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The Restless North Sea

A remarkable feature of the North Sea is its shallowness, due to the submergence of dry land in prehistoric times. Some of Europe’s most important rivers flow into the North Sea, and for centuries its dangerous shoals and currents have been a challenge to seamanship


The Wanstead, belonging to the British Steamship Company Ltd
























THE ENTRANCE TO THE RIVER TYNE is marked by a powerful light in a tower 85 feet high. The light is visible for a distance of 15 miles. The vessel in the photograph is the Wanstead, 5,423 tons gross, belonging to the British Steamship Co., Ltd. She was built at Dundee in 1928, and is registered at London. Her length is 405 ft. 10 in. between perpendiculars, her beam 54 ft. 3 in. and her depth 27 ft. 11 in.




THE greatest width of the North Sea is 360 miles, from the east coast of Scotland to the Skagerrak (or “Sleeve”), the gateway to the Baltic Sea. From the Strait of Dover to the artificial line dividing the North Sea from the Atlantic, off the Shetland Islands, the North Sea is 600 miles long.


From north to south the depth of the North Sea decreases. Near the Shetlands the 100-fathoms line of the Atlantic is crossed. Between Scotland and Norway the average depth is from fifty to eighty fathoms (480 feet), decreasing to twenty on the Dogger Bank, then to ten fathoms (60 feet) south of the River Humber.


Along the Danish coast a “shelf” extends from five to twenty miles out from the coast to the ten-fathoms line, and this shelf follows the German and Dutch coasts with a width of about ten miles. On the British side the shelf is about five miles wide north and ten miles wide south of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. These average depths are broken by deeper “channels”, which indicate age-old river beds. The most remarkable is the great trough running close along the Norwegian coast and turning up the Skagerrak. It is fifty to sixty miles wide and has a depth increasing to over 300 fathoms. The chart indicates a “hole” of 480 fathoms just off Christiansand, on the south coast of Norway. South of the Dogger Bank, the “Silver Pit” runs from west to east, with a depth of from thirty to forty-five fathoms; and another channel runs from the south of the Dogger towards the Strait of Dover, with a depth of over twenty fathoms.


It is thought that when the world was young, much of the area now covered by the North Sea was dry land. The Thames and the great Continental rivers, the Rhine, Maas, Schelde (Scheldt), Elbe and Weser, flowed into a common estuary south of the Wash. The Strait of Dover did not exist, the English Channel being shut off by a belt of chalk joining England and France. What is now the Dogger Bank was an extensive forest, for many fossilized remains of trees are continually brought up from the bottom in that area, as well as the bones of many species of animals now usually associated with tropical climates.


The forests of the Dogger became submerged and the North Sea, much as we know it to-day, was formed. Mighty torrents, draining off the surrounding shores, bore with them masses of silt and deposited them on the seabed, forming the sandbanks and ridges with which the southern part of the North Sea is so plentifully sprinkled.


Most of these banks consist of long, narrow, steep-sided ridges, lying parallel with one another and with the shore. The chart, for instance, shows a depth of twenty-four fathoms on the eastern side of “Smith’s Knoll”, shoaling in a short distance to only five fathoms. The Broads of Norfolk remain as lagoons left by the waters draining off the land, and even these are shrinking rapidly. It is predicted that in about two centuries more they will have silted up entirely. A survey of the North Sea and its shores may well begin with the Shetland Islands, over 100 in number. Some twenty-nine of the islands are inhabited, by descendants of the old Norsemen, as the local names show. The islands have cliffs and headlands of red sandstone, rising to nearly 1,500 feet above sea-level. They are indented by inlets known as “voes”, and some dangerous “races”, called “rosts”, are encountered near them. One particularly dangerous race exists off Sumburgh Head at the extreme south of the group, and even in calm weather a confused sea is experienced there.


North Sea fishing trawler



WIND AND SUNSHINE help to give this North Sea fishing trawler a pleasant run home. Because it is so shallow the North Sea is rarely calm even in good weather. The Dogger Bank, where a large part of the North Sea trawling takes place, has a depth varying from 10 to 20 fathoms (60 to 120 feet). Over the “South-West Patches”, however, there is a depth of only 5¼ fathoms, or 31½ feet. Here the sea breaks heavily in bad weather.





Fair Isle, a lonely rock, stands by itself in the channel between the Shetlands and the Orkneys. The coasts of the Orkneys, some ninety in number, alternate from low sandhills to steep, red cliffs 1,000 feet high. Heavy gales occur in this region, and the breaking seas send up clouds of foam hundreds of feet into the air.


Scapa Flow, the famous base of the Grand Fleet during the war of 1914-18, is a large, landlocked stretch of water in the southern part of the group enclosed by several islands. The surrender of the German Fleet at Scapa is described in another chapter and its partial salvage also.


The Orkneys are separated from the mainland of Scotland by the Pentland Firth, where the velocity of the tidal stream is greater than anywhere else in Great Britain. It runs at 10 knots, and in bad weather is impassable for small or low-powered craft. The tide rips and races are clearly visible even on a quiet day, and many a ship has been swirled to destruction on the rocks of Swona and Stroma, which lie in the path. As recently as August, 1935. the fine Swedish motor ship, Gunnaren, of 3,229 tons gross, was lost on Swona.


Duncansby Head is the north-eastern corner of the mainland of Great Britain — a cliff 200 feet high with a lighthouse on top. John o’Groat’s House is situated two miles west of it.


Pits in the Sea-bed


Farther south are three deep firths, the little-used Dornoch Firth, Cromarty Firth, a favourite, base for the Fleet, and Moray Firth, which leads to Inverness and the entrance to the Caledonian Canal. The coast then runs in an easterly direction to Kinnairds Head, past a number of small fishing villages and towns, such as Nairn. Lossiemouth and Banff.


The Grampian Range of mountains ends in Girdle Ness, the southern “bastion” of Aberdeen Harbour. A line of cliffs past Stonehaven to Montrose gives way to the sandhills of Arbroath and the mouth of the River Tay at Dundee.


A prominent object ten miles out at sea off the mouth of the Tay is the Bell Rock Lighthouse, a slender white pillar rising from the sea, built upon a treacherous reef. Some eighty miles off the coast is a series of “Devil’s Holes”, pot-holes in the sea-bed, with a depth of 100 to 130 fathoms. South of the Tay is the Firth of Forth, with the island of May standing at its mouth. The Firth extends inland for sixty miles and is crossed by the famous Forth Bridge at Queensferry. Several important ports are found on its shores. Leith, the port of Edinburgh, Granton and Grangemouth are on the southern shore and Rosyth (the naval dockyard), Burntisland, Kirkcaldy and Methil on the northern shore.


Shipbreaking is carried on extensively in the Firth of Forth and many units of the German Fleet raised from Scapa Flow, as well as famous liners, have been towed to their last berth here. The Bass Rock stands guard over the southern side of the entrance to the firth.


Peterhead drifters leaving Yarmouth for the North Sea fishing grounds

























OUTWARD BOUND IN HEAVY WEATHER, Peterhead drifters leaving Yarmouth for the North Sea fishing grounds. Yarmouth Roads provide adequate shelter for shipping, but the Scroby Bank and other shoals which lie outside are constantly shifting. Sudden storms are occasionally encountered here. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, relates that in 1692 a fleet of 200 colliers left the Roads in calm weather, and that 140 of them foundered in a sudden north-easterly gale soon after they had left the sheltered waters.




Past the English border at Berwick-on-Tweed is Holy Island, connected with the mainland at low water by a sandy spit. Bamburgh Castle, on a rocky cliff, rises almost perpendicularly from a flat beach. Opposite are the Longstone Rock and the Fame Islands, famous for the exploits of Grace Darling in rescuing nine out of the sixty people on board the steamer Forfarshire which struck the Longstone on September 6, 1838. In 1860 the Iris struck the same rock, and the crew, after having clung to the rocks for twelve hours, were rescued by old William Darling, Grace’s father, and by some of his mates. The Fame Islands and Coquet Island farther down the coast are great resorts of sea-birds. Low-lying coast and sandhills are encountered until the mouth of the River Tyne is reached. Tynemouth Head is a bold promontory eighty-five feet high, crowned with the ruins of a castle and a priory. The Tyne, with its ports of Tynemouth, North and South Shields. Jarrow and Newcastle, is known the world over as a coal-exporting river and shipbuilding centre.

Coal used to be loaded into boats called “keels”, carrying about 20 tons, propelled by large oars or “puys”. Hence was derived that famous old song Weel may the keel row. Nowadays massive “staithes” tip truckloads of coal directly into ships’ holds.


On October 31, 1914, the hospital ship Rohilla drove on to the rocks just outside Whitby, Yorks, during a gale, and rapidly broke up. There was unfortunately great loss of life, although she was near the shore. The cliffs that line this part of the shore attain their greatest height at Hayburn Wyke (600 feet) and then decline towards Scarborough. At Filey a curious formation of rock, known as Filey Brig, juts out for half a mile into the sea; the rock is dry at low tides. South of Filey chalk cliffs are encountered, jutting out into Flamborough Head (450 feet), with its lighthouse and signal station. The cliffs are the nesting places of innumerable sea birds.


About sixty sea miles east of Flamborough is the western edge of the Dogger Bank. This is a large submerged island, some 130 miles in length from south-west to northeast and thirty to seventy miles wide, the total area being about 6,700 square miles. Depths from ten to twenty fathoms are encountered over the Dogger Bank, except for the “South-West Patches”, where a depth of only five and a quarter fathoms (under thirty-two feet) is found in places. The sea breaks heavily over these “patches” in bad weather. The “Silver Pit” runs close to the southern edge of the Dogger.


The coast from Flamborough to the mouth of the River Humber, at Spurn Head, is exposed to the full force of north-easterly gales blowing across 400 miles from the Skagerrak, and considerable erosion has taken place. It is estimated that in the last thousand years a width of two miles of land has been eaten away by the sea. Several villages have entirely disappeared.


The Humber gives access to the important fishing port of Grimsby, the railway dock at Immingham and the port of Kingston-upon-Hull, commonly known as Hull.


About eighty miles out a series of long, narrow ridges is found, called respectively the Indefatigable, Swarte, Broken, Well, Ower, Haddock, Leman, Outer Dowsing and Cromer Knoll, and with them two “depressions” known as the Sole Pit and the Coal Pit. Inshore of the Outer Dowsing a cluster of shoals exists shorewards, called the East Dudgeon and Docking Shoals, the Triton Knoll, the Inner Dowsing, the Burnham Flats and the Sheringham Bank. The Wash is an inlet extending inland for twenty miles and covering an area of about 250 miles, of which 130 dry out at low water. The ports of Boston and King’s Lynn are approached by long, narrow channels through the sandbanks.


The North Sea












FROM THE SHETLANDS to the Strait of Dover extends the ocean known as the North Sea. At its greatest width, from the east coast of Scotland to the Skagerrak, it is 360 miles wide; its length is about 600 miles. In most parts the North Sea decreases in depth from north to south. Between Scotland and Norway the average depth is 50 80 fathoms, or 300 480 feet ; south of the River Humber the depth is as little as 10 fathoms. These shallows, however, are broken by deeper channels. Off the Norwegian coast there is a depth of 480 fathoms (2,880 feet).












At Weybourne Hoop is a shingle beach that has always been associated with threatened invasions of England. A writer of 1798 says: “At a place called Waborne Hope . . . the shore is stony, and the sea so deep that ships may ride and lay against it.”


Another system of sandbanks lies off the coast between Cromer and Yarmouth, Norfolk. These are parallel ridges, known as Smith’s Knoll, Hearty Knoll, Winterton Ridge, Hammond’s Knoll, and the dangerous Haisborough Sand.


The last-named, separated from the land by a channel known as the Would, has been the scene of many shipwrecks. In 1801 H.M.S. Invincible, a 74-guns ship, struck these sands and was lost with her captain, several officers and 300 men. The rear-admiral, seven officers, and about 190 men were saved by a local fishing boat. The shore has been covered with innumerable articles of cargo washed ashore from the wrecks.


Behind the line of sandhills, clothed with “marram” grass, lie the Broads, protected only by these sandhills against an inrush of the sea over the low-lying land behind them. Several times the sea has broken through at this weak spot and done much damage.


Abreast of Yarmouth are the famous “Roads”, formed by a channel protected by the Cockle, Caistor, Scroby, Corton and Holm Sands and, farther out, the Cross Sand. The Scroby Sand has had some remarkable changes. It was formed in the sixteenth century, grass grew upon it, and picnics were held there. In 1582 it was swept away by a strong tide aided by an east wind. In 1922 it rose again from the sea and became dry at low water. As recently as 1934 the buoys which guard it had to be extensively altered to meet its changes. Daniel Defoe tells us that

in 1692 a fleet of 200 colliers had taken refuge in Yarmouth Roads. The weather having turned fair, they left to continue their voyages when a sudden storm sprang up from the north-east and 140 of the colliers were dashed to pieces on the shore and few of their crews were saved. At the same time another fleet, coming from the north, was caught in the gale and altogether 200 ships and over 1,000 people were lost. This storm is apparently the one so graphically described by Defoe in the opening chapters of Robinson Crusoe.


Complicated Sandbanks


Yarmouth, and its near neighbour, Lowestoft, are to-day well known as the great centres of the herring fishery — and large fleets of drifters and trawlers use them. Large numbers of Scotswomen come south annually to assist in the task of dressing and packing the catches. The romance of the fishing fleets is described in the chapter “Harvest of the Deep”.


All along this coast the sea is eating away the land and many houses and even whole villages have fallen over the crumbling cliffs into the sea. At Dunwich, to-day a small village with ruins standing on the edge of the cliff, a flourishing port once existed, but the old town has disappeared beneath the waves. Coast erosion is dealt with in the chapter “Britain’s Changing Coast Line”.


About fifty miles off the coast here the North German Lloyd liner Elbe was sunk in collision with the coaster Crathie in 1895. Only fifteen passengers and five of the crew were saved. More banks lie off the coast here, among them the Sizewell and Aldborough (Aldeburgh) Napes, and then the remarkable shingle bank on the mainland, culminating in Orfordness. Southward of this, the estuary of the Thames is approached, with its complicated mass of sandbanks. This estuary is described in the chapter “London’s Link with the Sea”.


The North Sea meets the English Channel in the Strait of Dover. A complicated system of shoals known as the “Flemish Banks” lies for thirty miles out from the French and Belgian shores. The most important banks are the Sandettie, Ruvtingen, Ratel, Fairy, North, West and East Hinder, Bligh, Thornton, Ostend, Stroom and Wenduyne Banks.


The approach to the important port of Dunkirk is by way of the West Pass, a channel close to the shore and guarded seaward by the Dyck Sand. From these a channel exists, through the Zuydcoote Pass, near the shore, inside a line of sandbanks along to Ostend. The Belgian coast consists of low sandhills to the Dutch frontier just south of the estuary of the Schelde, which leads up to the great port of Antwerp. At the mouth of the Schelde, on the northern side, is the town of Flushing.


The pleasure steamer Lord Nelson in Lowestoft Harbour



























IN LOWESTOFT HARBOUR the pleasure steamer Lord Nelson passes through the fishing fleet on its way out to sea. The Lord Nelson was a paddle steamer built in 1896 at Preston, Lancashire. She formerly plied between Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the two great centres of the North Sea fishing industry. Large fleets of drifters and trawlers use these ports.




A large delta, composed of an involved system of low islands, and formed by the junction of the Rivers Maas and Schelde, lies behind the Schouwen Bank. Then follows, past the Hook of Holland and the “New Waterway” leading to Rotterdam, a clear stretch of sea unencumbered by sandbanks, flinging all its might upon the low Dutch coast protected by massive dykes and sandhills. Much of Holland is below sea-level and would be flooded if it were not for man’s ingenuity in devising defence works to keep the waters out.


A barrier of islands and banks stretches across the mouth of the Zuider Zee, itself fast returning to dry land, thanks to the Dutchmen and their reclamation schemes. Tessel, Vlieland and Terschelling are the names of these islands, the one separated from the other by a “Gat” — as, for instance, Schulpen Gat, Engelsmans Gat, Terschelling Zeegat.


A few more islands occur towards the German frontier — Ameland, Schiermonnikoog and Rottum. Then comes the estuary of the Ems, divided by the island of Borkum into the Eastern and Western Ems. Out to sea runs the comparatively shallow “Borkum Flat”, with a depth of from ten to sixteen fathoms. Then comes the archipelago known as the Frisian Islands, well known to readers of The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers.


These low-lying islands with fascinating names — Memmert, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spikeroog and Wangeroog — lie parallel to the coast, and in the summer form the holiday

ground of numbers of Germans. The islands are so low that out at sea, on a summer’s morning, the buildings and hotels can be seen apparently rising from the water, for the land they stand on is invisible.


The bay of the Jade and the mouths of the Rivers Weser (with the ports of Bremerhaven and Bremen) and Elbe run into one another through great banks of sand, mostly dry at low water, and intersected by numerous channels, called “Gats”, “Lochs”, “Tiefe”, “Balge”. The transition from sea to river is almost unnoticed when sailing into the Elbe.


The World’s Oldest Lighthouse?


The island of Neuwerk, itself little better than a sandbank, but above the high-water line, contains what is reputed to be the oldest lighthouse in the world, a massive stone tower. Away at sea, twenty odd miles from the shore, stands Heligoland, with its red cliffs standing out in strong contrast to the neighbouring low-lying shores. In Denmark, by the islands of Romo and Fano, the shore undergoes a change. The sandbanks narrow, and beyond Blaavands Huk they disappear. Off the Huk lies the famous Horns Reef, jutting straight out to sea at right angles to the shore for twenty miles.


The Danish coast now runs northward to the Skaw, a long, low, featureless shore. To enable mariners to ascertain their whereabouts, huge wooden beacons, or “shapes”, squares, crosses,

diamonds, triangles and the like, forty to fifty feet high, are erected along the coast. Each differs from the others, so that they may be easily recognized from the sea.


Off the coast lie the Jutland Bank and the Little Fisher Bank, the scene of the world’s biggest naval action, known in Great Britain as the battle of Jutland and in Germany as the battle of Skagerrak.


The Skaw, the northern “tip” of Denmark, ends in a narrow spit extending two miles from the shore, on which the sea breaks heavily. The north side of it is steep, with one and a half fathoms close to it.


Across the Skagerrak on the Norwegian coast is the intricate maze of rocky islands known as the Skargard, with high cliffs on the mainland intersected by long, deep fjords running for miles back into the land. A feature of some of the fjords is their tremendous depth, which in places amounts to nearly 700 fathoms (4,200 feet).


The tidal wave enters the North Sea at either end. The rise of the tide varies from half a foot to 22 feet in various parts. Its rise is 14 feet higher on the coast of England than on the opposite shores of Denmark.


The height of the tide is much affected by the wind. A strong wind “piles up” the water and may lead to an exceptionally high or low tide.


Conversely, a strong westerly wind and a neap tide combine to take the water out of the Thames.


The EAST GOODWIN LIGHTSHIP is situated about one and a half miles east of the Goodwin Sands
























EAST GOODWIN LIGHTSHIP is situated about one and a half miles east of the Goodwin Sands, off the North Foreland, Kent. The lightship is a red vessel and has a light tower amidships. She shows a white flash of less than a second duration every 15 seconds, and this light is visible for II miles. She is equipped with a diaphone for use in fog and with a submarine oscillator which sounds the letters E.G. in Morse code every 30 seconds. She has also a wireless fog signal, which transmits M.E.G. in Morse on a wavelength of 1,008 metres. In foggy weather transmissions are made ten times in every hour.


[From part 36, published 13 October 1936]


You can read more on “Britain’s Changing Coast Line”, “London’s Link with the Sea” and “Signposts of the Sea” on this website.