Close to Dover and not far off the coast, just a few miles in fact, lie the Goodwin Sands. The Romans named it Lomea or Low Island. It's history and folklore go even further back through the mists of time and it has many titles. One thing is certain, this considerable expanse of treacherous, shifting sand has claimed many wrecks throughout the generations that ships and their crews have come to grief here. Much has been written about them, the wrecks and the courageous rescues that have taken place here. This page is intended to be but a taster and further reading of the many superb books available on the subject is thoroughly recommended. Here, you will find a few stories, images and anecdotes about "The Great Ship Swallower"
Above: A portion of Admiralty Chart SC323 on which you will see the main features of the Goodwin Sands.
The North Sand Head, not far from Ramsgate marks the northern tip of this network of shoaling sandbanks that have, many times, claimed the unwary. Submerged at periods of high tide, ships would run aground, sometimes in the past, by the laying of false lights by wreckers and the unscrupulous. If the unfortunate victim was unable to free herself on the flood tide or with the assistance of boatmen or tugs, she was destined to be progressively pounded by the waves, the remains sinking into the sand over successive tides being interred forever in their grasp. Solid at low tide and becoming a maze of cloying quicksand as the tide returned, the sands gained the ominous title of "The Great Ship Swallower". The sands have a complex system of strong currents, complicated tidal flows and constantly change shape.
To the south is the South Calliper. In times of good weather, Trinity Bay and the Downs, between the coast and the sands was an area considered to be a safe anchorage. Later, we will discover more about one very famous wreck and how fate befell her.
The Stirling Castle, possibly the Goodwin Sands most famous wreck.....
The Stirling Castle was a third rate ship of the line. She was constructed in the Royal Dockyard on the Thames at Deptford, dating from 1677 and was launched in 1679. She mounted 70 cannon and was 151 feet in length with a beam of 40 feet.
On 27th November came the Great Storm of 1703. It has been suggested that at it's height the wind blew with such fury, the gusts topped 150mph. It was certainly not a night to find oneself anchored in The Downs!
The storm continued to develop and arguably was the worst ever to sweep across Southern England. Dragging her anchors in the evening, her fate was sealed. It was a gentle death in the end, she was not smashed to smithereens on the sands but sank as her anchors dragged and she reached her final resting place, Bunt Head in position 51 degress 16.46 minutes North, 01 degree 30.41 minutes East. Sir Cloudesley Shovell had anchored his fleet here since 25th November. The Stirling Castle was not the only victim but shockingly, only 70 of her 349 crew survived. Other casualties included the Mary, Northumberland and the Restoration.
And there she lay until, in 1979 a local group of divers found a very large wooden wreck. The scouring nature of the currents on the sands constantly shift the pattern of the Goodwins and at this particular time had uncovered the Stirling Castle. The rest, as they say, is history but if you want to learn more, I thoroughly recommend David Chamberlain's extremely absorbing book "Lost and Found". A fuller and more complete account of her you will not find.
If, like me, you are old enough to remember the hovercraft here in Dover, then you may also recall this. During the summer it was possible to board one of these impressive machines and take an evening trip out to the Goodwin Sands at low tide. The trips were charity orientated and usually were based around the activities of the Goodwin Sands Pot Holing Club. A considerable amount of money was raised for charity during these events. If strolling around the sands wasn't exciting enough, you could have also played a quick game of cricket before the tide came in, in fancy dress of course! Happy Days!
The desolate expanse of the sands seen at low tide. The remains of several ships can be seen forlornly poking through the sands.
Wrecked on "Calamity Corner", so named due to the excessive number of casualties at the location, is the French cargo steamer Agen which went aground on 13th January 1952 carrying a cargo of timber, some of which eventually washed up on the local beaches.
The 28th November 1954 was a dark day in the history of the lightvessels guarding the sands and keeping the unwary safe. During a gale the lightship was driven up the eastern portion of the Goodwins and eventually capsized. Tragically, all seven of her crew perished. There was but one survivor. He was a Ministry of Agriculture birdwatcher by the name of Ronald Murtonwho had spent the night clinging to the wreckage which was all ready partially buried in the all consuming sand. An extremely lucky man indeed. Seven lightships had been lost previously throughout the history of the sands.
Most of the lighvessels have been replaced by modern Large Automated Navigation Buoys or LANBYS. However, the East Goodwin is one of two lightships still standing sentinel nearby.
So how many wrecks are there?
There is no definite answer to this question! The total runs into thousands. Many have disappeared, rotted away or are buried under the sands but above the bedrock, lost forever. Many hundreds were reported to Lloyds and many more may have indeed ended their days on the sands but were not listed as doing so.
Anything else out there?
Treasure? Hmm maybe!
Rumours of silver ingots aboard the Andaman, wrecked near the sands in 1953 still persist.
The Sands are not just the resting place for ships however. There are more than a few submarines from the First World War, aircraft too, one of which was successfully recovered a couple of years ago and is now undergoing restoration.
Fancy walking on the sands?
There is a way to do it! Dover Sea Safari operate trips to the Goodwins. Here they are, leaving on one such adventure during 2014. For more information and to book your space, contact them on 01304 212880.