An aerial shot of a ship half buried in the dune sands along the Skeleton Coast

Skeleton Coast: What’s the Story Behind This Ship Graveyard?

With a name like Skeleton Coast, there’s bound to be a grisly back story. This area in southwestern Africa is often described as the most inhospitable place on Earth. Let’s learn more about this intriguing place whose shores are littered with animal bones and scores of wrecked ships.

Does the Skeleton Coast sound like the kind of place you’d want to visit? Lots of people do, but it’s not so easy to get there.

An aerial shot of a ship half buried in the dune sands along the Skeleton Coast

Who Is Sailing Yacht Florence?

An adventurous British couple is among those throwing caution to the wind and visiting the Skeleton Coast. Sailing Yacht Florence is the online identity of Matt and Amy from England. Many people dream of sailing around the world, but these two put their aspirations into action — rather quickly, in fact.

Tour Matt and Amy’s sail vessel, Florence.

They embarked on their journey on short notice in the summer of 2016 after Matt was unexpectedly laid off from his job. First, they headed down the coast of Spain and Portugal before crossing the Atlantic toward the Caribbean Sea.

They explored Australia and parts of Asia over the next couple of years. When COVID hit, they unexpectedly found themselves stranded for a spell in Indonesia because of closed borders.

Their home on the sea is a 37-foot sailboat christened Florence. It’s a fiberglass mono-hull built in 1985. It has solar and enough storage space for weeks of food and fresh water.

After more than six years on the sea and off the grid, they expect to complete their circumnavigation by the end of 2022. Thankfully, they’re chronicling their incredible seagoing adventures with a blog and YouTube channel.

You can find over 800 sailing channels on YouTube. Take some time to catch up with the original sailing life YouTubers.

Where Is the Skeleton Coast?

This nearly thousand-mile coastline, remote and largely barren, forms the western boundary of Namibia on the Atlantic Ocean in southern Africa. The republic, named for the vast Namib Desert, is home to more than 2.5 million people. It is bordered on the north by Angola and Zambia and by Botswana on the east.

The Skeleton Coast itself, in the northwestern part of Namibia, covers over 6,500 square miles and is protected as a national park.

Why Is It Called the Skeleton Coast?

The grim, perhaps even ghastly, name may conjure images of a mass graveyard on the Atlantic shore. There’s some truth in that, but it may not be as gruesome as you think. The name refers to bones left behind from whaling harvests as well as the remains of countless shipwrecks.

Many believe the area’s name comes directly from the title of a book published in 1944. Author John Henry Marsh’s account of a famous shipwreck also delved into other aspects of the area’s past.

Whether it’s entirely accurate or not, you’ve got to admit it’s memorable!

Waves push up agains the wooden remains of the shipwreck of Benguela Eagle along the Skeleton Coast

When Did Sailing Yacht Florence Sail the Skeleton Coast?

For Sailing Yacht Florence, the Skeleton Coast was a recent leg of their worldly adventure. Matt and Amy touched down there during the second week of August, thankfully with their beloved vessel still in one piece.

They knew about the potential dangers beforehand, of course. “The Skeleton Coast has a fearsome reputation as a ship graveyard,” they wrote on their blog. “Shipwrecks and skeletons litter the coast here.”

What Did Sailing Yacht Florence Find Along the Skeleton Coast?

When Matt and Amy arrived, the conditions were calm. They moored Florence safely in a protected bay and puttered toward land in their trusty 9-foot dinghy. Almost immediately, they were greeted by various forms of wildlife.

First, they spied a rock covered with dozens of seals and cormorants and a single penguin. They also saw a flock of flamingos flying overhead, which they captured artfully on video. “They’re beautiful against the backdrop of the desert dunes,” Matt narrates.

They also found several whale skulls and a smaller one that appeared to be from a bottlenose dolphin. The bones of a large shipwreck they came across were so old it had wooden pegs securing some of its planks and timbers.

Matt and Amy also encountered a rusted-out utility trailer, ruins of old factory buildings, a working airstrip, and modern but primitive vacation homes. But perhaps their most remarkable find was the continuous chain of impressive dunes stretching hundreds of miles farther than their eyes could see.

Can You Get to the Skeleton Coast by Car?

As difficult as it can be to arrive here by sea, it’s no easy feat by land either. This location at the edge of the Namibian desert is incredibly remote, any way you look at it.

A gate with a black and white skull and a whale bone towering well over six feet high at the entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park.
Whale Bone at Southern Entrance Gate Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa

The hard-packed gravel roads leading to Skeleton Coast from nearby towns and cities are fairly smooth but often covered in freshly blown sand. “To get here by car requires some serious 4X4 off-road driving through the dunes,” Matt says in the video.

Still, it’s popular with certain intrepid tourists, many of them surfers drawn to the magnificent waves. Popular routes are from the cities of Swakopmund and Windhoek.

An offroad vehicle driving through the barren dunes along the Skeleton Coast in Africa.

What’s So Dangerous About the Skeleton Coast?

On the day Florence sailed in, conditions were probably as favorable as they get. But that’s the exception, not the rule. For centuries, sailors have had to overcome unusual, quickly changing conditions to reach this coastline.

The obstacles include heavy fog and sometimes fierce winds, heavy wave action, and temperatures that can be bitterly cold. Another danger is the desert sands that are constantly shifting, even underwater. It’s standard practice for larger vessels to remain at least six miles offshore “to ensure you don’t run aground on a new or uncharted sandbank,” Matt says.

Modern technology, including weather apps, make a trip to Skeleton Coast less dangerous simply because the conditions are more predictable. That’s how Matt and Amy were confident enough to drop anchor offshore and head inland in their dinghy.

There’s a Reason the Skeleton Coast Is Called ‘The Ends of the Earth’

A trip to the Skeleton Coast isn’t for everybody; you can even say it’s a daring endeavor. After all, this is where many ships — and certainly some of the souls aboard them — have come to a sudden end. The conditions here can be incredibly harsh, which is why it’s sometimes called “the Ends of the Earth.” Years ago, Portuguese sailors reportedly cursed it as “the gates of Hell.”

For those who are brave enough, the payoff is worth the hardships and conditions. For some, setting foot on the Skeleton Coast gives an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and survival.

Up close, it’s not desolate but teeming with wildlife in addition to its somewhat macabre remnants from the past. And those towering dunes, seemingly endless beyond the horizon, give the Skeleton Coast an even greater sense of mystery.

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