The sands, often shrouded in mist, have spawned dozens of legends, none more enduring than that of the Lady Lovibund, a three-masted barque that foundered there on 13 February, 1748, and is said to reappear in spectral form every 50 years.
And so it was that yesterday, on the ship's 250th anniversary, hotels and boarding houses in Deal were booked solid with ghost-hunters from as far afield as America, Italy and Germany. Thirteen of them managed to secure places on a fishing boat that left Ramsgate at first light on Friday the 13th, following the same fateful route as the Lady Lovibund. Andrew Tarbuck, 26, telesales worker from Newcastle, circled the date in his diary two years ago. "I read this story when I was a child, and I've been fascinated by it ever since," he said.
According to the version related by George Goldsmith-Carter, a former lightship crewman, in his 1953 book, The Goodwin Sands, the Lovibund was sent to its watery grave by John Rivers, the first mate, as it set sail for Oporto. The ship's master, Simon Reed, had just got married, unaware that Rivers, his best man, was consumed by unrequited passion for his new wife. As they approached the sands, Goldsmith-Carter wrote, Riversdelivered a "crushing blow" to Reed's skull, then took the helm.
In the cabin below, the wedding party was too preoccupied by the festivities to notice the change of course. When the ship crashed into the Goodwins, they were trapped. The Lovibund went down with the loss of all hands.
Aboard the 38-ft Bonaventure, skippered by Allan Booth, expectations were high yesterday, but no ghostly vessel materialised.
David Collyer, a local historian, believes that the legend has prosaic origins. "The mid- 18th century was the height of the Deal smugglers," he said. "How better to keep people away from your nefarious activities ... than to invent a ghost story? We not are talking about spirits of the ethereal kind, but the ones found in bottles."