The Goodwin Sands are a treacherous stretch of sandbank on the eastern coast of England, mentioned by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice:
the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very
dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many
a tall ship lie buried, as they say. . .
Eleven miles long, extending four miles in to dry land, and shallowly covered at high tide, they have as sinister a reputation as a graveyard of ships as North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras. Some estimate that as many as two thousand ships, over the centuries, have been lost in their quicksands. The legend of one such ship, the Lady Lovibond, is one of coastal England’s most enduring ghost stories.
Strangely enough, the story begins with a wedding. Lady Lovibond’s captain, Simon Reed, was a newlywed, and he had his new wife, her mother, and their wedding guests aboard when he sailed his three-masted schooner down the River Thames to the North Foreland and out toward the English Channel, on the evening of February 13, 1748, bound for Oporto, Portugal. With a fair wind behind them, all seemed set for a perfect voyage.
Belowdecks, the wedding party laughed and toasted the married couple. Above their heads, though, a man with a jealous and murderous heart was plotting revenge. The Lady Lovibond’s first mate, John Rivers, had also been a suitor of Mrs. Simon Reed; she had rejected him in favor of the captain.
Rivers, brooding over the injustice of being bested in love, silently walked up toward the man at the ship’s helm and smashed his skull with a belaying pin. The helmsman never knew what hit him; his body was shoved aside, and Rivers swung the helm over hard and headed her for the Goodwin Sands.
The wedding party had no idea that they were no longer riding a fair wind across the Channel; they joked, laughed and drank until the ship gave a sudden jolt as she slammed into the Sands. One can imagine the cacaphony: the masts were snapped, the ship’s timbers were crushed, and the wedding party, shrieking with fear and incomprehension, trapped below decks, died with the sound of John Rivers laughing with thunderous glee above their heads. John Rivers also went down with the ship.
By morning, the ship had vanished into the netherworld of quicksand that is the Goodwins.
There was, of course, a court of inquiry held, for only sabotage could account for the Lady Lovibond’s wreck and disappearance on a clear, stormless winter night. John Rivers’s own mother wept as she testified that she had heard her son say “he would have his revenge against Simon Reed if it cost him his life.”
The court, possibly, had a bit of trouble with the idea of a man committing murder by shipwreck from thwarted love. They brought in a verdict of wreck by misadventure.
On February 13th, 1798, the captain of a coastal vessel called the Edenbridge was skirting the Goodwin Sands when he was startled by a three-masted schooner under full sail, bearing down on his ship out of the dark. By turning the wheel hard over, the Edenbridge managed to avoid a collision, but the captain was puzzled by sounds of merrymaking that seemed to come from the strange ship’s lower decks. He was even more puzzled when he reported the incident to his ship’s owners and was given a similar account told by the crew of a fishing vessel who had seen the schooner go aground and break up, only to find the Sands empty and eerily silent when they looked for survivors.
The legend says that the ship has been seen every fifty years since, on the anniversary of her dreadful end, as recently as 1948 for certain, and possibly in 1998.
The Lady Lovibond is not the only ghost ship of the Goodwin Sands; there is also a legend of a warship of Sir Francis Drake’s time seen going aground in the Sands during the great storm of November 25-26, 1703, during which four ships and over a thousand men were lost in the same area. There is also the legend of the Violet, lost in a snow squall in 1857 and seen again ninety years later.
The Lady Lovibond is the only one of these ships who returns regularly, however. Her next appearance, if she holds true to her ghostly schedule, will be on February 13th, 2048. I doubt I’ll be spry enough, at the age of eighty-six, to be there to watch for her, but I’d like to be.
For the best version of the legend, see Raymond Lamont Brown’s Phantoms of the Sea: Legends, Customs, and Superstitions (1972).