Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'Sirenia' and 'Irex' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'Sirenia' and 'Irex'

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
Ancient and Roman | Medieval | The Hundred Years War | Mary Rose | The Spanish Armada | Treasure, and Hazardous | Sir Robert Holmes | The Frigate Assurance and HMS Invincible | Royal George | HMS Pomone and Carn Brae Castle | Clarendon | HMS Eurydice | Sirenia and Irex | SS Eider and Alcester | HMS Gladiator and the Submarine A1 | The First World War | Between the Wars | The Second World War | SS Virginia and HMS Alliance | Pacific Glory

On Sunday 9 February, 1879, the New York barque Alpheus Marshall, sailing from Nova Scotia to London, was blown by storm-force winds onto Atherfield Ledge. The ship was soon smashed to pieces. Luckily the local villagers, who had been at church nearby, came to the rescue. All 27 men were rescued, despite the fact that most of them were injured or unconscious. The ship's cargo - tins of beef, prawns and tomatoes - was enjoyed by the villagers, who found them washing up on the shore for weeks afterwards.

In the 1880s several ships were wrecked on the Island.

  • The Austrian barque Atlas was wrecked on Atherfield Ledge, with all cargo lost, on 25 November, 1880.

  • On 27 January, 1881 the 1,023-ton steamer SS Claremont, from Newcastle, was wrecked in a dense fog in Chale Bay.

  • On New Year's Eve 1882, the 1,200-ton steamer SS Wheatfield beached at Blackgang Chine on its way from Leith to New York. Her cargo of meat and flour was much appreciated by Islanders.

SS Duke of Westminster

The biggest wreck the Island had yet seen came ashore on Atherfield Ledge at roughly 6pm on 3 January, 1884. She was the 4,426-ton four-masted steamer Duke of Westminster, newly constructed out of steel. She was travelling to London from Australia, with a crew of 102 under Captain Cox, whose faulty navigation led her to plough onto Atherfield Ledge at full speed.

Attempts by the captain to rescue her from the ledge initially resulted in the destruction of her propeller blades and the crippling of her stern, a battering which would have destroyed any wooden or iron ship in her position.

Her cargo of oranges and coconuts was jettisoned, much to the delight of the locals, and she was eventually pulled free of the ledge and taken to London for repairs.

SS Cormorant

Another steamer that was wrecked in Island waters in the 1880s, the Scottish 2,255-ton SS Cormorant, was sailing from New Orleans to Bremen carrying a cargo of cotton. On 20 December, 1886, she entered a fog-filled English Channel, and soon ended high up the beach near Whale Chine. Attempts to refloat her failed.

Some Islanders were hired to unload the cotton and take it to Newport, and others were hired to break its remains up, providing much-needed work to many on the back of the Wight. One morning, while this was under way, the salvors arrived at the ship to find a strange figurehead on her deck and a large gash in her side. She had been rammed in the night by another vessel, which later managed to escape.

Pride of the Sea

On 29 October, 1887, the lugger Pride of the Sea, from Kent, was thrown onto the rocks at Yellow Ledge, Shanklin, during a hurricane. Five men died - Captain John Moss with William Moss and Charles Moss, both members of his family, as well as Charles Selth and Henry Aldie. Their bodies were washed up along the beach between Sandown and Shanklin.

A memorial was erected soon after the disaster, but during the course of the 115 years since the disaster the memorial had been weathered until it was illegible. In August 2002 David Moss, a Canadian who is one of the few surviving relatives of the Moss family, spent £2,500 on restoring the stone memorial in order to preserve their memory.

Sirenia

On 9 March, 1888, the Island's west coast was covered in a dense fog, with a heavy sea driving onto the rocks at Atherfield, although there was no wind to explain it. Sirenia, a big three-masted full-rigged 1,588-ton ship with an iron and steel hull, had come ashore. She was carrying 26 crew and five passengers from San Francisco to Dunkirk, and had drifted off course in the fog.

At first, the captain of Sirenia, Captain McIntyre, did not realise the dangerous position his ship and the lives of those on board were in. When Renown approached his vessel, offering to take those on board to the safety of the shore, he declined, saying that he expected to be off with the tide.

The Brighstone Lifeboat's First Rescue

At 4pm the Brighstone lifeboat was launched. As there was no wind, the crew were forced to row their way to the ship. By now the storm had increased, and the first time the lifeboat reached the ship and tied alongside, the sea snapped the rope and drove the lifeboat almost back to shore. The crew fought against the tide, and came back in order to rescue four of the passengers, two women and two children. The lifeboat struggled back to base, beaching safely at 6.30pm.

The Brighstone Lifeboat's Second Rescue

By this time, the Brook lifeboat crew had attempted to join in the rescue, since a full storm was beginning to develop. The lifeboat was carried to Grange Chine and was launched, but the sea threw the boat over immediately, breaking her oars and injuring two of the crew. It took an hour before the lifeboat was ready to launch again, this time successfully. As soon as a wind got up, the Brighstone lifeboat was re-launched. She returned to Sirenia and despite the storm 13 men were taken off the vessel.

As the Brighstone lifeboat was heading to shore, a wave described as 'a mountain of black water with a fringe of white on top' crashed into the lifeboat, capsizing it and throwing those inside into the sea. Of the 26 men on board, including the 13 just rescued, only 22 made it back to the lifeboat. Two of the crew of Sirenia, Moses Munt (the captain of the lifeboat) and Second Coxswain Thomas Cotton, had drowned. With only four oars remaining, the Brighstone lifeboat limped back to shore in the storm, with most of those on board having sustained at least a broken rib.

The Brook Lifeboat's Rescue

By this time the Brook lifeboat had reached Sirenia, after sailing through six miles of 'a veritable Hell of waters'. When it was only yards away from Sirenia a wave knocked the ship. Three of the crew, Second Coxswain Reuben Cooper and two brothers, were knocked out of the boat. The brothers were soon rescued, but despite a long search, aided by flares from Sirenia, no trace was found of Cooper. The lifeboat attempted to return to Sirenia, yet by this time the lifeboat had suffered heavy damage, and almost all of its oars had been lost. The crew, after an epic 15 hour struggle, had no choice but to return to Brook.

The Brighstone Lifeboat's Third Rescue

The iron hull of Sirenia had by now begun to break in half, and was flooding rapidly. Back at Atherfield, where the Brighstone lifeboat lay, a new crew for the lifeboat was being chosen. Of the original 13 crew, only three had survived injury well enough to man her. The new crew included Edmund Attrill, the coxswain of the Bembridge lifeboat, who had walked 15 miles from Bembridge across the Island, in the gale, in order to offer his services. Another crew member was the notorious local smuggler, Fred Bastiani.

The lifeboat was launched for a third time, and managed to battle to the Ledge where Sirenia lay. She rescued the 13 men left on board, safely reaching shore two hours later.

The Legacy of Sirenia

The inquiry held by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) into the Sirenia disaster awarded four Silver Medals for bravery to the crews of the lifeboats, and gave £300 to create a fund for the families of the deceased. A further £1,200 was raised on the Island, and work on a new station to watch Atherfield Ledge was begun. This was opened only three and a half years later.

The gravestones of those who died were also provided by the RNLI, and can be seen in St Mary's Church, Brighstone.

Irex

On 25 January, 1890, Irex, the largest sailing ship ever to be totally wrecked on the Island, was wrecked off the Needles.

On Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1889, the brand new 2,347-ton Irex began her maiden voyage. She had been scheduled to leave on 10 December but storms had made that impossible. Her steel hull was 302ft long, her masts 220ft high, and she carried a crew of 34 (plus two stowaways). She left Greenock bound for Rio de Janeiro, but immediately was caught in a storm and driven to Belfast Lough, where she was forced to remain until New Year's Day 1890.

Her Maiden Voyage

On leaving Belfast Lough Irex hit another south-westerly gale, but Captain Hutton was determined not to let another storm delay him. What he did not know was that this storm was to last more than three weeks. On 5 January the storm claimed its first casualties: six men were injured, two with broken limbs.

On 16 January the storm worsened, becoming hurricane strength, a strength which it was to remain at for 11 days. The crew begged the captain and First Mate to return to port, and on 24 January Irex reached Falmouth. Yet because of the storm no pilot would come aboard to guide her ashore. After waiting for 12 hours Captain Hutton decided that he had no choice but to make for Portland.

The Needles

By this time the strain of the storm had exhausted Captain Hutton. As Irex, thrown off course by the storm, approached the Needles, in the storm Captain Hutton mistook the warning light from the Needles lighthouse for a light from a pilot boat, and guided his ship towards it.

By the time he had realised his mistake it was too late. The Atlantic waves carried the steel hull onto the chalk bed, smashing the hull, which promptly began to flood. Captain Hutton gave the order to abandon ship and, with the First Mate, began to release one of the lifeboats. A giant wave broke over the ship, killing them both instantly. The Boatswain, meanwhile, was attempting to rescue the ship's log, but another wave swamped the cabin and he too was drowned.

The Lifeboat's Failure

At 9am Irex was spotted by men at the Needles Battery who informed the Totland lifeboat. A steam collier, Hampshire, had by this time seen Irex and was coming to her aid. Because of the storm, neither was able to approach Irex before 12 noon.

As the lifeboat approached to rescue at least Harry Grayhouse (one of the crew, who had a broken leg), another wave broke over Irex, and Harry died when the crewhouse he was sheltering in was smashed. The same wave almost smashed the lifeboat under the bow of Hampshire. The crew of the lifeboat felt it was impossible for them to rescue the crew of Irex under these conditions, and she was towed back to station by Hampshire.

The Needles Battery Rocket Rescue

When it was realised that the lifeboat had failed, the rescue efforts turned to the rocket apparatus which had by now arrived at the fort. At 1.15 the coastguard fired the rocket, against the gale, at the wreck, which was 300 yards away. The shot somehow found the wreck, but was caught in the rigging. The crew had no choice but to climb the rigging in order to free the rope. One boy, apprentice Hatchett, lost his grip and fell to his death. The rest of the crew managed to free the rope and set up the hawser, a process which took two hours. Soon the chair was ready to take men off the wreck to the fort above.

The first to be hauled to safety was Crewman Niccolls, who was rescued at 3pm. The second man rescued, Stearne, later died of his injuries.

By 12.30 all but one of the surviving crew had been brought ashore. The only remaining crew member on board Irex was a lad too scared to make the journey, yet Coastguard Machin and Isaac Rose descended to the ship and carried him ashore. The total number of people rescued from the ship was 29, out of the 36 on board.


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