“…The South Goodwin Lightship could just be seen, a dim red barque married forever to the same compass point and condemned, like a property ship on the stage of Drury Lane, to watch a diorama of waves and clouds sail busily into the wings. Without papers or passengers or cargo, it lay anchored forever to the departure point which was also its destination….anchored to the gates of a graveyard.”
Ian Fleming, Moonraker
The Danger of Lightship Duty
Although life aboard a lightship was routine and monotonous, it was beset with moments that were a true test of courage. The unfortunate story that this blog post is going to relate is a perfect testament to the danger of lightship duty. I wanted to continue the theme of the previous blog posts regarding my research into LV-95 by relating a story of survival that illustrates both the inherent hazard and therefore the importance of lightship duty. Lightships have long since been eclipsed by modern technology with the last American lightship Nantucket being taken off station in 1985 and the LV-95 being taken off station from the port of Milwaukee by the installation of a radio beacon. It is the feeling of this author that people have forgotten what these ships are and what they did. I have recently obtained the rare model kit of the South Goodwin produced by Revell not knowing the tragic history behind this ship and that is my inspiration for this blog post.
The Goodwin Sands
The lightship South Goodwin was a British lightship constructed to mark the most hazardous spot on the English Channel, the Goodwin Sands. British inventor Robert Hamblin first constructed the progenitor of the modern lightship for use at the mouth of the River Thames in 1734.
The British Government still maintains a fleet of nine lightships each automated, including the East Goodwin not far from where the former South Goodwin was stationed. The Trinity House, which is a private organization governed by Royal Charter, manages lightships along with all aids to navigation. The former lightship South Goodwin was used to mark an area called the Goodwin Sands, a roughly ten-mile long shifting sand bank, that is located in the narrowest part of the English Channel just six miles off the coast of Kent, England. One of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. This area has long been regarded as a treacherous passage, having been dubbed “The Great Ship Swallower”. This area has apparently claimed over 1,000 shipwrecks most lost to the shifting sands and making appearances every few years.
“Why, yet it lives there uncheck’d that Antonio hath a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas; the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many a tall ship lie buried, as they say, if my gossip Report be an honest woman of her word.”
-William Shakespeare, A Merchant of Venice.
Not too long after the first lightship was established, a lightship was established at the Goodwin Sands in 1795 at North Sand Head. At the time of the loss of the South Goodwin, there were three lightships marking the Goodwin Sands, The North Goodwin, and the East Goodwin. The Royal Lifeboat Service has long had lifeboats based at the nearby city of Ramsgate as a rescue service for vessels that had either sunk or had become stranded on the sands. In addition to that job, these crews would also blast shipwrecks with explosives in order to clear them as hazards to navigation.
The Loss of The Lightship South Goodwin
The lightship South Goodwin was commissioned in 1937, its official number being LV-90. It was constructed from iron and steel and was 118 feet long and displaced 317 tons. The vessel was unpowered and had to be towed to and from its station four miles off of Dover with the help of a Trinity House tender. The engines that aboard were to power the anchor winch, the foghorn, and electric power. The lightship was held on station by four mushroom anchors but, during the night of its loss, apparently, not all of the anchors were deployed. One of the differences between UK lightships and US lightships is that the UK light vessels were all manned by civilians, mainly ex-fisherman and ex-sailors, men who would be used to staying out at sea for long periods of time. When the Coast Guard had merged with the U.S. Lighthouse service in 1939, all of the crews were civilian but, given the option to join the Coast Guard and by the 1950’s most American lightship crews were Coast Guardsmen. The South Goodwin carried a crew of seven but, they had an extra member aboard, Ronald Murton who was apart of the British Ministry of Agriculture and was studying bird migration from the lightship, including those that used the lightship as a roost. Ronald had come aboard a month prior to start his work before the night of November 26-27 1954. This had all happened between midnight and 1:30. The vessel was hit with hurricane force winds and huge waves. The South Goodwin had separated from its anchor chain and being unpowered, there was little the crew could do. In fact, inside the pilothouse the master, Horace Skipp could not at first tell if the lightship was adrift or not. Murton, unable to sleep due to the weather had gone to the bridge and found the captain and the crew trying to take bearings in order to ascertain whether the ship was on station. After which the crew went to the galley (ships kitchen) and Skipp was going to go to the radio room to call for help and let it be known that the lightship was no longer on station. This was already done for him as the South Goodwin had drifted past its fellow lightship, North Goodwin where the crew radioed that the lightship was off station and possibly in trouble. The Royal Lifeboat Service had launched lifeboats from nearby Ramsgate and Dover but, they were having difficulty with the tremendous seas and howling winds. As soon as the Skipp had turned his back to go to the radio room, the lightship suddenly lurched onto its starboard side, with the waves beating it onto Goodwin Sands, the very hazard the lightship marked.
Water then burst in through the galley hatch quickly filling it, Murton was carried onto the top of the oven (which was fortunately out) where he was able to dive through the hatch taking him out onto the deck of the stricken South Goodwin. Murton would climb onto the scaffolding for the light and hang on for his life. With the bone chilling winds and freezing waves threatening to pull him into the sea, Murton held onto the grounded lightship for eight hours. While clinging to the scaffold, Murton claimed he could hear a tapping over the weather coming from inside of the ship, which he assumed to be his trapped crewmates. The lifeboats did eventually reach the grounded lightship but, apparently could not come within 700 yards of it. At the eighth hour of Murton clinging to the lightship, the U.S. Air Force at Manston sent a Sikorsky Chickasaw helicopter from the 66th Air Sea Rescue Squadron to do a few passes over the South Goodwin. During this, the crew noticed Murton still clinging to the wreck but, had to return to base to refuel. The helicopter returned at the beginning of hour nine and then hovered just 30 feet over the lightship and spray, lowered a lifeline down, where Murton thrust himself in and was carried away to safety.
No one was able to reach the grounded South Goodwin until a day later on November 28. Eventually, the Trinity House tender Patricia along with the H.M.S. Romora and its complement of Royal Navy Frogmen made it to the wreck. The Chickasaw rescue helicopter had returned and was able to land on a nearby sand bank; bringing with it an Oxy-Acetylene torch to cut through the wreck. The divers had searched through the wreck of the South Goodwin but, were not able to find any sign of the crew, no survivors, no bodies, nothing. It was presumed that the heavy seas had washed the crew out of the lightship. The South Goodwin was carried 6 1/2 miles north from its usual station. Ronald Murton was the lone survivor. The crew of the rescue helicopter all received medals for their bravery.
This was not the first time that an incident like this had occurred. The lightship used at the same spot as South Goodwin then called South Sand Head had also broke anchor and was carried away only to run aground in 1899. As far as I can tell being in the United States, the wreck of the South Goodwin was never recovered or destroyed as a hazard to navigation, so there is the possibility that it’s still extant. It was left to be consumed by the shifting Goodwin Sands. Presumably, like the many wrecks of the Goodwin Sands every so often, the shifting sands and tide reveal the wreck of the lightship. There was a replacement South Goodwin used to mark the same spot until the lightship station was no longer needed in 2006, the replacement had a helipad added to the stern.
These men were most likely looking forward to the Christmas season where the local towns would send a boat out with a Christmas tree, gifts and a Christmas dinner for the crew, who had to stand their vigil over Christmas day.
Horace Thomas Skipp, Master
George Henry Charles Cox
Kenneth George Lanham
Sidney George James Philpott
Walter Alfred Viney
Tom Benjamin Bridges Porter
Knowing this, I’m going to make my model kit right.
Sources & Resources
Adventures of the Black Gang. The Goodwin Disaster
British Pathe. Storm Havoc. Original Newsreel footage of the South Goodwin Disaster
Chamberlain, David. Christmas On The Goodwins. Ramsgate History Forum
Clarke, Liam. Light In The Darkness: A History of Lightships and The People Who Served On Them
Fleming’s Bond References: South Goodwin Lightship
Harrison, Timothy Lightship Tragedy. Lighthouse Digest
History of Manston Airfield. South Goodwin Lightship Disaster, 26/27 November 1954.
Kent History Forum. The South Goodwin Disaster 1954.
Trinity House History Blog. South Goodwin Lightvessel
Trinity House History Blog. Lightvessels
Trinity House. Lighthouses and Lightvessels.
UK Shore Blog History of The Goodwin Sands