Ferry captain breaks his silence a decade after ship ran aground

Jim Smith has been talking about his dramatic experience as captain of the Riverdance a decade ago
Jim Smith has been talking about his dramatic experience as captain of the Riverdance a decade ago

A Cumbernauld man who was captain of a ferry which ran aground near Blackpool a decade ago has spoken of the frantic final hours on board for the first time.

Jim Smith was the last man off the Riverdance after he declared a mayday on January 31, 2008, while on the way from Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland to Heysham near Lancaster.

Riverdance got into trouble in severe weather conditions in the Irish Sea

Riverdance got into trouble in severe weather conditions in the Irish Sea

The accident, which left the ship stricken on the beach of Cleveleys for the best part of a year, and the major rescue mission that involved three helicopters, two lifeboats, and a small army of emergency workers on the shore, attracted huge media attention and around 100,000 tourists.

The 59-year-old revealed just how close to tragedy the Riverdance was after getting into trouble near Lune Deep, a treacherous section of deep sea off the coast.

Jim said: “She was very close to going over. A different day; a different outcome.

“There’s always somebody up there looking after you. My granny was up there looking after me. That’s what I put it down to.

The doomed ferry, pictured before 2008's accident

The doomed ferry, pictured before 2008's accident

“That’s probably a whole load of nonsense, but that’s what people think, you know.”

The Riverdance was renowned for her good seakeeping, and her motion was described as nice and easy as she first set off across the Irish Sea, carrying 54 trailers and several hours behind schedule.

No stranger to the nine-hour crossing, and confident the 31-year-old steel vessel could cope with the rough seas, lashing rain, and gale force winds, Jim retired to his cabin, while several other crew members also rested.

However, after returning to the bridge, he noticed the main engines were overloaded and reduced speed, remaining on course.

Salvage crews work on the ship with the Blackpool Tower in the distance

Salvage crews work on the ship with the Blackpool Tower in the distance

Ninety minutes later, with the weather worsening to conditions described by rescuers afterwards as the ‘worst we have ever seen’, the 116-metre-long ship was leaning slightly and needed to be corrected.

However, it was broadsided by a huge wave, sending it rolling from one side to the next as an alarm on the bridge sounded, seven miles off the coast of Fleetwood.

The ship tilted violently left and before it could right itself, a second wave slammed into it.

Jim said: “That’s when the ship rolled even more to port and the cargo in all the trailers broke free. That’s when she went down to 45 degrees plus.”

Some trailers broke free, sliding across the deck as Jim turned off the auto-pilot and steered to the starboard to escape the brunt of the 80mph wind.

Those on board – the majority Polish but all speaking English – pulled on their life jackets and huddled together, and when the port main engine cut out, an emergency call was made to shore.

Jim calmly asked Liverpool Coastguard for tug assistance, saying the Riverdance was drifting south and in serious trouble.

However, as things got worse, Jim who was a seaman since 1977 and a captain since 1991, sent out the first mayday of his career.

Jim said: “You could see the deck was not far away from the water. Later on I worked out we only had a couple of degrees to go. She was very close to going over.

“I was calm inside. I wasn’t panicking. You have everybody looking to you for guidance. You just hold your breath, suck it in, speak calmly, and get on with it – there’s no other option.”

Those on board were told they would have to be evacuated with helicopters from the RAF, Navy, and Irish Coastguard dispatched to mount a rescue mission along with RNLI crews from Fleetwood and Lytham as the troubled 6,000 tonne behemoth battled to stay above the mountainous waves.

A nearby tanker helped with emergency communication after answering an SOS call, in conditions too rough for tugs, while two oil rig support vessels also made their way to the scene.

On board the crew started the heeling pump which reduced the listing to 20 degrees and was later credited with playing a pivotal role in the success of the rescue efforts.

The passengers followed by four non-essential crew, were winched to safety from the wing of the bridge under the glare of the lifeboats’ search lights.

Jim said: “A few people were quite scared. The second mate in particular was one of the first people to get off the ship.

“He was detrimental to the rest of the crew’s health. He was just panicking big time. The passengers looked very scared as well, obviously. It was not a very nice situation for them, or for anyone.

“I was actually cracking jokes to try and keep people buoyed up, I didn’t realise our VHF radios were transmitting the bulk of what was said to the harbour master at Heysham.”

The Riverdance drifted into the shallow water off the Fylde coast and eventually settled upright on the sandy bottom of Cleveleys beach.

Attempts to manoeuvre the ship off the beach failed, and she was finally abandoned.

Jim said: “I spoke to the Coastguard and said, ‘Is there any chance of getting the helicopter back, because I’ve tried to get her off and now she’s at a 45 degree angle on the beach and there’s no way she’s going to get off?’

“They said, ‘We’ll do what we can’.”

Those evacuated were flown to Blackpool Airport, emerging from the helicopters in a state of shock as the horizontal rain and wind threatened to sweep them off their feet.

None were seriously hurt, though two were taken to the Victoria Hospital suffering from mild hypothermia.

Some of the survivors were bused to a Lancaster hotel, while others were put in a taxi and taken home.

Jim went on to skipper the ship’s replacement before his wife’s death four years ago, when he quit his job and had since moved to Cumbernauld.

He said: “With the nature of the hours I was unsettled for a couple of years, and then she passed away. After about six months, I said, ‘I can’t be doing this’.

“My youngest son was 10 at the time. My eldest son was at sea, and my middle son was at university.

“That would have left my 17-year-old daughter in charge of my wee fellow – it was time to be a dad!”