The Romans called it Lomea and Infera Insula (Low Island). Legend has it that the Earl of Godwin inherited land on it until the great sea floods of 1014 or 1099 swept everything away. Of the legend, only the floods can be verified; which were possibly caused by a tsunami after an earthquake – or a strong tidal surge that was the consequence of a storm in the North Sea. Either way, the Goodwin Sands has not only been a magnet to ships as a ‘shippe swalower’, but also to people who have a strange desire to visit.
The Goodwin Sands are located off the coast of Ramsgate, Deal and St Margaret’s Bay. The shallowest part of the ten mile sandbank begins its northern most point five nautical miles out from Ramsgate and ends a mere three miles from shore. Over the realm of time the Goodwin Sands has probably accounted for at least 2000 shipwrecks and countless lives. Ghost stories surround the sands with tales of sightings of spectral vessels being seen crashing into the surf and mysteriously disappearing when their rescuers arrive.
Regardless of all the myths, the Goodwins are a prominent feature off the Kent coast. In the past, men have tried to make use of the treacherous sandbank; as a safe haven for shipwrecked mariners and also as a warning to vessels that stray too close. Admiral Bullock erected a safety beacon upon them in 1840, in the form of a forty-foot mast with a platform or gallery construction that would hold 30 to 40 mariners. This ‘Refuge Beacon’ lasted for four years until a careless Dutch vessel ran it down. Eventually the lightships that surrounded the Goodwins marked the dangers, and their crews kept an eye out for mishaps. Incredulously, in 2003, there was a commissioned report to turn the Goodwin Sands into a 24-hour passenger and freight airport, along with two runways!
On the northern area of the Goodwins, at low water, the sand lies exposed. All around the sandbank are ‘swillies’ or deep holes that remain filled with seawater. Elsewhere gullies and mini sand dunes are formed which will start to crumble beneath your feet; and when you try to paddle in the ‘fox-holes’ or the deep puddles… it is then that you feel the suction of quick sand. Nevertheless, this situation gives little fear to the supposed colony of 350 seals, however, in the past it has given cause for much concern and grievance to humans.
Even the famed Deal boatmen or ‘hovelers’ have also been known to misjudge the conditions on the Goodwins. The large galley-punt Wanderer visited the wreck of the sailing ship Frederick Carl, which had run aground on the sandbank on the last day of October 1885. The Wanderer’s two man crew’s intention was to salvage some of the cargo. With an increasing north-east wind, the Sands started to cover as the ‘Young Flood Tide’ swept over the banks. As the sand shivered beneath their feet the two boatmen tried in vain to make it back to their own craft. When the sea encroached up to their waists, the men realised their luck was against them – and waded back to the abandoned hulk of the Frederick Carl. After the lifeboat Mary Somerville arrived, they only managed to save one of the Deal men. The other was found the following day, dead, tangled in the wrecks rigging.
The desire to do the unusual has always held a fascination for some, and to visit the Goodwin Sands as a fun-day out is no exception. They have been visited by thousands over the years for various reasons, and still attract the curious. It is known that the Sands hold vast amounts of treasure, both archaeological as well as financial. In recent years a Dutch East Indiaman called the Rooswijk was found by a diver, and a supposed million pound cargo of silver coins and bullion have been recovered.
A strange tale was told in the late 1800s that the Deal lugger Tiger was chartered for a week by London visitors – and financed by a Mr Morgan. Their quest was to dig for buried treasure on the Goodwins. It was said that the Tiger was put ashore on the Sands at low water and with the aid of a large cylinder the party dug a shaft within it. The men soon encountered a skeleton, and then a wreck. Further burrowing in the hulk’s timbers found the holds as ‘dry as an empty bottle’. However, at the end of the week a dozen chests of treasure were loaded onto the lugger and the expedition was hailed as a success. This is how it was told in Herbert Russell’s novel ‘The Longshoremen’.
What was true, is that the Tiger was the largest lugger on Deal beach and four of her crew lost their lives in a mysterious escapade on the Goodwins. Whilst the Tiger’s crew, in a smaller beach boat, attempted to salvage a cargo of coal from a wreck high and dry on the sandbank, they found their own craft ‘swaddled’ on the Sands as the tide made. The weight of the coal had sunk the Deal boat into the sand and she would not lift with the tide. They abandoned her and made for higher ground as the water rose. They were last seen by a passing sailing barge whose skipper thought that the men who were running about and waving their arms were ‘Deal boatmen, just mucking about’.
Annual cricket matches on the Goodwin Sands is a myth. The first recorded game was in the summer of 1813, which caused criticism from the public as a blasphemy against all those unfortunate victims of the rapacious Sands. Although it has been played spasmodically ever since and The London Illustrated News of 1854 recorded an event of that year with a fine lithograph. During 1985, this author assisted in ferrying players and spectators from the Kent team for a fundraising match on top of the Goodwins. Thirteen Deal boats took out around a hundred people on a calm and sunny afternoon. Since that event, cricket, amongst other games, have only been played by a few whilst on organised trips.
Although the large hovercrafts no longer are available to take the hundreds of sightseers out to the sandbank, the Goodwin Sands Potholers Club has found another way. This club is a charity, which raises money for young people, and prearranged a trip to the Sands on 19 August 2009. The use of a small helicopter was organised and the fare paying passengers were ferried out, and back, on the hottest day of the year, and enjoyed the evening’s low tide ramble on the Sands.
In July 2006, the BBC film crew who were making the well known television programme ‘Coast’ thought it would be a good idea to feature a cricket match being played upon the Sands. As the tide started to make the skipper of the craft who took them out, urged that they should evacuate with haste. The TV crew pleaded for another ten minutes to finish the take. That was all it took – the tide changed against a north-east wind and the surf built up and swamped the vessel and its outboard engines. Several thousand pounds of film cameras were washing about in the bilge of the disabled boat and the occupants were at risk of being stranded. It took two lifeboats from Ramsgate and Walmer, plus the rescue helicopter, to avert a tragedy.
Coastguard sector manager Andy Roberts summed up the situation by stating:
‘The Sands can appear safe but, if landing, very careful consideration must be given to tides, the weather forecast and the prevailing conditions. The Goodwin Sands should be treated with the utmost respect by visitors’
This advice, unfortunately, has not always been observed by many – much to their misfortune – and sometimes this endeavour has led to grief.