Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks: Sirenia, Irex

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The Alpheus Marshall

On Sunday 9th 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, but luckily the local villagers, who had been at Church nearby, had come to their rescue. All 27 men were rescued from the storm, despite that most of them injured or unconscious. The ship's cargo, tins of beef, prawns and tomatoes, were also enjoyed by the villagers who found them washing up on the shore for weeks after.

The 1880s

In the 1880s, several ships were wrecked on the Island, such as the Austrian barque Atlas, which was wrecked on Atherfield Ledge with all cargo lost on November 25th 1880. On January 27th 1881, the 1,023 ton steamer S.S. Claremont from Newcastle was wrecked in a dense fog on Chale Bay. On New Year's Eve 1882, the 1,200 ton steamer S.S. Wheatfield beached at Blackgang Chine on its way from Lieth to New York. Her cargo of meat and flour was much appreciated by Islanders.

The Duke of Westminster

The biggest wreck the Island had yet seen came ashore on Atherfield Ledge at roughly 6pm on 3rd January 1884. She was the 4,426 ton four-masted steamer Duke of Westminster, and was newly constructed out of steel She was travelling to London from Australia, and had a 102 strong crew 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 with the destruction of her propeller blades and the crippling of the 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.

The S.S. Cormorant

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

Locals from the Island were hired to unload the cotton and taken to Newport, and others were hired to break its remains up, providing much needed work to many on the back of the Wight. While this was underway, one morning the salvors came to 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.

The Pride Of The Sea

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

A memorial was erected soon after the disaster, yet over the 115 years since the disaster, 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, spend £2,500 on restoring the Stone Memorial in order to preserve their memories.

The Sirenia

On the 9th March 1888, the Island's west coast was covered in a dense fog and a heavy sea driving onto the rocks at Atherfield, although there was no wind to explain it. The 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 5 passengers from San Franciso to Dunkirk and had drifted off course in the fog.

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

The Brighstone Lifeboat's First Rescue

At 4 o'clock, the Brighstone lifeboat 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 that the lifeboat reached the ship and was 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 as a full storm was beginning to develop. The lifeboat was carried to Grange Chine and launched, but immediately on launch, the sea threw the boat over, 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 the wind began, the Brighstone lifeboat re-launched and returned to the Sirenia, and 13 men were taken off the vessel despite the storm.

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 onboard, including the 13 just rescued, only 22 made it back to the lifeboat. Two of the crew of the Sirenia, Moses Munt the Captain of the lifeboat and Second Coxswain Thomas Cotton had drowned. With only 4 oars remaining, the Brighstone lifeboat limped back to shore in the storm, with most onboard having sustained at least a broken rib.

The Brook Lifeboat's Rescue

By this time the Brook lifeboat had reached the Sirenia, after sailing through 6 miles of "a veritable Hell of waters". When only yards away from the Sirenia, a wave knocked the ship, and 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 the Sirenia, no trace was found of Cooper. The lifeboat attempted to return to the 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 Fourth Rescue

The Sirenia's iron hull 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 3 had survived injury 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 gale-attacked Island in order to offer his services, as well as notorious local smuggler Fred Bastiani.

The lifeboat launched for a third time, and managed to battle to the ledge where the Sirenia lay, and rescued the 13 men left aboard, getting safely to shore 2 hours later.

The Sirenia's Legacy

The RNLI's inquiry into the Sirenia disaster awarded 4 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, which opened only 3 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.

The Irex

On January 25th 1890 the Irex, the largest sailing ship to ever be a total wreck on the Island, was wrecked by the Needles.

On Christmas Eve, December 24th 1889, the brand new 2,347 ton Irex began her maiden voyage. She had been scheduled to leave on December 10th, but storms had made that impossible. Her steel hull was 302 feet long, her masts 220 feet high, and had a crew of 34, plus 2 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, the 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 3 weeks. On the 5th January, the storm claimed its first casualties - 6 men were injured, two with broken limbs.

On the 16th January, the storm worsened, becoming Hurricane strength, a strength which it was to remain for 11 days. The crew begged the captain and First Mate to return to port, and on January 24th the Irex reached Falmouth.

Yet, because of the storm, no pilot would come aboard to guide the Irex ashore. After waiting 12 hours, Captain Hutton chose he had no choice but to make for Portland.

The Needles

By this time the strain of the storm had exhausted Captain Hutton. As the 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 the Irex was spotted by men at the Needles Battery, who informed the Totland lifeboat. A steam collier, Hampshire, had by this time seen the Irex and was coming to her aid. Because of the storm, neither were able to approach the Irex before 12.

As the lifeboat approached to rescue at least one of the crew, Harry Grayhouse, who had a broken leg, another wave broke over the Irex and Harry died when the crewhouse he was sheltering in was smashed. The same wave almost smashed the lifeboat under the bow of the Hampshire. The crew of the lifeboat felt it was impossible for the them to rescue the crew under these conditions, and was towed back to station by the 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 at the wreck which was 300 yards out against the gale, 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 member onboard the 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 aboard.

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

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