The ‘Back of the Wight’ is notorious for its many shipwrecks. For hundreds of years, islanders have come to the aid of stranded vessels. Often they reaped rich rewards in claiming their share of the cargoes but often they risked their lives to help others.
Six weeks after leaving the West Indies the Clarendon carrying sugar, molasses and rum struggled in a howling gale off the coast of Blackgang. In the early hours of 11 October 1836 the heaving sea broke the Clarendon in two and claimed most of her passengers and crew. Local fisherman John Wheeler braved the storm and rescued the three survivors by striding into the surging waves with a rope around his waist,dragging the men to safety.
The wreck of the ‘Cormorant’ at the foot of Whale Chine was one of those wrecks that although a tragedy for the ship owners and insurers was of great benefit to the Island locals. The 1,450 ton steamer ran aground below Whale Chine near Chale amidst thick fog on 21st December 1886, having left New Orleans almost a month before. All attempts to refloat her failed. She was laden with bales of cotton and over the next two years the ‘Cormorant’ was gradually broken up and stripped of everything saleable. Today you can still see her boilers from the cliff top when the sea is clear and calm.
Due to pressure from the public, church and coastguards over the loss of life from the appalling number of wrecks on the ‘Back of the Wight’, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution decided to set up not one but two lifeboat stations to serve the area. This was duly done and on 13 August 1860 both stations were opened – one at Brook Chine and the other at Brighstone Grange at Grange Chine.
The first boat at Grange Chine was named, aptly enough, ‘Rescue’ and Brook’s first boat was named ‘Dauntless’. Both boats were landed and recovered from a horse-drawn carriage – not an easy task at night and with a gale blowing! A third lifeboat, the ‘Catherine Swift’, was later installed at Atherfield in 1890. It was housed in a large shed at the top of the cliff. Without the benefit of a chine to access the beach it was lowered 240 feet down a long slipway to get to the sea.
These lifeboats were all propelled by oars (usually 10) and also had masts and sails. The lifeboats carried out many rescues over the years, some under terrible conditions, with lifeboatmen being killed in effecting the rescue. The crews were often made up of fisherman and farm labourers some of whom in the early days had been smugglers.
The Brighstone Grange station closed in 1914 and Atherfield the following year. Brook was the last to close in 1937.