In January 1993 I joined my third ship, the Stena Hibernia. With my career as a musician in its infancy, I was at the bottom of the ladder.
The Hibernia was an upmarket car ferry crossing the Irish Sea four times daily between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire, and I’d put together the band for a four month contract. It was my second time working with the drummer, Martin, and bass player, Dax. The rest of the team – dancers, vocalists and a DJ – were new to me.
We left the port of Dun Laoghaire on the Irish side at around 01:00, and were told to expect a rough crossing. Ship captains are like airline captains. We’re expecting moderate seas / turbulence tonight, ladies and gentlemen = it’s going to be rough. It’s going to be rough tonight ladies and gentlemen = have a pair of clean pants at the ready.
As it was the night crossing, there was no live entertainment scheduled, and we were not on duty. We were in our cabins down on deck two. Yes, that means below the waterline.
As we left the harbour limits, it was clear that the forecast had been correct. The ship was pitching around like a cork in a bath, and was getting worse with each passing nautical mile. It didn’t help that it was a quiet crossing with only around 275 passengers and 33 cars onboard, meaning we had no real ballast to weigh us down.
I was sharing a cabin with one of the dancers, Leslie – with whom I spent most of my free time making valiant attempts to double the world’s population – and she always used to get very uneasy in choppy seas, especially being so far down in the belly of the ship. We therefore agreed to take a break from doing what we enjoyed doing most, and headed up to deck eight where we hit the bar. Martin and his dancer girlfriend along with Dax and his dancer girlfriend were already there. We joined them and had a few beers.
Martin and I volunteered to go to the duty free shop to get some snacks for everyone.
The door where we exited the bar was on the port side of the ship.
Suddenly, there was the most almighty lurch to starboard. I grabbed a rail on the wall but Martin had been caught off guard. I saw him leave the floor, fly to the starboard side of the ship and land on the wall. That’s how far over we were listing. To cap that off, a large plant pot then followed him, landing on top of him.
For just a couple of seconds, it had looked bloody hilarious – like something that you’d see on Laurel and Hardy – and I stood there laughing myself stupid. Martin then turned around. I saw his face contorted in pain, and he was holding his wrist. I knew immediately that I’d just lost my drummer.
I let go of the rail and took one step forward towards Martin to help him, and exactly the same thing happened again. We were hit by a second freak wave. It was now my turn to fly, and I landed right next to Martin.
I’d felt something go in my elbow and the pain was excruciating. It’s natural instinct to put one’s arms out to break a fall, and that’s what I’d done. I’d later learn that I’d fractured a bone in my elbow.
The ship felt as if it had been picked up by God Himself and that He was shaking it around in anger. We knew that if we went over in these conditions, we would not have stood a chance of surviving.
I told Martin to stay exactly where he was, that I’d be back. I returned to the bar, almost crawling, and Dax was there with our girls. I said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get as far up as possible,’ and we did. We went to the nearest staircase, grabbed and donned life jackets, and climbed up to deck ten. It wouldn’t have done any good; it was just our survival instincts kicking in.
We eventually docked in Holyhead at around 04:30 and there were many ambulances waiting which took all those injured to Bangor Hospital. Martin’s wrist was broken clean.
There had been a female passenger sitting on a settee on the port side of the ship. I heard that like us, she’d gone flying through the air still sitting on the sofa and had landed into a glass display cabinet face first. We saw her briefly, she was just one big blood stain, poor thing.
All 33 cars on the car decks were written off.
After the investigation, it was confirmed that the chains holding the cars in place on the car decks had snapped, causing a big shift in balance. It was also confirmed that if we’d have listed just another four degrees, we’d have reached the ships design parameters and capsized. In that case, and in those conditions, it would have been all over.