Princess Victoria Disaster Memorial in Larne   Photo: Michael Fisher

Travelling recently through Larne (where the Granuaile was working on servicing buoys and harbour lights) I noticed the memorial at Chaine Memorial Road on the shoreline. It was erected to commemorate the victims of the Princess Victoria disaster. This weekend, 63 years on from the tragedy on January 31st 1953, they were remembered at a ceremony led by the Mayor of Mid and East Antrim. The annual event is organised by Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. The Belfast Telegraph carried a report on the event.


Princess Victoria Disaster Memorial in Larne Photo: Michael Fisher

A total of 133 lives were lost in the tragedy, which at the time was the UK’s worst peacetime disaster at sea. The Princess Victoria ferry was crossing from Stranraer to Larne and sank after being battered by monstrous waves in the North Channel. Only 33 passengers and crew survived. The loss of so many lives sent shockwaves through Northern Ireland. It had a particularly strong impact on County Antrim and the Port of Larne with 27 of the victims coming from the town.

On Saturday, the Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Billy Ashe led tributes to those who perished in Larne with William McAllister who is the only living survivor of the of disaster, when he was 17 he was a galley boy on the ship.

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Plaque on Memorial at Larne (edited) Photo: Michael Fisher

Allan Preston report: The courageous story of a forgotten hero from the Princess Victoria disaster has been revealed more than 60 years after his death.

A total of 133 lives were lost in the tragedy, which at the time was the UK’s worst peacetime disaster at sea.  It happened after a ferry crossing from Stranraer to Larne sank after being battered by monstrous waves in the North Channel. Now it has emerged that Len White, the ship’s second officer, who lived in Ballygally with his family, sacrificed his life while trying to put women and children on a lifeboat.

On the morning of January 31, 1953, the Princess Victoria set off at 7.45am despite warnings of gale force winds. When conditions at sea grew unbearable and it became clear the ferry would sink, Mr White was placed in charge of getting women and children to safety. As he lowered a lifeboat, he was swept to his death when a huge wave dashed the small vessel back against the Princess Victoria’s hull.

Mr White, a war veteran originally from Portsmouth, settled his family in Ballygally near Larne after the war to work in the Merchant Navy. He normally served on the HMS Margaret, but he volunteered as relief on the Princess Victoria that day because another officer was unable to sail. His body was later recovered by the crew of the Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat, which was based in Donaghadee.

Mr White’s daughter Susan Crampton was nine years old on the day of the tragedy. “After all these years, I remember him as a quiet man and a loving father who seemed happiest when he had his family around him,” she said. “I can remember the bewilderment I felt as a nine-year-old and the impossibility of receiving satisfactory answers to my questions. My mother was very brave and she worked hard to restore a normal family life, but we all missed him terribly.”

Susan’s husband Fred, who also grew up on the Ballygally coast, remembers hearing when news of the maritime disaster broke. “I would have been 13 on the day of the tragedy, so I remember him very well,” he said. “(He was) not a very tall man, smoked a pipe, very family-orientated. He loved that area – he loved the Antrim coast. I looked out from the window straight at the sea. I remember going down to the shop and it was an awful job even walking home because of the terrible gales.”

Fred recalled how, when the devastating news came through, the community rallied around the family. “Sue’s mum and her sister had great support from everyone in the locality,” he said. “But it wasn’t just them, there was so many people in the locality who lost that weekend.”


Stena HSS craft in Belfast Lough

Stena HSS craft in Belfast Lough

Built to compete with air travel on the short hop across the North Channel, the high-speed craft introduced by Stena Line in 1996 could do the the trip from Belfast to Stranraer in 85 minutes. But rising fuel costs meant a slower speed to reduce oil consumption and a journey time of two hours. The wash created by the craft entering Belfast Lough also caused problems for those walking along the shoreline in places like Holywood, Co.Down. ‘Stena Voyager’ and her sisters ‘Stena Explorer’ and ‘Stena Discovery’ took much of their technology from the world of aviation. They were described as being to the ferry industry what the jet plane was to aviation in the era of propeller aircraft. Now, preparations are being made for the departure from Belfast of the HSS ‘Stena Voyager’ on a one-way trip to the recycling yard in Sweden. The final journey was meant to take place this afternoon but the BBC (NI) reports it has been delayed until the weekend. The operation went ahead on Sunday (May 5th) and the vessel is now being towed away for “upphuggning” (that’s what the Swedish version is as you can see here). Sounds much nicer than being scrapped!

The vessels are each powered by the maritime versions of four GE Aviation gas turbines, fuelled by a light diesel oil with low sulphur content.  They have four Kamewa waterjets for propulsion. The HSS ferries were designed to allow quick turnarounds at port. Vehicles could be loaded via two of the four stern doors and park in a “U” configuration. When disembarking, vehicles drove straight off through the other two doors. When the HSS started operating in 1996, oil was just $18 a barrel. Fuel costs rose by 600% since the introduction of the ‘Stena Voyager’ and consequently slower running became the norm. In November 2011, the Voyager was withdrawn from service. With the earlier sale of the HSS ‘Stena Discovery’ to Venezuela, this leaves the ‘Stena Explorer’ as the remaining craft in service. Her deployment out of Holyhead is reduced to just one round trip a day, down from a peak of five, on a seasonal basis. The service to Dun Laoghaire will run until Tuesday September 10th and the crossing time is two and a quarter hours.

Belfast Port

Belfast Port

When the Stena Voyager was first introduced, the ferry was unique in its class and since its first sailing it carried over 17 million passengers and made over 45,000 sailings between Northern Ireland and Scotland. When commissioned by Stena Line, the HSS series of three ships, including the Stena Voyager, helped to revolutionise the look of the ferry industry. With its top speed of 40 knots, a high quality onboard travel experience for 1,500 passengers and its freight capacity of 375 vehicles, the HSS became an instant hit with customers. I used it on a number of occasions and found it very comfortable. In recent years, it was also fitted with wifi, which was an added bonus.

Stena Line’s Chief Operating Officer Michael McGrath said whilst the HSS class was a unique and highly innovative development, unfortunately the spiralling costs of operating the Stena Voyager had become all too high. “When the Voyager was first put into service fuel was approximately $20 per barrel and now the price is around $110 dollar, for a fuel hungry vessel this is simply untenable“, he said. “We live in different times now and we have to invest in more fuel efficient services for our freight and travel passengers. As a result we have now introduced two Superfast ferries on the service between Northern Ireland and Scotland and have constructed new ports in both Cairnryan and Belfast to give our customers one of the best ferry experiences on the Irish Sea.”

Stena HSS Craft in Belfast Port

Stena HSS Craft at Queen’s Island, Belfast

The Stena Voyager is being moved to the Öresundsvarvet shipyard in Landskrona, Sweden, where she will be recycled by Stena Line’s sister company, Stena Recycling. All of the Voyager’s various components will be recycled, as far as possible, helping the company to maintain its environmentally responsible reputation. Staffan Persson, MD Stena Recycling, said this would be a unique and interesting project. “There are many different types of material to recycle, and this will be done in several stages. The project requires highly experienced personnel and efficient recycling processes, which we possess. Recycling the large quantities of aluminium in the Stena Voyager will save up to 150 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and the metal can be reused in the form of car parts or furniture for example“, he said.

The Stena Voyager was designed by another company in the Stena Sphere Group, Stena Teknik and at the time was one of the most revolutionary designed and constructed ships in the world.