The Goodwin Sands is a nine-mile stretch of sand bank located along the English Channel, beginning about four miles off the coast of Kingsdown in Kent and extending to Pegswell Bay, south of Ramsgate. Sand banks are raised, mostly linear stretches of land in or extending into a large body of water; also known as shoals, they can be very dangerous to passing ships. This particular sand bank, the Goodwin Sands—which, at low tides emerges from the sea and dries so capable of being walked upon (In 1824 a tradition was established of playing cricket matches on the Sands!), but which, at high tides is mostly submerged and can be lost to view—has long been notorious for the danger it poses to ships of all kinds, and their crews and passengers, of course.
It has caused a multitude of shipwrecks: 1,000 officially recorded wrecks, but some estimate the number to be twice or three-times that amount. The first recorded wreck at the Goodwin Sands occurred in 1298. Owing to its nearness to the English coast, the Goodwin Sands has asserted its sinking influence in several notable naval maneuvers: a fifty-gun frigate, the HM Frigate Sedgmore foundered there in 1698, reportedly carrying over £200,000 in bullion, never recovered; thirteen Man o’ War vessels were sunk there seeking refuge from the Great Storm of 1703, which event Daniel Defoe recorded in The Storm (1704, reprinted in 2003). Historically the Goodwin Sands has been an especial danger to merchant vessels due to its proximity to major shipping lanes that pass through the Strait of Dover. It is a treacherous stretch in otherwise relatively safe and well-traveled waters, making wrecks caused by it all the more tragic.
Given its notorious reputation, the Goodwin Sands has long been the site of maritime safety measures. In recent years GPS technologies and improved charts of the English Channel have circumvented much of the danger it poses. In Melville’s day the region was marked by lightships, some of which themselves fell victim to the Sands. A year after the publication of Moby-Dick, lifeboats began to patrol the region in acknowledgment of the many lives and the other more estimable riches lost there. (See The Heroes of the Goodwin Sands (1892), by Rev. Thomas Stanley Treanor (1873-1910) for a record of the heroic exploits of these lifeboats and their crews.) We know Ishmael to have been asea as a merchant sailor prior to his first whaling voyage, so it is not surprising that his thoughts are drawn to the Goodwin Sands as he ponders the “bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes” in the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, where he will shortly witness Father Mapple’s sermon on Jonah and the whale. Noting in the countenances of many of the women gathered in the chapel the “trappings of some unceasing grief,” he extols the good fortune of mourners “whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass.”
All dead have their secrets. However, Ishmael perceives a profounder void in those “beings who have placelessly perished without a grave.” The Goodwin Sands is a place of this placelessness, which fate it gives Ishmael a brief pang to consider may be his: a secret buried beneath waves, impossible to recover.