The SS Varvassi was a 3.874-ton Greek merchant steamship that became infamous for running aground off the Needles Lighthouse, Isle of Wight on January 5th 1947.
The SS Varvassi was travelling from Algiers to Southampton with a mixed cargo. She was carrying 600 tons of iron ore, 200 tons of tangerines and 438 barrels of wine. She suffered engine failure off the Needles and drifted onto the rocks where she became stuck.
The Yarmouth Lifeboat was called out several times to assist but the captain sent them away hoping to save the ship. Several attempts were made to re-float her, but the strong South-Westerly winds and tides were not kind to her. Eventually, with waves breaking over the deck the captain abandoned ship, all crew were saved by the Yarmouth lifeboat.
Over the next few weeks, attempts were made to recover the cargo but this proved very difficult. The SS Varvassi was officially declared a wreck on 21st January 1947. She was broken up as best as could be done at the time, but this was hampered by strong tides and bad weather. The iron ore cargo spilt out onto the reaches, the tangerines could be seen floating around in the water for weeks and as for the wine? Well, I’m sure we can guess that one! To this day parts of the hull still remains underneath the water. On very low tides, close to chart datum, the boilers can be seen just breaking the surface of the water.
The wreck of the SS Varvassi is marked on charts to warn ships and yachts of her location, but she still manages to catch some unwitting sailors. The Round the Island Yacht Race runs every year and around 1200-1800 yachts take part in this popular circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Yachts of different classes have to sail around the island in a day. They start at Cowes head West to the Needles, go round the Needles down to St Catherine’s Point, then up the East side of the island and back to Cowes.
In 2016 the Commodore of the Island Sailing Club (the club that organises the race) Mark Wynter, lent his 1977 beautiful wooden Half Tonner Alchemist to friend and helmsman Andrew Talbot to participate in the race. Mark Wynter was too busy to enter. You can guess what happened. Alchemist hit the submerged boilers of the SS Varvassi and started to take on water. The Mudeford Lifeboat got to the scene and valiantly tried to tow the £30,000 yacht off the wreck but as it started to sink fast, this attempt was abandoned and the remaining crew were rescued. Here is some footage that was taken by one of the RNLI crew showing the sinking:
How to avoid the wreck
If you should find yourself sailing around the Needles make sure you have a current chart. As a guide to those without electronic or optical aids (are you mad?!), there is a simple way to tell if you are near to the wreck. Make sure you can see (with a height of eye of 6ft above the water) the Old Coastguard Station at a level clear above the top of the lighthouse. Here is a diagram to further explain:
And another to highlight the location: