Tragic loss of a princess and her people

ROLL-on, roll-off ferries have a long history of transporting people and cargo quickly and efficiently. Sadly, these so-called ro-ros also have a history of tragedy - and Scotland features prominently.

The first ro-ros were designed by Thomas Bouch, the same engineer responsible for the Tay Bridge, which collapsed in 1879 into the River Tay. Early vessels were designed specifically for the carrying of entire train carriages, but today's equivalent - based on updated designs from the 1930s - are now mostly employed in ferrying motor vehicles and passengers.

The salient design characteristics for ro-ros are essentially the same: They have large entry/exit doors that are positioned close to the waterline and lack internal bulkheads (walls) in the cargo area. If care is not taken to ensure the doors are shut disaster is a near certainty, and the 1987 sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off the Belgium coast that left about 200 dead is a recent example of how water can swamp a car deck with tragic consequences.

Scotland, too, has played a part in such tragedies. The sinking in 1953 of the MV Princess Victoria in rough seas off the coast of Northern Ireland claimed 135 lives. It was the worst post-Second World War maritime disaster in UK waters.

The Princess Victoria, built in 1947 in Dumbarton, was operated by British Railways on the Stranraer-Larne route that links Scotland and Northern Ireland. On 31 January 1953, despite severe weather that was causing havoc across Europe, Captain James Millar Ferguson decided to make his routine crossing of the North Channel. The vessel set sail at 7.45am with 172 passengers and crew onboard.

Two hours later as it fought to cross the rough seas Princess Victoria issued a message: send a tug. Before help could be organised on the Scottish shores, a more urgent plea was received from the vessel.

Several rescue ships were launched but had trouble locating the Princess Victoria, exacerbated by confusion over exactly where the stricken vessel was located. The fact that most of the rescue ships had radio telephone communications, while the distressed vessel only had wireless telegraphy meant signals had to be passed through a wireless station rather than ship-to-ship.

Despite a steady stream of signals from the Princess Victoria, pinning down its location was anything but easy. While the ship was floundering close to Belfast Lough, Northern Ireland, the ship's given position showed that the crew believed they were actually close to the Scottish coast at Corsewell Point, north-west of Stranraer. By the time the confusion was cleared, the ship was already sinking.

When rescue vessels finally arrived on the scene, all that was found was wreckage and a few fortunate survivors. The ferry sunk with the sort of deadly speed associated with its design.

An eyewitness account of the sinking was given to The Scotsman by James Kerr, captain of another vessel, who was travelling on the Princess Victoria to his Belfast home. He stated that he was awoken by the noise of the storm and that shortly afterwards he heard a "roar".

"I thought a quantity of cargo must have shifted and the ship took a decided list to starboard. Some time later, the captain announced over the loudspeaker that the ship was going through a severe crisis. He told the passengers not to panic, but to assemble with lifejackets on the top deck … heavy seas pounded against the side of the vessel. She was lying on her beam end and her mast and funnel came down gradually to water level. She stayed that way for some moments before quickly sinking to the bottom."

Kerr also recounted how he observed only two lifeboats managing to get away from the stricken ship. A third was launched but he witnessed it being crashed onto the ship's hull and capsized. He saw no survivors from that boat.

In the cold winter waters north of the Irish Sea, the majority of survivors who failed to get into a lifeboat would not have lived long. One of the grimmest statistics was that not one woman or child survived the daytime sinking.

Bravery awards were later issued to two members of the rescue ship HMS Contest. Lieutenant Stanley McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren Owen dived into the water to save a survivor who could no longer cling to a raft. Also honoured was David Broadfoot, the fallen vessel's radio operator who remained at his post transmitting their position as the vessel sank.

An inquiry into the cause of the disaster identified two main deficiencies in the Princess Victoria and which were attributed to the ship's owners, the British Transport Commission.

• The ship had weak and badly designed stern doors

• The scuppers (holes in the ship's side for drainage) were inadequate for the large quantities of water on the car deck.

The Princess Victoria was a disaster that probably could have been avoided, but the in-built dangers of the roll on, roll off design and the extreme weather it experienced combined to make a sinking an extreme likelihood. Confusion over the rescue also showed flaws in the existing emergency procedures.

Despite the obvious dangers of such ships, ro-ro ferries offer such ease of use that they remain commonplace - and disasters unfortunately continue.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

High-speed rail wreck with tragic consequences

Back to the top of the page