The Goodwin Sands:
Ships’ graveyard or Britain’s heritage?

by David Chamberlain

Situated in Kent, the county with the longest coastline in England, is a natural phenomenon feared by sailors throughout the centuries.

The Goodwin Sands is a ten mile sand bank, stretching from Ramsgate to Dover approximately five miles offshore. Surrounding the Sands, are treacherous shoals swept by strong tides. It takes very little wind to cause tumultuous and confused seas which mark the shoal water for mariners to avoid.

In thick fog, darkness and adverse weather conditions, The Goodwin Sands has been the downfall for many seamen and their vessels. The town of Deal, which lies adjacent to the Sands, has become famous for the bravery of the lifeboat service and local boatmen.

In this area the sheer amount of shipwrecks from the past cannot be truly calculated, and are estimated in thousands. From these wrecks, there are artefacts and relics that would fill most of the museums of the world. It is only the constant movement of the Sands that have protected and hidden them from detection.

Occasionally a discovery is found which has major impact. The Bronze Age haul from the seabed near Dover for example, proved to be the largest cache of axes, rapiers and spearheads to be located in the country, if not the world.

The third rate man-of-war Stirling Castle, a warship from Queen Anne’s navy, met her fate close to the Goodwins in the great storm of 1703. When the ship emerged from a sand wave she was found to be almost complete. Inside her hull was an entire time capsule of life from the early eighteenth century. The following year two more ships, which were commissioned by Samuel Pepys, were also uncovered.

The East Indiaman, Admiral Gardener, outward-bound, ended her days on the edge of the sand bank, in a storm, in 1809. Inside her holds were tons of copper tokens, minted for the H.E.I.C (Honourable East India Company). The wreck was rediscovered in 1982 and was heavily salvaged before the Government could protect her. The coins salved were counted in millions, and even today are appearing for sale on the Internet site E-Bay

Once an exposed shipwreck has been discovered the difficulties are immense. Currents, weather and underwater visibility are a curse to the diving archaeologists. Also the movement of the sandbanks make identification of wrecks complicated, as they can disappear over a tide, as quickly as they were discovered.

In the future, with the aid of modern technology, new and more important wrecks will be found. The potential of the locale is so great that there are steps being taken to make it a region of world heritage. The treasure-house of antiquity and history is waiting to be established. Knowledge and restraint should be required of the divers, but bureaucratic legislation ought to be relaxed, to a certain degree, to encourage and not deter them.

Finance and equipment can overcome many of these problems, but it must be monitored by either the government or those willing to invest in Britain’s heritage lying beneath the sea. Public awareness and Government funding will ensure the area remains important in maritime and social history so that we can continue to discover the mysteries that lie beneath the Goodwin Sands.

©2007 “DEAL today” magazine