The deck of the Irex after it was grounded in Scratchells Bay.
WIGHT LIVING LISTENING to the recent storm-force gales thrashing the bedroom window has reminded me of a similar time of storms — December 1889 and January 1890.
Those gales were the cause of the Island’s greatest sailing shipwreck at its most iconic location.
It must have been a jaw-dropping moment for the three crew of The Needles Lighthouse when, in the first light of January 25, 1890, they peered out through the spume and spray of another hurricane-force westerly and saw a huge sailing ship grounded just to the south.
The full-rigged SS Irex was more than 300ft long, with three masts reaching 200ft into the sky with her sails full set.
Scratchells Bay was the worst possible place to come ashore and this was the worst possible time. The only escape from the beach, now a frenzy of exploding waves, was up the near vertical chalk cliffs.
The lighthouse keepers’ telegraph set in motion one of the Island’s most dramatic shipwreck rescues.
The 2,347-ton steel-hulled Irex had sailed on her maiden voyage from Greenock on December 10, 1889, bound for South America. She had a crew of 36 men and boys commanded by the experienced Capt Hutton. In the Irish Sea a violent south-westerly gale caused the cargo of 3,500 tons of pipes, pots and pig-iron to shift. The Irex had to return to Greenock to have the cargo re-stowed.
On Christmas Eve, Hutton sailed again into the Irish Sea but was forced to seek shelter from another gale in Belfast Lough until January 1.
From January 2 to 23, the Irex wallowed as far as the Bay of Biscay in a succession of increasingly violent storms. On January 5, six men were injured, two with broken limbs. On the 23rd, the mutinous crew demanded Hutton seek shelter.
Running with the wind, the Irex reached Falmouth at 8pm the following day. The exhausted crew waited 12 hours for a pilot boat but none would venture out.
At 8am on January 25, the Irex set sail for Portland but rain and mist left the ship completely lost as darkness fell around 4pm. After 14-and-a-half hours, Hutton’s tired eyes saw the warning red flash of The Needles Lighthouse.
His exhausted mind saw the light of a pilot boat. He ordered the helm directly at The Needles rocks. Hutton and the crew argued bitterly. He only came to his senses when the 400ft cliffs of Scratchells Bay came into view.
"Put the helm down!" he yelled. "Brace the yards up!"
But it was too late. The steel prow crashed into the chalk floor of the bay. Twice the ship was picked up by the Atlantic surge and, with the wind in its sails, plunged forward to crash again and again. This fine new ship was now beyond salvage.
The Atlantic swells that had run under the ship now blasted the exposed stern and surged along the length of the deck.
In the captain’s quarters, Boatswain Hanson was drowned trying to save the ship’s logbook.
As Hutton and the mate were preparing the ship’s boats, a great sea swept them away. The remainder of the crew scrambled up the rigging where they endured the rest of the night to the screams of Dick Stearn, trapped between a fallen spar and a winch, a leg and an arm broken.
The cabin boy, Oglivie, lost his mind and returned to the deck. He was crushed by a falling spar. The crippled Harry Grayson was killed after a wave smashed through the crew house.
At 10am, the Totland Lifeboat, Charles Luckombe, was launched and taken in tow by the steamer Hampshire. Freshwater Bay Coastguard ascended High Down equipped with their portable rescue rocket. Hundreds of people flocked to the top of the downs to look down on the helpless wreck.
At 12.23pm, the spectators cheered as the Charles Luckombe’s crew began the 300-yard row from the Hampshire to the Irex. Both the lifeboat and the steamer were being swept by heavy seas.
After 20 minutes, the lifeboat had made just 100 yards when it was swamped. An argument broke out among the volunteer crew. Coxswain Stone sided with the majority. The Charles Luckombe began to row back to the Hampshire to await better conditions.
At 1pm, the coastguard team arrived at The Needles Battery at the western extremity of the headland. Ten minutes’ later, Coastguard Hallett fired the first rocket. Despite being fired 300 yards out, 400 feet down and into the teeth of the gale, it snarled in the rigging of the foremast. The thin cord attached to it was augmented as every available yard of rope was spliced with it.
The seamen in the main and mizzen masts had to make their way to the foremast hand-over-hand along the mainstays. Apprentice Hatchett lost his grip and plunged to the deck below.
After two hours, the exhausted sailors had set up a hawser in the foremast and the coastguards had set up a bosun’s chair to bring the seamen up one by one.
At 3pm, Seaman Niccolls was the first hauled above the maelstrom below. The coastguards doing the hauling worked in a hail of chalk and shingle fragments thrown up by the gale. The onlookers were invited to help and volunteered at the ropes for five hours.
At 8pm, a detachment of troops from the garrison at Golden Hill Fort arrived. They were reinforced at 10.30pm. The last of the surviving men was hauled ashore at half past midnight. But there was one boy, Jones, who was frozen with fear. He had been wrapped in a rug and lashed to the mizzen mast.
On the morning of January 26, conditions had not improved. Coastguard Machin and a black seaman, Isaac Rose, returned to the wreck by the bosun’s chair. Between the waves, Rose raced the deck to the mizzen mast where he found Jones 'blue with cold and half dead’.
Rose carried Jones on his back to the deck where they were buried by another wave. However they both clung on and all three safely returned before the rescue line broke.
In all, 29 men and boys out of the crew of 36 were saved by the rocket apparatus. The hull of the Irex remains in Scratchells Bay as a grim legacy of an extraordinary rescue.