Duke of Lancaster

A Typical Summer Sailing From Heysham Harbour – 50 Years Ago

This veteran turbine ship, now all of 61 years old, is lying at Mostyn on the North Wales coast and is the continuing subject of controversy as the owner and interested ship lovers struggle to get her into an active role in the entertainment world. Her sailing days are long gone, but the evocative silhouette on the sky line, as viewed from the coastal road, has now created a band of interested followers. A new black paint job has recently replaced the graffiti covered hull, and an action group named the “Duke of Lancaster Preservation Society” is promoting her interests on Facebook and has attracted over 2,000 members and growing.

In her day, however, she was a hard-working ferry, running between Heysham and Belfast and with a cruising role to Europe and Scandinavia in the summer. The Scottish West Coast was also a favourite cruise, often with regular passengers, who returned year after year. Unlike her sisters, this vessel has so far defied the scrap yard. Over the intervening years, many novel roles have been envisaged for her, and some have been briefly tried, like using her as a graffiti gallery, but red tape and planning issues continue to dog progress.

First ordered by British Rail back in 1955, and entering service in 1956, she was built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff Ltd, and ran from Heysham Harbour to Belfast with her sister ships, the Dukes of Rothesay, and Argyll until 1975, when a major conversion into a car ferry took place.

The smart new buildings had the following details:- 4,450 tons gross. Length 376ft. Beam 57.3ft. 14ft 11 inches draft. 1,800 passengers, made up of 1,200 second class and 600 first class. In 1963, a change of ownership to Sealink came in, and 1979 saw the end of this regular service. For her last four years, she ran between Holyhead and Dublin. Throughout the 60’s, these ships carried millions of passengers and the author served on all three “Dukes” as a deck officer, cruising in the summer months. The following account is based on some still vivid memories.

The whole trip from Heysham usually went like clockwork. Everyone from the Captain down knew their job, and repeated their movements in exactly the same way as on dozens of previous trips. In some ways it was a zombie performance and the transformation from a dead ship in the day, to a buzz of activity at night, added to this perception. Sleep was a priority, and one of the senior Masters at that time was even nicknamed ‘Noddy’ for his Herculean efforts to stay in his bunk for the maximum amount of time.

The only variables were – number one, the weather, usually good in the summer, and – number two, the passenger incidents, which rose in direct proportion to the numbers on board. Drunken disturbances were common, but happened more frequently on the return trip from Belfast, when military personnel were carried. Man overboard alerts also occasionally happened in the summer months, usually as a result of a drunken prank.

Around 11pm on a typical summer’s evening, the trains from London would arrive at Heysham Harbour station. They had thundered through Morecambe, the nearby seaside town, locals listening expectantly for their arrival. The hordes of people, men, women, and children, servicemen etc would all disgorge and go over the short walkways from the station to the quayside, and board the ship at the berth where she had arrived that morning. The last passenger cars were being lifted onboard using nets around the wheels. No ramp existed in those years. The crew on board would then be closing the hatches and preparing for sea. Two gangways would be in place, fore and aft, for it was still the time of First and Second class. Metal barriers on board separated the classes even if one side was choca-block, and the other forward side, the one reserved for First Class, near empty.

If the tide was right, the ship’s main deck might be level with the quay, and this tempted some of the agile ones, young men and the like, to climb over the rail, ignoring the head count carried out by quartermasters on the gangways holding a clicking counter gadget in their hands. Therefore, in this glorious age of slack security and unknown terror threats, the numbers on board were ever just an estimate. Health and Safety was also to come along later. However, the so-called “Troubles” in Belfast were only a couple of years away, when actual and threatened actions would disrupt the voyages and often cause a return to the departure quay for baggage checks. This became monotonously common sailing from Belfast. Strict safety rules meant that a return was obligatory, even as a result of a single threatening phone warning.

At Bank Holiday time, there would also be another ‘Duke’ boat tied up on the outside of the first one and an unguarded short gangway allowed anyone to pass over as they wished, further blurring the numbers carried. The ships would then sail within a few minutes of each other and arrive together in Belfast in the morning. It all went smoothly, despite the numbers; up to 4,000 souls in total that were crossing the Irish Sea.

The draft would be read, the duty officer walking along the quay to read the figures on the bow and stern, and bridge equipment tested. Hatches and openings were secured. When the gangways were withdrawn, all hands went to their respective stations and the Station Master came onto the quay and blew his whistle. Really!

Then the fun started. On the Focs’le, a wire was in place around the barrel of the windlass and this was used to heave the bow out into the dock and have it pointing at the exit from the tidal harbour. Despite the huge rise and fall of the tide, this port was accessible at any time. A signal from the bridge, using a referee’s mouth whistle, would trigger the heaving off on this wire and another signal a few minutes later to let go. It occasionally happened that the Master slammed both engines full ahead prematurely and the powerful turbines caused a rapid surge forwards, making it impossible to free the wire from the drum. Everyone would dive for cover as the wire went taut and then snapped, or worse still, snapped and whipped over the heads of the Focs’le party. Normally, the third mate in charge, blew two blasts to signal that the wire was clear, when the ahead movement could begin, but it was lost in the panic when the ship was already bounding forward. The poor shoreside dock crew were left to fish out the broken wire after departure and set it ready for the next occasion.

Within a few minutes, the ship was rushing through the entrance guarded by granite pillars called “The Roundheads” and she was manually guided by the Bosun at the steering wheel. This entrance needed care and full concentration. There was often a strong cross tide and weather conditions that were different on each occasion. The Duke of Lancaster grounded badly on rocks in 1965 when entering in awkward weather and quickly turned the bottom plates into a fair imitation of corrugated cardboard, before she was repaired in Holyhead and returned to service. Rocks, still stuck in the bottom, had to be prised out of the steel when she was drydocked. It was quite a sight walking below the damaged hull.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - October 2017 Issue
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