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Taken for granted by some, treasured by others, but more importantly an essential navigational aid, the East London Coast is home to two of South Africa’s 45 lighthouses.

With its short white flash every ten seconds, the Hood Point lighthouse has warned Captains of the imminent dangers they face when passing our rocky shores for well over a century. Active since 1885, the light from Hood Point on the Westbank can be seen for approximately 57 kilometres.

Hood Point and her sister lighthouse at Great Fish Point, which was lit for the first time in 1898, have surely saved many a seafarer from a watery grave. The remnants of the many wrecks that lie scattered along our shores bearing testimony to the perils of our surrounding seas, the famous wrecks of the Russian vessel, the SS Orient in 1907 and the Lady Kennaway to name but two.

The Lady Kennaway, built in Calcutta in 1817, undertook many trips to Australia, often carrying convicts, her three tall masts were a regular sight on the East-India route. On what turned out to be her final voyage, she set sail from Portsmouth in September 1857 carrying a precious cargo of 153 Irish servant women. Destined to marry the single men of the Cape Frontier, they disembarked safely on the banks of the Buffalo River on the 23rd of November. The Lady Kennaway anchored a little off-shore but was soon faced with strong winds which proved too much for her anchor ropes. Despite their best efforts, the crew were unable to stop her drifting toward the mouth of the river where she ran aground.

Did the experienced Captain Josiah Ilbery and the crew of the ill fated 9 300 ton Waratah perhaps see Hood Point when she disappeared in July 1909? Her 211 passengers were never to be seen again. Despite modern technology, this remains one of the unsolved mysteries of our coast to this very day.

An hour’s drive from East London and one of the newest of South Africa’s lighthouses, Great Fish Point was commissioned by the Cape Colonial Government in 1890 but only lit in 1898. Now managed by the National Ports Authority, the Lighthouse Service division ensure that passing ships are warned of the three dangerous reefs that run out to sea at the nearby Riet and Stalwart points.

Clad in vertical black and white stripes on alternating faces of its hexagonal design, the Great Fish Point lighthouse has a high daylight visibility. Although the structure itself is only 9m high, it sits atop a high dune, increasing its height to 85 meters. During good conditions, the modern lens and electric lamp are together able to deliver a warning to passing ships at a distance of up to 60km from the shore. Great Fish Point was built after the need for a new lighthouse was identified by the maritime authorities of the time who determined that the fixed lights of the Kowie River Mouth were inadequate.  

Martin Petersen, the lighthouse keeper at Fish River, followed his father’s footsteps and has been with the service for over fourty five years. Seemingly quite content with this quiet and undisturbed environment, he proudly guides visitors through the tower and shows off both the old and the modern machinery. All the lighthouses have been converted from oil lamps to automated electric systems over the years. The museum pieces on display in the tower are indicative of the long history of the lighthouse. Martin has seen it all and has many an interesting story to share.  

The number of wrecks between Hood Point and Gonubie alone are estimated at 150. The lighthouses stand tall and proud in defiance of foul weather and wind, one can but wonder what the tally of wrecks over the years would have been had it not been for these important navigational aids.  

East London lighthouses - Those in peril on the sea - an article by Alan Hawkins