By Patrick Voorma PADI TecRec IT and Course Director
Scrolling through your bouquet of TV channels you are sure to find a program on wrecks and treasure hunting. What you are usually seeing is the end result of many years of research and planning. However many of these wrecks are in far flung exotic destinations beyond the reach of most divers. Imagine now that this possibility was within your reach.
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
The very first recorded shipwreck off Durban was the Good Hope. She ran aground off The Bluff in 1685. Two years later the surviving crew and passengers had built a new ship which they named the Cuvier and they sailed to Cape Town. Not everyone has been so lucky. There are a total of 141 recorded ship wrecks off Durban.
My very first wreck dive off Durban was on Coopers Light House Wreck at 30 meters in 2005. The Dive master then told us that no one knew the origins or history of the wreck and this is still the case today. This then got me wondering about other possible wrecks off Durban. The first deep Wreck I dived was the Ben Quorum at 70 meters beneath the surface. She lies upright on the sand and has two massive boilers. She is named the Ben Quorum as there is a block of flats on Durban’s North Beach with this name which the fishermen used as one of the landmarks when locating her.
On this first dive to her we had dropped some distance from the wreck and after about 10 minutes of drifting with the current we swam into the side of the wreck. It was an amazing feeling to look up at her towering above us from the sand. This is the wreck that inspired me to begin searching for more wrecks.
The very first wreck I discovered was the Namaqua or Umzimvubu as she had been previously named. I had been searching for reefs to dive in the 50m depth range off Durban. We had just discovered a new bit of reef which we now dive regularly and were sitting on the boat after the dive, struggling to unwrap our suckers (Who is in charge of wrapping suckers and why do they make them so difficult to unwrap?). As the boat was drifting in the current and we were excitedly talking about the new reef, I glanced at the Fish finder and saw that it was registering fish and the depth had just changed from 60m to 54m. The profile looked exactly like a wreck. What a stroke of luck. I immediately marked the spot, drove over the area a couple of times and was convinced that what lay beneath was indeed a wreck. I got back to the dive centre and got to work filling cylinders for a 60m dive. The next morning was perfect for diving. We headed off to the GPS marks, located the wreck on the sounder and dropped an anchor over the side. A few moments later we got the reassuring tug on the rope confirming that the anchor had been set. I got kitted up and backward rolled. My plan was for 30 minutes at 60m which gave me a total dive time of 91 minutes. I had Bradley Wright as a support diver meeting me at 40 meters.
The descent started well and the first 30 meters was crystal clear, turquoise blue water. As I passed 35 meters it was as if someone had switched off the lights. The visibility went from over 20 meters to less than half a meter. At this stage the anchor rope becomes very comforting, your link to the surface in a dark, gloomy space. I landed on my knees next to the anchor and looked ahead into the darkness and saw nothing. Oh no, how could I have missed the wreck. I was so certain that we had it hooked.
As I started to turn around my fins bumped into something. I looked behind me and less than a few centimetres from me was the wreck. The visibility was so bad that I had dropped into the space between the anchor line and the wreck and had not even seen the wreck as I came down next to it. Needless to say the next 30 minutes were spent exploring what I could see in the dim glow of my video light. It’s an amazing feeling to have discovered a wreck that had last been seen many years previously.
The date was 5th October 2012. The bug had now bitten.
Once back at the dive centre we reviewed the footage, identified some key features on the wreck and went about trying to identify her. Only several dives and many months later were we able to positively identify her as the Namaqua thanks to some photos provided by Stuart Donkin of her sinking on Saturday 12 November 1932.
She spent most of her life as a coaster. Owned by Sir Charles George Smith of Natal who named her Umzimvubu, she was initially used to transport sugar cane. Based in Durban, she carried freight and passengers between Durban, Port Shepstone, Port St. Johns and East London.
Commanded by the Government during the South African War, she carried mail from Durban to East London and Port Elizabeth. After Sir Winston Churchill, who had been taken prisoner by the Boers near Chieverly, Natal, managed to escape, he sailed from Durban to East London aboard the coaster. He wrote, “My trip on the Umzimvubu to East London, was the worst that I have ever experienced, as the beastly little boat rolled and pitched at the same time.”
The vessel was also involved in a salvage attempt to recover the treasure of the Grosvenor and for a while diver, George Folley, and two Pondo assistants lived onboard. Purchased by a Port St. Johns shipping company, she repaid her purchase price in less than 5 years. When Rinderpest swept through the Eastern Cape and Transkei, killing all the cattle, the vessel carried the hides and skins to market. After she ran aground on 28 October 1917 at the mouth of the Umgeni River during a storm, all her crew were landed with the basket apparatus and she was refloated.
In 1920, with 107 pigs, she was refused entry to Durban Harbour because of the high seas. As she headed out to sea she once again grounded near the mouth of the Umgeni River. Her cargo was salvaged by a butcher. The vessel was refloated and sold. Renamed the Namaqua, she was placed on the Cape Town – Port Nolloth run. In March 1931, she began work as the only catch boat for Ocean Industries, a shark fishing company located on Durban’s Bluff. In the first 10 months of operation, she caught and processed 6 681 sharks.
Part Two – coming soon…