Princess Victoria – 60th Anniversary

Apart where shown, photos from
the Clydebuilt Database and the Paul Strathdee Collection
Thursday 31st January 2013 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the loss of the car ferry PRINCESS VICTORIA, which sank in the North Channel in weather conditions not so very different to those being experienced on the same day in 2013.

The “new” Princess Victoria fitting out at Denny’s
Photo from the Fraser MacHaffie collection
The ship, delivered by Dennys of Dumbarton in 1947 to replace an almost identical vessel of the same name that had been lost during the Second War, left Stranraer on a routine sailing to Larne shortly before 8.00 am. A gale warning was in place: it had been broadcast by the BBC a little over an hour before and warned of “Severe North to Northwest gales” for sea area Malin.
PRINCESS VICTORIA was not a modern roll-on/roll-off car ferry with a totally enclosed car deck. Her car deck was 170 feet long, a little over half the length of the ship itself. Drainage from the car deck comprised a total of 18 scuppers of two to three inches in diameter. At her stern was a pair of gates, only five feet in height, and which were secured by steel bolts that dropped into the deck. Two years after she had been built, a vertical sliding door had been added above the gates, and which locked into place along the top of them. This arrangement did not provide a watertight seal.
At least twice before, water had entered the car deck over the stern, but the incidents were never fully reported. LORD WARDEN, a near sistership also built by Denny and in service on the English Channel, had also taken water on board over her stern door during bad weather. It was just never expected that water would come over the tops of the doors, some 17 feet above the waterline. The scuppers would cope with small quantities of water trapped on the car deck after the crew had been washing down, and were never designed to clear large amounts.
Captain James Ferguson still decided to sail. After heading down Loch Ryan, PRINCESS VICTORIA ran into the full brunt of the storm. Ferguson had few options. Continuing northwards would have been foolhardy, conditions being so bad. Anchoring was ruled out, again because the motion of the ship would have been terrible. Running stern-first back into Loch Ryan was also ruled out, as the bow rudder had a locking pin that had to be released from the foredeck, and that would have required some of her crew to venture out onto the open deck.
His only course of action, then, was to attempt to head across the North Channel for Northern Ireland.
As PRINCESS VICTORIA turned, she was hit by the enormous seas. Her flimsy stern doors were no match for the enormous force of the water, and about 200 tons flooded onto the car deck, now completely open to the sea. Some of the crew were sent to the car deck to try to close the doors, but their attempts were futile. After struggling for about 20 minutes they abandoned their efforts. More than a foot of water was now on the open deck, making the ship roll ever more as it sloshed from side to side with every roll.
It was 9.30 am. It was now imperative to get the ship to shelter.
Now some seven miles north of Corsewall Point, Captain Ferguson had one more chance to save the ship by turning around and heading back to Loch Ryan. As soon as she turned, however, she began listing severely. Water was now also entering the passenger accommodation after windows had been broken by enormous waves. Turning to starboard, water now also began to flood through into the accommodation at the forward end of the car deck. It was also now beginning to find its way down into the engine room. At 10.00 an announcement was made over the public address system, advising passengers that although “the ship was going through a severe test” there was no danger and that they were safe. Within a short time, however, the list had become so severe that anything not secured had slid over to the starboard side.
At 10.32 a distress message was sent out by the ship: “Princess Victoria to SOS – Princess Victoria four miles north-west of Corsewall, Car-deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command.”
Half an hour later the Portpatrick lifeboat was launched. By this time PRINCESS VICTORIA had drifted south and was roughly north-west of Portpatrick. This was unknown to the lifeboat crew, who proceeded to the ferry’s last reported position. Despite being only an hour away from where PRINCESS VICTORIA actually was, much valuable time was lost as a result.
By 11.30 lifejackets had been handed out to the passengers, and preparations were being made to launch the lifeboats, a procedure made even more difficult given the severe rolling and 30 degree list to starboard that had now developed. A number of ships were on their way to assist although, surprisingly, PRINCESS VICTORIA was still under power and moving south: unfortunately, by now she was about ten miles south of the position that she had issued in the distress call.
The first indication that she was moving southwards was given in a radio message to a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS CONTEST, that was heading south from Rothesay. It was expected that the destroyer and two tugs would be there in around an hour’s time, by 1.00 pm. Using the ship’s radio to communicate with shore stations, continued attempts were made to find out exactly where she was. After receiving these revised positions, the destroyer advised the ferry that she would not be there until 2.15.
By this time, the position had become critical. With the water on the car deck gradually flooding the spaces beneath deck, and the list increasing, she was settling lower into the water. Soon the stern of PRINCESS VICTORIA was at water level. At 12.52 she sent out a radio signal advising that the engine room had become flooded. Saving the ship was no longer possible. At 1.08 the engines stopped, and the ship was rolling onto her beam ends. Seven minutes later Portpatrick Radio was told that preparations were being made to abandon ship. The passengers were informed at 1.30.
Shortly after this, Captain Ferguson thought he could see land – it turned out to be the Copeland Islands just off the entrance to Belfast Lough. They were about five miles away. The crew were managing to get the port side boats into the water, despite the list, and passengers and crew were now making their way to the stern to board them. PRINCESS VICTORIA continued to list further. As she did so, the buoyant rafts on her promenade deck broke free.
The last radio message was sent at 1.58, giving a final position. At 2.00, PRINCESS VICTORIA rolled over completely and slid below the waves.

Rescue from the stormy, freezing waters took several hours. Several ships came to assist, many having been riding out the storm in Belfast Lough. In the belief that PRINCESS VICTORIA had been further north and that a destroyer was coming to help, they had remained at anchor rather than heading out earlier.
On board PRINCESS VICTORIA had been 179 people – 128 passengers and 51 crew. 44 survived. From those who lost their lives in the freezing waters that dark day, only 100 bodies were recovered.
The Report of Court found that the loss of PRINCESS VICTORIA was:
“due to her unseaworthy condition arising from two circumstances —
(1) The inadequacy of the sterndoors, which yielded to the stress of the seas, thus permitting the influx of water into the car space.
(2) The inadequacy of clearing arrangements for the water which accumulated on the freeboard deck causing an increasing list to the starboard, culminating in the ship capsizing and foundering.”

Although the ship was owned by the BTC, her managers were officially designated as ‘Irish Shipping Services’ and were part of the Railway Executive based at Euston Station. In the days before corporate manslaughter had been invented by the lawyers, it is perhaps interesting to note that one of the questions asked:

“Was the loss of the M.V. “Princess Victoria” caused or contributed to or by the wrongful act or default of the owners, managers, Master or any other person?”

to which the following answer was given:
“The loss of the M.V. “Princess Victoria” was caused by the default of the owners and managers in so far as they failed to make adequate provision for the freeing of water from the car space, although the inadequacy of the existing provision had been shown by the incident in November, 1951.”
That referred to an incident when the car deck had been flooded while PRINCESS VICTORIA was off Larne and her stern doors had been damaged during heavy weather. That had not been the first such instance, either, and it emerged that although discussions had been held about fitting additional scuppers to the car deck, no further action had been taken. Even after the 1951 incident, the issue of the strength of the stern doors seemed unimportant.

The memorial at Stranraer to those lost in the tragedy
Photo © Copyright Puffer and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

There is a little booklet written by Jack Hunter and published by the
Stranraer and District Local History Trust, Tall Trees, London Road, Stranraer, DG9 8BZ
which gives the story of the disaster in more detail.

The Loss of the Princess Victoria
by Jack Hunter
Printed by Stranraer and Wigtonshire Free Press
ISBN  0 9535776 1 9

The following was found on the web while researching the subject and considered appropriate for inclusion here.

Last Crossing
Lyrics: Tim Lyons
Air: Lonely Banna Strand

The ship Princess Victoria was built in Denny’s Yards,
Three Thousand tons of iron and steel, a ferry boat for Larne,
She sailed the Northern Channel a daunting stretch of sea,
Till gale force winds did send her down, in nineteen fifty three.

Upon a wild and wintry morn on the coast of Galloway,
This boat set forth from Stranraer Port bound for the ocean raw,
There were passengers and cargo, aboard the aging ship,
As she left Loch Ryan’s waters calm upon her fatal trip.

Before her lay the Irish Sea, a dreadful place to be,
Where mountainous waves and roaring gales would affright both you and me,
Into this raging northwest gale their puny vessel ran,
It was not long till fear and dread was cast on child and man.

Green ocean waves on every side so assailed the heaving boat,
That the captain he was forced to plot a new course to the north,
But still his ship did face the rage of the pitiless rolling sea,
And its fury broke the car deck doors and the waves rushed in between.

Captain Ferguson endeavoured the breaching to prevent,
And sped five crewmen to the doors their closure to attempt,
But the damage it being so severe and the flood did run so fast,
Those men were doomed to failure and did retreat at last.

The angry waters now did spread down stairwells and through doors,
Streaming through the corridors, lounges, berths and floors,
A violent shudder soon was felt as the cargo moved about,
Now blocking up the passageways and leaving no way out.

Some hundred tons of winter seas were now being freely shipped,
Deeper down the icy waves the stricken vessel slipped,
No hope remained, for his list pertained, to thirty five degrees,
With her last breath, she faced her death and sank beneath the seas.

It’s off the Copeland Islands her wreckage now does lie,
One hundred souls and twenty eight, that day were doomed to die,
Including Captain Ferguson who served till he did drown,
Some passengers and crew likewise – all tragically went down.

Full praise unto the searchers who faced the tempests rage,
In boats of differing size and weight they nobly did engage,
The ‘Jeannie Spears’, the ‘Lairdsmoore’, the ‘H.M.S. Contest’,
The ‘Orchy’, the ‘Dromochter Pass’ and ‘Salveda’ were the rest.

The people of those sea-going coasts had reason to lament,
In Scottish and in Irish homes their hearts were sorely rent,
They rue that day in January, when Victoria set to sea,
And lost so many fragile lives in Nineteen Fifty Three.

Written by Tim Lyons as part of the Wild Bees’ Nest project.
© Tim Lyons 2011