Engineering Disasters: the Sinking of the MV Princess Victoria

Engineering Disasters: the Sinking of the MV Princess Victoria
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The Princess Victoria was built in Dumbarton in 1947 and was operated as a passenger car ferry between Stranraer and the Northern Irish port of Larne.

A full blown gale was in progress when the Princess Victoria left her home port of Stranraer on the Scottish west coast on 31st January 1953. A short way into the voyage the stern doors on the car deck were breached by high seas, and despite attempts to secure the doors the seawater continued to penetrate them pouring into the car deck.

She listed badly and capsized, sinking with the loss of 133 lives.

This is an article on Engineering Disasters where we will examine the causes of the sinking of the Roll On-Roll Off (Ro/Ro) Ferry the MV Princess Victoria.

We begin with an overview of the Princess Victoria.

Overview of the MV Princess Victoria

The MV Princess Victoria shown above (please click to enlarge) was built in 1947 to a modern design of the Ro/Ro railway ferry designed by Sir Thomas Bouch - the designer of the ill-fated Tay Rail Bridge. She carried cars, cargo, and passengers between Stranraer and Larne, linking Scotland with Northern Ireland.

Ro/Ro ferries have stern doors; more modern ones also have bow doors that give access to the car and cargo deck. The stern doors are particularly susceptible to taking water and spray into the car deck in heavy weather.

There have been numerous disasters on these types of ferries throughout the world, with most relating to their entry/exit doors being left partially open, or being pounded by heavy seas flooding the car deck and causing the loss of the ship and lives. One such more recent disaster was the sinking of “The Herald of Free Enterprise” a short distance off the Belgian coast in 1987, when 200 lives were lost through the car deck door not being fully shut and secured.

The Princess Victoria’s Design

The Princess Victoria was designed and built literally as a replica of her predecessor that had been sunk in 1940 during the Second World War.

She was the first of the Ro/Ro of the time designed for car, cargo, and passenger service. She had two rear stern doors that opened inwards, giving access to the car and cargo deck.

These stern doors were 5’6” high leaving an equal space of 5’6” between the doors and the next deck level. The doors were kept shut by a system of bolts, stays, and watertight gaskets.

In 1951 the Princess Victoria’s stern doors were breached during a storm; a “guillotine spray door” was subsequently fitted to prevent ingress of water over the stern doors. This was vertically hung and could be lowered when bad weather was expected, but was seldom used due to a cumbersome and time-consuming operating design.

A sketch showing the stern doors and guillotine spray door layout follows:

MV Princess Victoria Stern Doors

The car and cargo deck ran the length of the ship having numerous scuppers cut into the hull designed to drain excess seawater from the deck. This deck was divided by a bulkhead and fire door that separated it from the forward passenger accommodation.

This sketch shows the car/cargo deck layout:

MV Princess Victoria Showing Car Deck Bulkhead

She had a Gross Tonnage of 2698(GT) and was propelled by twin Sulzer 2-stroke diesel engines that gave her a top speed of 19 Knots.

The Princess Victoria was licensed to carry 1500 Passengers, along with 70 Tons of cargo/cars.

The Great Storm

The MV Princess Victoria set sail from her home port of Stranraer under Captain James Ferguson on 31st January 1953. This was despite a storm raging not only locally, but part of a Western European-wide storm that stretched from Scotland right across to the Netherlands. It was to become the worst storm in living memory around the Scottish/Irish coast; it was known as the “Great Storm” in which it was estimated that 2,000 people lost their lives.

This was the storm that the Princess Victoria sailed into, 45 minutes later than usual due to high winds making the cranes inoperative and necessitating the loading of the cargo by hand. (The high wind and the six-foot sea-swell prevented cars from coming aboard due to the rise and fall of the car deck.)

I was only a young boy at the time growing up in the seaside town of Bangor, on Belfast Lough that is close to Donaghadee. It was from Donaghadee that the lifeboat “Sir Samuel Kelly” involved in the rescue of passengers was stationed. I do remember it was a very dark day with sleet, hail, rain, and very high winds; we lost a few slates off the roof of our house and our front fence was blown down.

My Dad was a member of the Local Coastguard Unit and was called out to assist in the rescue of survivors in boats or life rafts that may have been blown towards the shore.

My dad, uncle, and granddad had previously owned a fishing boat, fishing for herring and cod around the Scottish and Irish coast, so they knew the area very well.

My dad was in an awful state, being understandably upset when he eventually came home again, thoroughly demoralized and soaked through as they had heard the number of people lost and had been unable to help.

The Last Voyage of the Princess Victoria

Here is a sketch showing the route taken by the Princess Victoria on her last voyage, along with an estimate of her sinking:

Map showing Sea-route Taken by MV Princess Victoria on her Last Voyage

So the Princess Victoria eventually set sail with 127 passengers, a crew of 49, and 45 tons of cargo, down the eight or so miles of Loch Ryan. At the mouth of the Loch, she ran right into the teeth of the North Westerly gale with winds reported gusting locally at over 80 mph.

Here is a close-up of Loch Ryan:

Map of Loch Ryan from Wiki Commons by SFC9394

Once out of the shelter of Loch Ryan, Captain Ferguson must have decided that the storm was too severe to carry on with the voyage; he turned the Princess round and headed back into Loch Ryan. However, this maneuver exposed her stern to the full force of the storm and waves forced her stern doors open allowing the sea to enter the car deck.

The Chief Officer, Bosun, and a few crew members made their way along the swamped car deck to the stern and attempted to secure the stern doors, but were nearly swept away. They also tried to lower the guillotine spray door but this also had to be abandoned due to the force of the storm.

The captain then decided to unpin the bow rudder and attempt to negotiate up the Lough astern, protecting the stern doors from the oncoming waves. The men went for’d to the fo’c’sle head to operate the bow rudder gear, but once again the waves and wind were so severe that they were nearly blown overboard.

Meanwhile, the Princess Victoria had taken a 10 degree list to Starboard, due to the build–up of seawater in the car and cargo deck. Although the watertight bulkhead seemed to be holding, the fire door had started leaking water into the accommodation.

Captain Ferguson then headed back into the storm, sending out a message for tug assistance. This was transmitted in Morse by the Radio Officer David Broadfoot, the ship having no wireless.

The list to Starboard was exacerbated by the buildup of seawater in the car and cargo deck, due to the inadequacy of the scuppers in removing the water (later to be blamed on them being blocked by broken wood/cardboard cargo boxes). This list was also due to the cargo breaking free from the Port side and sliding down to the Starboard side of the ship.

The Radio Officer kept transmitting a regular S.O.S giving different positions and asking for immediate assistance.

These positions, for some still unfathomable reason were incorrect; it could have been the list or severe weather. However at noon, three wireless stations had zeroed in on the Radio Officer’s transmissions and calculated her position to be just over 7 miles SW of this, but chose to believe the position given by the Princess Victoria in her S.O.S. transmissions. The calculated position was later confirmed to be the correct one: if only!

The Starboard list had now increased to 35 degrees due to water pouring into the car deck and forcing its way through the fire door into the accommodation, alarming the passengers who, fearing the worst, thought the ship would capsize.

This was confirmed when the Captain addressed them over the PA, advising them of the situation, ordering them to don lifejackets and make their way to the boat deck.

The next S.O.S. transmitted by David Broadfoot affirmed that she was listing badly, and that they were preparing to abandon ship. It also gave the ships position, once again incorrectly as being just off the Scottish coast, to where the first two rescue vessels were steaming towards.

The Princess was in fact close to the entrance to Belfast Lough, a position confirmed when the next transmission from the ship informed the rescuers that the captain could see the Irish coast.

The next transmission stated that the flashes of the lighthouse on Mew Island had been sighted. Mew Island is one of the three islands that make up the Copeland Islands just off Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast.

Meanwhile onboard the stricken vessel, the order had been given to “Abandon Ship.” Most of the passengers had been assisted to the Portside boat deck using lifelines rigged by the crew and were embarking in the lifeboats. Due to the ships list the lowering of the boats on the Starboard side was impossible; three boats on the Port side got away.

Alas, one full boat was broken to matchwood when it slammed against the ship’s side, ejecting the passengers into the sea.

Some other passengers waited until the Princess Victoria was right on her beam end and slowly sinking. They then scrambled across the barnacle/shell encrusted keel and jumped into the sea in the hope of getting aboard a lifeboat or raft or finding a piece of floating debris.

The Radio Officer David Broadfoot stayed at his post still transmitting to the last on emergency power, his final transmission being timed at 1358.

As the Princess Victoria slipped beneath the waves, Captain Ferguson was last seen at the salute on his bridge, going down with his ship.

None of the ships Officers were to survive, and rather surprisingly, none of the women or children passengers.

The Rescuers

The first two ships to be involved in the rescue were the Portpatrick lifeboat Jeanie Spiers, and the Royal Navy destroyer Contest.

They were searching the area of the Scottish coast given as the last position of the Princess Victoria.

A number of small vessels were sheltering from the storm in Belfast Lough. When the Princess Victoria’s final transmission gave her actual position as south of Belfast Lough four of these vessels set off into the storm in search of her.

These were the Orchy, a coaster, the Lairdsmoor, a cattle boat, the trawler Eastcotes, and a small oil tanker, Pass of Drumochter. The Orchy was the first to arrive at the scene of the disaster.

Here she found wreckage, survivors in the water, on lifeboats and clinging to life rafts, sending out a message that she had found the final resting place of the Princess Victoria.

However the survivor’s ordeal was not yet over, as none of the rescue ships were close enough to the water to get the survivors onboard. When the trawler Eastcotes arrived, her crew managed to get 7 people from the water using boathooks but only one was alive.

Next to arrive was the Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat from Donaghadee, rescuing 34 people from the stricken ship’s boats and life rafts. She is on display at the Ulster Folk Museum outside Belfast and is shown below along with her crew who braved the storm in her on the fateful day:

Sir Samuel Kelly Llifeboat from Wiki Commons by The Thunderer

Crew of the Sir Samuel Kelly Lifeboat from Wiki Commons by The Thunderer

The destroyer HMS Contest was also soon on the scene, rescuing seven people from the sea. Her Commander and one of her Petty Officers went into the water on several occasions with a rope tied around their waist, aiding and rescuing two survivors.

Last to arrive was the Portpatrick Lifeboat; she plucked two survivors from the sea. What a battle she must have had, punching her way through the North Passage in that storm. A tribute to her and her crew is shown below:

A Tribute to Portpatrick Lifeboat Men from Wiki Commons by andy

Overhead a Hastings Air/Sea Rescue plane had arrived and began dropping survival gear to the people in the water. A typical Hastings of the period is shown below:

Handley Page Hastings Plane as used in the rescue attempt from Wiki Commons by Keith Edkins

The survivors were taken to Donaghadee, where they disembarked to be comforted and looked after by the local community.

The survivors numbered 43 (some accounts number these as 42) out of a total of ship’s company and passengers of 176, leaving a remainder of 133 souls lost to the sea.

Loss of Princess Victoria Court of Inquiry Findings

Lord Justice Dermott led the inquiry into the sinking of the Princess Victoria held at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast on 23rd March 1953. He had three qualified Nautical/Naval Architectural professionals to aid him.

The Court of Inquiry subsequently found The British Transport Commission being the Owners and Operators of the Princess Victoria guilty of her loss. This was due to her unseaworthy condition as listed below;

  • The stern doors were not of sufficient strength to withstand a storm to be reasonably expected in the North Channel of the Irish Sea.
  • The freeing ports (scuppers) were inadequate to remove seawater from the car/cargo deck from whatever the source of ingress.
  • For failing to act upon two similar incidents that occurred in 1949 and1951, where the scuppers were found to be designed too small to remove excess seawater, and also milk from tanks she was carrying that was released to the cargo deck.

The British Transport Commission appealed against this Court of Inquiry decision, citing the exceptional weather. However the Court upheld its original decision – the ship was unseaworthy.

Authors Note:

Being a retired Marine Engineer, I fail to see how she was termed unseaworthy as she stayed afloat and in the midst of one of the worst storms in living memory, despite having a list of 35 degrees.

Certainly her stern doors should have been of a stronger design, the spray door should have been lowered; and yes the scuppers should have taken the seawater away faster. Nonetheless, to crawl her way across the North Passage, almost making it to Belfast Lough and safety in that weather belittles the description of unseaworthy.

Webs Visited:

1. scotsman: Loss of a Princess

2. searcher: Sinking of Princess Victoria.

3. IMO: Safety Regulations of Ro-Ro Ferries.

4. larnegovnews: Larne Remembers.

5. naturegrid: the Great Storm

Awards for Bravery and Memorials

Awards for Bravery

The praise of the Princess Victoria’s Radio Officer and Captain cumulated in honors being bestowed on them.

David Broadfoot was posthumously awarded the George Cross (this is the highest civilian award for bravery) for staying at his post in the radio room transmitting S.O.S. messages to the end; Captain Ferguson receiving the George Medal for going down with his ship at the salute still on his bridge.

George Medal from Wiki Commons by NZDF Medals

George Cross from Wiki Commons by Robert Prummel

The rescuers also received recognition for their bravery in facing the storm searching for survivors.

The commander of the HMS Contest, Stanley McArdle and CPO Warren both receiving the George Medal for, as we noted earlier, jumping into the mountainous seas to aid survivors.

British Empire Medal from Wiki Commons by Robert Prummel

Member of British Empire from Wiki Commons by Robert Prummel

The Coxswains of both the Donaghadee and Portpatrick Lifeboats both deservedly received British Empire Medals as well as a string of Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) awards for bravery and outstanding seamanship. The captains of the four merchant ships, that were first to reach the spot where the Princess went down were each made Members of the British Empire.

The majority of the officers and crew was from the Princess’s home port of Stranraer, the tight knit community was understandably devastated by their loss, as was the community of Larne where some of the crew were from. They have mounted memorials to these brave men, none of whom returned from the sea to their loved ones and families.

“Oh help us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea.”

Memorials to Those Lost

Memorials erected at Larne and Stranraer are shown below:

Princess Victoria Memorial from Wiki Commons by Rose and Trev Clough

Princess Victoria Memorial Larne from Wiki Commons by Aubrey Dale