The Knysna Heads: our gateway to paradise

The Heads Knysna, sail through The Heads, Springtide Sailing Charters, knysna sailing

Yacht Outeniqua approaches The Heads from the Indian Ocean.

The Knysna Heads rate top among the list of things that make sailing in Knysna unique. Right up there with the huge number of whales and dolphins we regularly see after we’ve sailed through them…


At first – when the first farmers and timber merchants settled in Knysna in the early 1800s – almost everyone thought The Heads were impassable. Which isn’t surprising since the first ship that went on record as trying to sail through them got herself well and truly wrecked.


This was the Emu, back in 1817: her master thought the navigable channel ran through The Heads on the eastern side of the mouth – but it doesn’t, and now the submerged rock that wrecked his command is called (with for it!): ‘Emu Rock.’


Knysna Harbour

Two months later, the navy sent HMS Podargus up from Cape Town to conduct salvage operations on the Emu. And – the lesson having been learned – her master chose a course close to the Western Head, so the Podargus became the first ship to safely enter the Knysna River Mouth.


And the colonial government promptly declared it a port. As you do.


Actually, George Rex had been agitating to establish a harbour here from as early as 1804, when he bought the farm Melkhoutkral on the eastern shore of the Estuary (it included the land from about today’s Industrial Area across to The Heads).


He’d seen the commercial potential in the enormous forests of the area, and he wanted an easy way to export his timber. But we’ll draw the curtain on this unfortunate story since, as Wikipedia tells us, ol’ George “had 33 slaves there in 1805,” and had “licence for 400 woodcutters in 1811.” (Far as we can tell, there was very little difference between a slave and a woodcutter.)


The Knysna River Estuary: vital statistics

Some people still call the Knysna River Estuary the Knysna Lagoon -but, since the mouth is permanently open to the sea (and a lagoon’s is sometimes closed by a sand bar), an Estuary it is.

  • The Estuary covers 1,633 hectares, and stretches from The Heads to just downstream of the rapids at Charlesford, near Phantom Pass.
  • The navigable channel’s about 19 km long, and it’s about 2 km at its widest.
  • The first 5 km (measured from the Heads) are navigable for deep-keel yachts and small ships. Boats with shallow draughts can navigate for about 14 km above the railway bridge.
  • The average depth of the channels ranges from 1.2 to 1.5 metres below mean sea level. The deepest part of the Estuary drops to about 16 metres below sea level.
  • The tides reach about 17 km upstream from The Heads, and it takes about two hours for the them to reach Old Drift, near Charelsford.


The Knysna Heads: vital statistics

  • The river mouth is about 230 metres wide.
  • The tidal rise and fall at spring tide is about 1.8 metres.
  • The average flow at the mouth is 1,000 cubic metres of water per second, with a maximum flow of 2,000 m3/s – which means that the current in The Heads runs at speeds of up to 1.27 metres per second.


Knysna didn’t ever make it into the big time as harbours go (and we’re grateful for that – imagine!). Fewer and fewer ships came through The Heads after the railway line was pushed through in 1928 – there was no longer any need, really – and in 1954 the Government closed the harbour altogether.


As far as we can tell, no large ships came through for exactly 30 years – until the South African Navy paid a courtesy call on the Knysna Oyster Festival in 1984. (And they’ve been back almost every year ever since.)


The harbour, though, did leave us with one important legacy that’s vital to sailing: the beacons on the Eastern Head (with its white 3-second light), and on Leisure Island (with its red light) – which today’s skippers use to navigate safely out to sea.


And home again, of course.


Explore The Heads on a Knysna Heads Adventure with our sister company, Ocean Odyssey


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