Ships 2

Princess Victoria

Ships 3

Princess Victoria

Sinking of the Princess Victoria

By James Donahue

A fierce gale that swept the North Channel between the United Kingdom and Ireland on January 31, 1953, flooded the UK coast and sank the passenger and car ferry Princess Victoria. The vessel was on a twenty-mile trip from Stranraer, Scotland to Larne, Northern Ireland.

A total of 531 people perished in that storm, 133 of them on the Princess Victoria. The sinking was rated the worst maritime disaster in UK waters since World War II.

The ferry, under the command of Captain James Ferguson, left Stranraer’s Railway pier that morning with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers and 51 crew members on what was to have been a routine trip. Ferguson had been piloting ferries on that same route for 17 years. Even though a gale warning was issued he made the decision to put to sea anyway.

The Princess Victoria, built in 1947, was one of the early roll-on-roll-off ferries that allowed loading and unloading at both ends. The ship was equipped with a guillotine door because of problems of high waves splashing over the ship’s  low stern doors. But the special protective doors were rarely used because it took too long to raise and lower them. In spite of storm warnings, Ferguson did not order the guillotine doors lowered, which was a mistake. Even as the ferry was leaving the shelter of Loch Ryan and entering the open waters of the North Channel, observers noted that heavy waves were already hitting the stern doors and water was spraying over them and onto the lower car deck.

As soon as the ship turned west toward Larne it began taking the brunt of the wind and high seas. Not only was the car deck flooding faster than the scuppers could handle the water, but the force of the waves damaged the sliding doors. The crew struggled to try to repair the damaged doors and get them closed again, without success.

Captain Ferguson first tried to retreat back to the safety of Loch Ryan by reversing engines and using the bow rudder. But the storm prevented the crew from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder so running backward into the loch was not an option. Ferguson next decided to try to make a run for Northern Ireland. He chose a course that would keep the stern of the ferry sheltered from the worst of the storm.

Something went wrong. The ship was listing to starboard and apparently the engines were flooded or lacking the power to battle the storm. About two hours after leaving Stranraer the radio officer on the ferry, David Broadfoot, transmitted the following in Morse code: “Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required.” Shortly after that an SOS transmission was sent and the order was given to abandon ship.

The Portpatrick Lifesaving Station dispatched the Lifeboat Jeannie Spiers and the Navy destroyer HMS Contest was also sent in an effort to conduct a rescue. Both vessels battled the storm and had a difficult time locating the sinking ferry. It was determined that the Princess Victoria still had its engines running and was continuing to move so its actual location was changing.

A court of enquiry later found that there were so many other emergencies occurring in the storm that assistance to the Princess Victoria had been severely hampered. It was not until the RAF was able to send an aircraft out to find and guide the destroyer and other nearby vessels to the scene that help finally arrived. The merchant ships were unable to rescue the survivors in lifeboats because of the fierce waves. All they could do was shelter the small boats until the lifeboat, Sir Samuel Kelly arrived and took the survivors on board.

There were only 44 survivors. All members of the ship’s crew were lost with the ship. Among the lost that day were Maynard Sinclair, deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland, and Lt. Col Sir Walter Smiles, the MP for North Down.

The wreck was located by a diving team in 1992 in nearly 300 feet of water five miles north, northeast of the Copeland Islands.