MV Princess Victoria, one of the earliest roll-on/roll-off ferries, sinks on January 31, 1953, in the North Channel during a severe European windstorm with the loss of 133 lives. It is then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.
Princess Victoria is built in 1947 by William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton. She is the first purpose-built ferry of her kind to operate in British coastal waters and could hold 1,500 passengers plus cargo and had sleeping accommodations for 54.
Captained by James Ferguson, the vessel leaves Stranraer‘s railway loading pier at 7:45 AM on January 31, 1953 with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers, and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson has served as master on various ferries on the same route for seventeen years. A gale warning is in force but he makes the decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea is not apparent, but it is noted that spray is breaking over the stern doors. A “guillotine door” has been fitted, because of a previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors, but it is rarely used, because it takes too long to raise and lower. This would provide extra protection for the sliding stern doors but on this occasion it is not lowered.
Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan, the ship turns west towards Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland and exposes her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damage the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggles to close the doors again but they prove to be too badly damaged and water continues to flood in from the waves. The scuppers do not appear to be allowing the water to drain away. The ship takes a list to starboard and at this point Captain Ferguson decides to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. This proves to be impossible, because the extreme conditions prevent the deckhands from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder. Ferguson then makes a decision to try to reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which keeps the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements. At 9:46 AM, two hours after leaving Stranraer, a message is transmitted in Morse code (the Princess Victoria does not have a radio telephone) by radio operator David Broadfoot to the Portpatrick Radio Station: “Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required.”
With a list to starboard exacerbated by shifting cargo, water continues to enter the ship. At 10:32 AM an SOS transmission is made, and the order to abandon is given at 2:00 PM. Possibly the first warship in the area is HMS Launceston Castle, commanded by Lt. Cdr J M Cowling, a frigate which is en route to Derry. Searches are carried out but Launceston Castle is forced to leave when her condensers are contaminated by salt. Upon the upgrade of the assistance message to an SOS, the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers is dispatched, as is the destroyer HMS Contest. Contest, commanded by Lt. Commander HP Fleming, leaves Rothesay at 11:09 AM but, although she comes close to her position at 1:30 PM, poor visibility prevents the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer has been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots to reach the listing ferry but, after sustaining damage from the seas, Captain Fleming is forced to reduce speed to 16 knots.
The Princess Victoria is still reporting her position as 5 miles northwest of Corsewall Point but her engines are still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots are gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1:08 PM, the ship broadcasts that her engines have stopped. The final morse code message at 1:58 PM reports the ship “on her beam end” five miles east of the Copeland Islands.
The Court of Enquiry into the sinking, held in March 1953 at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, finds that the Princess Victoria was lost due to a combination of factors. In a 30,000 page report the enquiry finds that firstly, the stern doors are not sufficiently robust. Secondly, arrangements for clearing water from the car deck are inadequate. The report concludes “If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted.” The court also notes the failure of the duty destroyer HMS Tenacious from the 3rd Training Squadron based at HMS Sea Eagle at Londonderry Port to be able to put to sea as too many men had been released on shore leave. As a consequence of the enquiry the duty destroyer from the 3rd Squadron is subsequently based “on station” at the mouth of Lough Foyle on one hour readiness to put to sea.
The wreck lay undiscovered until 1992 when a team from Cromarty Firth Diving, led by John MacKenzie and funded by the BBC, working from data provided by a Royal Navy seabed survey carried out in 1973, are able to locate it five miles north northeast of the Copeland Islands in 90 metres of water. Video footage and stills from this expedition are transmitted on a BBC programme called Home Truths (Things Don’t Happen to Boats Like This) on the 40th anniversary of the sinking in 1993.