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The sands of time: where sea meets land

A sinister trap for seamen and their vessels awaits in one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping areas. It has destroyed more ships of all kinds than we will ever know. It has killed untold numbers of people. We’re not even sure of its origin, only that it’s there, waiting for the unwary or the unlucky.

Countless ships have been lost on Goodwin Sands, an immense shoal off England’s Deal coast.

The waters hiding this trap are in a narrow portion of the English Channel, roughly between Kent, England, and Calais on the mainland. The Dover Straits, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, lie just to the south. These waters can be notoriously dangerous on their own. Currents rip back and forth between England and mainland Europe. Waves mount up from wind and tides. Fog can suddenly render the world invisible. But ships and boats have traveled there probably from the beginning of our known history, despite Goodwin Sands.

This sand shoal is about 10 miles long and 5 miles off the Deal coast in Kent. I say about because this huge sand bank shifts. Storms, currents and the fact that it’s sand cause its borders to meander, and passages through it may come and go without warning. Perhaps most horrifying is that, to the unknowing, it may seem to be a fascinating beach surrounded by sea. When the tide starts rising, however, its very substance can turn into deadly quicksand.

The softness of the sand makes Goodwin Sands no less a killer of ships. It’s reported that at least 13 man-of-war ships and 40 merchant vessels, as well as 2,168 lives and 708 guns, were lost there in the Great Storm of 1703. It’s estimated that more than 1,000 ships have wrecked there, but we can be sure the actual count is higher. Goodwin Sands shows no preference in what it takes — merchantmen, warships, sailing ships, motorized vessels.

The 1,000-ton Ogle Castle disappeared there in about an hour in the 19th century. It’s said that the SS Violet was the first steamship to come to disaster there, in 1857. And there was a German submarine that was caught while it was charging its batteries. It was chased onto the sands, and its surviving crewmembers, to their good fortune, surrendered. The sands swallowed the U-boat. If the crew had been aboard they, too, would have been swallowed. From time to time the sub has reappeared, as if the sands want to remind seamen of what they hold. And then, with a shift of tides or a storm, the sands swallow her again. She isn’t the only ship to endure this bizarre fate.

The sands enjoy a reputation of being almost mystical. The misfortunes of the SS Mahratta illustrate this well. The first Mahratta, owned by the Brocklebank Line, was launched in 1891 and served as a troop ship during the Boer War. She foundered on Goodwin Sands on Good Friday, April 9, 1909, while steaming to London from Calcutta, India. The people aboard were saved, as was much of the cargo. But after 24 hours of being helplessly exposed to the sea, her back broke, and there was no question that she would forever remain in the sands.

The second SS Mahratta, also owned by the Brocklebank Line, was launched in 1917. She ran aground on Goodwin Sands on Oct. 9, 1939, close to the wreck site of the first Mahratta and also en route from Calcutta to London. When she also broke in half the following day, salvage crews found that the ship was resting on top of the wreck of the first Mahratta.

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When the sand shifts, it becomes like quicksand as the waters rise. At peak tides, the range can be as much as 16 feet in this area. In some areas currents can reach speeds of 5 knots. It’s reported that many of the wrecks had grounded when the water was low. With the wreck lying on it, the shoal might be completely exposed, allowing the survivors to climb down from the ship and happily walk on dry land, thinking they were saved. But this was often their last walk. They might have tried to signal those ashore for help with fires or whatever other methods they had, and many times rescues were successful; if not, the rising, moving waters would turn the sand soft, and the ship and people would disappear — not just beneath the water but beneath the sand.

People who have lived along the shore have dealt with this treacherous shoal over the centuries. There are many stories of brave rescues, and notable salvage successes and failures. The brave and good people ashore have done wonders. And, as is always the case in dangerous waters, there have been some allegations in the far past of “wreckers” trying to help the sea and the sands so that they could salvage cargo. However, the sea hasn’t needed much help to do its worst. It’s very difficult to mark a shoal that moves. There have been lightships stationed at strategic positions at Goodwin Sands; one was lost in a storm, with its crew.

The fact that parts of the shoal are dry at low water has prompted people to visit — tourists, historians, researchers, treasure seekers. For a while an occasional cricket match was held there at low tide. With better sense, this ended in 2003, but in 2006 a film crew doing a documentary on the event had to be hastily rescued when the tide turned, leaving much of their equipment to the sea.

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Tourists have visited Goodwin Sands during settled weather and at the right stage of tide in large hovercraft, which can hover over water, as well as sand. People who have walked the sands describe them as quite firm and seemingly solid while the tide is low. But I’ve read reports that some who have had to race the incoming tide say the “island” begins to come alive as the tide returns, starting to move, puddles and rifts forming, becoming mushy and sucking. They say you can hear the roar of the waters moving through the sands (see The Wreckers, by Bella Bathurst, for interesting information about this and other areas around England). There are deep holes in the sand that are full of water, called “swillies.” And there are dunes and water rivulets. All of this can become devouring when the tide starts flowing.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to how this shoal got there. Some say it used to be an island. They say that the very low island belonged to an English earl named Godwin and that it once was protected by sea walls, which failed in disrepair, allowing the sea to have its way. Romans referred to a low-lying island in the area, and there’s legend of an island named Lomea. But many experts say that it is like so many other shoals, a creation of tides, storms and waves, pushing around loose bottom that for one reason or another — in this case, perhaps the underlying layer of harder chalk — piles up in some areas.

To me, this is yet one more fascinating fact of the sea, with stories, myth and legend wound around it. I haven’t been there and can only report what I’ve read from others. But it’s not just a weird phenomenon “somewhere else.” It reminds me of what I have seen while cruising up and down the East Coast and around the islands off this continent.

The shifting sands on the southern tip of Georgia’s Jekyll Island swallowed a shrimper that grounded there.

A few years ago we were exploring a channel leading to Ponce de Leon Inlet in Florida. We saw a rounded piece of metal barely protruding from the sand way up on a shoal. We were told that it was the bow pulpit of a large sailboat that broke loose in a storm and drifted downwind, fetching up on a sandy shoal, mercifully missing several anchored boats. The storm passed, but the boat was left aground on the shoal.

The current, as it has for centuries, continued flooding in and out of Ponce Inlet, rushing past and around the stranded boat. Almost immediately the boat began settling into the sand, which swirled around and into the hull, filling it, covering it. Far sooner than you’d think, the entire hull was gone, buried beneath the sand. Without being told what we were looking at, we would never have known. A deep channel ran nearby. An anchorage gave quiet shelter not very far away. The shoal, now bare at times of low water, seemed stable and permanent. It isn’t. This is the nature of the sea.

Some years back, every time we rounded the southern tip of Jekyll Island in Georgia we’d see one of our favorite monuments to the powers of the sea. Well up on the beach, far enough up so that the tourists could walk around it, was a mast and two booms, with some rigging intact. Who planted them there, and in what cruel joke?

You see things like this in cities. Some artist is commissioned by some council to make a monument for some purpose supposedly having to do with the sea. In a fit of inspiration the artist decides to plant some sticks in a park and call them masts or plant a ship’s wheel in a grassy plat so that kids can play. You’d think this may be the case on the southern end of Jekyll until you look closely at these bones protruding from the sand.

The mast was attached to a shrimp boat. The shrimp boat was still there, far beneath the sand. I remember the year the shrimper went aground. She lay against the bank, at the edge of the deep-water channel. In less than a year the shoal had built around and over her so that the entire hull and lower part of the mast were covered. The hold, the sleeping quarters, the engine, the wheelhouse — all filled with wet, cold sand. And it must have been so quiet down there where the engines before had roared and the men cursed in their hard work.

Goodwin Sands claimed many vessels during the Great Storm of 1703, including man-of-war and merchant ships, with thousands of lives lost.

Tourists don’t walk her decks; they walk above them. Above the high bow. Above the wheelhouse. They do so until the next storm or the next shift of eddies erodes the shoal, and maybe then the boat will be exposed to the air and water again, though likely for only a brief time.

The so-called Graveyard of the Atlantic, off North Carolina from the Outer Banks down, is littered with the bones of ships that foundered and were destroyed and buried in the shifting sands. Cape Hatteras and Frying Pan Shoals are but two examples of ship killers where a wreck sometimes reappears after a storm. Often when this occurs, the vessel is relatively well preserved, having been protected by the very sands and silt that for so long smothered it. Seldom do you know which ships they are, only that they were and are no more. Usually all you see are frames and rusty fasteners. Much has been written in flowery prose of the places “where the sea meets the land.” But there are places where these two do more than just meet. They mate. And the sea rules. These are places for no person, no ship.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.