MV Princess Victoria was one of the earliest roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferries. Built in 1947, she operated from Stranraer to Larne.
During a severe European windstorm on 31 January 1953, she sank in the North Channel with the loss of 133 lives.
This was then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.
Captained by the 55-year-old James Ferguson, the vessel left Stranraer's railway loading pier at 07:45 AM with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson had served as master on various ferries on the same route for 17 years. A gale warning was in force but he made the decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea was not apparent, but it was noted that spray was breaking over the stern doors. A "guillotine door" had been fitted, because of a previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors, but it was rarely used, because it took too long to raise and lower. This would have provided extra protection for the sliding stern doors. On this occasion it was not lowered.
Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan, the ship turned west towards Larne and exposed her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damaged the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggled to close the doors again but they proved to be too badly damaged and water continued to flood in from the waves. The scuppers did not seem to be allowing the water to drain away.
The ship took a list to starboard and at this point Captain Ferguson decided to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. This proved to be impossible, because the extreme conditions prevented the deckhands from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder, and the Captain then made a decision to try to reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which would keep the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements.
At 09:46 AM, two hours after leaving Stranraer a message was transmitted in Morse code (the Princess Victoria did 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 continued to enter the ship. At 10:32 AM an SOS transmission was made, and the order to abandon was given at 14:00. Possibly the first warship in the area was HMS Launceston Castle, commanded by Lt. Cdr J M Cowling, a frigate which was en route to Derry. Searches were carried out but Launceston Castle was forced to leave when her condensers were contaminated by salt.
Upon the upgrade of the assistance message to an SOS, the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers was dispatched, as was the destroyer HMS Contest. Contest, commanded by Lt Commander HP Fleming, left Rothesay at 1109hrs but, although she came close to her position at 1330hrs, poor visibility prevented the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer had been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots (57 km/h; 36 mph) to reach the listing ferry but, after sustaining damage from the seas, Lt Cdr Fleming was forced to reduce speed to 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph).
The Princess Victoria was still reporting her position as 5 miles north west of Corsewall Point but her engines were still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) were gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1308hrs, the ship broadcast that her engines had stopped. The final morse code message at 1358hrs reported the ship "on her beam end" 5 miles east of the Copeland Islands.
The court of inquiry found that assistance to the Princess Victoria had been hampered by other distress operations already under way in the extreme weather conditions of the day. An RAF Hastings aircraft had been assisting rescues off Lewis and Barra and as a result did not reach the location of the doomed ferry until 1531hrs, dropping supplies and guiding HMS Contest to the scene.
RAF Hastings Aircraft
The inquiry noted how different the outcome might have been if the aircraft had been available earlier. Confusion over the location of the Princess Victoria had contributed to the rescue vessel's difficulty in locating her and it was not until the crew had sighted the coast of Northern Ireland at 1335hrs and transmitted a new position fix, that the rescue attempt was able to home in.
In addition to the naval, RAF and lifeboats then searching, four small merchant vessels which had been sheltering in Belfast Lough put to sea immediately to assist, after hearing the transmission which placed the Princess Victoria close to their anchorage: the cattle ship Lairdsmoor, the trawler Eastcotes, the coastal oil tanker Pass of Drumochter and the coastal cargo ship Orchy.
Despite arriving before the lifeboats, the merchant ships were unable to rescue the survivors in lifeboats, as the fierce waves were in danger of dashing the smaller boats against the sides of the larger ships. All they could do was to provide shelter from the worst of the seas until the Donaghadee lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly, arrived and was able to bring survivors on board. This lifeboat has been preserved and is now part of the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
The Lifeboat Sir Samuel Kelly preserved in Northern Ireland.
The captains of the merchant ships: James Alexander Bell of the Lairdsmoor, David Brewster of the Eastcotes, James Kelly of the Pass of Drumochter and Hugh Angus of Orchy each became Members of the Order of the British Empire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley Lawrence McArdle and Chief Petty Officer Wilfred Warren of HMS Contest were both awarded the George Medal for diving into the water to help survivors.
The ship's radio officer, David Broadfoot, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for staying at his post to the very end, allowing passengers and crew to escape, even though by doing so he was preventing his own escape. His medal is on permanent display in Stranraer Museum.
There were 44 survivors but none of the ship's officers was among them.