A Brief History
On November 19, 1911, the infamous “Doom Bar” located at the mouth of the River Camel in Cornwall, England where it empties into the Celtic Sea claimed another pair of ships, sinking both. The Island Maid and Angele both had run aground on the permanent sandbar, formerly known as the less poetic “Dunbar sands,” killing everyone aboard the Angele except, oddly enough, the captain. As can be expected by the demonstrative name, the Doom Bar is infamous for causing the sinking or grounding of many ships over the years. The River Camel estuary serves as access to the port of Padstow about a mile upriver.
Comprised of sand washed up on a continuous basis from the deep seabed, most (90%) of the sand is made of pulverized sea shells. The nature of the sand makes it a valuable resource for agricultural purposes, proving a “soil sweetener” source of lime (62% Calcium carbonate) to de-acidify farm soil. Local residents have mined the valuable sand for centuries, removing as many as 10 million tonnes (long tons or metric tons equal to 1000 kilograms) of the stuff since 1900. During the 19th Century it was noted that a crew of 80 men were constantly employed in such dredging for sand, removing about 100,000 tonnes per year. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the dredging and removal of these tons of sand has had little effect on the danger the sandbar poses as the sea constantly replenishes any sand removed by people. Like most sandbars, the Doom Bar also shifts position, making navigation in the area that much trickier. Local legend claims the Doom Bar was formed during the reign of King Henry VIII of England.
Prior to 1900, the entrance to the port was squeezed tightly between the Doom Bar and Stepper Point, a sheer rock set of cliffs. Transiting such a narrow passage has always proved somewhat dangerous. Sailing ships were especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the wind, and unfavorable or extra-strong winds often spelled doom (get it?) for ships trying to make the passage. Dredging has been tried many times, but the sand keeps coming back, making dredging a continuous challenge. Removing some of the rock from the cliffs has widened the passage, greatly facilitating safe passage, but ships still manage to run aground on the Doom Bar, claiming lives lost as late as 1997.
Apparently, the Cornish people are prone to generating legends, for the local story about the origin of the Doom Bar relates the tale of a mermaid that was murdered (shot) by a local man. The dying creature cursed the local folk by creating the Doom Bar. Not to miss out the chance on capitalizing on a local legend, Cornish brewer Sharp’s named their main product Doom Bar Ale. The Doom Bar name has also appeared in poetry as a source of sadness.
The Doom Bar is not alone at the entrance to the Padstow port. Other, smaller, sandbars also menace shipping there. A fascinating feature of the Doom Bar is that a submerged forest exists under the sand! An ancient wooded plain had become covered by the sea and the Doom Bar developed above the trees about 4000 years ago when sea levels rose after the last Ice Age warmed up. The sands in the area are so prone to shifting that coastal houses have actually been erased by sand movement overnight! The sandbank, always shifting in shape, covers about 1 kilometer squared.
The name “Doom Bar,” was not given as a dire warning, but as an evolution of the big sand trap originally being called “Dune-bar” referring to the sand dunes on the beach. That name changed to “Dunbar,” and eventually the dark aspect of the sandbar helped change the name to Doom Bar. Why so “doomy?” Because an estimated 600 ships have either run aground, turned turtle (capsized) or been sunk by hitting the deadly, hard sands. In response to the danger, local authorities constructed and manned a lifeboat station in the vicinity in 1827. In 2007, the lifeboat crews were at work when they were called to rescue the crews of 2 yachts which had run aground. Luckily for the Royal Navy, the only warship to be claimed by the malevolent Doom Bar was the 12 gun schooner, HMS Whiting. The ship was unable to be saved, and the officer in charge was duly censured by Court Martial while 3 of the crew were given 50 lashes for desertion. Many of the ships wrecked at Doom Bar remain in and around the area, though the wreck of the Whiting has not yet been found.
The many dangers associated with entering ports and estuaries is why the practice of employing local pilots to guide ships into harbor came about. The employment of harbor pilots goes all the way back to Ancient Greece (1200 BC to 600 AD) and was a regular practice in Roman times. Early pilots would competitively race out to arriving ships in order to find work guiding the ships into the harbor. Later, organized professional systems were set up to be run by harbor masters. Pilots can either board the incoming vessel to take over navigation, or stay in their own pilot boat and serve as a guide to the larger vessel.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever been on a ship being guided by a pilot? What other dangerous sounding maritime locations can you think of (coolest names only!)? Are you familiar with Cornwall? Have you ever been to England? Have you ever sailed on a sailboat?
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For more information, please see…
Cunliffe, Tom. Pilot Cutters Under Sail: Pilots and Pilotage in Britain and Northern Europe. Seaforth Publishing, 2013.
French, Brian. Padstow’s Doom Bar: Wreck and Rescue. Grosvenor House Publishing Limited, 2017.
Halliday, F.E. A History Of Cornwall. House of Stratus, 2008.
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