THE DAY WE NEARLY LOST THE CHARTRES

Photo:Valencay meets the first swell as she leaves the protection of the breakwater. Then.....

Valencay meets the first swell as she leaves the protection of the breakwater. Then.....

Kind permission of 'macjack'.

Photo:What goes up.....

What goes up.....

Phil James, courtesy of Newhaven Museum

Photo:.....must come down!

.....must come down!

Phil James, courtesy of Newhaven Museum

Photo:Before - Chartres leaving Dieppe in happier times

Before - Chartres leaving Dieppe in happier times

Kind permission of Ted Ingham

Photo:After - Chartres low in the water and listing at Dieppe

After - Chartres low in the water and listing at Dieppe

Kind permission of Vicky Delaney

Photo:Chartres at Dieppe.

Chartres at Dieppe.

Kind permission of Vicky Delaney

Photo:Chartres at Dieppe

Chartres at Dieppe

Kind permission of Vicky Delaney

Photo:Former Newhaven ships Senlac and Chartres at Piraeus as Express Apollon and Express Santorini.

Former Newhaven ships Senlac and Chartres at Piraeus as Express Apollon and Express Santorini.

Kind permission of Harley Crossley

Photo:Chartres as Express Santorini

Chartres as Express Santorini

Kind permission of 'gibdan' on Ships Nostalgia

Near disaster for the ferry - not once, but twice.

By Andy Gilbert

Newhaven's cross-channel service to Dieppe once had a reputation that said "We sail in any weather." This goes back to the days when our steamers carried the Royal Mail between the UK and France and the mail 'had to get through', and on time. Our ships were often referred to as the 'mailboats' for this reason, and the British vessels such as Brighton, Londres and Worthing were entitled to the prefix RMS, standing for Royal Mail Ship.

It's been said that the Newhaven ships would still be running long after the Dover ships had headed for shelter and I can certainly remember them sailing in the foulest of weather conditions. The first three photos illustrate this very well, the first is from 'Macjack' and the next two are from a well-known sequence taken by Phil James and held at Newhaven Museum. They all show Valencay leaving Newhaven in the teeth of a gale in September 1974. (I know just how her passengers must have felt as I once made a crossing over on Caledonian Princess and back on Falaise in a force 10/11.) This carried on through all the Sealink years and right up to when SNAT ran the route as Dieppe Ferries in the late 1980's. However, all this changed on the morning of Thursday 25th January 1990. (Please click on the top photo for a link to the weather report page).

The weather that day was very similar to that of the much more famous 'great storm' of October 16th 1987 and it's worth Googling for this, as there's some fascinating information to be read. I was on the day shift at Gibbons Freight's office in what was called the 'agents' village', the small collection of portakabins that were once located next to the town station. As usual, the office girls had the radio on, listening to Simon Bates' morning show. We heard the travel and weather reports, of course, but our ears really pricked up when we heard the newsreader say that the ferry 'Charlie' was in trouble in the Channel. There was, of course, no such ferry and we realised that it had to be Chartres, which had taken out the mid-morning sailing. A quick phone call soon confirmed this and we listened all the more intently.

Chartres had sailed with 80 passengers and 50 crew, with the weather forecast predicting winds in the Channel of gale force 8, gusting to storm force 10. However, by the time she was around 27 miles out from Newhaven, they had increased to hurricane force 11/12. The massive resulting waves of up to 70 feet, described by passenger Andrew Allfree as being 'like mountains', smashed through the windows of her bridge. This resulted in a total electrical failure and, shortly after, both her main engines came to a stop. She was now adrift at the mercy of the weather and you can imagine what must have been going through the minds of passengers and crew alike. More forward-facing windows were then smashed and reports from the passengers on board at the time say that 'there was water everywhere and furniture was flying around'. The crew swiftly moved all passengers to the comparative safety of the aft cafeteria, which was located on a lower deck, and issued them all with lifejackets.

The ship's Master, Captain Yves Lerouvrer, sent out a mayday call, and Newhaven Lifeboat and a Coastguard helicopter were launched from the UK. In addition, a French navy frigate and a cargo ship were diverted towards her. However, it was decided that the weather was so bad that our tug Meeching would not be allowed to go to her aid, a journey that would in any case have taken many hours. After Chartres had been drifting for around three quarters of an hour, her main engines were restarted and she was able to resume her journey to Dieppe.

The passengers must have been breathing a collective sigh of relief as she approached the French port, but nature had another cruel trick to play. Entering the harbour, she was twice dashed against the pier, resulting in a huge gash below the waterline on her port side some 150 feet long. Water rushed in and, given previous car ferry disasters such as the Wahine and the Herald of Free Enterprise, it was very nearly a case of 'so near yet so far'. However, the seamanship skills of Captain Lerouvrer and his crew, plus the swift assistance of Dieppe's tugs, meant that Chartres was just able to make it alongside the Quai Henri IV. Passengers were disembarked immediately with those injured passengers and crew members being stretchered ashore. Most were put up in a Dieppe hotel, before being able to continue their journeys, but it would be some time before cars and lorries would be unloaded. The three photos show Chartres moored at the main ramp in Dieppe, low in the water and with a heavy list to port.

Given the weather conditions and the near disaster, there was much criticism of the decision to sail, and it was pointed out that Chartres had been involved in a similar incident in January 1983. On that occasion too her bridge windows had been smashed and all engine power lost for a time. Much damage was done on the car deck, where several lorries broke their lashings and overturned. However, Dieppe Ferries were quick to point out that Captain Lerouvrer's decision was based on the most up to date weather forecast available to him at the time and insisted that 'no pressure was put on him to sail'.

Chartres was eventually pumped out and refloated, and towed to Rouen for major repairs, which included total rewiring. She never returned to the Newhaven route, her place being taken temporarily by the chartered Belgian ferry Prince Laurent and then permanently by the much larger Champs Elysees in the summer of 1990. Like so many channel ferries, Chartres was sold to Greek owners and became Hellas Ferries' Express Santorini. As far as I know, she's still operating, though safety regulations mean that time is ticking away for all ferries of her age. The final two photos show her a few years ago at Piraeus with Express Apollon, once our very own Senlac, and on her own at Piraeus after her repaint into Hellenic Seaways colours had restored her almost to her original 1974 SNCF appearance.

I cannot recall any of our ferries sailing in such conditions since then, and many is the time I had to placate a disgruntled lorry driver, complaining about a cancelled sailing, with the words 'Do you really want to go out in a force 12 hurricane? No? Well, neither does the Captain!'

This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 24/02/2009.
Comments about this page

The photos with captions "What goes up - must come down" were favourites of Museum Curator Peter Bailey, who likes to use them in his slide shows.  When I used to help him, I always added the comment "And of course if you had just enjoyed dinner, what went down might well come up" the comment usually went down well with the audience, if you will excuse the pun.

By Richard Beckett
On 26/02/2009

I remember being paged out as lifeboat crew to launch to the Chartres on this occasion. Coxswain Mike Beach had a quiet word with all of us before we left the side. Realistically we were launched to be safety boat to the helicopter(s) that where scrambled to assist, along with being an extra vessel in the event of having to search for missing passengers or crew. We went around the end of the breakwater, went up the first wave, hesitated, and slowly slid back down before powering up and over. We got about a mile off before we were recalled:  the Chartres having restarted her engines.

Re-entering the harbour in these conditions was quite often as 'exciting' as leaving especially if managed to pick up a good surf wave. Andy, this wasnt the only ferry we were launched to. We also went to the assistance of one of the jetferries who had had to come down off of her foils because of the bad weather and was slowly creeping towards Newhaven trying to conserve her fuel. I distinctly remember Coxswain Len Patten questioning how we were going to get a towline on her and whether we could loop the tow over the extended frontleg of the hydrofoil. Happy Days!

By Rob Patten
On 26/02/2009

I was sailing on the Valencay during that 1974 September gale when these photos were taken. It was certainly very rough indeed!

By Jill Cowles
On 09/08/2010

With the all the news today about the stricken cruise ship in Italy, I was reminded of a terrifying experience I once had and wondered if I could find anything about it on the net. I found this article and it nearly made me cry! I was a 22 year old passenger on board the Chartres that night.

By Elizabeth Sennett
On 15/01/2012

I have travelled on Chartres, a few times ,and definitely the names of some of the ships on this site are familiar from my childhood, Villandry, and Falaise . and I'm certain Chartres was working the Dover- Calais route in the late 80's early 90's? -we travelled as foot passengers on her, while taking the train from Victoria-St Raphael. It was so lucky that Chartres' crew and passengers were safe-it must have been terrifying for them. Being rolled about in a rough sea is bad enough, but to be in danger as well would add massively to the stress. At least in this instance the Captain and Crew did right by the passengers- unlike in some instances where the Captain and crew abandon ship to save their own skins, leaving passengers to their fate. Someone who acts in such a cowardly way is not worthy of the name ''Captain'' or ''Crew''. With larger and larger ferries being built, it is slightly alarming, as how could all the passengers and crew be assembled and evacuated in case of an emergency at sea? Passenger ferries, by their very nature, have landlubbers of all ages and physical degrees of fitness aboard. Young, fit men make up the majority of survivors on passenger ferries, as the elderly, the infirm, and mothers with children are at a massive strength disadvantage. Hopefully the rules will remain strict for putting out to sea in very severe weather. I know well the feeling of a ferry rocking before it leaves the harbour, and the sudden roll as it leaves the protection of the wall- but at no time have I felt in danger on any of the Newhaven ferries. I think a clip of Villandry [?] was shown on the news at the time, rocking up and down, definitely one ship from around that time was on the news, as I remember mum saying ''ewwww....glad I'm not on board that ferry''!

By Catherine Mackenzie
On 30/03/2013

I am a retired shipmaster and held command in the Dover ferries for nearly 30 years. Some weeks ago I stumbled on your most interesting site and found an article and some photos regarding heavy weather passages by ferries on the Newhaven/Dieppe route - amongst them the french ferry "Chartres" in 1990(?).  However, I have been unable to relocate the article on returning to the site. My interest lies in the fact that I was at sea en route from Dover to Calais in command of the "Pride of Kent" (ex-"Spirit of Free Enterprise") at about the time the "Chartres" experienced major damage  en route for Dieppe and we copied her Mayday, albeit we were well away and experiencing our own problems at the time.

As an aside, I once lived at St.Margarets-at-Cliffe, near Dover and was a near-neighbour of Alec Flint, who was then in command at Dover but who had earlier been based ashore at Newhaven as Captain-Superintendant (or similar title) for BR/Sealink.

Jim Martin

This is the page Jim. 

John  -- Editor

By Jim Martin
On 15/12/2017

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.