• 17th Century
• Vliegende Draecke, Campen
• St. Anthony
• 18th Century
• 19th Century
• HMS Pomone
• Constance Ellen
• 20th Century
• The Rescuers
Shipwreck, in coastal waters, is an ever present danger to mariners. When inclement weather combines with strong tidal races,
in narrow navigable channels, then the danger is heightened. On the west side of the Solent the tide leaves through a narrow
channel which is only a mile wide at Hurst Castle. The current achieves a speed of five knots as it flows through a series of
races out to sea. Constantly shifting shingle banks wait just beneath the waves to increase the dangers.
Vliegende Draecke, Campen.
One of the earliest recordings of a shipwreck at The Needles refers to a small fleet of ships, owned by the Dutch East India Company, that set sail for India and Indonesia in 1627. The fleet was caught in a terrible gale and was forced to take shelter in the Solent. Two of the vessels, Vliegende Draecke and Campen, were forced to sail between The Needles. The Vliegende Draecke tore a large hole in her hull and the vessel was abandoned in Alum Bay after the crew of 200 and cargo of silver coins had been transferred to other ships.
The Campen sank just south of The Needles, again the crew and much of the silver aboard were saved. In 1628, a team headed by a Dutch salvor Jacob the Diver and local merchant Robert Newland began to explore the wreck. They handed 5 cannon, 6,600kg of lead and 2,635 coins to the authorities. The Campen was rediscovered in June 1979 and divers raised a further 8,000 silver coins.<Top>
In 1691 the English galleon St. Anthony is recorded as having been lost in Scratchells Bay. At the easterley end of Scratchell's Bay is a rock named St. Anthony Rock, it can be seen at low tide from the Needles viewpoint.<Top>
On the 24th April 1753 the 44 gun frigate Assurance was lost by The Needles. She was on a voyage from the West Indies with the Governor of Jamaica who was returning home to retire. On board were his family and a personal fortune of £60,000. Official Admiralty records state the vessel hit an uncharted rock outside The Needles Passage. Later it was revealed the ship's Master had sailed too close to the outermost Needle and unsurprisingly had struck the rock. The ship was a complete loss but the crew and all but £4,000 of the fortune aboard were saved. The ship's Master was later sentenced to three months imprisonment for his part in the loss of his ship.<Top>
On the 11th October 1811, HMS Pomone, a 38 gun 1,076 ton frigate with a crew of 284 was lost by The Needles. She had been built in 1805 and was returning home for repair after taking part in a successful campaign in the Mediterranean against the French. Also onboard the Pomone was the British Ambassador to Persia and some Arab stallions which were a present from the Shah of Persia to King George III.
It was a misty day and the helmsman mistook the light at The Needles for the light at Hurst Castle. At this time The Needles light was on the cliffs above Scratchells Bay so the vessel was turned to a collision course with the rocks. Too late the mistake was realised and the ship was wrecked. Luckily the sea was calm and over the next three days all onboard were saved. Miraculously this included the horses!
In 1969, the remains of the Pomone were discovered and the ship is now a Protected Wreck Site. Objects recovered from the ship by the Isle of Wight County Archaeological Centre can be found on display at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, Bembridge Maritime Museum and Fort Victoria, Yarmouth.<Top>
During the night of the 14th February 1894 the coastguard station at Totland saw signal flares coming from the Needles end of the Shingles Bank. The coastguards had been alerted earlier that day to come to the assistance of the George Henry which was aground on the Shingles Bank. They had stood by for four hours but as no assistance was requested they returned to Totland. However, this time they found another vessel, the brigantine Constance Ellen, in more serious trouble. She had sailed from London bound for Ireland and had been at sea almost six weeks and had encountered almost incessant storms. The skipper, Captain Payne, had sheltered at Lymington, to rest the crew and take on provisions, and whilst making his way past the Needles the wind had suddenly died away and the fierce tide had carried the vessel onto the Bass Rock.
The coastguards stood by the brigantine until 5:00am the next morning when it was agreed by Captain Payne and Mr Watson, the chief coastguard boatman, that, despite the high winds and rough seas it may just be possible for a steam tug to pull the Constance Ellen clear. Her hull was, as yet, undamaged. The coastguard returned to Totland and summoned the steam tug Hercules for assistance. At this time communication was possible by electric land line telegraph but as Totland had no telegraph office the person sending the message would have to go to either Freshwater or Yarmouth some distance away. In spite of this the tug had arrived on the scene by 9:00am and was at work.
Meanwhile the RNLI station at Totland, established in 1885, had been alerted as the weather was worsening. The lifeboat men decided it would be wise to remove the crews from the two stranded vessels but as they set out the George Henry broke free from the shingle holding her and floated away. At midday the lifeboat crew rowed into the teeth of the gale down the length of the Shingles almost to the Needles where they then swung round to drop downwind to the Bass Rock and the brigantine. As heavy seas were now breaking over the brigantine, and attempts by the tug to tow her off the rocks had failed it was decided to take Captain Payne and his crew of six into the lifeboat. After a difficult journey back to Totland everyone was landed safely.
A day or two later the Constance Ellen was refloated and spent an uneventful few years plying her trade. Unfortunately her luck ran out in November 1901 when in an easterly gale she failed to get between the piers at South Shields on the River Tyne. With most of her sails carried away her skipper, now Captain Robinson, ran her onto the beach at Herd Sand. The local Volunteer Life Brigade with their rocket aparatus were soon on the scene and all the crew were rescued. Though they lived to sail again the Constance Ellen was a total loss, at low tides some of her timbers can still be seen where she finally came to rest.
On the 25th 1890 the Irex was wrecked by The Needles. The vessel was on her maiden voyage and had set sail for Rio de Janeiro from Greenock on the 24th December 1899. Bad weather had forced the Captain to seek shelter in Belfast Lough where she remained until the 1st January 1890. Immediately after leaving Belfast Lough another south-westerly storm was encountered.
On the 16th January the storm worsened to hurricane strength and the Captain made the decision to seek shelter at Falmouth where they arrived on the 24th January. Because of the storm no pilot could come aboard to guide the Irex into Falmouth Harbour so after 12 hours the Captain decided to head for Portland.
The strain of battling the storm had exhausted the Captain and crew and some were injured with broken limbs. As the Irex, thrown off course by the storm, approached The Needles the Captain mistook the warning light from The Needles lighthouse for the light from a pilot boat and guided his ship towards it. Too late the mistake was realised and the Atlantic waves carried the Irex onto the chalk bed where she was holed and began to sink. A giant wave broke over the ship and carried the Captain and First Mate to their deaths. The Boatswain, attempting to rescue the ship's log was also drowned.
At 9:00am the Irex was spotted by soldiers at The Needles Battery and the Totland lifeboat was informed. A steam collier, Hampshire, had seen the Irex and was also coming to her aid. Because of the storm neither were able to approach the Irex before midday. In terrible conditions a rescue was attempted but had to be called off, at one point the lifeboat had been almost smashed under the bow of the Hampshire by an enormous wave.
By now it was realised rescue by lifeboat was impossible and efforts were now directed towards the rocket apparatus which had arrived at the fort. The coastguard fired the rocket at the Irex, which was 275 metres out against the gale and by a miracle the line caught in the rigging. The crew of the wrecked vessel had to climb the rigging to free the line, during this difficult operation a young apprentice fell to his death. Eventually a hawser was set up and soon a chair was ready to take the men to the fort above. All but one of the surviving crew were rescued, the last, a young lad, was too frightened to make the journey so two coastguards descended to the Irex to carry him ashore. In all 29 crew members were rescued from the 36 who were aboard. Click here to see a full report of the tragedy as recorded in the Isle of Wight County Press in February 1890. <Top>
On the 10th November 1898 the three-masted German schooner Ernst, left Liverpool bound for Danzig with a cargo of salt. The Ernst had encountered very heavy seas all the way around the coast and in the morning of the 23rd was close to The Needles as the Captain tried to seek shelter in the Solent. With its sails torn to shreds in the storm the Ernst was virtually unmanageable and in spite of attempts to anchor the vessel it was dragged towards the western end of the Shingles.
Although the Ernst was constantly swept by huge waves the crew were on deck lighting flares in a vain hope their distress signals would be seen. Miraculously the flares were seen by the Totland coastguard who contacted the Totland lifeboat. In the evening the lifeboat Charles Luckombe was launched but found because of the mountainous waves it was impossible to get alongside the stranded vessel. The lifeboat returned to Totland to send a telegraph to Southampton for a steam tug. The lifeboat crew stayed at their station long enough to get some refreshment and a change of clothing and then returned to the Ernst.
In the early hours of the following morning the Ernst showed signs of breaking up. Suddenly there was a thunderous crash and the vessel settled down and was gone in minutes. All the lifeboat crew could hear were desperate cries for help as the men were flung into the sea. The Captain was the first man found, clinging to a piece of wreckage, and an hour later the Mate and a seaman were found in a partially submerged boat. The thee survivors were landed at Totland and the lifeboat crew immediately returned to sea to search for a raft that had been seen with 4 men clinging to it. After a total of 16 hours at sea the tired and frozen lifeboat crew returned to their station to telegraph the Christchurch coastguard to keep a lookout for a raft with four men aboard. Eventually the four men were landed safely, they had not eaten for two days and were suffering from extreme exposure. Their life saving "raft" turned out to be the wooden roof of the ship's galley!<Top>
On the 5th January 1947 the 3,8775 ton Greek steamer Varvassi was travelling from Algiers carrying a cargo of tangerines, wine and iron ore to Southampton and Boulogne. When the Varvassi approached Island waters the Captain stopped the engines to pick up a pilot. Unfortunately the engines refused to restart and the Varvassi drifted out of control and was struck by a light gale.
As the ship drifted it finally came to rest on a ledge 90 metres out from The Needles lighthouse. The launch Diane approached putting a Salvage Officer onboard to try and help the stricken vessel. The Calshot, a tug from Southampton, eventually managed to anchor the Varvassi. At high tide the Calshot attempted to haul the Varvassi off the ledge but it began to flood.
In the early hours of the following morning the Varvassi was caught in a violent storm with waves washing over her. The Yarmouth lifeboat rescued all 36 crew members, and the cargo of tangerines, also saved, was sold ashore. The sunken remains of the Varvassi, just off the end of The Needles, still present a hazard to shipping. The ship's bell from this unfortunate vessel is now hanging in the shipwreck display room. <Top>
From the 13th century Lords of the Manor had established their right to "wreck of the sea". Manor boundaries, wherever possible, went down to the seashore so the Lord could exercise his right to whatever came ashore. Contemporary travellers spoke of those who came to a shipwreck being less zealous in rescuing lives than they were in appropriating the bounty that was washed up. In some instances this may have been true as lives were of less value than they are today. For most inhabitants of remote shores life was exceedingly harsh and a gift from the sea was looked upon as a gift from the Almighty. Stories of wreckers luring ships ashore abound in folklore but that is probably where they belong, just stories. Life was no less difficult in the 19th century and well documented reports of the outstanding heroism shown by men who went to shipwrecks, sometimes resulting in the loss of their lives, more truely reflects the compassion shared by seafarers.
The first lifeboat installed at Totland Bay, to keep watch over the Needles Channel and The Shingles, was named the Dove.
This was provided by the Isle of Wight Sunday Schools Committee who had launched an appeal to raise sufficient funds to build a
lifeboat. The boat came into service in 1879 and the crew, as with all lifeboats, were volunteers from the local community. The
Dove quickly proved its worth and in the first five years of operating it brought 36 people to safety ashore. In 1884
this record convinced the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, formed by Sir William Hillary in 1824, to build a lifeboat station
at Totland Bay. In 1885 the RNLI provided the Charles Luckombe a large 12 oar, 37 feet long, 8 feet wide, self-righting
lifeboat. In 1903 the Charles Luckombe was replaced by the Robert Fleming which served until 1924 when the Totland
Bay lifeboat station closed and the service was replaced by a motor lifeboat stationed in Yarmouth harbour. This brought to a
end the era of rowing lifeboats at Totland Bay. <Top>
In bygone times the goods that now travel by road were carried around the British Isles by hundreds of small ships. Year in year out dozens of ships were wrecked and hundreds of lives were lost, in many instances in sight of the shore. Public shock and dismay at the tragedies drove forward the creation of national life saving organisations. The Coastguard, originally formed to combat smuggling and protect the nations economy, became a leader in maritime search and rescue and evolved into one of those bodies. It was the Coastguard Service who recognised the importance of getting a line to a vessel close to the shore and it was this need that eventually led to a rocket apparatus, invented by John Dennett of Carisbrooke, being tested at Freshwater Bay in 1826. Following the success of the test three sets of the rocket apparatus were ordered and established at the Freshwater, Atherfield and St. Lawrence Coastguard Stations on the Island. The first successful use of Dennett's rocket occurred in 1832 at the loss of the Bainbridge on Atherfield Ledge. In all the crew of 19 persons were brought safely ashore, this was accomplished by firing a line over the wreck, hauling a strong warp from the shore and using this to haul a boat, manned by Coastguard crew, to the stricken vessel. This proved the worth of the rocket apparatus and it was this same system that was used in 1890 to rescue the crew of the Irex from Scratchell's Bay by breeches buoy.
In the days of oar pulled lifeboats the West Wight was protected by lifeboats at Brooke, Brighstone Grange and Atherfield as well as Totland Bay. Today there is a powerful RNLI lifeboat stationed in Yarmouth Harbour and a smaller high speed vessel at Freshwater Bay. The latter is funded by an independent charity which is supported by an army of volunteer helpers. Both these vessels could be at the Needles in a tiny fraction of the time taken by the oar pulled lifeboat from Totland Bay. They are supported by the Coastguard helicopter stationed at Lee-on-Solent, a few minutes flying time from the Island. Now ships are equipped with powerful engines, accurate navagation systems and good communication methods shipwreck has fortunately become a rare occurence. The rescue services are still as busy as ever and the RNLI launches a lifeboat approximately twenty times a day somewhere around the British Isles. Half of the launches are to help pleasure craft but many are also to merchant vessels and fishermen. The RNLI, the Coastguard and vessels such as the lifeboat at Freshwater Bay not only come to the assistance of those at sea but also people in trouble around the shoreline. Please support these important charities, if you have an accident or become unwell at sea or on the shoreline it is these brave volunteers who will come to your assistance. <Top>
Isle of Wight County Press
Alum Bay and The Needles by J. C. Medland (ISBN 1809392 03)
Shipwrecks of the Wight by J. C. Medland (ISBN 1899 392 28 9)
Shipwrecks of the Isle of Wight by Ken Phillips (ISBN 0 7153 8816 9)
Footnote:(See article about the wreck of the Irex) If anyone has information about the image would they please contact the Webmaster