1987 storm: Great Yarmouth sailor recalls terrifying voyage which saw £6m of cargo lost overboard

Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship  Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987. 100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard. Picture: James Bass

Monday, October 15, 2012
8:00 AM

These terrifying photos are not from the scene of a Hollywood disaster movie but from the camera of a Great Yarmouth man caught in the eye of the October 1987 storm.

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Picture that Colin took of how the containers look on the ship.

Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship  "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987.

100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard.

Picture: SuppliedPicture that Colin took of how the containers look on the ship. Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987. 100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard. Picture: Supplied

Colin Smith, 63, from Ormesby Saint Mary, was working on a container ship that was due to sail between the Hook of Holland and the port of Great Yarmouth.

While the storm was battering the south and east of England throughout the early hours of Friday, October 16, it then continued out into the North Sea.

Unperturbed, Mr Smith, who now works as maintenance engineer at Yarmouth’s Marina Centre, and the crew of the Duke of Yare, decided to press ahead with their voyage back to England.

He recalled: “I can’t believe I’m still here today and I’m talking about this, that’s how bad it was.

Picture that Colin took  of the huge waves.

Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship  "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987.

100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard.

Picture: SuppliedPicture that Colin took of the huge waves. Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987. 100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard. Picture: Supplied

“The weather forecast was not predicting a hurricane so we went on our way thinking we should be okay.

“By five o’clock the next morning we were in the centre of that storm and the waves were well over 100ft.

“The ship had started to roll violently and I was called down to the engine room because we were having problems.”

While the crew desperately tried to stay in control of the situation and keep themselves alive, the cargo the ship was carrying was not so lucky.

Picture that Colin took of the ship in the storm and all the cargo falling off into the sea.

Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship  "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987.

100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard.

Picture: SuppliedPicture that Colin took of the ship in the storm and all the cargo falling off into the sea. Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987. 100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard. Picture: Supplied

Mr Smith, who worked as an engineer on the Norfolk Line ship, continued: “We heard an almighty crash and realised that containers were starting to break away. The containers were just falling off into the sea like matchboxes. Apparently about £6m worth of cargo was lost that night.”

It was a frightening night at sea for many and it wasn’t just the crew of the Duke of Yare who were given an almighty scare.

Off Cromer, there were 40 gas rig workers who had to be airlifted to safety when a drifting vessel threatened to plough into their platform.

At Felixstowe port in Suffolk a tanker carrying potentially dangerous chemicals crashed into the docks and caused part of the docks to be evacuated for fear of an explosion.

Picture that Colin took of the ship in the storm and all the cargo falling off into the sea.

Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship  "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987.

100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard.

Picture: SuppliedPicture that Colin took of the ship in the storm and all the cargo falling off into the sea. Colin Smith was one of the crew on a container ship "Duke of Yare" that got caught in the eye of the storm that battered the south and east of England on Friday, October 16, 1987. 100ft waves and around £6m worth of container stock was lost overboard. Picture: Supplied

Further down the coast, at the port of Harwich, in Essex, the Earl William ferry broke free of its 22 mooring ropes. The ferry was being used as a detention centre for illegal immigrants at the time and had 40 Tamil refugees on board but, fortunately, drifted across the harbour and ran aground rather than drifting out to sea.

While the Sea Link Hengist passenger ferry was forced to wash up on to the shore at Folkestone, on the south coast of Kent, and the crew had to be saved.

It was truly a night of chaos and unlike anything Mr Smith, a father-of-four, had seen before. He added: “I remember thinking that I never thought the North Sea could scrawl up like that.

“At one point we were rolling at 45 degrees and I thought ‘this is it’ and we were just looking at each other and thinking this is really bad.

“I’ve been in some bad situations in my career at sea but never anything like that.”

Mr Smith said the journey was unlike anything else he experienced in his career, despite some very rough voyages around the north of Scotland.

He described sailing as ‘99pc sheer boredom and 1pc sheer terror’. It is clear which end of that scale he considers Friday, October 16, 1987 to be be.

“When you are sailing back from Holland you are sailing into prevailing westerly winds, created by the Atlantic gulf stream.

“So we knew that if we got a hole punched in our hull then we were a goner, nobody was going to be able to come out and get us in those conditions.

“But nobody was a hero, we all just did what we had to do. I can’t quite believe that I was able to get up on deck and take the photos I did.

“We had to drift north up towards the gas fields to see out the storm and then we drifted back into Yarmouth 24 hours later.

“It was an unbelievable experience, I’m just relieved I’m here to tell the story.”

- Share your photos, videos and memories with us at www.iwitness24.co.uk and watch out for much more of our coverage of the storm’s 25th anniversary throughout this week.

- To see many more photos of the 1987 storm, as well as how the shocking news was reported in the EDP and Evening News at the time, see the links at the top-right of this page.

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