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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
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The Isle of Wight, with its 60 miles of coastline and the surrounding waters, has witnessed several thousands of ships wrecked on its shores over the last few thousand years. Over 4,000 appear on the Admiralty's charts1; yet many more, with their wooden hulls vulnerable to the power of seas, storms and time, have not left a trace.

Many ships, too, were stranded on the Island for only a short time, able to escape on the next high tide, or were towed off. The exact number of ships damaged or sunk in these waters will never be known.

The Back Of The Wight

From the Needles (the famous chalk rocks off the Island's most westerly point) to St Catherine's Point (the Island's most southerly tip) lies a series of bays 18 miles long without shelter, with towering chalk and sandstone cliffs where the sea meets the Island. There are only two points offering easy access from the cliffs to the sea: Brook Chine and Grange Chine2. Up to a mile-and-a-half outside Compton Bay extends a six-mile-long series of rocks and clay, visible at low tide: these are the Brook and Brighstone Ledges. These have claimed a vast number of ships, and lives.

Two miles south-east of Brighstone Ledge lies the Atherfield Ledge, a mile-square ledge which the powerful local current drags ships to. The ledge is made up of rock slabs, ridges, boulders and reefs, causing the sea to turn into a frenzied, chaotic force during high winds.

Below Atherfield lies Chale Bay, the site of vast numbers of shipwrecks, and once home to a vicious gang of smugglers.

The South-east Shores

At the southern end of Chale Bay lies Rocken End, where the cliffs tower 500ft above, and the shoreline is covered with vast numbers of dangerous boulders. Beyond that lies St Catherine's Race3, one of the worst in the British Isles. It is caused by the eastward-moving sea being forced between the Island's southern coast and a parallel ridge that is only 15 metres below sea-level and three miles offshore. Between coast and ridge lies St Catherine's Deep, a narrow channel that the sea has scoured to enormous depth. There are also several chasms 300ft deep, which in certain conditions cause seas to erupt from the depths and charge in random directions. These often swamp ships, which then sink without trace.

The southern coast of the Island has no shelter; its bays hold many sunken boulders that are a danger to ships; and the town of Ventnor is subject to storms which have destroyed all attempts to build harbours or piers there. The east coast of Sandown Bay has few hazards, and is sheltered from the prevailing winds. It is, however, sometimes subjected to continental winds - yet most ships blown onto Sandown's sandy beach are able to be salvaged.

North of Sandown Bay and Culver Cliff lies Long Ledge, a broad rock shelf, and Bembridge Ledge, a submerged ridge that has claimed many ships. It is now guarded by the Bembridge Lifeboat, housed in a pier built so that the lifeboat can be launched outside the Ledge's reach.

The Spithead-Solent Shore

The eastern side of the north coast of the Island is known as the Spithead, and is the safest part of the Island for sailing. It is the traditional anchorage of the Royal Navy, and is sheltered from most winds. Across The Solent lies Portsmouth in the east. Ships sailing to Southampton must also traverse The Solent, making the waters of The Solent among the busiest in the world.

On the western side of The Solent, ships are endangered by the fast tidal current, as The Solent's unique double tide leaves through the narrow western end, which is only a mile wide near Hurst Spit. The current achieves a speed of up to five knots as it flows through a series of races out to the sea; yet even then the danger remains. Beyond the terrible teeth of the Needles lies the hidden danger of the Shingles - a three-mile-long shoal of pebbles just beneath the waves that periodically shifts its position and shape. Many ships have been lost here. This end of the Island is protected by the Yarmouth Lifeboat.

Related h2g2 Entries

Ships And Shipwrecks

Isle Of Wight History

1The Admiralty was the UK government department that administered the Royal Navy. It is now incorporated in the Ministry of Defence.2Chine is a regional term for a deep narrow ravine.3A Race is the open sea equivalent of rapids.

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