Ref Number: 00171
Ref Number: 00171
One of the oddest instances ever documented at the Needles featured the Greek cargo ship s.s. Varvassi, with a tonnage of 38764. From Algiers to Southampton, the ship carried a wide variety of goods, including 600 tonnes of iron ore destined for Boulogne, 200 tonnes of tangerines, 438 barrels of wine, and seven heifers as fresh meat reserve.
The pilot cutter was cruising towards the Varvassi on the evening of January 5, 1947, when the captain realised the ship was headed in the incorrect direction. The crew tried their hardest to get the ship to change its path by activating the sirens and flashing lights, but to no effect. She slammed into the rocks unexpectedly, being wedged in between them but yet managing to stay upright and away from the crew.
Though the Yarmouth lifeboat was dispatched, the Varvassi’s skipper decided against accepting assistance, instead opting to wait for the following tide and have a tug brought in from Southampton to refloat the ship. The Yarmouth lifeboat cooperated, but returned to port after the bigger Calshot tug had arrived.
As the weather deteriorated and the terrible company came, the Yarmouth lifeboat crew prepared for another journey to the Varvassi, which was now tugging on her anchors that had been placed and was sliding and grinding her bottom on the sharp rocks. The Calshot tug’s chain lines snapped, rendering her unable to maintain the ship’s position.
To prepare for any possible emergency, the skipper ordered the Yarmouth lifeboat to set sail once more. When the Varvassi began taking on water at around 9 p.m., it became evident that no more action could be taken to re-float her, as doing so at night might be highly dangerous. At about 7:15 p.m., the lifeboat came back.
Until the Varvassi’s crew radioed that everything was fine at 2 a.m., the lifeboat stood vigil during the storm. The crew was only given a brief reprieve before they were ordered back to launch positions at 06:15. The crew considered abandoning ship due to the ship’s condition, but they were brave and set sail towards the Varvassi nevertheless.
As the lifeboat neared the sinking ship, it became clear why they wanted to abandon it: the waves were smashing all over the deck, and the ship was taking on water at an alarming rate. Thanks to the courageous efforts of the lifeboat’s coxswain and his crew, the whole crew of the Varvassi was brought to Yarmouth, where they were taken in by the Kings Head. The Shipwrecked Mariners Society had clean, warm clothing for them within an hour of their arrival.
The heifers were fed since the skipper did not want to kill them, and the crew members who had not gone to Southampton the day after the storm passed brought back what they could. As the weather was too terrible to go alongside easily the day before, the heifers were murdered and flung overboard the following day, much to everyone’s dismay because they were of foreign stock and could not be brought onshore.
In the face of the constant South Westerly winds, it was determined on January 21, 1947, that the Varvassi was a total loss and not even the crew’s personal belongings could be saved.
Some wine barrels were apparently picked up by fishing boats as they floated up the Solent and across the Needles Channel, although the exact circumstances surrounding their recovery are unclear. This is because it was difficult to station a “ship’s keeper” on board due to the severe waves. For weeks and months following, many tangerines, although being poisonous, drifted above the region.
The ship’s hull still catches the rare sailor who hasn’t double-checked his charts, as most of the ore ran out into the nearby regions. The ship was eventually dismantled piece by piece to the extent that was feasible at the time.