LTSC members are aware of the SS Varvassi wreak off the Needles, but some may not be familiar with the history of the ship and what happened on the night it came to grief.
The Varvassi was built by Northumberland Shipbuilding Co. Ltd, Howden-on-Tyne in 1915. she was a steam powered cargo ship of 3874 t, length 114.5 m, beam 15.8 m and draft 7.2 m. The single three cylinder triple expansion engine had two boilers, one shaft and a single screw giving 371 hp and a speed of 10 kts, and was manufactured by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Company, Sunderland. During the life of the ship there were five British and two Greek owners and she sailed under six names; i.e. SS Rynfield, SS Bronze Wings, SS Noelle, SS Lady Charlotte, SS Moscha D. Kydoniefss and SS Varvassi. The final owner had the ship for less than a year before she foundered.
The ship hit the rocks off the Needles on Sunday 5th January 1947 at 1855; 65 minutes before HW. Speed at the point of grounding was estimated to be about 3kts. The Varvassi was on route to Southampton from Algiers. Weather, visibility and sea state were good at the time of grounding. The vessel’s approach at the Needles was observed by the local RN Signal Station and the pilot cutter tasked with taking a pilot to the ship. Both were convinced that the ship was off course and sailing towards danger and did their best to warn the Captain but to no avail. A later explanation from the crew suggested the captain had stopped the engine to take the pilot on board and the ship had then drifted onto the rocks.
The Captain initially ordered a tug from Southampton to pull the ship off. The Yarmouth lifeboat attended but the Captain and crew decided to stay on board. The tug arrived but in deteriorating conditions failed to move the vessel. The lifeboat attended for a second time but again offers of help were refused. The weather continued to deteriorate and the vessel started to take on water. Attempts to refloat the ship were abandoned and the lifeboat was called out for a third time to rescue the crew of 36 and the ship’s cat. The following day the weather abated and the officers and all 12 crew re-boarded the vessel. They were able to salvage their personal belongings and pets, and feed 7 heifers that were on board. The latter were used as a source of fresh meat for the crew. MAFF biosecurity regulations at the time prohibited bringing them ashore and so they were subsequently slaughtered and the weighted carcasses thrown overboard.
The ship was carrying tangerines (one source suggested they were mandarins), Algerian red wine and iron ore. Estimates of quantity vary between sources. The official salvage company rescued about a third of the tangerines and some of the wine; the iron ore was left. Tangerines were sold on the quayside at knockdown prices but the general opinion was that the taste was poor. Tangerines and barrels of wine were seen floating in the Solent, some of the barrels being ‘rescued’ by local fishing boats. The salvage company was also ably assisted by some unofficial local people removing items of cargo and fittings from the vessel. Reports on wine quality were………. conspicuous by their absence!