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Thursday 16th February 1961    BP EXPLORER Capsizes

Fully laden to her winter load line, with 437 tons of petrol in the cargo tanks, the tanker barge BP Explorer left the confines of Swansea lock at 3.30pm on the afternoon of Wednesday 15th February. Bound for Worcester, but with orders not to be there until the end of the week, her master, Captain Harold Middleton, decided to sail to Barry Roads and anchor there until the following day.

 Although this large tanker barge was owned by Shell-Mex & BP of London, she was managed by John Harker Ltd and crewed by their men. In fact there were another six similar vessels operating on the Severn and Bristol Channel, all managed by John Harker. They differed from other tanker barges working on the Severn in that they had a new revolutionary type of propeller. The “Shell boats”, as they were affectionately known, had fitted at the stern end a Voith-Schneider propulsion unit, which not only propelled the barge, but steered it as well. There were a series of vertical blades beneath the hull at the far stern end of the vessel and the action of them could be likened to someone sculling a boat with an oar.

 The BP Explorer carried a crew of five men, skipper Harold Middleton [55], mate Ken Forster [39], engineer Alf Hook [39] plus two deckhands, Mike Holder [17] and Len Griffey [20]. The extra deckhand was there to assist in the engine-room, but normally the two young men would share these duties, both being competent seamen. When fully laden these tanker barges were too deep to travel on the River Severn from Gloucester to Worcester so they would stop at Gloucester to lighten their load by discharging one hundred tons at Monk Meadow oil dock. In fact in mid 1961 it was decided to stop operating the “Shell boats” to Worcester due to the damage being done to the Voith-Schneider propulsion unit, because of the deep draft of the vessels, the blades were constantly being damaged by hitting the bed of the shallow river.

 During 1962 Shell-Mex decided to convert one of the barges and fit a conventional propeller in place of the Voith-Schneider unit. They chose the Shell Roadbuilder and their crew was apprehensive as to whether it would improve the efficiency of the vessel. In deep water the Voith-Schneider unit performed well, the helmsman would sit at a console on the wheelhouse and steer the barge as he would his car. It would turn in her own length and go from ahead to astern immediately, not as did the famous “Dale boats” of Harker’s, which could be some swines to handle. No worries after conversion of the Shell Roadbuilder though, she handled well and the crew were impressed.

BP Explorer underway empty, in the Bristol Channel

It was dark by now, but fine and clear with little wind and out of Avonmouth came the little Regent Wren, another tanker barge, bound for Stourport. Between the Regent Wren and the BP Explorer was another tanker barge, the Kendale H with skipper Jimmy Tonks at the wheel. All three vessels arrived at Slime Road, above Beachley, at about the same time at about 6.30pm. The Kendale H was drawing 2 feet less draft than the BP Explorer and before reaching Inward Rock, where he would turn across

 the Severn to the opposite bank, Tonks increased his speed. As he passed the BP Explorer, at a distance of 40 feet apart, he gave a friendly wave to Middleton and received the same back. Mervyn Browning, engineer on the Regent Wren, who was at the helm, also passed the BP Explorer, but at a greater distance. They were 150 feet apart with the BP Explorer on Browning’s port side.

Crossing the Severn here at the Counts Channel is tricky, the channel is relatively narrow and it is almost impossible for a helmsman to maintain a constant course. It takes great control of the vessel to keep her on a safe heading, as there is a violent turbulence, which sets up eddies within the main flow of the stream, which can be miniature maelstrom’s.

 Jimmy Tonks saw the masthead light of BP Explorer turning into the Counts Channel as she altered course to come across the river, it was now two hours and forty minutes before high water at Sharpness. Mervyn Browning on the Regent Wren noticed, as he passed the tanker barge, cabin lights shining out through the portholes.  Minutes later Tonks saw nothing; he did think though, that he could see an unlighted shape floating in the water.

 An eyewitness standing on the end of Lydney pier, saw at 8.20pm an upturned vessel floating upstream on the strong flood tide which was estimated at running at between 5 to 6 knots. On the ebb tide the BP Explorer floated back down river, striking a column on the partly demolished Severn Railway Bridge with some force, and then grounding on Lydney Sands.

 Other craft had been bound for Sharpness on the evening tide, barges from Avonmouth and at least one other tanker barge from Swansea. Yet no one at Sharpness questioned why the BP Explorer had not docked on that tide! During that period vessels and ports rarely spoke to each other by radio, unless requesting assistance or to pass a message. It wasn’t uncommon for masters of the tanker barges to radio each other giving out false information as to their location. Why? To lull a vessel bound for Swansea into thinking they would be first to load on arrival, only to find that as they approached the port someone had beaten them to the berth.

 Why didn’t the lock keepers at Sharpness ask about the BP Explorer? Did they know she was bound for the port and had actually been on her way up the estuary? It was common practise that as the last ship locked in or out on the tide, for them to lock the gates and be gone within minutes.

BP Explorer on the sands at Awre

During low water at about 2pm the following day fireman and police went out across the sands to see if there were any of the crew still trapped in the upturned hull. They found no one inside.

 That same day the body of skipper, Harold Middleton was found washed ashore at Oldbury-on-Severn. All other four crewmen were officially classed as missing, presumed dead.

 As the four hundred tons of petrol leaked from the cargo tanks into the river, the smell of petrol fumes could be smelt for miles. Wreckage from the vessel began to be washed up onto the foreshore of the Severn, white rails and woodwork from the superstructure was found on the Lydney side of the Severn.

 That Friday evening the tanker barge still seemed to be at the mercy of the tides giving Sharpness Harbour Master, Captain Burbage, cause for concern. He ordered men with searchlights on two vessels out in the Severn to keep track of the floating wreck. They lost her as she floated upstream again, bouncing through the Severn Railway Bridge.

 The following day the BP Explorer was seen lying on the mud off Awre, a small village some six miles above Sharpness on the west bank of the Severn. The spring tides were by now dropping away so the fear of her coming back down through the bridge again had diminished, but it had been considered a possibility to blow up the wreck where she lay embedded in the mud.

Firemen with breathing apparatus were now able to do a more detailed search of the vessel, but again nothing was found. Wire hawsers were strapped around the hull and secured to the shore to stop the wreck from floating again until plans were made as to what to do with her. Metal Trading Company of Swansea had been contracted to salvage the BP Explorer and were soon on the scene assessing the situation. By now all the cargo of petrol had leaked out into the river.

 It was to take several weeks until all the missing bodies were found. A body was discovered at Alvington Pill on the 9th March and was to be identified as that of the mate, Ken Forster. A naked body had been found in the estuary and was thought to have been that of Mike Holder, but unfortunately his father was unable to identify him, so he was buried at Thornbury in an unmarked grave. Later, when Mike's personal belongings were recovered from the BP Explorer, the body buried at Thornbury matched fingerprints on some of his possessions. Mike Holder's body was later exhumed on the 20th April.

 On Monday the 11th of April a salvage team at Awre were successful in righting the BP Explorer. For a number of days they had been winching the barge towards the bank on each high tide before righting her with a powerful hydraulic ram. The barge was later towed to Sharpness for rebuilding by the Shell Glassmaker, skipper Tommy Carter, after the tides had neaped. Meanwhile all the sand and mud that had built up in the vessel was pumped out, which also enabled a more thorough search to be made of the tanker barge.

 Following her rebuilding at Sharpness the vessel was renamed BP Driver and was to make headlines again on her third trip of the last day of January 1962.

 At the Court of Inquiry held on the 7th and 8th of November 1961 at Gloucester the reason for the capsizing of the BP Explorer was given as the vessel touching ground in such a manner and such speed to produce an immediate reduction in positive stability and make her vulnerable to tidal forces. The precise magnitude and significance of which are impossible to determine.

 The capsizing was not through any wrongful act or default by master, Harold Middleton, or any other crew-member.

Tanker Barge


Motor Tanker Barge  built 1956 Official Number 187520

    Built By: W J Yarwood & Sons Ltd., Northwich

Owned by: Shell-Mex & BP Ltd., London

Managed by: John Harker Ltd

    303 grt  139' 3" long,  21' 7" wide, 10' 5" depth

1961: Following the accident, salvaged and rebuilt at Sharpness Shipyard. Renamed BP DRIVER.

Tanker Crew


 Skipper Harold Middleton [55] Longford Lane, Gloucester

   Married with two daughters

 Mate  Ken Forster [39] Matson Avenue, Gloucester

   Married with two children

 Engineer Alf Hook [39]   Beaufort Road, Gloucester

   Married with three children

 Deckhand Mike Holder [17]  Deans Way, Gloucester

   Single man

 Deckhand Len Griffey [20]  Baylands, Newtown, Berkeley

   Single man

Wednesday 31st January 1962   BP Driver Lost on the Nash

Following her rebuild at Sharpness the BP Explorer was renamed BP Driver and began working again towards the end of 1961. With a new crew of five men they had to put all thoughts of that terrible night, almost a year previously when the vessel turned over in the Severn Estuary behind them.

 Two months into trading again the BP Driver left Sharpness bound for a routine trip, empty to Swansea to load 470 tons of petrol for delivery to Worcester. Her crew now comprised the skipper Bill Merrett, [a Severn tankerman of many years], mate Anthony Tatchell, [new to the company], engineer, James Storey and deckhands, Raymond Thomas [17] and Ernest Sterry [16], [on his first trip on the barge]. It was a dark night as they passed Barry on their way down the Welsh coast to Swansea. Ahead of them lay the passage through the treacherous Nash Point, high cliffs on the starboard side and the Nash Sands on the port side. With just a narrow channel of turbulent water to get through this can be a daunting task, not for the faint-hearted.

 As the BP Driver entered Nash Point at 8.30pm, guided in by the flashing light of the lighthouse a hundred feet above them, the fierce tide began to push the vessel close to the rocks. Bill Merrett, unable to hold his ship off into deeper water, felt her touch, first the shingle, then the jagged rocks. Captain Merrett immediately sent out a Mayday call on his radio, which was received by the coastguards, and they in turn called out Barry lifeboat. Other vessels in the vicinity also picked up the Mayday call and proceeded to the area to see if they could be of assistance.

 They arrived an hour later playing their searchlights onto the stricken vessel and surrounding rocks. The crew of five men could be seen clambering over the rocks to the safety of higher ground. Fortunately all escaped unhurt.

 The lighthouse keeper above could see that the BP Driver was being pounded by high waves and was badly holed below the waterline.

 Next day salvage experts and others surveyed the grounded BP Driver and found that it was not worth salvaging her. Still constantly battered by waves from the high tides their only option was to abandon her. A sad end to this unlucky vessel.

BP Driver aground on the Nash

Tanker Crew


 Skipper William Jonas Merrett  Randwick Road, Gloucester

 Mate  Anthony Tatchell  Cinderford Bridge, Cinderford

 Engineer James Storey    Green Bank, Brockworth

 Deckhand Raymond Thomas [17] Hillview Road, Gloucester

 Deckhand Ernest Sterry [16]   Coney Hill Road, Gloucester

Story by: Chris Witts

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Copyright with Chris Witts 2001

No copying of this material for whatever reason without permission from the author

At 7.15pm that same day the BP Explorer dropped anchor in Barry Roads after the uneventful trip up from Swansea. At Barry Roads ships bound for Sharpness and other ports in the Bristol Channel would anchor whilst awaiting tide or further orders.  On Thursday 16th February the crew weighed anchor at 2.40pm to slowly proceed with the flood tide towards Sharpness. High water there was at 9pm, which gave master Harold Middleton plenty of time to get there, especially as it was a large spring tide flowing that night. Three hours later they were off Avonmouth and about to enter the swirling waters of the Severn Estuary.

Photomarine . Sharpness Shipping . Links . Gloucester Shipyard