the crew on board, only eight reached the shore; one in so exhausted a condition, that he succumbed later in hospital.
As if the loss of ten lives was insufficient, the storm would also claim one of the rescuers, a twenty-year old William Leslie, son of the well-known P.E. Chemist, John Leslie. Apparently, William was struck by a piece of wreckage and was last seen drifting away, unconscious in the surf. His body was later recovered and borne to its grave by surviving members of the crew of the Sea Snake as a mark of honour.
Against this backdrop of destruction, the carnage still continued as the wind did not abate. At 11 a.m. the French barque Jeanne joined its former fleet members to a dejected party on the beach, selecting the Major von Safft as its partner for the duration of the storm. Fortunately a lifeline was got aboard and the crew rescued. At about the same time, the brigantine Flash, belonging to Matthew Kemp of Port Elizabeth, also joined the party at the shore.
Meanwhile, a lonely man, John Taylor, left aboard the port’s only steam tug, the St Croix, fearing that the little vessel would be swamped, deliberately ran her ashore in the hope that it could be refloated. Hope springs eternal, but it was not to be the case.
Even at this late stage in the storm, the toll was not yet complete. The barque Fingoe parted ways with her cable and followed the well-worn path to the shore. Another small vessel, Argali, belonging to J.H. Clark of P.E. was added to the list, while the captains of the Duke of Buccleuch and the Swedish brig, Gustav, also deliberately beached their ships as carefully as possible in the hope of having them refloated.
By the time that the storm abated, only two ships had survived Nature’s cantankerous mood by successfully riding out the storm, the barque Cape City and the fully-rigged ship, the Turkish Empire. Even though the heavy seas often broke right over them, and in the case of the Turkish Empire, two crew members were washed overboard, both vessels miraculously escaped harm.
On shore, the ill-effects of the storm were also felt across the Town. Tiles and roofs were blown off and verandahs blown down. For others, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to make money. The well-known photographer, J.E. Bruton, took his camera at the height of the storm in order to capture vividly the scenes of destruction on the North End beach. Auctioneers also made a killing. The foreshore was a hive of activity for the succeeding few days as everything possible was salvaged, and cargoes and hulks were auctioned off. This was a testament to the entrepreneurial nature of the hardy Settler folk of Port Elizabeth.
Effect on the harbour
Ironically the effects of this storm were not only negative. In a matter of hours, what the Harbour Board hoped to achieve in months, was achieved.
Per Jon Inggs: “The works , which were but lately enclosed within a bank of sand, now stand out in deep water,
through the washing away of the bank by the waves and current during the storm. A few days only, the sand at low water was nearly dry all around the shield – now there is from 15 to 20 feet of water instead. It is unfortunate that the opening now being made in the breakwater had not been completed, but if it had, there cannot be a doubt that the whole of the inner harbour would have been thoroughly scoured out”.
The Bay had been lashed by winds up to 121 kilometres per hour. As a consequence, 12 vessels had been wrecked, 11 lives lost and damages estimated at £ 120,000 had been sustained. Port Elizabeth might had been severely bruised, but it was not beaten.
Looking Back, Vol XI No 3 (September 1969), pages 90 – 91, ‘Centenary of a Disaster’
Thesis of Jon Inggs, “Liverpool of the Cape: Port Elizabeth Harbour Development 1820-70“, MA thesis, Rhodes University, 1986
Per Jon Inggs: “The works , which were but lately enclosed within a bank of sand, now stand out in deep water, through the washing away of the bank by the waves and current