Maritime history of St Helens Duver

Boats gracefully decaying on the edge of St Helen's Duver

Although hard to imagine today, at the east end of today’s St Helens Duver on the Isle of Wight, the port of St Helens was important from the end of the 13th-century until the rise of Cowes in the 1700s.

St Helens Roads

Naval and merchant fleets would often anchor in the sheltered waters of St Helen's Roads just offshore to take supplies on board. Press gangs would come ashore and try to boost crew numbers – hence the name of the Gaggen or Gaggun Edge path at the edge of the Common. The water of St Helens had excellent keeping qualities and would remain fresh for a voyage to the West Indies and back. Legend has it that Admiral Lord Nelson’s last view of England was of the Old Church at St Helens when his ship HMS Victory stopped to take on supplies before setting sail for the Battle of Trafalgar.

Strategic defence

Of course St Helens was vulnerable to attack, particularly by the French navy who came ashore in 1340. On this occasion they were driven back, and again in 1545 during the campaign in which the Mary Rose capsized and sank off Portsmouth. A watchtower with a beacon was then erected at Nodes Point but although the waters round St Helens were sheltered, shipwrecks were not uncommon and many sailors who were drowned are buried locally.
By the time of the Second World War, Woodnutt’s boatyard at the west end of the Duver employed 200 workers, building mainly Fairmile-class patrol boats for the admiralty and airborne lifeboats for rescuing RAF crew who had ditched into the sea.

More recent activity on the water

There used to be a ferry from the Duver across the harbour entrance to Bembridge but it finally stopped running in 1993. This area has been used for commercial maritime activities from the end of the 19th-century. In that period, wooden hulls have been replaced by fibreglass, inboard motors have become outboard and new vessels have appeared such as catamarans.