The Wreck of the Varvassi
Needles, Isle of Wight - 5 January 1947
Report from the Isle of Wight County Press
Steamer wrecked on Needles Rock
from the County Press
rescued by lifeboat
and abandoned, the victim of one of the most inexplicable
accidents In the history, of wrecks on the Island coast, a Greek
cargo steamer is lying athwart the Needles Bridge, a line of underwater
rocks stretching between the Needles lighthouse and the Bridge buoy,
marking the channel. How she came to run on the rocks is a mystery.
6.55 a.m. on Sunday, in perfectly clear weather, officers at the R.N.
Signal Station and those on board the pilot cutter, who were waiting
to put a pilot on board, saw that she was on a wrong course and made
every attempt to warn her of her danger by sounding syrens and
flashing the international warning signal “U.” Apparently all
the signals were unoticed as the ship continued on her course and
struck the rocks, lodging firmly in an upright position.
Cargo of Tangerines.
ship is the S.S. Varvassi, a vessel of 3874 tons, inward bound from
Algiers with a cargo of 300 tons of tangerines and a quantity of
Algerian wine for Southampton and iron ore for Boulogne. She had a
crew of 34 and was in command of Capt. George A. CoufopandeIis.
Varvassi was built in 1915 by the Northumberland Shipbuilding Co.,
of Newcastle, and is registered at The Piræus
in the name of Mrs. Evgenia J. Crandris, who purchased her last
year. Previously she was the Lady Charlotte. Coast watchers
estimated the speed of the vessel at about three knots when she
struck, and although full tide was not until 65 minutes later she
was so firmly wedged on the rocky ledge that she failed to move at
high water. By this time the Yarmouth lifeboat, under Coxswain G.
Smith, was on the scene, but in reply to signals the Varvassi
informed him that she did not require assistance and, that a tug had
been sent for. Immediately after she grounded the pilot cutter put a
Trinity House pilot (Comdr. J. F. H. Coombes, R.D., R.N.R, of
Wootton) on board the vessel, and the lifeboat stood by until the
arrival, shortly before noon, of the Calshot, one of Southampton’s
most powerful tugs.
Refloating Efforts Fail.
again making sure that her assistance was not required the lifeboat
returned to harbour after five hours at sea, during which time a
moderate south-east breeze had strengthened to half a gale and a
heavy sea was running in the Channel. The coxswain consulted the
lifeboat secretary (Capt. A. G. Cole) and the crew were warned to
hold themselves ready to go out again at a moment’s notice. Mr. H.
Simmond’s motor launch Dianne was chartered by the salvage firm
Messrs. Risdon, Beasley, and Co., of Southampton, to take their
representative (Mr. A. Barker) to the stranded vessel, and he was
put on board after considerable difficulty, owing to the rough
the tide ebbed the ship worked slightly nearer to the lighthouse,
and the tug Calshot, commanded by Capt. E. J.. Chisman, worked for
nearly three hours under great difficulty running out the stricken
vessel’s port anchor in an attempt to prevent further movement.
The first two lines on the anchor parted under the strain, but eventually the tug was able to run out 110 fathoms of chain and
make the anchor fast to the westward.
7.15 p.m. the lifeboat was asked I to return to the scene and to
stand by In case of mishap when an attempt was made to refloat the
vessel on the evening tide at about
9 p.m. Before then, however, it was obvious that nothing
could be done that night, and the master signalled to the tug that
the Varvassi was making water and any attempt to refloat her in the
dark and on that tide would be inadvisable. Acting on this advice
the tug made no attempt to tow, but stood by throughout the night.
The lifeboat also stood by until 2.30 a.m. on Monday and then, after
the crew had been assured that further assistance was unnecessary,
she returned to Yarmouth, after battling with tremendous seas for
over seven hours, with freezing rain and occasional flurries of snow
adding to the lifeboatmen’s discomfort.
Abandoned and Crew Rescued.
lifeboat crew, tired out after their strenuous efforts, were allowed
little rest, as they, were again summoned from their beds by
maroon when the coxswain was informed at 6.5 a.m. that the crew of
the Varvassi wished to be taken off immediately. Within a few
minutes of the call being received the lifeboat was out on her third
errand of mercy In 24 hours. Getting alongside in the lee of the
steamer was a tricky and dangerous operation, and when in this
position the lifeboatmen found that the waves, which were breaking
clean over the Varvassi and threatening to wash the officers off the
bridge, poured across the deck and down into their
In spite of these handicaps, however, all those on board were safely
transferred to the lifeboat, and brought to Yarmouth. The crew were
compelled to abandon all their personal belongings. One of them
brought with him the ship’s mascot, a black and white kitten,
which he presented to the landlord of the Kings Head Hotel,
Yarmouth, where the officers and crew were given shelter. The hotel
saloon soon resembled the forecastle of a ship, with lifejackets
piled high against one wall, steaming clothing drying before a huge
fire, and the men changing rapidly Into dry clothing distributed by
Mr. Rupert Simpson, the local representative of the Shipwrecked
Mariners’ Society. Clothing for the: rescued men was provided by
Mr. C. Morris Dabell, of Newport, who always holds in stock
sufficient articles to cloth five men. When he learned from Yarmouth
Police that 35 men were coming ashore he saw other Newport clothiers
and managed to obtain further items, which, he took to Yarmouth. Mr.
Dabell is a member of the
Chale and Brook Shipwreck Fund …….. guaranteed
the Shipwrecked Mariners Society to get dry clothing to any
shipwrecked crew on the Island within an hour.
crew were loud in their praise of
the second engineer (Mr. C. Vitsasakis), who kept up steam
until the last moment, and, with pumps going from the moment she
struck, managed to keep the engine, room dry and the lighting
installation in good order. When pumping ceased, as the vessel
was abandoned, all the.lights went out before the lifeboat had
travelled a quarter of a mile from the wreck. With the exception of
a 27-year-old fireman, Alfred Craig, of Glasgow, the crew are all
Greeks or South Americans Craig’s only comment, when seen by a
“County Press” representative, was “ I’m ‘cheesed off and
want to go home.” Nevertheless he was one of the first
volunteers when an officer asked for a party of 12 to return to the
wreck to attempt to salvage personal belongings The remaining 22,
left for Southampton, travelling to the mainland on the 10.40
a.m. ferry from Yarmouth to Lymington.
the morning the captain went out to the salvage boat, Lady
Southborough, which is now standing by, and the Calshot and
another salvage vessel which had raced through tremendous seas from
operations on the Goodwins to offer her assistance returned to
Cattle on Board.
after 1 p.m. Mr. H. Simmonds, boatbuilder, of Yarmouth, and his
three sons put off to the wreck with the volunteer crew, and,
favoured by a lull in the weather, and bright sunshine, they worked
until darkness and succeeded in saving the whole of the wrecked
crew’s personal belongings. One of the first to go on board was
the captain and his first thought was for the safety of seven
heifers penned on deck, which were carried to provide fresh meat on
the voyage. He firmly rejected a suggestion that the animals
should be shot and personally fed and watered them. Mr. J. Simmonds
also gave them food and water before returning to Yarmouth. Among
the possessions rescued by the crew were a number of pets, including
cats and caged canaries. These were left on board the salvage craft.
The Captain and officers also remained on board this vessel, but
the remainder’ of the party crossed to the mainland the same
evening by the last ferry of the day.
and members of the crew told our representative that when the ship
stopped to pick up a pilot the combination of current and wind drove
them on to the rocks.
Tuesday it was impossible for any vessel to get alongside the wreck,
although local boatmen wished to take out food and water to the
cattle. On Wednesday Mr. Harry Simmonds left Yarmouth at 7.45 a.m.
in fog, which prevented the ferry steamers from crossing and managed
to put on board a licensed slaughterer, who despatched the seven
heifers quickly and humanely. The carcases were thrown overboard. An
hour afterwards heavy seas were breaking over the vessel and a
R.A.S.C. tank landing craft, which twice tried to go alongside to
take off some of the cargo had to abandon the attempt. On Thursday
the sea was again too rough to admit of boarding the vessel.
from Customs reports, made by the
Officer, Cowes (who also acted as local Receiver of Wreck)
Greek vessel "Varvassi" homeward bound for Southampton went
aground on a ledge 600 feet to the seaward of the Needles Light House,
Isle of Wight 5 January 1947 at 7am. Salvage vessels could not get
the vessel afloat again and the captain and crew were bought ashore at
Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. The crews baggage was taken under hatches by
salvage vessel direct from the wreck to Southampton and cleared by the
Waterguard Department and Immigration formalities dealt with at that port.
The Master made his deposition before the Receiver of Wreck in London.
Bonded stores were taken in charge by the Waterguard Department in Cowes
and transferred under official control to the Kings Warehouse, Portsmouth.
landing of cattle on board (not cargo) was prohibited by the Ministry of
Agriculture and Fisheries at Newport Isle of Wight and the animals were
slaughtered on board and dumped at sea (weighted) by officials of that
Department. The cargo consists of 24750 baskets of mandarins, North Africa
to Southampton, 438 barrels of wine, Algeria to Belgium and 600 tons iron
ore, Algeria to Southampton.
London Salvage Association have landed at Yarmouth some of the ships
equipment - all of which is under lock and key there. The equipment
2 Compasses in bowls
1 Ships Chronometer
3 Ships Clocks in Brass Cases
1 Aneroid Barometer
1 Ships Wireless
measures in operation for the security of the Revenue are that the vessel
is in full view of the Needles Naval Signal Station who report any craft
in the vicinity of the wreck to the adjacent Coastguard station at Totland
bay and also to the Customs Staff at Cowes"
Oranges ex Varvassi wrecked off the Needles 5/1/47
goods are being purchased outright by the importer ....... who is paying
3/6 per basket on the quay (The first 2309 were purchased at 2/6). The
baskets are marked to contain 20 lbs of fruit (verified by test check) but
the fruit is in a very indifferent condition and showing sign of
stripping of metal from the ship will shortly commence. I interviewed the
contractors at Yarmouth and ascertained his intention. It was stated that
suitable piping will be hacked off and conveyed by their launch to
Yarmouth and deposited in their boat house at that place"
Notification was a signal from the Naval Signalling Station at the Needles
at 1020 on 21 March. 'Large numbers of barrels part cargo coming from
portside of Varvassi and floating into Needles Channel. Vessel appears to
be breached front side aft'
have been floating up and down the Solent since and many have apparently
drifted into the Channel. Some have been picked up afloat by local fishing
boats and other estural craft and bought into Yarmouth and Cowes whilst
others are coming ashore on beaches.
existence of such casks is an encouragement to plunder, and it is thought
that the destruction of the wine would be in the best interest of the
regard to the warrant received for the arrest of the above vessel, it
should be stated that the vessel is a total wreck abandoned by its owners
since 21st January 1947.
was not possible to effect the arrest yesterday or today owing to the
disinclination of any local boatmen to go out to the wreck on account of
the heavy swell. The placing of a ship keeper on board is not considered
practicable for reasons of lack of accommodation, distance from shore and
the possibility of danger due to condition of the ship. The port side aft
hold has been breached and has collapsed and further heavy weather may
carry away the stern of the ship.
ships cargo consisted of mandarins, wine in casks and ore. The first has
been landed by the Salvage company and sold. The wine and ore remain on
board except for a part of the wine which has broken away (estimated at 80
out of 438)."
Until recently one of the functions carried out by Customs was to act as
agent for the Admiralty Marshall and arrest ships where an arrest writ had
visited the wreck "Varvassi 1st November at the Needles, Isle of
Wight. The vessel is still lying where she went aground on 5 January 1947.
A large part of the stern has broken away. All the bulk heads have gone
and the see is sweeping inside her. It is local opinion that she will
break up in the spring gales.
cargo consisted of mandarine oranges, wine and iron ore. There were 24774
baskets of mandarin's on board, 7675 boxes were taken off between January
18th and March 20th 1947. The weather at this period was
consistently bad. Operations ceased owing to the condition of the fruit,
landing was no longer economic.
casks of Algerian wine were shown on the ships manifest. The vessel was
breached 21 March 1947 in bad weather and many casks floated away. 182
only were there when transport was eventually arranged for conveyance of
wine remaining on board to Southampton. 62 Casks in conditions varying
from full to empty have been reported and it is understood others have
come ashore along the coast of the mainland.
thousand tons of iron ore remain in the wreck and the salvage Association
state it will not be economical to salve it. The stripping of metal piping
has not materialised to the extent anticipated. I called on (the salvor)
at Yarmouth and he stated that the weather during the early months of the
year was too bad for work of this nature to be attempted on board and that
he had been too busy during the summer. he stated he had taken off 8 wash
basins and one binnacle stand. I inspected the goods in his yard."
was the last report available
The reports above
from the Customs Officer appear to differ markedly from local accounts,
far from securing the revenue from the goods, the accounts I have heard say that the beaches were covered with oranges
(although not really edible) and the locals actively helped in removing
goods from the ship (without reporting them!). In addition, I understand
that there were bottles of wine on board in addition to the 'declared'
One account says that
barrels of wine were lashed together and taken to Yarmouth, where the
Customs Officer seized them. The people involved promptly returned to the
ship and liberated others, which were not landed at Yarmouth! It also
appears that the salvor removed considerably more material than he
admitted to the Officer.
appeared in The West Wight Remembered by Eric Toogood (published in 1984)
local lads on the wreck of the 'Varvassi' on the Needles ledge in
January 1947. Gerry Jackson is on the ladder, Paul Cook (on the
left) and Fred Brown. The photo was taken by Roy Shearing.
The 'Varvassi' was a
Greek steamer of 3,800 tons from Piraeus and was wrecked a 100 yards
from the lighthouse.
The Cargo included
tangerines (a real treat, every home had a dish!) and barrels of red
wine. The wine 'punched up' with sugar was almost palatable. An
ex-German P.o.W. at Fort Warden brewed up a concoction which would
have made a good paint stripper."
Mew in 'Back of the Wight' (revised edition) wrote:
her cargo were large tubs of Algerian wine, some of this eventually being
sampled by dwellers near the Island coast, and when warmed and sweetened
made quite a good drink, as I can testify."
parts of the Varvassi remain and can be identified from the surface. It frequently catches out unwary
mariners, particularly during the Round the Island sailing race.
28 July 2010