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A 169,000-tonne bulk carrier, which sank off the coast of Okinawa in September 1980, the largest British ship ever to be lost at sea. Nearly 282 metres (925 ft) long and 44.2 metres (144 ft) wide, the Derbyshire was carrying a cargo of iron ore. Though of modern design, and constructed only four years previously, the bulk carrier failed to survive a tropical storm it should easily have weathered, and sank so quickly that the crew had no time to radio a mayday distress signal. Initially, the government resisted holding a formal inquiry. However, one was opened in October 1987 when it was claimed the loss might have been caused by structural failure—an identical fault had affected other bulk carriers of the same class. This came to no firm conclusion other than that the ship ‘was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature’, possibly because it got beam on to the wind and sea.

The families of the crew refused to accept the inquiry's conclusion and raised the money for an underwater survey in 1994, which found the ship's remains in two halves. Another survey in 1996 confirmed the whereabouts of the ship, and in March/April 1997 a special unit of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution carried out a detailed survey. In what was declared by a British government minister to be ‘one of the century's greatest feats of underwater detection work’, the survey's conclusions were that though the Derbyshire undoubtedly did suffer from the structural weakness found in its sister ships, this did not appear to have been the cause of the disaster. Instead, the most likely, and principal, cause was the flooding of a tank in the bows through ventilators and an air pipe, the covers of which had been torn away. This flooding prevented the ship's bows riding the huge waves whipped up by the typhoon; instead, these had come aboard with such force that the deck hatches collapsed and this had led to the ship foundering. As a result of this survey, in November 2000 a High Court judge cleared the crew of any negligence.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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