65 years ago today, on the 31st of January 1953 at 07:45, the British Railways passenger and vehicle ferry PRINCESS VICTORIA set sail from Stranraer bound for Larne in a storm on what was her 745th sailing. She never made it to the County Antrim port. According to the accounts of survivors, the ship began to struggle as soon as she left the shelter of Loch Ryan. The Master of the vessel Captain James Ferguson attempted to turn back towards Stranraer, but his attempts were in vain, as a large wave stove the stern doors in at around 09:00. Despite the brave attempts of the crew to repair the doors, the vehicle deck soon became flooded. The experienced Captain decided to try to continue towards Northern Ireland, but by 13:00 the starboard engine room was also flooded. By around 2pm the ship was listing so badly that the starboard lifeboats could not be lowered, and radio contact was lost. Soon after the vessel flipped over and sank.
There were 128 passengers and 49 crew thought to be onboard, but just 44 – all men, survived. Perhaps most tragically, two lifeboats with survivors inside were destroyed in the storm. One of the lifeboats which was the carrying women and children crashed against the side of the ship, resulting in all of its occupants being thrown into the icy waters with none of them surviving. The other lifeboat was overcome by the waves and flooded resulting in it sinking.
Of the 44 survivors, some 33 were rescued by the Donaghadee Lifeboat SIR SAMUEL KELLY. The final resting place of the PRINCESS VICTORIA was just 5 miles North East of Copeland Island, near Donagadee itself. The SIR SAMUEL KELLY now occupies a plot in the carpark behind Donaghadee harbour, but is fenced off and unfortunately in an increasing state of disrepair. 7 people were rescued by the destroyer HMS CONTEST, while a further 2 were rescued by the Portpatrick lifeboat JEANNIE SPIERS which was the last vessel to arrive.
Rescue efforts were hugely hampered by the storm and by the fact that until just a few minutes before her sinking, the PRINCESS VICTORIA was radioing her position as being off the coast of Scotland. Only once the coast of Northern Ireland was visible to those onboard were rescue vessels sent to the correct area. As soon as it was clear that the vessel was close to Belfast Lough, 4 vessels (the cattleship LAIRDSMORE, the trawler EASTCOTES, the coastal oil tanker PASS OF DRUMOCHTER and the coastal cargo ship ORCHY) which were sheltering from the storm in Belfast Lough rushed to the vessels aid. Unfortunately, due to the ferocity of the weather, they were unable to get close enough to rescue survivors from the lifeboats without risking damaging the lifeboats themselves. However, they were able to shelter the survivors from the worst of the storm. Importantly, EASTCOATES was the first vessel to accurately broadcast the position of the stricken vessel.
Despite being the biggest single loss of life in UK waters during peacetime, the PRINCESS VICTORIA disaster is almost unknown outside of Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are memorials at Stranraer, Donaghadee, and Larne however. A memorial service will take place at the Princess Victoria Memorial on Chaine Memorial Road in Larne at 11am today (31/01/18). This is an annual event, and is organised by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes MV Princess Victoria Lodge in conjunction with Mid & East Antrim Borough Council.