Michael K Phillips
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. " Pablo Picasso.
The Cold Benguela
Joseph Conrad inspired me as a youngster with such tales of seafaring misfortune as “Lord Jim” turning the prospect of failure in life into hope and courage by the circumstance and events that arrive at our feet, without warning and when we least expect them.
However, it soon became apparent that fictitious heros of the sea were a lot less interesting than the real ones. Enter one Wolraad Woltermade. In the year 1773, the Cape of Good hope was called “Die Kaap van Goedehoop”. It was under the control of the Dutch East India Company and it supplied Dutch merchantmen and warships with food and fresh water on their long and arduous journey around the Cape to India and Batavia.
One stormy night, Wolraad was riding his horse along a remote stretch of coastline where the Salt River enters Table Bay. He did this often in all weathers. No doubt he enjoyed the wild sea and spray from the waves crashing on the shoreline. The scudding dark clouds and the grey outline of Devil’s Peak in the distance have a special beauty in stormy weather and especially in the Winter, when the “Cape Doctor” blows in from the south West.
What he would not have been aware of was that just around the headland, a scene was unfolding depicting the worst excesses of the raging sea and the swirling currents over hidden reefs. The “De Jonge Thomas”, a Dutch merchant man, had broken its mooring, drifted across the bay and come to grief on a hidden reef. Within moments the heavy surf began to pound the wooden structure of the boat as water penetrated the deepest recesses of the hull, sending women, children, sailors and soldiers to the deck to seek rescue.
The land was tangibly close. People clustering on deck could see the shore line but the haze of spray off the boiling water against the falling dusk, obscured the barrier to their survival. In places, the continental shelf drops dramatically and the effects of ‘backwash’, huge quantities of water being sucked under the waves back out to sea and the depths, ensured that initial hopes of reaching the shore were quickly dashed as victims found themselves being pushed ever further from the beach. The huge effort to swim towards the shore was rewarded with exhaustion and thus it was that the entire ship, its contents, crew and compliment of passengers was doomed to extinction.
This was the scene that confronted Wolraad as he cantered around the headland. What went through his mind as he saw the tiny specks of gesticulating bodies rising and falling in the raging swell, it is not possible to say. He must have been confronted by the futility of trying to help…one man and his horse against the full power of nature! He could simply have carried on his way and have left the scene to recede into the night.
Wolraad had rescued a few cattle in his time. He was a milk farmer and close to his land and undoubtedly close to God. Could he by-pass the scene in front of him? Should he return to the safety of his home, family and possessions and leave the folk on the ship to perish as they surely must?
History tells us that Wolraad and his horse charged through the surf out to sea no less than 7 times. He is credited with rescuing seven people who clung to the horse’s side and tail as it surged towards the shore. He and the horse rested from their extreme exhaustion and then, seeing the vessels rock and surge in a renewed onslaught by the sea, Wolraad urged the horse back into the water.
Six men jumped overboard and grabbed the horse and the combined weight, being too much, dragged the rescuers and rescued to the depths below. Wolraad and the horse were no more.
This story of self-sacrifice is also one of those stories that illustrate what people can do when confronted by situations where they need to make instant decisions. It also illustrates how people and Wolraad in particular put the interests of others before their safety and well being. He is remembered by the story, statues and masterpieces of the art world.
The story has since featured many times in assemblies and story sessions throughout my life, but its significance has particular relevance because of an experience I had in 1966 when I witnessed a shipwreck at first hand.
If empathy is the vehicle by which we can truly understand the feelings and motivations of others both past and present, then shared experience is a powerful contributor to our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other sufferers.
Fixed in my mind are the words of a Jewish philosopher who said that the route of all evil is the inability on the part of a person to have empathy ....to feel what others are feeling.
The Wreck of the SA Seafarer
In the mid nineteen sixties, when I was just in excess of 10 years of age, my family moved to Bantry Bay in Seapoint below Lion’s head. The house looked directly onto the beach and I exploited the rock formations to role-play knights of old on my hobby horse and wooden sword. These were days before play station and Ipads.
Unlike Wolraad’s steed, mine was made with a broom with a sock stretched over the broom head. Two buttons sewn strategically provided the eyes. One stormy night I was summoned indoors by my mother as dusk began to fall. The wind was up to gale force and the sea was whipped into a frenzy close to the shore while 5 meter waves curled into the reef line some 1000 meters out to sea. The thunder of surf and the noise of the wind almost blocked out the fog horn at the Moullie Point light house.
In the warmth of the house, the smell of cooking and the commands to wash hands and take a seat at the dinner table concentrated my mind only long enough to be deflected from that task by my father’s request to switch on the radio. We had FM but no TV as this would take another 10 years to appear in South African homes. The news was that kind of news that strikes home like a bolt of lightening.
“Reports are coming in that a ship has gone ashore at Moullie Point in Seapoint. Witnesses report that the ship has broken in two and passengers and crew can be seen lining the upper decks.
Air force helicopters are reportedly on their way to the scene although wind conditions are so severe it is not clear if they can be of use in the rescue of the unfortunate people on the ship.”
From Bantry Bay, it was not possible to see Moullie Point but the sound and light of the lighthouse was ever present in bad weather. The knowledge that just around the rocks at the end of the bay, a scene of devastation was unfolding, was too much to keep myself and my brothers indoors, even with dinner beckoning. Within minutes four figures dressed to combat the effects of a gale force wind were making their way towards the rocks across the beach at Bantry Bay. We were not alone.
A long line of people, bent into the wind, were making their way towards the rocks in keen anticipation of witnessing the events so vividly detailed in the news bulletin. The hues of grey from almost black to light grey were interspersed by flashes of sheet lightening that revealed a wild scene betwixt sky and sea and a glance backwards towards Lion’s Head revealed the mountain shrouded in dense cloud. It was difficult given this scene, to dismiss those primeval fears of the devastating presence of Adamastor, for while I had an almost macabre interest of what might be revealed as we climbed over the rocks at the end of the bay, I was also comforted by the presence of my father to guard against those menaces whose presence raised the hair on the back of my neck.
On rounding the rock, all fear was lost as in front of me lay the full panorama of catastrophe in heightened definition and full, earth shattering surround sound!
There before my eyes was the stern of a great cargo ship shrouded by plumes of spray as the mighty waves crashed against its side forcing it to roll from side to side as if it were but a toy being flicked by an invisible child’s hand. The bow section of the ship was not rolling in unison indicating that it was no longer attached to the rest of the vessel.
As we got closer, the ship became more of a living thing. We could see people on the lifeboat deck clinging to rails and looking towards the growing crowds on the shoreline. The lifeboats were useless in these conditions and any attempt to lower them would see them smashed against the rolling sides of the ship or in the boiling surf and rocks below.
An attempt was being made to fire a line from the shore onto the ship but even to an immature eye like mine, it was clear that no person would survive a ride by “boson’s chair” between the rocking ship and the shore. Nothing short of a miracle could save these people was the conviction of those who looked on in horror and helplessness.
Barely audible above the howling wind an unfamiliar noise penetrated through to the spectating throng, now leaning over railings against the spray and the wind. At first an imperceptible beating noise, like rhythmic Zulu drums in the distance. Then came the unmistakable throbbing on the eardrums as the shock waves from high speed blades cutting the turbulent air. Helicopters of the South African air force arrived, bobbing and weaving against the wind. It was said later that they should not have really been there. Conditions were not suitable for helicopter flight and safe recovery but here was a situation where these two seemingly tiny craft with their crews, were the only hope left.
The crews were not forced to be there by command. They new the perils and were there none the less. Throughout that fierce and violent night, they plied to and fro from and to the shore with winch and harness until the passengers and crew were safely out of danger. The pilots and winch men were rightly hailed as heroes but pushed aside such acclaim with the aside that this was just another day at the office.
Such an event, perceived through very young eyes, is never forgotten. Perhaps in passing through a calamity of this nature, even as a spectator, a measure of innocence is lost as one confronts the reality that life is fragile and can be threatened at any moment and in any circumstance.
Today, some 48 years on, tourists visiting Sea Point in the shadow of Lion’s Head, can buy bits of the “SA Seafarer” in antique and curio shops along the coast. She lives on.