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History of the Goodwin Sands

Description of Goodwin Sands

The Goodwin Sands are a notorious stretch of sands just off the coast of Kent in the English Channel. Submerged at high tides, with areas being exposed and drying sufficiently for a man to walk on at low tides, they present a particular challenge to shipping especially given their unfortunate location… at the narrowest part of the busiest shipping channel in the world.
This article is copyright UK Shore 2008 (coastpx.uk)

Image: The Goodwin Sands, reproduced under Project Gutenberg License

The Goodwin Sands are around four miles offshore, beginning near Kingsdown, Kent and ending around Pegwell Bay, just south of Ramsgate, a total length of around nine miles. The channel between the coast and the sands is known as the Downs, and although the sands present a grave danger to shipping, their position has also provided protection and thus the Downs and Goodwin Sands, and the protective Harbour at Ramsgate made this area historically important. In fact it may be true to say that over the past 1000 years, this stretch of the English Channel can be considered historically the most important stretch of water in the world.


The geological history of the Goodwin Sands is disputed; some believing it was previously an island which became swamped by sediment and rising sea levels, others that is simply an accumulation of sediment swept into place by the English Channel funnelling back and forth through the narrow straits of Dover. It is true that the nearby Thanet area was in fact an island back in Roman times (hence the full title; Isle of Thanet) and this may lead people to believe the Goodwin Sands are of a similar nature. However the few attempts at surveying the Sands by drilling have not shown any evidence of soil or organic matter which would suggest an island existed. It is more likely that the Sands are simply an accumulation of sediment on a predominantly solid chalk base.

Since the first recorded shipwreck in the Goodwin Sands area dating back to 1298, the maritime history is one of enormous loss of life and shipping. Ships, the crew and passengers that become stranded on the sands were often facing a terrible fate. Typically a ship would break its back as the tide changed, survivors may have been able to clamber onto the sands as the tide receded, and light fires and attempt to attract the attention of the Boatsmen of Deal and Kingsdown, or the lifeboats in later eras. If no help was forthcoming then within hours the tide would return, the sands would turn into lethal quicksand, and ships and survivors would be engulfed. Many ships were simply swallowed whole within a few days.
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