Three Ships

I don’t think our fascination with shipwrecks will ever end. Shipwreck tales with promise of riches and fame have been passed down from generation to generation. These tales sometimes come true for the Treasure Hunter that has enough passion, time and funds to pursue such myths.
We often forget about the incredible hardships these survivors had to endure once they survived the shipwreck. Can you imagine being tossed from your bunk in the middle of the night by a thundering crash followed by gushing water and chaos? I don’t think we give enough thought to these poor soles. Having survived the initial impact of your ship hitting a hidden reef in the black of night you still needed to find your way above deck and make a swim for it with only the clothes on your back in angry seas.
I was very fortunate to be the son of a Lighthouse keeper. Growing up and moving from station to station, never in one location for more than 5 years. We lived all along our beautiful coast from Walvis Bay to Cape St Lucia. Shipwrecks were in our blood. Every post along our coastline had new tales of shipwrecks. Being a youngster this never really takes preference in ones interests. With ought shipwrecks my dad would never have had a job, ironic.
If you as a you as a shipwreck survivor made it to shore the reality of the situation would have set in. Black of night, screaming passengers and unfamiliar territory would have been the order of the day. Being in this situation on foreign soil must have been a nightmare to say the least. As dawn broke you would have been confronted with an unreal reality of a your broken ship on a reef not far off shore, bodies and debris on the beach and crushed dreams of safe passage. Everything is lost. It always amazes me how these survivors actually made it back to civilisation, sometimes walking for many months and coping with the dangers of being marooned with very little to survive on. Many of survivors fell prey to wild animals, hostile locals, disease and starvation. But a select few often made it to tell the story and a shipwreck tale is born.
There are three wrecks in the Port Elizabeth area that I have been fascinated with for many years. As it turns out, my dad, Senior Light keeper Henry Clapton (ret) became friends with salvor and shipwreck hunter David Allen. Dave and his partner Gerry van Niekerk discovered the world famous Doddington and Sacramento wrecks in the early 80’s. He also helped in saving a large chunk of the Amsterdam for preservation.
The Doddington and Sacramento had been researched intensely by the salvors over a period of many years. Each wreck held its location secret for good reason. The treasure was vast. The Doddington was discovered off Bird Island yielding tons of copper, massive bronze guns and much silver in the form of Pillar Dollars. Dave took my dad to the site many times and they dived the wreck together. I remember my dad telling me how the mother lode was scattered all over the sea floor. I can imagine how the ship was ripped open that fateful night and her cargo was just dropped right there not to be touched for hundreds of years.
While working on the Doddington the divers were often visited by a large Great White shark (Alfred) who eventually became over friendly and had to be “thumped”. I remember we were all invited to Dave’s house in Seaview for a celebratory fish braai after the wreck had been salvaged. We watched a video they made of the historic salvage and there was Alfred. It was only after everyone had eaten did Dave announce that the tasty fish on the braai that day was actually Alfred steak!
Dave’s house always fascinated me. It was like a real museum with Bronze cannon scattered all over the front lawn. Inside was just as amazing with 300 year old olive oil bottles (full still) on his mantle, silver coins and priceless artefacts everywhere. A treasure hunters dream come true. The whole story of the Doddington and its salvage can be read in a book called “Clive’s Lost Treasure”
In 1993 I asked my dad if he ever got any coins or artefacts from the Doddington. His answer was no. By that time I was bitten by the Treasure Hunting bug and I desperately wanted something as a memento from this wreck. Dave had passed away by that time and his farther Commander Geoffrey Allen was still residing in Port Elizabeth. I spoke with old man Allen about my intentions and offer to purchase anything he could spare me from the wreck. He invited me to his house in Walmer for tea to discuss this. On arrival and being overwhelmed with shipwreck items everywhere he disappeared into his room only to exit with a copy of the book mentioned above. He wrote in it and gave it to me. He then reached into his pocket and gave me two silver Pillar Dollars. I was overwhelmed with joy and he wanted nothing in return. The house and Mr Allen are long gone and I always have fond memories when I drive past the properly today which is now a commercial development.
The Sacramento was famous for its massive Bronze cannon. Dave knew the location of the wreck but could not find the cannon. These were missing. After much time spent diving the site the cannon were finally located and once again my dad and Dave dived the site. On one occasion, while getting their gear ready, Dave told my dad to look overboard at the sea floor. The water was clear and my dad said he could not believe what he was looking at. The canons were lying like match ticks all over the sea bed. It was a memorable dive I was told. One of the cannons was dubbed the “Miracle Canon” due to its perfect condition. This cannon was spared from the ever moving sand and its abrasive action as it was lying on top of other cannons.
The Sacramento was unknowingly discovered many years before Dave actually salvaged the wreck by a local farmer in the area who found the ships anchors (1951) on the rocks near to the site. These anchors were a clear indication of a wreck and the rust marks can still be seen on the rocks to this day. Pieces of these anchors are still wedged into the rocks near the site. I have been to the site on a few occasions and looked over the water trying to imagine this tragedy.
The iron cannon of Sacramento still lye beneath the waves today and can be dived on. They were never removed due to the oxidisation process that would destroy them the minute they leave the sea. The whole account of this amazing salvage is documented in the book “The Guns of Sacramento”.
Being an avid beach Treasure Hunter I often comes across shipwreck items in the sand. The HMNS Amsterdam is one such wreck. I still find pieces of this wreck when I hunt the Bluewater Bay beaches. Large and small chunks of hull brass litter the beaches in that area. I have a bag full of this hull brass as well as a beautiful ships nail still enclosed by a piece of wood from the wreck. The Amsterdam Hoek area gets its namesake from this shipwreck.
In 1817 this Man O’ War was beached intentionally on our shore, only to break up in a few days and never to be seen again. The ship was already in a bad state when it entered South African waters. She was battered and broken from storms. When she started taking on water it was the beginning of the end for her. The pumps failed to cope with the water as one of her cargos; coffee was clogging them at an alarming rate. Her 80 bronze cannons and all her cargo were jettisoned between Cape St Francs and PE to lighten the ship. Only three of the sailors lost their lives by drowning while swimming ashore. They were buried in the dunes at Amsterdam Hoek and their remains are still there to this day.
In 1985 after a violent storm exposed a chunk of the ship’s hull complete with ribs and other Teak. Dave Allen and many helpers tried to build a trench around the piece to stop it from being swallowed up by the next rising tide. The piece was successfully salvaged. That was the last time she was seen. In 2014 another discovery was made by locals in the area. Her 5m long rudder popped out of the sand one day, complete with all its brass and bronze fittings. It was quickly moved to higher ground and buried deep in the sand for a future recovery team to extract. The location is secret and only known by a select few for obvious reasons.
All of the above shipwrecks have dedicated displays in the PE museum including the ‘Miracle Cannon’ from Sacramento, silver Pillar Dollars from Doddington and the huge teak chunk from Amsterdam.
Our coastline is littered with such wrecks and we drive past these sites every day not even knowing what took place there hundreds of years ago. Shipwrecks are a crucial part of our history and will always light a spark with treasure in mind.
By Henry Clapton
23 Aug 2015

November 19th, 2015

Posted In: Shipwreck Articles