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MV Derbyshire – the Largest British Merchant Ship Ever Lost at Sea

When it was released in 1976, Gordon Lightfoot’s classic ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzergerald memorialized the final hours of the legendary American freighter that sank on Lake Superior the previous year. 

In his chillingly dramatic voice, Lightfoot sang – 

“With a load of iron ore 26,000 tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.”

No, this isn’t another Edmund Fitzgerald video, the lyrics are for comparison purposes only. 

If you watched the Side Projects video on the Edmund Fitzgerald, you already know how massive the ship was.  

Nicknamed Big Fitz and ironically, the Titanic of the Great Lakes, the Edmund measured 729 ft (222 m) from bow to stern, and could carry, as the song says, 26,000 tons of cargo. 

They’re impressive numbers, but imagine this –  

The MV Derbyshire was 236 feet (72 m) longer, twice as wide, and could haul an astonishing 160,000 tons of cargo, or more than six times the Edmund’s capacity. 

Not surprisingly, the Derbyshire was the largest British-registered merchant vessel ever lost at sea. 

That said, circumstances surrounding the sinking were clouded by rumor, misinformation and political wrangling for more than a decade, until determined family members were finally able to shed light on what really caused the leviathan to plummet to the bottom of the Pacific.  

Background

Constructed in the early ‘70s by English shipbuilder Swan Hunter, the MV Derbyshire was a multi-purpose oil, bulk and ore carrier owned and operated by the Bibby Line. 

Registered in Liverpool, on her final voyage more than a third of the crew were from that city. 

When launched in 1975, the Liverpool Bridge – the ship’s original name – was the last in a series of six nearly identical vessels, but she wouldn’t officially enter service until the summer of the following year. 

In 1978 she was rechristened MV Derbyshire, the fourth of the company’s vessels to carry that name, the others having already been retired.  

Two years later in mid-July of 1980, loaded with 157,000 tons of iron ore bound for Japanese steel mills, the ship departed from Sept-Îles, Quebec, Canada, for Kawasaki more than 6,500 miles (10,400 km) away. 

Though uneventful in the early going, on September 9th, 47-year-old Captain Jeffrey Underhill discovered that his crew and boat were on a collision course with what would become one of the decade’s largest marine storms – Typhoon Orchid. 

Following protocol, Underhill radioed multiple weather services for up-to-date information on the storm’s size, strength, and course, but to his consternation, each report placed the typhoon in a different location.

The captain made an educated guess as to where he thought the epic storm actually was and changed the ship’s course accordingly, but throughout the seemingly endless night the intensity of the wind increased, and the waves grew to epic proportions.

The following morning as mottled strands of sunlight poked through the cloud-choked sky, captain and crew found themselves near the storm’s center in conditions unlike anything they’d ever seen. 

Gathering strength from the warm sea and air, the front was now more than 100 miles (160 km) across. 

Wind gusts reached nearly 100 mph (160 km/h), and though average wave height was “just” 40 feet (12 m), reliable reports from other vessels in the area stated that they’d seen rogue waves as high as 100 feet (30 m). 

Then, either that day or perhaps on the morning of the 10th, without having ever sent a Mayday call, MV Derbyshire slipped beneath the waves approximately 250 miles (402 km) from Okinawa off Japan’s southern coast. 

According to official statistics, nearly 20 bulk carriers were lost in the ‘80s alone, but the sinking of the Derbyshire was unique for a number of reasons. 

In addition to being nearly brand new, the ship had been built by an experienced and well-respected English shipyard. 

Likewise, the vessel had recently been given the highest possible designation “A1” by maritime classification society Lloyds Register. 

And lastly, in addition to the normal complement of officers and merchant mariners, there were two wives on board. 

The Search

Due to lingering storm conditions, it wasn’t until the 15th that a large-scale search by the Japanese Coast Guard was able to get underway. 

Nary a trace of the missing vessel was spotted until nearly a week later however, when searchers discovered an oil slick in the vicinity of the ship’s last known location. 

Shortly thereafter the MV Derbyshire was officially declared lost at sea, and the families of the crew were notified.  

For most, it was unthinkable that a large and well-built ship staffed by such experienced sailors could have gone down without a trace, even in such a legendary storm. 

A few even held out hope that the Derbyshire may have lost power and been blown off course, and that the crew might still be on board biding their time in a remote section of the Pacific waiting to be rescued. 

Sadly, these fleeting dreams came crashing down a month later when one of the Derbyshire’s empty and tattered lifeboats was sighted by the crew of a Japanese tanker. 

The families pressed the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport for a formal investigation, but they were politely dismissed on the basis that one wasn’t warranted. 

After all, everybody already knew why the ship sank – Typhoon Orchid. 

But later, though neither was technically official, two independent bodies were tasked with investigating the sinking, and they both determined that the storm itself was solely to blame. 

The families suspected a whitewash, and to get to the bottom of the tragedy once and for all, they formed the Derbyshire Family Association (DFA) to lobby authorities for a formal inquiry. 

Though it would be more than a decade before the truth was finally revealed, just a few years after the sinking the Derbyshire’s sister ships began experiencing a series of telling mishaps that shed a whole new light on the incident.

Design Flaws

In 1982 the crew of Tyne Bridge was making its way through particularly heavy seas off the coast of Hamburg, Germany when a large crack appeared just forward of a structural element known as Frame 65. 

A ship frame illustration. By
A ship frame illustration. By Wranzl, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The situation was dire, but though the crack widened the ship never sank. 

Tyne Bridge eventually made it to a safe port and Awas repaired, but she was mysteriously scrapped in 1987 less than a decade after entering service. 

Then in 1986, Kowloon Bridge was crossing the Atlantic between Quebec and Ireland when she too experienced a similar issue. 

Like Tyne Bridge before her, the ship finished its voyage and was repaired, though she ultimately ran aground after her anchor chain broke and subsequently cracked in two – you guessed it – at Frame 65. 

It was later discovered that each of the sister ships – including the Derbyshire – had histories of cracks and subsequent repairs, all of which originated near the same part of the ship’s steel frame.

Not surprisingly, the design flaw became suspect number one in the Derbyshire case.    

First Investigation

Now with even more evidence at their disposal, the DFA lobbied to have the case reopened with a new focus on the ship’s inherent structural deficiencies. 

In late 1990 the DFA presented the House of Commons with a 50,000-signature petition, but though the document eventually ended up at 10 Downing Street, the wreck of the Derbyshire – now a decade old – wasn’t exactly a top priority. 

What the families wanted was expensive and time consuming, and worse yet, an in-depth investigation could conceivably uncover evidence that wouldn’t be particularly popular with shipping and insurance companies, and more importantly, politicians. 

In addition, a thorough survey of the undersea wreckage was nearly impossible due to technological limitations, and that’s if they could locate the site in the first place. 

Though a firm commitment wasn’t forthcoming, mounting public pressure came to a head in May of 1994, when the International Transport Federation (ITF) agreed to manage and finance a new investigation. 

The ITF hired US firm Oceaneering Technology to search for Derbyshire, and just a month later the vessel Shin Kai Maru lowered a cutting edge side-scan submersible called the Ocean Explorer 6000 into the murky depths for the first time. 

Tethered precariously to a steel cable, the remotely operated vehicle was unlike anything that’d ever been used, and less than 24 hours later it captured the first images of the stricken ship, which was resting at a depth of 2.5 miles (4 km) and spread over nearly a square mile (1.6 km/sq). 

For more than a month the site was photographed, after which the images were pinned together into a huge collage that gave investigators a surprisingly complete picture of the mangled ship, that to everyone’s surprise lay in hundreds of pieces of all shapes and sizes.

One supposedly smoking gun, was a missing cover on a hatch that had been located just aft of the bow, which they deduced hadn’t been properly closed prior to the storm. 

In other words, according to their findings, poor seamanship, or at the very least a careless omission made by a junior sailor may have doomed the once mighty ship.   

If the hatch cover had been left off, the relatively small storage area to which it led would have filled up with water, and already riding dangerously low in the heavy seas, the added weight would have prevented the bow from rising after being swamped in the huge waves that were coming with increasing frequency. 

With each wave the ship recovered more slowly, until in the end, it didn’t recover at all. 

Then beset by negative buoyancy thanks to the addition of hundreds or thousands of tons of seawater, the nose pointed down for the last time, made an unstoppable beeline toward the bottom, and took the rest of the ship with it. 

Though it was a common scenario, the conclusion deeply upset the families who considered it unlikely that negligence alone had caused the behemoth to sink.

However, subsequent photos viewed by members of the DFA found something that the original investigators had missed. 

Hanging from the hardware around the hatch in question were tattered bits of cordage, later determined to be remnants of what seamen referred to as a cat’s cradle. 

During rough conditions, sailors often tied rope webs called cat’s cradles over small hatch covers to ensure that the large wing nuts holding them in place didn’t work themselves free. 

The DFA concluded that, far from negligence, the crew had done everything they could to secure the hatch properly, and that it’d only blown off after the ship sank due to the enormous air and water pressure that was expelled from the hull as the ship plummeted downward.

But the questions remained, why was the wreckage spread over such a large area, why was the ship in so many pieces, and what caused it to sink in the first place? 

It turned out that the ship had broken apart in such dramatic fashion due to a relatively open-and-shut case of implosion-explosion caused by the air trapped between the ship’s double hull and inside the cargo holds. 

As the ship sank, the inward pressure became so immense that it caused the hull to implode, after which the air trapped inside became so pressurized and volatile that it exploded outward with enough force to tear the ship to pieces. 

But though the circumstances leading up to the sinking were becoming more evident, a crystal clear picture hadn’t yet emerged.  

Second Investigation

Had the mourning families blindly accepted the findings, they never would have learned the truth. 

Conducted over multiple phases between 1997 and 1998 using a number of advanced underwater vehicles, investigators and oceanographers were able to make an even more detailed inspection of the wreckage. 

All told they captured more than 200 hours of footage and 135,000 individual photographs. 

But with so much evidence, the task of sifting through it all to determine what had happened took nearly a year, and when the results were revealed, the findings were surprising. 

In fact, neither Frame 65 nor an open hatch were to blame for the loss of the ship. 

Instead, thanks largely to European researchers specializing in analyzing and reconstructing maritime disasters, it was determined that the real culprit was something that hadn’t been previously considered. 

Water had indeed flooded into the compartments beneath the ship’s deck, but it hadn’t gotten in through an open hatch. 

On the contrary, entry was made through a number of small air vents that were previously thought to be nearly watertight, which they were, except in extraordinarily rough conditions like  the MV Derbyshire had experienced just before sinking. 

The result was much the same as had originally been theorized, but it’s likely that the conditions were so bad, that even the experienced captain and officers didn’t notice a change in the ship’s handling until it was too late. 

Hence, no Mayday call was ever made because there just wasn’t time. 

Filling up with water and swamped by a succession of larger and larger waves, the ship’s bow failed to rise above the surface one last time, and she went down like a lead weight.  

Public Inquiry Reopened

Now facing irrefutable evidence and increasing public clamor, the government authorized a formal investigation that kicked off in early April of 2000. 

For a month and a half experts from multiple agencies confirmed that the flooding hadn’t been caused by an unsecured hatch, and that the aforementioned air vents were likely to blame. 

They also concluded that the incoming seawater caused successive vents farther and farther down the deck to fail one after the other, ultimately leading to failure of the enormous steel covers fastened over the holds. 

In the end the crew were exonerated, the cause of the sinking became part of the official record, and the DFA accepted the investigator’s conclusions. 

The findings led to a number of improvements in ship design including redesigned vents, reinforced hatch covers, and strengthened hardware over the main cargo areas. 

Even now the Derbyshire Family Association continues to advocate for increased maritime safety measures, and its members are commonly consulted by international organizations investigating maritime disasters.   

These days bulk carrier sinkings are much rarer than they were in the ‘80s, though some fear that increased storm strength threatens to negate many safety advances.

Before ascending away from the site for the last time, an ROV placed a memorial plaque on the wreck site that was the final resting place for the 42 souls on board the Derbyshire on her fateful voyage. 

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