Records over the last few hundred years show that some 4,000 ships have been wrecked at the back of the Isle of Wight off the English coast, on a treacherous stretch of coast which runs from the Needles on the western end to Bembridge Ledge in the east.
Of this number, a great many were sailing ships which drifted ashore in fog, sailed up the beach through navigational error, were stranded on rocks while trying to cut corners, dragged their anchors, or were in collision with other vessels.
The list of casualties reads like a telephone directory: the fully-rigged 900 ton Underley, bound for Melbourne in 1871 with 30 migrants and a cargo of cotton goods, ended up on the rocks off Bonchurch when a spirited south easterly pushed her ashore; the iron built barque Alpheta ran onto Bernbridge Ledge in 1877 and became a total loss; the 1,588 ton Sirenia fetched ashore on Atherfield Ledge in a storm in 1888; the Irex became a total wreck off the Needles in January 1890, some of her timbers eventually being salvaged and used for the construction of cottages in the nearby village of Freshwater; the fully-rigged ship Alcester, out of Liverpool and sailing from Calcutta to Hamburg, was lost on Atherfield Ledge in 1897 – she broke in two and became a total wreck.
In the same place, the German barque Auguste met her end in February 1900; the Carl, a fully-rigged ship, was driven into Fresh-water Bay by high tides and gale force winds, her crew scrambling to safety over the bowsprit. Her fate was more fortunate, however; she sailed again after a channel had been blasted through the shingle and the vessel have off by tugs.
Wreckings and strandings such as these were commonplace wherever tall ships sailed on the trade routes of the world. Their safest haven was the deep ocean. Land was a menace; a sailing ship master needed all his skill to keep his ship from driving ashore in inclement weather, although occasionally it was not only weather which was the menace.
When the Glasgow-built fully-rigged ship Glenesslin fetched up on the rocks beneath Neahkahnie Mountain on the Oregon coast of North America, she did so in style. She was 176 days out from Santos, Brazil in ballast for the Columbia River when on 1 October, 1913, a clear and fine day, the ship drove ashore with all sails set. At the hearing which followed, the blame for the wrecking was laid to incompetence, a patch of calm inside a nearby headland, and drink.
Ships which have survived to this day, and which have been lovingly restored for the public to see, are the lucky few. These were either converted to steam by shipowners when it became obvious that steam would take over the world’s merchant ship fleets, or ended their working lives being used as bulk storage hulks, or, as in the case of the Peking, passed into more benevolent hands and were put to good use as static training ships.
Others, discovered lying to rot on a distant shore, have been brought back to life by dint of volunteer enthusiasm, but these are now few and far between.