And nobody seemed to know why..

By Andy Gilbert

We've all probably read newpaper stories of cars that seem to go beserk (or, as is more likely the case, their drivers lose control of them) but you don't usually hear of it happening to ships or boats. However, Newhaven was treated to a spectacular display of ship-crunching on the 30th March 1971.

Mike Newton-Smith's long-establised Metrec operation had bought an old Manchester Ship Canal tug, the MSC Mallard, brought her around to Newhaven and promptly renamed her by simply removing her MSC prefix. Now I can remember Mallard lying alongside the other Metrec vessels at Stage 11 on the West Quay, but never saw her move that much. However, on this day she moved with a vengeance.

She apparently left her stage as normal but then, with her three crew members 'hanging on grimly', ran amok. To quote from a fisherman at the time. "The tug started off from its jetty then rammed boats on the far side of the harbour. Then it came back astern and smashed into the jetty. But it didn't stop there. It went out again, hit a barge and then smashed into some fishing boats." Another trawlerman said "I didn't see what happened. I was too busy jumping for my life!"

The barge in question was one of the mud barges from the dredger Testside, and, according to her Master, Sidney Willey, would be out of action for a month. The fishing boats hit included the Sea Hawk, Akela, Zeeta, Dorothy Margaret and Tiza. Some  were so badly holed that they were quickly towed to Cresta Marine and hauled onto the slipway to prevent them sinking. Mallard, being a rather solidly built old tug, escaped undamaged!

The incident ended when RAF personnel from one of the 'crash boats, jumped into a tender and managed to nudge the Mallard out of harm's way. She was later 'rescued' and taken back to her berth by the Meeching.

The incident was the topic of much speculation and discussion around the harbour for the following few days. One un-named source suggested 'steering gear failure', a newspaper said simply that it was a 'mystery', and the tug's insurance agents, J H Bull & Co, based at the North Quay, were quoted as saying that they "had no idea how it had happened at all."

Makes you wonder why someone on board didn't run down below and simply stop the tug's engines!

Photo:The tug Mallard

The tug Mallard

Photo:Surveying some of the damage to the fishing boat Sea Hawk

Surveying some of the damage to the fishing boat Sea Hawk

Photo:Mallard safely back alongside

Mallard safely back alongside

Archive photos from Newhaven Museum, courtesy of the Argus and Sussex Express

This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 12/10/2008.
Comments about this page

Reading this story brought back some pretty vivid memories, I was there. It also prompted me to add my first comment to this wonderful web-site. I have my own theory as to what went wrong, so here goes:

On that day I was standing on the deck of the 'Golden Lily' which was moored on the East side of the river just upstream of where Tiza, Zeeta and Sea Hawk were tied up.

The tug was pointing upstream as it left its berth and needed to turn to go to sea. The Mallard came astern across the river heading straight for me on the Golden Lily but managed to stop and start to move forward, it missed us by about two feet. The thing I have left out so far is that the tug was powered by what is termed as a direct reversing engine. This means there is no gear box, the propellor shaft is connected straight to the engine and to change diirection the engine has to be stopped, a few valves reversed and then started up in the opposite direction. This has to be done in the engine room, there is no bridge control. This obviously takes time and I think that the guy in charge that day did not have the correct experience for this type of engine. He was used to instant response and was using way too much power.

After our near miss the tug went back across the river towards the west side and the trawlers moored there. The skipper (I use that term loosely) rang down for astern far too late and the engine did not start until it had virtually hit the other side. I think a trawler named Osprey got hit on that run.

Of course by this time the engine was running full astern and the tug came back across the river and again the skipper left it too late to go ahead and she rammed into the Zeeta, Sea Hawk and Tiza which were all moored together. Now going full ahead the Mallard then went back across the harbour to hit the Dorothy Margaret and Akela. After this the skipper just stopped the engine and let the Mallard drift where it was indeed rescued by the Meeching.

I appreciate that this is a personal view but I hope it helps in the understanding of what went wrong on that fateful day.

By Dick Roberts
On 12/12/2008

Thanks for the insight and for the eye-witness account.

I too think it was very much a case of 'operator error' in today's parlance.

With twin screws, I used to be able to turn Meeching on the spot, but it was much more 'fun' when the single screw relief tugs were in use. I never had to cope with a direct reversing set-up, and it was possible to do a 3-point turn with Kent and Kite, if you were gentle enough. I did witness Alex Pringle overcook things one day, a 9-point turn and way too much power!


By Andy Gilbert
On 21/12/2008

The Tug Mallard was twin screw with a single rudder. I was at the stage the day this happened. There were two engineers new to this tug, but fully conversant with operating the two direct reversing engines, i.e. seven cylinder HRN crosleys engine room control. The skipper had never handled this tug before. The bridge had two telegraphs,  one each side, and engine signals could be could be given from either the port or starboard side of the bridge and the engineers gave the bridge exactly what was rung down. HAVE you worked it out yet?

If you put both handles forward on the starboard telegraph the engine room starts both engines running ahead. If you then walk to the port side of the bridge and pull both handles back, the engineers will stop and restart the engines going astern.

Poor skipper was thinking that by putting starboard handles forward and port handles back he was putting one engine ahead and one astern, i.e. one telegraph for the port engine,and one telegraph for the starboard engine. I have my doubts if he had ever driven a tug or ship before because he disappeared sharpish as soon as he got ashore.

I was called to check out the engine-room and all the starting and stopping controls, telegraphs etc,  etc. All was in order and an independent Official took the tug to sea with the same Engineers and a Metrec skipper put the tug through its paces and she never missed a beat

I have sailed on the Mallard as engineer many times with the well known Skipper Kenneth Wood, and we worked well with the telegraphs. There is a slight delay with only one engineer working both engines, so I would ask Ken to ring down which engine he wanted first. If it was a one ahead and one astern, then bring up the rpm as required. I also did a full engine room overhaul for the new owners in Ramsgate after which she then went to a firm on the thames.

The next time I saw her she was working in LONDONDERRY.

By George Still
On 09/02/2009

I towed the Mallard away for scrapping in the 1980's. The voyage was from Belfast to Millom in Cumbria ( via Douglas IOM). The towing tug was the Primrose from Belfast to Douglas then the Salisbury from Douglas to Millom. We had to wait at Douglas to get the tides right for Millom, you had to go up there on the top of springs to get enough water.

By Stephen Carter
On 13/12/2009

I worked on her for Batty Towage and salvage of Broadstairs.. I used to sit on a bench between both engines and would only start engines when half power was rung when maneuvering to hip up to barges...as when the old man rang for slow by time I stopped to re start he would be ringing to stop again,,  It worked well and we never had any problems...

By William Kevan McNeil
On 17/07/2019

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