The History of The Needles


In and around Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight there are some twenty named ship wrecks. Probably the best known is the 'Campen, ' a ship financed by the Dutch East India Company which, with four other sister ships, set sail for the West Indies in 1627. She was caught in a southerly gale, and ran for shelter in the western Solent. The anchors were lost when she tried to anchor off Freshwater Bay and a desperate attempt to save the ship failed. She sank with great loss of life on the south side of the Needles rocks.

To the south of The Needles is Scratchells Bay, which can be seen from the Alum Bay cliff top and is only accessible by sea. Its crumbling chalk cliffs were reputedly a favourite training area for some of the more celebrated sections of our armed services but would be no fun for an exhausted shipwrecked sailor at night in a southwest storm.

Perhaps the greatest rescue off Scratchells Bay was that of the thirty-strong crew of the 'Irex,' a full-rigged ship of 2,248 tons. All the way down into the Western Approaches and into the Bay of Biscay she encountered storms and in the end she turned and ran for shelter with injured crew members and a shifted cargo. After twenty days of storms she failed to navigate the entrance to the Solent and crashed ashore at Scratchells on the night of 26 January 1890. When daylight came the wreck was discovered and it was found that the Captain, Mate and four crew had disappeared overnight.

Another famous wreck is that of the Ernst. She was a German three masted vessel whose sails were torn apart by a ferocious storm in November of 1898. She was blown onto the Shingles, where some of the crew were crushed to death when they tried to launch a boat. The local lifeboat, which in those days was rowed, could not get near enough to the wreck because of the massive waves, and she only managed to save two crew members after the ship had totally broken up some hours later. The roof of the Ernst's galley became a makeshift raft for four other members of the crew who were rescued from the waves at Christchurch.

The last boat of any size to be wrecked on the Needles was the SS 'Varvassi', 4,000 tons, on the 5 January 1947. The Varvassi was en route to Southampton from the Mediterranean with a cargo of wines and, needless to say, quite a bit came ashore!

One thing is sure, the tides mean that little diving is done in the area. Many secrets still wait to be uncovered in what has for centuries been a maritime trunk route.

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