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ARTICLES - The Search for the Haddon Hall

Prelude

The Haddon Hall was a British steel screw steamer of 4,177 tons that wrecked a little north of Danger Bay in 1913. She had been found and worked by the previous generation of Cape Town divers in the 1980s, but had not been dived by anyone for many years since.

Part 1 - The Bombing Run

Sometime in 1998 on a cold and windy winter’s day with nothing but an evil grey stormy swell ridden sea to look at, cottage fever was becoming an imminent danger. TM suggested that we take a drive up Jacob’s Baai and see if we could see any new breaks out at see that would indicate hidden wrecks or reefs. MC and JT thought this a fine idea and off we set.

Approaching Jacob’s Baai it is always impressive to see Jacob’s Reef surrounded by a white plume of spray from the crashing swells. Jacob’s Baai has a small holiday residential community and “harbour” to the north and an old military bombing range to the south. There is a now disused runway, flanked by observation towers to the north and south. The planes used to take off, fly out to sea and return on a bombing run watched by observers in the towers. The coast is riddled with bomb craters about 6ft deep containing metal shards and bomb fragments. We explored all of this with interest and then took a walk along the shoreline. An old rock and surf angler told us of a trawler wrecked nearby and pointed out the spot. The surf was cranking and we spotted several areas with breaks that looked promising. The rest of the afternoon was spent negotiating the coast back to Cape Town by 4x4 track.

Sattelite photo of Jacob's Baai harbour & holiday houses

Sattelite photo of Jacob's Baai bombing range and runway

Part 2 - Tooth Rock & Eskimo Nell

Several months later (in the summer) but still in 1998, we returned to Jacob’s Baai. TM had his 4x4 and JT had brought a 4x4 and a 6m duck powered by 2 x 85hp outboards. We followed the narrow road down to the “harbour” and approached the launch site. The harbour is basically a narrow inlet guarded all round by the jagged fangs of the protruding rocks. There is a small channel which leads directly into the swell line, not exactly a welcoming site. The tide was low, so we launched the boat into the water from the little beach flanking the harbour. We pushed the boat into about 3ft of water and then started the rather arduous task of loading all the dive gear and toys that we had brought along. This accomplished, we had to “pole” the boat into the channel where we had enough water under the keel to drop the motors and fire up. A few minutes had to be spent watching for the timing of the swells and then we were off. After a making it to the backline we stopped and marked the way back on the GPS (the mist comes in quickly in this part of the world), and then set off for our first and most probable site, Tooth Rock.

SA Navy Hydrographic Chart of Jacob's Baai

TM volunteered to do the first search when we arrived, kitted up and disappeared over the side into the murky green water. After twenty minutes he reappeared and reported finding nothing. Whilst he was down MC and JT speculated that since he was spending so much time underwater he must have found something. We were unsure whether to believe him. The next location was The Sisters. Upon arrival MC was elected by due democratic process (we told him) to be the next “fodder” diver. Rather reluctantly he kitted up, rolled backwards into the cold sea and followed by a fat bull seal he vanished below. Not five minutes later he broke the surface, clambered up into the boat and reported a negative result. We drove about a mile out to sea to get out of the swell zone and threw the anchor for lunch. There was a rather lively discussion as to where to try next. We decided to relax for half an hour and TM regaled us with the “Ballad of Eskimo Nell”, a rather disgusting and decidedly hilarious poem, if it could be called such.

We decided to make our way slowly back to Jacob’s Baai, and along the way spotted an interesting looking pinnacle on the echo. Once again MC was elected as the designated victim to make the fodder dive. This time he was even quicker and returned to the boat in a record three minutes. (Years later he admitted to having hidden under the boat for two minutes and then surfacing.) By this time the day was all but done and we followed the GPS track safely back into the harbour. We struggled a bit to get the boat and trailer up the beach as the sand was extremely soft, but eventually an exhausted crew set off for Cape Town.

Part 3 - The Dead Whale

Several years passed and the crew and kit had changed dramatically. MC lived in London and TM no longer dived much locally. Newcomers to the Cape wreck diving experience were GF and AF. Also in the fold was a very experienced local diver, JD. JT had replaced the duck with a 5.25m skiboat kitted for diving.

Once again boredom set in on a miserable winter’s day in 2002 and we decided that exploring was the way to pass a few hours. We now had a secret weapon in the arsenal, the AX2000 Proton Magnetometer, a device for finding ferrous metals on or under the sea bed. We decided to use the mag to search for the wreck. This time it was group consensus to make the easier launch from Langebaan Yacht Club and have the long ride up to Jacob’s Baai by boat. We picked a real winner of a day to be at sea, with big swells, 25kt NW winds and driving rain. The hour and a bit that it took us to get to Tooth Rock felt a lot longer than it actually was. GF was also acting a little strangely, but with the conditions as they were, nobody really noticed too much.

Upon arrival we spotted a dark shape about a mile out to sea. It did not look like a boat and seemed to be moving, so could not be a rock. We decided to take a closer look and turned the boat and headed west. It was a dead southern right whale, floating on the surface with its intestinal gasses bloating its belly into a floatation chamber. JT made the almost fatal error of passing downwind of the whale and the resulting stench was more terrible that anything we had imagined. Full taps and we were on the windward side again! Time to resume the search for the wreck.

Magging is a fairly boring process which basically consists of towing a probe in a grid search pattern known as mowing the lawn. A fair amount of patience is required to drive up and down the same area for hours on end, but this time we were right on the money. Within two passes we picked up traces of wreckage, and within half an hour had the wreck’s location in the bag. The boat ride home was long.

We towed the boat back to JD’s house for washing and were a little worried that GF and his girlfriend did not arrive. Hours later they arrived looking still a bit off colour, and said they had been tired and needed to pull over and have a sleep on the way back. Must have been a good party!

Part 4 - Mondays Rule

Easter weekend 2003 dawned with beautiful weather predicted for the West Coast. GF, AF, JT and partners decided to spent the weekend diving several different wrecks. We started with the Haleric and the St. Lawrence on Friday. Saturday saw us dive the trawler wrecked in St Helena Bay and the Sea Trader. Sunday was the day for the Ismore and the weather continued to look good for Monday. Early on Monday morning we packed up and drove down to Saldahna Bay, launched at the commercial slipway and headed off for a first dive on the Haddon Hall.

The conditions were great, the swell fairly flat and the water clean(ish). JT dived first and recovered a few bits and pieces including a porthole. JD and GF dived second and also had a good dive. The wreck is fairly broken up and lies right in the swell zone. It is incredible to think that a wreck of this size escaped us for so long. We all had a great dive and it was the perfect end to the perfect weekend. The weather had started to deteriorate quite badly by the time we left the site and JD bent his knee backwards after coming down a big swell on the way back.

Part 5 - The Bell Incident

Early in 2004 we decided that the Haddon Hall was overdue for a second visit. It was decided to do a day trip up to Langebaan and to try for one or two dives on the wreck. It was a short run up to Langebaan and the trip to the wreck site was pretty uneventful. On arriving at the wreck site we found it was already occupied. Some local spearos were working the area and clearly knew about the wreck. We kitted up and dropped in together, but once on the bottom the same ocean buddy principle asserted itself and we ended up on opposite sides of the wreck. JT had a fairly long but unsuccessful search for any trinkets and eventually met up with GF near the stern of the wreck. GF had a huge smile on his face and pointed upward indicating that he had sent a bag to the surface. JT swam up, thinking that there must be a porthole or something equally nice tied to the bag, but lo and behold, there was the ship’s bell. Suffice to say that the green eyed monster put in an appearance ever so slightly! There was much celebration on the boat and once of us certainly had the memory of a lifetime. There was no real enthuasiasm for a second dive after that and we started the long trip home.

About two weeks later the “Bell Incident” occurred, but that is a tale for another day…