Sixty years ago this month the lives of 133 people were lost when the car ferry Princess Victoria sank in a ferocious gale off the Co Down coast on January 31, 1953. Not one woman or child on board survived, and it is regarded as ‘a generation’s Titanic’ — but very little is known about the tragedy outside Northern Ireland and Scotland. The roll-on roll-off ferry went down with only 44 survivors — all men — out of 177 people who set out that stormy morning on the short crossing from Scotland, writes Seán Andrews.
Early in the morning of Saturday the 31st of January 1953, the car ferry Princess Victoria set sail from the port of Stranraer at the southern end of Lough Ryan on the Scottish coast. She was scheduled to make the short trip across the North Channel to Larne.
The vessel was only a few years old and was one of the earliest roll-on-roll-off ferries, with a stern door opening onto a wide car deck. On this occasion there were forty tons of cargo aboard, lashed to the car deck, but no vehicles. On board were a total of 127 passengers and a crew of 50, commanded by Captain James Ferguson.
Lough Ryan is a long sheltered sea lough running northwards from Stranraer for about 13 kilometres, with an outlet to the Irish Sea. Shortly before the ship had set off, a warning had been issued by the BBC stating that a strong north-westerly gale was expected on the Irish Sea, but Captain Ferguson appears to have had few concerns, at least at the outset.
The ship made slow progress as it travelled northwards towards the mouth of the lough in the teeth of the gale. It then turned westwards into the North Channel for the 32km crossing to Larne.
Now subject to the full force of a gale, which was strengthening by the minute, the ship was making poor headway with mountainous waves breaking over the decks. Suddenly a heavy sea struck the stern and smashed in the car doors.