Tor Bay and 

HMS Southampton

An incident occurred in the Gulf of Oman on 3 September 1988 involving an OCL containership, the Tor Bay and a Royal Navy warship, HMS Southampton.  In the article below we look first at the outcome of the Admiralty's Board of Inquiry Report and then the recollections of some of the P&O Containers' sea and shore staff who were involved.

MV Tor Bay    (Image courtesy of P&O Heritage -

HMS Southampton (D90)

The Tor Bay was on the Gulf-Far East trade in September 1988, and at the time of this incident was headed into the Arabian Gulf on passage from Nagoya to Bahrain.   The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) had only ended in a ceasefire in August of that year, and merchant vessels were still being escorted into and out of the Gulf by navy warships, an operation known as the Armilla Patrol

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Southampton (D90) was on Armilla Patrol escort duties and was assigned on Saturday 3rd to escort the Tor Bay into the Arabian Gulf.  After accompanying the MV Sandgate out through the Straits of Hormuz, she headed eastwards to rendezvous with the OCL container ship.  Both ships were in radio contact and the Tor Bay was advised to proceed at 17 knots to 'Cover Point' the agreed rendezvous location.  Southampton would join from the north.  Visibility was good and there was a 10 knot SE'ly wind. 

See also:

The Board of Inquiry Report contains a full account of the events leading up to the collision on 3 September 1988 based upon interviews with the Royal Navy personnel involved.  That report really needs to be read in full in order to appreciate the circumstances leading up to the impact, but in brief:

The MOD/Royal Navy Board of Inquiry Report into the incident records that:

"At about 2050D the two ships collided in position 25° 35' N 56° 48' E.  SOUTHAMPTON suffered heavy damage port side for'ard.  TOR BAY sustained appreciable damage to her bow.  There were no major casualties.  The two ships subsequently proceeded under own power, SOUTHAMPTON to Fujairah and TOR BAY to Dubai."

Eleven of the Royal Navy personnel incurred injuries.  The Southampton was replaced on the Armilla Patrol duties by HMS Boxer and was returned to the UK on a semi-submersible heavy-lift ship for repairs at Swan Hunter's Tyneside yard.  The Tor Bay spent fourteen days under repair at the Dubai United Dockyards facility, UAE.

The Board of Inquiry Report has the following summary:

"The Board of Inquiry's opinion is that the Officer of the Watch made errors of judgement in assessing the situation and was negligent in not properly calling the Commanding Officer.  The Navigating Officer also made an error of judgement.  The on-watch Principal Warfare Officer was negligent in the performance of his duties.  The Commanding Officer's unjustifiable trust in the Officer of the Watch was an error of judgement and his failure to acquire the information necessary to ensure his ship's safety amounts to negligence...

The above tells the story from the Royal Navy perspective.  Using the ex-seastaff Facebook group 'OCL Bay Boats' contact was made with some of our former colleagues who were involved in the incident.  Their recollections are quoted below:

Motorola DynaTec 8000X - First commercially available mobile phone from 1983 (Wikipedia)

"Sue and I were attending an early evening film showing in Leicester Square and planned to do a dinner after (she never did get that meal out).  I was assigned that night as the contact point (Peter Cruikshank and Dick Hannah were elsewhere).  As a result, I had the latest technology, a mobile phone with me (these were the early days of mobiles so I had a brick like Motorola phone which weighed a ton and was the latest yuppy must have).

"The phone was placed on the floor between the seats - with the mistaken belief that it never rings - well it rang much to the consternation of all in the cinema, much shushing and typical comments - so what do I do? Hang up, let it ring or bend down and take the call as quietly as possible?  So, I answered the call which was from the master of the Southampton.  I then heard these immortal words “Master Tor Bay here, don’t want to worry you but think I’ve just cut HMS Southampton in two”.  Bloody hell was my immediate reaction (silently of course) so what do I do?  Take details or keep call open and drag Sue and the phone to the foyer?  We took the latter course - Again much to the annoyance of all around but once in the foyer we resumed the call - Anybody hurt? was the next question.  What is the condition of the ship (ours not Southampton)?  Are you still seaworthy?  What assistance do you need?  The master then gave me the details as they knew them at that time so no injuries and checking damage now.  We agreed to have another call in 30 mins for update and then hung up... 

"Next steps were to phone John Newton and his response was “head for us now and I’ll call other team members to Beagle House where I will meet you”. So hot foot to HQ with Sue in tow - she never did get her meal out that night but spent best part of it on the couch in John’s office.

"Anyhow once in Beagle House we remade contact with the ship, charts were out, speaking to Admiralty - Oh yes call from Southampton journalist saying ”I hear your ship has struck Southampton’s warship”.

"It was a long night.  Tech team in once we had ship damage report - Was she seaworthy?  Where could we go? The list was endless, but it was chaotic but organised with all teams working together.

"Anyhow, the rest as they say is history, but this was my first major incident in FMD and some useful learnings for me then and still today when I help companies with their emergency response systems, lessons learnt then are still in the forefront of mind.”

A few years back John set up his own website, with a section on his time at sea.  We thank him for letting us quote excerpts from the page covering this incident: 

"On the night of Saturday 3rd of September 1988, Tor Bay was to rendezvous with HMS Southampton to be escorted through the Straits of Hormuz.  Recognition signals were exchanged, and Tor Bay was ordered to proceed on a northerly course at the convoy speed of 15kts.  Tor Bay had built up speed to about 13kts when for some inexplicable reason Southampton decided to cut across our bows, she didn't make it and Tor Bay ended up in the wretched situation of steaming at 13kts into 'indian territory' with the convoy escort, bristling with armaments both conventional and 'the other kind' impaled on our bows.

"One interesting tale from this adventure. I was asked to relay a message to the Olna (Royal Fleet Auxiliary).  I don't recall the actual wording but the gist of it was:- 'In collision with British Merchant vessel in position wappity wap.'.  Now I had been at sea for many years and I had never heard of this place wappity wap. I asked for confirmation and sure enough they said 'Yep, wappity wap'. Confirmation in writing was called for and once again the message was 'In collision with British Merchant vessel in position wappity wap'.  Off went the message to Olna and sure enough a reply came back 'Wappity what?'  'Wappity wap' I replied.  Now we had two radio men stumped, befuddled and properly capped. The text of the message stood and was duly acknowledged. 

"I was troubled for years and spent many a sleepless night trying to decipher 'Wappity wap' to no avail. Then,  on one serendipitous occasion, I got talking to a visitor in the local pub who was in the RN at that time and as luck would have it he had been flown out to Sharja to evaluate the damage to HMS Southampton.  He described some of the structural redesigning we had inflicted on this poor vessel. It turned out that the communications and power supply cables were all channeled along the port passageway and had been sliced through during the collision which also crumpled the wheelhouse. It slowly dawned, no communications, no power and no charts, not 'In position Wappity wap' but, as we were joined at the hip so to speak, they weren't going anywhere we weren't so it was 'In position What have you got?'  How easily I sleep these days.

"About this time, for some unfathomable reason, possibly due to a previous Tor Bay incident off Okinawa and the Falmouth Bay incident, people started calling me 'Mayday' and the rumour was that some superstitious seafarers were refusing to sail on ships if I was the Radio Officer!"

"A Royal Navy diver (bottom) prepares to dive to assess the damage to the HMS Southampton rammed by a British flag containership Torbay (sic) on Saturday.  the gash on the port side of the ship appears tp be about three metres wide - GN photo by Hasan Bozal" 

(Gulf News Monday 5 September 1988 kindly provided by John McKay)

Bulbous bow of the Tor Bay in the Dubai dry dock, showing the damage following the collision with HMS Southampton.  In the image left the red paint markings show where the cutting and welding of new steel is to be done.  In the image on the right the bow cutting and reconstruction work is underway (photos kindly provided for this article by John Duffy)

"To be honest, 35 years after the event I can’t remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Tor Bay and HMS Southampton had collided.  I just know that I got the instruction to fly out to the Dubai pretty quickly to attend the dry-dock as FMD’s representative for the repairs.

"While the damage to the warship was extensive having been struck amidships, the Tor Bay was more fortunate.  while the photos show that a a large number of large plates on and around the bulbous bow had to be cut out and replaced, the structure had remained largely intact.  

"One very distinct memory is of the 45°C heat at the bottom of the dry-dock, with no shade and no breeze to speak of.  There were compensations though, and I was able to do a bit of diving in the free time that I had.  I also got invited out for a bit of sailing.

"The records show that the Tor Bay was turned around in two weeks to resume trading on the Gulf/Far East service, but some non-critical work was deferred until the next scheduled dry-dock."

"I joined Tor Bay not long after the incident with the Southampton - Nothing damaged that a lick of paint couldn't fix… at least according to the bosun.

"On a serious note, I remember being in that part of the world a year or so earlier and calling up HMS Broadsword to say we were being shadowed by a fast-moving power boat. I’ve never seen a ship accelerate so fast. One of their officers boarded us the following day off Dubai and asked where everyone was.  They had dozens on their bridge, but on ours they found just me, the Old Man and a seaman".

With many thanks to everyone who contributed to this article.


After publishing the above and mentioning the article on the PONL  Facebook group, we received a couple more contributions.  The first is from George Wilson who was 1st Officer Engineering (1OE) on the Tor Bay at the time of the incident:

"The below is wholly from my memory which may be tad rusty resulting in some details of the incident being mis-remembered or not remembered at all, it was after all, 35 years ago.

"I think it was Saturday night (the actual date escapes me) that had been planned for us to rendezvous with the escort warship of the Armilla patrol.  I had decided to go to the bridge to watch the rendezvous and was on the starboard bridge wing with the ships Master, Captain Don Worsnop.

"Captain Worsnop pointed out the warship coming towards us, down our Starboard side, I imagine about mile away at that time.  He explained that what was expected to happen was that the warship would go past us to starboard and then, turn about coming up on station on our starboard quarter, between us and the direction of any possible threats to our safety.

"I could just make out the mast head lights of the warship which are set out slightly differently to merchantmen (as Captain Worsnop explained) in that the masts the navigation lights are mounted to are closer together and so can be difficult to readily determine, especially to a non-navigator like myself; there’s little need to understand navigation lights and their meaning in a ship's engine room!

'Launch of the Type 42 Destroyer HMS Southampton (D90) at Vosper Thornycroft Ltd. Southampton - 1979'

"I detected a degree of concern in Captain Worsnop’s voice as he explained this and then said something like they’re going to hit us!  At this time, I could see the foremast and mast head light of the warship opening up and more detail of the warship became visible in the weak moon light as the vessel came closer to our starboard bow.  I think Captain Worsnop may have shouted to those on the bridge to hold on and for our engine to go to stop but I can’t swear that the events happened in this way, there was just too much going on!

"I remember seeing the warship bow disappear out of site under our bow, the 4.5” gun and missile launcher being lost from view and then there as an almighty bang and everyone had to hold on to try to keep their footing.

"I became aware of a loud hissing from the direction of the bow but could not see our bow or the forward end of the warship, these being lost in smoke.  I could also hear the warship’s emergency gong sounding.  Strangely I can’t remember hearing our alarms sound, perhaps they didn’t as the noise of the collision got everyone to their emergency station without any further prompting.

"I left the bridge to go to my cabin to get changed into a boiler suit and then went down to the engine room where I found the Chief Engineer and Duty Engineer wondering what had happened, I may have briefly explained the events of a few minutes earlier but can’t be sure of that.  Very shortly afterwards, the electrician appeared in the Control Room and together we made our way along the starboard underside passage way towards the fore end of our ship.  Again, I can’t be sure, but I think we were instructed by the Chief Engineer to make our way there to see what assistance we could provide to the team on the forecastle.

Sea Dart system on sister-ship, HMS Cardiff (Wikipedia)

"Arriving at the forecastle I opened the door to the deck finding the 1ON there busy doing something or other.   I remember looking at the bulwark to see a grey radome just below bulwark level wondering what on earth that was, I eventually realised this was the radome for one of the warships radar scanners.

"The forecastle deck was heavily smoke laden with an orange smoke with the pervasive loud noise of escaping high pressure compressed air, at the time I could not work out what could be the cause of either.  I do remember looking over the bulwark to see a fire party from HMS Southampton apparently boundary cooling the sea dart missile launcher.  I also remember someone from the warship shouting at us and just as quick being shouted back, presumably from some else on the warship, to pipe down.

"I now understand the orange smoke was from a man overboard marker from Southampton’s port bridge wing which had been dislodged during the collision. I am also led to believe air escaping was from a high pressure air reservoir that had ruptured after our vessel had damaged it.  This damage also caused significant explosive damage to the portside of our bulbous bow, the air reservoir probably being forward of the location of the collision.

"After a short time, we were able to determine that our vessel was safe and not in imminent (if any) danger of foundering.

"I took an opportunity to let the Chief Engineer know what was happening and then proceeded to the lifeboat deck where our boats were being prepared for launch if Southampton foundered and we were required to rescue personnel.

"I managed to overhear some radio exchanges between Southampton and our bridge which appeared to show that she had no means of communication except hand held radios, the main radio station seemed to be shut down.  I heard her ask us to contact the RFA vessel off Dubia to proceed with “utmost haste” or something of the nature. to our position and to also relay a message to Admiralty in the UK.   Southampton then, in a most unusual radio exchange advised that she could no longer provide escort.  To anyone involved in the incident or watching from afar, this was most obvious and one of the least needed and least helpful radio messages I think ever sent from one of HM Warships.

"At about this time I was told that an American warship was trying to call Southampton on channel 16, but it was apparent Southampton could not hear them.  We contacted Southampton advising of this and were asked to pass an alternative radio frequency to the American so that Southampton could communicate directly with her. This further demonstrates how damaged Southampton’s radio station was.

"Sometime during the night we continued our voyage towards Dubai.  I noted that as we increased speed the sounding on the remote tank contents gauge for the forepeak tank increased and dropped when the vessel s speed reduced. I took some pleasure in pointing this out to one of the deck officers who had always maintained the ship took a trim tending to stern when being propelled through the water, not one tending to forward.  I’m not sure he believed me even after witnessing the gauges in the Engine Room.

"When we got alongside in Dubai there were many officials waiting to interview the crew and also to examine the damages to decide on repairs necessary.  Being very close of one of the largest ship repair yards in the area, as was than Dubai Drydocks, we docked into the large drydock in the yard a few days later. Prior to that we had been able to determine the extent of the damage to the forepeak tank.  I managed to get in and fortunately with an aft trim on the vessel the plating damage was clearly visible, sea water level being just below the lower opening of the damage.  As per previously, this was in the nature of an explosive damage, the sides of the remaining plating being turned inwards, cleanly, for the extent of the damage. No significant damage was noted to the ships framing.

"A significantly large tear (2m high x 10m wide, approximately) was noted high up to the starboard side of the forecastle space starboard side plating with some damage to the associated framing.  Repairs were done, as far as I know, to Lloyds requirements and standards, full and permanent repairs were completed prior to departure from the yard.

"I have seen some descriptions of repairs to the forepeak ballast tank as being “patched”.  This is not an accurate description.  A “patch” to a hull damage is a temporary repair and would not be used to describe a full and permanent repair as was carried out to Tor Bay.  I do not believe the attending Lloyds surveyor would be minded to refer to damage repairs as “patched” due to the negative connotations of this description. Repairs carried out were full and permanent and not “patched” as some may refer."

A Maersk container vessel in the Dubai Drydocks facility, adjacent to Port Rashid (Wikipedia)

And finally, a footnote from Geoff Lock about contact with the Royal Navy linked to the incident 20 years later...

"In 2008 HMS Southampton was given the freedom of the city and the ship was in port for some time in preparation for the formalities.  I was the ops manager and received a call from a chief petty officer (CPO) on the ship who wanted a photo of Tor Bay to hang on the bulkhead of their mess.  This being the point in HMS Southampton that Tor Bay's bow had reached in the collision. 

"We duly obliged and bought a Sky Photos picture and had it framed.  We were invited to visit HMS Southampton by the CPOs to present the photo.  Myself and several of the office staff were given a tour of the ship and were royally treated to lunch and drinks in the CPOs mess.  A lively afternoon and we got back to the office just in time for 5 o’clock. A very memorable and enjoyable day.

"The differences between our container ships and a warship were stark."