Mystery of The Derbyshire Sinking
By James Donahue
The giant bulk freight carrier Derbyshire sank with all hands in the midst of a typhoon
while hove to and riding out a typhoon off the coast of Japan on or about September 9, 1980.
Despite the fact that the ship was battered by a typhoon when it foundered, the loss of
that 965-foot-long ship and the deaths of all 44 members of the crew created a mystery.
At the time, the Derbyshire was the largest British ship in history to be lost at sea.
It was just over four years old, having been launched in December, 1975. Also there was no distress radio calls from the ship.
The freighter was on route for Kawasaki, Japan from Sept Isles, Canada, with a cargo of
iron ore concentrates. Consequently, the vessel was riding low in the water with heavy cargo when caught in the typhoon.
The cause of the sinking remained a mystery until shipwreck hunter David Mearns found the
wreck in June, 1994. A remote submersible device was lowered to photograph the remains of the Derbyshire and the results of
Mearns’ work was published in 1998.
The new information launched a formal investigation in the sinking in 2000. Investigators
concluded that the ship sank because of structural failure. The underwater pictures revealed that the closing gates for nine
ventilator openings in the bow of the ship were missing, which allowed flooding of that part of the vessel as storm force
waves battered the hull. With the ship hove to, its bow would have been turned into the teeth of the gale.
The extra weight of the flooded forward hold, coupled with the ship’s heavy cargo,
would have caused the vessel to trim down by the bow. This forward trim allowed the storm force waves to batter the forward
cargo hold hatch covers, eventually causing them to fail. As the ship’s bow settled deeper and deeper, the same thing
was probably going on with the number two and number three hatch covers. Eventually the ship took on enough water that it
foundered. The crew may have been totally unaware of what was happening to the ship until the last moment.
There has been yet another interesting theory about what happened to the Derbyshire. Much
like the dangers facing ships caught in high seas on the Great Lakes, the Derbyshire’s great length, measuring nearly
1,000 feet, may have been effected by the distance between the high point of the waves.
Steel hulls of ships are designed to withstand the force of the water and storms from the
exterior, but they tend to buckle if suspended by high waves that life the vessel
at the same time from both fore and aft. The Great Lakes are not as large as the oceans so the wave action is always shorter.
Consequently it has been more common for ships to crack and buckle when lifted by two waves at the same time on the lakes.
Ocean waves, while sometime much higher, are always more rolling and spaced farther apart.
Thus ships on the high seas tend to plunge through or ride up over the waves as they come at the vessel.
But suppose that during the severe action of a typhoon, the waves were measuring about
the same length of the Derbyshire? If the ship was lifted constantly at both ends by such waves, it could cause a long ship
like the Derbyshire to buckle somewhere amidships.
Whatever happened to the Derbyshire, it occurred so quickly and unexpectedly the crew did
not have time to radio a distress call.