Friday, September 11, 2009

The Princess Victoria Disaster

The Princess Victoria was a British Railways car ferry which sank during a storm on passage between Stranraer and Larne on 31 January 1953. 132 people died - only 44 survived.

(Above picture Copyright Roy Muir.)

Built in 1946, the Princess Victoria was the second ever British ro-ro car ferry. She replaced an identical ship with the same name which had been built in 1939 but sank during the War while requisitioned by the Admiralty.

Because the captain and all the officers died, it's difficult to know the exact sequence of events of the second Princess Victoria's final voyage but what seems to have happened is this:-

She sailed from Stranraer at 7.45am in wind from the north west gusting to 75-80mph and reached the mouth of Loch Ryan and the open sea at about 8.30am. Some time after this - around 9.00am - the master, Captain James Ferguson, decided the weather was too severe to continue and to return to Stranraer. While the ship was headed south again, with her stern facing the NW gale, a heavy wave stove in the gates closing the car deck at the stern. These were a much flimsier arrangement than on modern car ferries as seen below.

Water flooding onto the car deck caused the ship to list to starboard. A party was sent to close the stern gates but they had been damaged by the impact and the danger to the crewmembers of being washed overboard was such that the attempt had to be called off.

Captain Ferguson next decided to attempt to reverse back into Loch Ryan so as to protect the vulnerable stern from the sea. This required the bow rudder to be deployed. A party was sent to the bow to remove its securing pin but it proved difficult to move and the heavy seas breaking over the bow posed such a danger to the party that that attempt also had to be called off.

Unable to return to Loch Ryan, Captain Ferguson then seems to have decided that his only option was to continue towards Ireland.

At 09.46, the Princess Victoria sent her first distress signal by morse code. Prefaced by "XXX" meaning vessel in trouble but not in imminent danger of sinking the message was:

Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tug required.

(Above drawing Copyright Martin Cahill.)

No tugs were available. 45 minutes later at 10.32 another message was broadcast, this time an SOS:

Princess Victoria four miles north west of Corsewall. Car deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command.

In response to this, the Portpatrick lifeboat was launched and a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Contest, was despatched from Rothesay, some 3 hours steaming to the north. But the problem was that the Coast Guard interpreted the Princess Victoria's distress signals including the words "not under command" to mean that her engines were stopped and she was drifting south east before the north westerly gale down onto the Scottish coast between Corsewall Point and Portpatrick. But "not under command" means "unable to manoeuvre normally" as opposed to drifting without power and, in fact, the Princess Victoria was still heading south west towards Ireland, albeit slowly, listing heavily and in a very distressed condition. In short the rescuers were looking in the wrong place along the Scottish coast.

At 12.52 - nearly 4 hours into her ordeal - the Princess Victoria signalled that her starboard engine room was flooded and that her position was critical.

13.08 - Vessel stopped and on her beam ends. That meant she was listing so heavily that the main deck was in the water on the lower (starboard) side, an almost 45 degree list. Doubtless the port propellor was now out of the water and unable to drive the ship further.

13.15 - We are preparing to abandon ship

It was about this time that the Coast Guard gave up searching the Scottish coast. The Donaghadee lifeboat was launched from Ireland and the Portpatrick lifeboat and HMS Contest were redirected towards the Irish Coast. At the same time ships sheltering in Belfast Lough headed out to join the search.

At 13.35 the Princess Victoria signalled that the Irish coast was in sight and then at 13.47 that the lighthouse on the Copeland Islands was visible.

The Princess Victoria is believed to have capsized about 5 miles north east of the Copeland Islands at about 14.00, minutes after her final signal at 13.58, - more than 6 hours after leaving Stranraer and almost 5 hours since her ordeal began with the stern gates being stove in.

With the ship listing so heavily, conditions aboard must have been horrifying and it was impossible to launch the lifeboats. All that could be done was to get some passengers into the boats on the port (higher) side and cut the ropes in the hope they would float free as the ship sank. Three lifeboats got away but tragically one was smashed against the ship as it went down and all its occupants thrown into the sea. Other passengers and crew got away in liferafts.

The survivors were still almost two hours from salvation. The first ship on the scene, some 50 minutes after the sinking, was the cargo steamer Orchy but due to the weather she could not launch her own lifeboats and she was too high-sided to be able to haul any of the survivors on board. An oil tanker, Pass of Drumochter, fared little better. A trawler, Eastcoates, hauled seven people out the water but only one was alive. At last, an hour later at 15.51, about an hour and 50 minutes after the Princess Victoria had sunk, HMS Contest and the Donaghadee lifeboat arrived. No long after, so too did the Portpatrick lifeboat which by now had been at sea for more than 5 hours in atrocious conditions. Between these three, they rescued 43 survivors, 34 by the Donaghadee lifeboat. A sailor on the Contest jumped overboard with a rope around his waist and was in the water for 30 minutes assisting survivors. All survivors were men. The search was called off at 6pm.

A Court of Enquiry subsequently found that the design of the Princess Victoria was deficient in that her stern gates were inadequate and also - more seriously - that her scuppers (drains) were insufficient to drain water off the car deck. Tragically, requests had been made to fit larger scuppers following previous incidents in 1949 and 1951 when heavy seas had breached the stern gates but nothing was done: if it had, she may not have capsized on 31 January 1953.

The science of car ferries was in its infancy in the 1950s when it was not understood that a relatively small amount of water sloshing around a large car deck can seriously destabilise a ship. Nowadays, ferries are designed with car decks which are either sealed watertight or, if wholly or partially open (as is required for the transport of hazardous cargoes like petrol, gas etc.), have adequate scuppers.

The Princess Victoria was described as unseaworthy. But compared to the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia which both sank due to water ingress on the car deck (both watertight car deck ships but the former sailed with its bow door open and the latter had its bow door torn off in a storm), the Victoria remained afloat for almost 5 hours whereas the HOFE and Estonia went over in minutes.

A number of awards were given in the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess Victoria including British Empire Medals to the coxswains of the Portpatrick and Donaghadee lifeboats. But the highest civillian honour for bravery - the George Cross - was reserved for the Victoria's radio officer, David Broadfoot, who went down with the ship. In the words of the Court of Enquiry:-

If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted.


  1. Just read the book after ordering it months ago. It give a very vivid and, sometimes, moving account of the tragedy. Recommended to everyone!

  2. Estonia did not sail with bow door torn of, nor did she go over in minutes. It took 90 minutes to sink.
    had the bow door been torn of, she would have capsized and drifted upside down for probably days.
    Read the Swedish book "Lies and thruth about Estonia", where the whole story is explained.

  3. The Estonia sank in less than an hour, not 90 minutes.