Goodwin Sands

By Tom Neale, 3/20/2009


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Author on Frying Pan Shoals

In one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping areas there lies a sinister trap that has destroyed more ships large and small, of all kinds, than will ever be known.  It has killed thousands of people.  And, despite all our supposed control of our surroundings, it still waits today to trap those who sail its waters.

These waters are a narrow portion of the English Channel, between Kent, with the Thames estuary to the north and Dover southward and Calais on the other side. They can be notoriously stormy and dangerous all on their own. Currents rip back and forth between England and the European Mainland.  Waves mount up from wind and current.  Fog can suddenly render the entire world invisible. But ships and boats have traveled there probably from the beginning of our known history, despite the never ending threat of the Goodwin Sands. This is a sand shoal approximately 10 miles long, around 6 miles to the east of Deal in Kent.  I say “approximately,” and “around.” That’s because this huge sand bank shifts. Storms, currents, and the fact that it’s sand, not rock, cause its borders to meander. Not only do its borders meander, but passages through it may come and go with no warning.

But the softness of the sand makes it no less a killer of ships and men.  In the “Great Storm” of 1703 it’s reported that at least 13 men of war ships and 40 merchant vessels were lost, as well as around 2,168 lives and 708 guns.

There are reported more than 1,000 shipwrecks but we can be sure the actual count is much more.  The Goodwin Sands show no preference in their killing.  They’ve taken merchantmen, war ships, sailing ships and motorized vessels. The 1,000 ton Ogle Castle disappeared there in about an hour in the 19th century. It’s reported that the SS Violet, was the first steamship to come to disaster there in 1857. And then there was a German submarine which was caught while it was charging its batteries.  It was chased onto the Sands and its crew, to their good fortune, surrendered.  The sands swallowed the U boat whole. If the crew had been aboard they too would have been swallowed.  From time to time this submarine has reappeared, as though the sands want to remind seamen of what they can do. And then, with another shift of tides or storm, the sands swallow her again. She isn’t the only ship to have met this bizarre sort of fate.

This has been perhaps the worst of the fates measured out by the Goodwin Sands.  When the sand shoals shift and move, they often suck down and completely cover boats that have grounded on them.  They become like quick sand as the waters rise. At peak tides, the water can rise and lower 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 came ashore when the water was low.  Then the shoal with the wreck lying on it might be completely exposed, allowing the survivors to climb down from the ship and happily walk on dry firm land—often their last walk.  They might try to signal those ashore for help with fires or whatever other methods they had, and many times rescues were successful, but 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.

Frying Pan Shoals

Of course, the people who have lived along the shore have reacted in various ways to this treacherous shoal. There are many stories of brave rescues, notable salvage successes and perhaps far more often, notable salvage failures.  There have also always been allegations of “wreckers” referring not to heroes or helpers, but to those who sought to help out the sea and the sands to cause a wreck so that they could get its cargo. But the sea hasn’t needed much help to do its worst.  It’s very difficult to mark a shoal that moves. There have been four lightships stationed at strategic positions; one lightship was lost in a storm—lost with its crew.

The fact that parts of this shoal are dry at low water has prompted people to visit, as tourists, as historians, as researchers and treasure seekers, and just for fun.  For awhile a yearly cricket match was held there at low tide. Perhaps with better sense, this ended in 2003, but in 2006 a film crew doing a documentary on the event had to be rescued.  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 that you can even 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’s been a lot of speculation as to how this shoal got there.  Some, of course, say it used to be an island. Perhaps it was. 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’s like so many other shoals, a creation of tides, storms and waves, pushing around loose bottom which for one reason or another (in this case, probably the underlying layer of harder chalk), piles up in some areas. 

To me, as follower of the sea, this is just one more fascinating fact with stories, myth and legend wound around it. It reminds me again of how vulnerable we are when we venture out onto the waters.  But it also reminds me of what I’ve seen, just cruising up and down around the east coast and islands.

Tom’s Tips About Treacherous Sands

1. When you’re exploring unfamiliar beaches or shores, be careful to know where you’re stepping.

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If you go back to one of my earlier columns here, titled “Changes in the Bottom Line” you’ll see our photos of what I mean. (  These were boats that were swallowed by sandy shoals, not out in the ocean, but in inlets. And, of course, there have been plenty of boats swallowed off the coasts of this continent. Cape Hatteras and Frying Pan Shoals are but two examples of ship killers where the wreck will sometimes disappear beneath the bottom and then reappear years later after a storm.  Sometimes when this reappearance occurs, the vessel is relatively well preserved, having been protected by the very sands and silt that for so long smothered it.  It reminds me of a slow motion version of the scenes in the movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean” (which I’ve watched maybe a half dozen times) when the ghost ship rises from the bottom, its dead crew still intact—more or less.

It also reminds me once again to always take being on the water very seriously, even when we are having fun. And study about what’s there before you go there.


Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale