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Health and safety

Union remembers tragic loss of life on anniversary of MV Derbyshire disaster

9 September 2021

Nautilus International wishes to express condolences to the families of those lost during the sinking of the MV Derbyshire, on the 41st anniversary of the tragedy.

For the second year running the annual MV Derbyshire Memorial Service has unfortunately been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which made finding a venue at an appropriate time impossible.

Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson said: 'On 9 September, we remember the tragic deaths of 42 seafarers and two officers' wives aboard the MV Derbyshire.

'At the time of the disaster, 17 bulk carriers were sinking every year. Thanks in large part to tireless campaigning following the loss of the Derbyshire, today's losses are much lower. Significant recommendations to improve ship safety were put in place following the enquiries into the Derbyshire's loss, and merchant ships are now built to higher standards so they can better withstand weather conditions.

'It is our duty both to current seafarers and those tragically lost in previous disasters to continue this vital campaign work and ensure that our maritime key workers have the safe working conditions they deserve.'

Mr Dickinson oversaw and led a 1994 survey mission to locate MV Derbyshire during his time working for the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) as head of maritime.

MV Derbyshire
The Derbyshire laden with cargo.


The MV Derbyshire sank in the Pacific Ocean in September 1980 during Typhoon Orchid, while sailing from Canada to Japan with a cargo of iron ore. All 44 people onboard – 42 seafarers and two officers' wives – were lost.

The Bibby Line vessel is the biggest British registered merchant ship ever to have been lost at sea during peacetime. More than a third of the Derbyshire's crew were from Liverpool.

There was no distress call, no wreckage, and no survivors. Due to this lack of evidence the British government declined to hold a formal investigation and the entire affair was blamed on Typhoon Orchid.

The Derbyshire was only four years old, had an experienced master and crew and was classed A1 by Lloyds Register. The MNAOA (Nautilus International's predecessor union), the NUS (now RMT) and relatives of those who died were disturbed by evidence that Derbyshire's sister ships were suffering from cracks in their deck plating – and that design modifications, in which longitudinal girders had been terminated close to the superstructure, had compromised the structural integrity of the vessels.

The Derbyshire Family Association (DFA) was formed in 1984, under the chairmanship of Paul Lambert, and worked closely with the maritime unions for many years to campaign for an investigation into the true causes of the sinking.

Prompted by their campaign, the ITF funded a mission to find the wreck of the ship. On 8 June 1994 it was found in the South China Sea. This led to the reopening of the formal inquiry into the loss of the vessel.

Garry Elliot of Nautilus International lays flowers at Our Lady And St Nicholas Church to commemorate the sinking of the Derbyshire

Following a second expedition and two enquiries, the cause of the sinking was finally established. Continuous mountainous seas had damaged the vessel's deck fittings and hatch covers, which led to the chain locker, forecastle and then the cargo holds being flooded one by one until the ship sank. The investigations also removed any suspicion that the crew might have been responsible for leaving hatch covers open.

In 2018, a bronze memorial sculpture was unveiled in the gardens of the St Nicholas Church in Liverpool, incorporating the names of all those who died on the Derbyshire.

Two benches paying tribute to electrical officer Robert Prescott – who died in a boiler explosion onboard the Derbyshire in 1976 when it was sailing under its original name, Liverpool Bridge – can also be found at the Nautilus Welfare Fund's Mariners' Park Estate.