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The Cursed Ship-Eating Sand Bar of England

There are mysterious places in this world that seem to be in a sense hungry. People, planes, ships, they go these places to their doom, pulled in and devoured by forces both natural and perhaps something more. Such places seem to be almost predatory in nature, lying in wait for victims to pounce upon, sometimes causing them to vanish without a trace. One such insidious destination lies off the coast of England. Here among the choppy waters lurks a simple stretch of partially submerged sand, seemingly harmless and innocuous, and yet it has managed to ensnare and engulf hundreds of ships since it first formed, as well as evade mankind’s attempts to reign it in, and this almost malevolent, voracious appetite for ships has earned it a place within the more sinister legends and myths of the area.

Lying at the mouth of the Camel River estuary, off the north coast of Cornwall, England, at the point where the meandering river connects with the Celtic Sea is a permanent sandbar currently known as the Doom Bar, and formerly as Dunbar sands or the Dune-bar. At first glance the simple expanse of sand seems to be rather unassuming, with nothing particularly ominous about it. Created primarily from marine sand and sediments composed of mostly ground up seashells deposited there by a complex series of currents and tides, the Doom Bar in many respects resembles other sandbars found in the area, and it would be easy to miss or ignore if it weren’t for the fact that it has rightfully earned its common name “Doom Bar,” although the real origin of the name is a corruption of the name “Dunbar.”

The Camel Estuary

The Camel Estuary

According to tradition, the Doom Bar formed during the reign of Henry VIII, who was the King of England from 1509 to 1547. At the time, the formation of this new sandbar presented a predicament for the local community, in particular the port town of Padstow, whose harbor could only be accessed by a perilous route through high cliffs as it was. This made the presence of the sandbar an added danger to the already harrowing passage through the estuary, which had already become notorious for being a deadly, arduous journey. This added obstacle of the sandbar made the route extremely difficult to navigate, and the Doom Bar began its career in wrecking ships in earnest.

Immediately after its formation, many ships were smashed or run aground upon the sandy face of the Doom Bar at an alarming rate, and for centuries the Doom Bar became widely regarded as a significant peril to the point that many ships refused to even attempt the passage. Indeed, it was often said by mariners that, especially during stormy weather, they would rather risk crashing into rocks along the coast than try to sail past the accursed Doom Bar. Some charitable captains went so far as to publish detailed manuscripts outlining the proper way to navigate the channel, but this seemed to do little to staunch the sheer number of shipwrecks the sandbar caused. Many of these wrecks, capsizes, and beachings were caused by a loss of wind power when the sail driven ships of the era came into the passage around Stepper Point, which in turn caused them to drift and fall to the mercy of erratic gusts of wind that usually seemed to guide the ships directly towards the Doom Bar, almost as if it were some predator with malicious intent of its own drawing in its prey. Efforts to avoid the danger posed by the sandbar proved futile, as those who tried to come to a stop by dropping anchor found that they could gain no purchase in the churning, shifting sands below. The installation of measures such as mooring rings on the cliffs also did little to stop the wrecks.

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The Doom Bar’s seemingly voracious appetite for ships and the eerie way ships seemed to be drawn to it led to rumors among superstitious mariners and locals that the Doom Bar was cursed, haunted, or both. Indeed, local folklore reflects this sentiment, saying that the Doom Bar was created by a vengeful mermaid and subsequently cursed for the purpose of revenge for being shot by a man from a local village man. According to the tale, a man named Tristram Bird went out hunting one day to find a beautiful maiden sitting upon the seaside rocks combing her magnificent hair. So smitten was Bird with the beautiful young maiden that he asked her to marry him on the spot, but her blunt refusal forced him into a rage during which he shot her. The mermaid is said to have subsequently cursed the harbor, and the following day there was a sandbar in the estuary made up of the “wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men.” Strangely, there have been those to this day who have reported hearing a bizarre, unearthly wailing cry from the Doom Bar, particularly after storms, which locals claim is the ghostly shriek of the mermaid. There were also interestingly accounts of sightings of mermaids that were said to lie in wait in shallow waters of the area and draw ships in to their doom. Whether the sandbar was truly cursed or not, it certainly posed one of the greatest sea hazards of the time, and there are countless stories of wrecks here.

During the 19th century, the Doom Bar was still in business actively wrecking ships at an alarming rate, and desperate efforts were made to try and rectify the situation. One such measure was the installation of capstans on the surrounding cliffs, but this had little effect. A particularly ambitious solution was proposed in 1846, when the Plymouth and Padstow Railway came up with the idea of simply getting rid of the Doom Bar altogether. The company planned to first create a breakwater to stop the influx of sand and then dredge up the sandbar, the sand from which would be transported to other areas for agricultural purposes by a proposed railway. Although the plan was eventually abandoned, it was considered again in the 1858 British Parliamentary Select Committee on Harbours for Refuge, which came to the conclusion that the project was too expensive and impractical, and that even if the Doom Bar were to be dredged it would inexorably rebuild itself again.

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Other plans were considered as well by increasingly frustrated officials, including that of building two massive guide walls to move fast moving water over the bar to essentially erase it, but this too was found to be too impractical. Another idea was to carve out vast sections of the nearby cliffs of Stepper Point in order to improve the flow of wind through the passage in to give ships more control in maneuvering past the sandbar, and part of the cliff face was actually laboriously quarried away. Another measure implemented was the stationing of a permanent, 23-foot lifeboat moored at Padstow by the Life-boat Institution, and the subsequent construction of a lifeboat house, with the specific mission of helping ships cast upon the Doom Bar. From the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the main solution to the Doom Bar threat was regular dredging of the channel and the creation of estuaries going around it, an activity that continues to this day, with 120,000 tons of sand removed from the area of the Doom Bar in 2009 alone. Even with this tireless dredging, the enigmatic Doom Bar manages to continually regenerate itself almost as fast as it is diminished, and it will probably never be fully vanquished.

Despite these efforts and the advance of shipping technology, the Doom Bar has continued to wreck, capsize, and ground ships right up into the present day at a startling rate, with over 600 such incidents recorded since records began in the 19th century. As recently as 1997, two fishermen were killed when their ship capsized on the sandbar and they were thrown into the treacherous sea without life rafts, much like a similar incident in 1994, and in 2007 two yachts were also beached there, necessitating a helicopter rescue. Even now it seems the Doom Bar reaches out for new victims.

The sandbars of the area prey on not only ships, but also pretty much anything that comes within reach. Around 4,000 years ago, during the last major sea level rise of the area, the sands here ate a whole forest that once existed on a wooded plain near Cornwall. To this day, the submerged forest sits at the eastern end of the Doom Bar, its skeletal trees poking from the bottom like some strange sea creatures. The constantly shifting sandbars have also been blamed for swooping in to pounce on and claim houses and other buildings or structures near the coast.

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One of the more unsettling features of the Doom Bar, and indeed other sandbars of the area, is the habit of not only grabbing and wrecking ships, but also devouring them. Indeed many ships that have met their end here have gone on to vanish under the sands never to be seen again. One particularly famous such account is that of a 12-gun schooner named the HMS Whiting, which ran aground here on 15 September 1816. The first warship known to have suffered at the hands of the Doom Bar, the HMS Whiting was abandoned by its crew after it became obvious it could not be saved, and this would lead to the court martial and punishment of Lieutenant John Jackson and three crew members for desertion. Interestingly, after the wreck was picked apart by salvagers it was slowly swallowed up by the Doom Bar and proceeded to vanish, as if being consumed and digested by some massive beast. Efforts as recently as May 2010 by the Nautical Archaeology Society have failed to turn up any trace of the wreck of the HMS Whiting and its whereabouts remain unknown.

Another infamous and rather mysterious account of a ship disappearing here without a trace is the case of the 1,118 ton cargo ship the Antoinette, which has the distinction of being the largest ship known to have been claimed by the Doom Bar. In 1895, the Antoinette was on its way to Brazil with a massive load of coal when it foundered and had to be towed away by steam tugboat. It was during this tow that the lines inexplicably broke and the ship drifted right into the Doom Bar, after which it promptly sank. While the crew was fortunately saved, the ship and its cargo were lost. The Antoinette stubbornly resisted all efforts to remove it, almost as if the Doom Bar did not want to let go, and when it was carried by currents and tides up the estuary to rest at another sandbar the ship became a menace to shipping in its own right. There were even supposedly attempts to destroy it with explosives but still the shipwreck remained, before being slowly swallowed by sand and disappearing. Follow up searches for the remains of the ship turned up nothing. It had simply vanished.

shipwrecks

In February of 2010, the sandbar regurgitated forth a shipwreck that had long been entombed within it, the skeletal, jagged form mysteriously rising from the muck out in the estuary. The sudden appearance of the ship confounded harbor authorities, and at first it was speculated to be the remains of a fishing boat called the Triumph, which had disappeared without a trace at the Doom Bar in 1912, but further analysis convinced many historians that it was in fact the long lost Antoinette, returned back to the land of the living. Harbourmaster Rob Atkinson said: “It looks like a wooden vessel and we seem to think it’s the wreckage of the Antoinette from 1895.” As it had done when it had died its first death, the Antoinette was once again a marine hazard, and authorities went about marking it with buoys as a safety precaution. Likewise, there were those who once again tried to demolish it, when the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Unit used explosives to try and disintegrate it into more manageable pieces. Their efforts failed, and the wreck remained, leading to further attempts to dismantle it using saws.

The Doom Bar still captures the imagination of people to this day. It has been mentioned numerous times in poetry and literature, as well as inspiring the creation of a whole new beer called Doom Bar, a bitter cask ale brewed by Sharp’s Brewery, which would quickly become the fastest selling beer in England of all time. In modern times, the Doom Bar is typically around 0.4 square miles in area, but is constantly shifting in size as the ever-moving sands cause it to pulsate and morph into various unpredictable shapes and sizes. Still it sits out in the estuary, defying mankind’s attempts to conquer it or understand it. Perhaps one day the Doom Bar will be reigned in, but for now it still patiently lies in wait for unsuspecting prey, surrounded by a fog of legend and myth.