Website on sinking sparks new lead

MEMORIES of the European Gateway tragedy off Felixstowe have sparked renewed interest in the incident in which six people died.A new website has been set up dedicated to the ill-fated vessel, while there have been claims that investigators probing the crash may not have given enough weight to vital evidence.

By Richard Cornwell

MEMORIES of the European Gateway tragedy off Felixstowe have sparked renewed interest in the incident in which six people died.

A new website has been set up dedicated to the ill-fated vessel, while there have been claims that investigators probing the crash may not have given enough weight to vital evidence.

It is 20 years ago this month that salvage experts began the long process of bringing the £18 million Townsend Thoresen ship up from its watery grave.


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The European Gateway sank after a collision on December 19, 1982, with the Speedlink Vanguard and keeled over in just ten minutes, and was left lying on its side in shallow water just a few hundred yards off Felixstowe beach.

In its side was a 200 feet gash, caused by the bulbous bow of the Harwich-bound train ferry.

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While six people were killed in the collision, 64 were plucked to safety and there were many tales of heroic rescues by pilot launches, lifeboats and tug men.

A Board of Trade inquiry placed the blame for the accident on the shoulders of the captains of both vessels. Each was confused over which side their ships should pass and both thought they were taking avoiding action.

But Felixstowe historian Peter Wheatley believes the weather on the night was a critical factor and says this was never properly taken into account at the time.

"At about the time of the collision, our house was hit by a cyclonic shift in the wind direction and heavy rain," said Mr Wheatley, of Colneis Road.

"Our house has windows facing west, north and south, and from each direction in turn it was buffeted by storm speed winds and torrential rain, as the wind shifted its power was something I'd never experienced before or since.

"In a narrow seaway with little room for manoeuvring, my contention is that each ship was hit by this cyclonic storm in turn, to bring them on a convergence course by contrary wind direction of some magnitude."

He believes the bulbous bow of the train ferry meant it was ill-equipped to cope with such conditions – and he has researched incidents of similar ships being affected by cyclones.

"I think these weather conditions should have been put before the inquiry but they were ignored, bypassed or just not taken into account," he added.

"The answer to why the tragedy happened is, I am convinced, that both ships were affected by travelling at low speed with reduced power output, but that the fierce winds that night turned them both into ships with sails that overcome motorised forward momentum."

The Department of Transport said an inquiry would not be reopened at this stage. Evidence would almost certainly have been heard on the weather as this was one of the factors always taken into account.

Trevor Kidd, of Larne, Northern Ireland, has created a web page which goes fully into the circumstances of the tragedy.

"A lot of people over here felt keenly the loss of the ship which had become very much a star player for the Townsend Thoresen fleet based here at Larne," said Mr Kidd.

"Added to that was the loss of one of her Larne-based crew members who had transferred with the ship to Felixstowe just a week or so before the sinking."

His web site can be visited at larneferryweb.tripod.com/E_Gateway20th.htm

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