It was on 7 July 2002 that HMS Nottingham ran aground on the submerged but well-charted Wolf Rock near Lord Howe Island, 370 miles off the coast of Australia causing £26 million worth of damage to the ship. A 160-foot hole was torn down the side of the vessel from bow to bridge, flooding five of her compartments and nearly causing her to sink.
Exhausted and embarrassed, Commander Richard Farrington relived the moment when his multimillion missile destroyer, went on the rocks. “It’s the worst feeling in the world” he described.
With its bow low in the water, flooded six metres deep for a third of its length and with its engines disabled, the Nottingham is anchored under the protective lee of Lord Howe Island, unable to go anywhere for seven to 10 days.
After a sleepless and drama-filled 22 hours directing emergency repairs to keep the crippled ship afloat, Commander Farrington blamed the disaster on “an unfortunate mix of unhappy coincidence and human error”.
The accident happened in poor weather after a set of manoeuvres to allow a sailor with an emergency medical condition to be evacuated to Lord Howe Island. The captain had been ashore having dinner with the island’s marine services manager thanking him for the assistance rendered to his crewman.
The Captain had just returned and at the time of the incident, XO Lt Commander John Lee, was in-charge of the vessel, when Nottingham ran aground on Wolf Rock. Due to this navigational error, the vessel immediately went into damage control mode. Farrington returned to the bridge whereby he took command and controlled the breached compartments.
“I’ve never made it to the bridge so fast in my life,” said the veteran of 22 years’ service. There, he saw “white water running 30 to 40 metres along both sides of the ship”. The waves were picking the destroyer up and slamming her down on Wolf Rock, ripping open her port side.
The sea was so bad, for a moment Captain Farrington considered grounding his ship on the rock to stop it from sinking. But he realised that if they stayed on the rock “the ship would break its back” and be destroyed, forcing the 249 crew to abandon ship in dangerous weather and seas.
He ordered both gas turbines full speed astern. “They pulled us off straight away.”
Wolf Rock is 50 metres long and 10 metres wide, and thrusts three metres above the water. It is marked on charts and Commander Farrington said his navigators were aware of the danger.
The night was pitch black following intermittent rain squalls and the seas were running a three-metre swell, swamping the rock. But as the ship manoeuvred at 10 knots for stability to land its Lynx helicopter, the watchkeepers’ attention was diverted. “We saw it, but it was too late,” the captain said.
As seawater poured in through the gashed hull, flooding five forward compartments, crew members worked chest deep in water to shore up watertight bulkheads. Had they collapsed under the weight of water, the ship was in danger of foundering.
“They were bloody magnificent,” Commander Farrington said proudly. “They saved the ship last night.”
Using pumps installed by 10 divers from the Royal Australian Navy’s clearance diving team the next morning, the destroyer out of danger of sinking.
He was also aware of the possible consequences. Asked on television if he thought he faced a court-martial, he said: “If something comes up in the morning, you run the ship aground, you get court-martialled.”
The Ministry of Defence salvage department (SALMO) was contacted and assisted with logistics through local marine expert Graeme Mackenzie. The SALMO team, assisted by Nottingham’s crew, stabilized her at sea making her ready for the journey into Newcastle.
On 6 August, Nottingham set out on her journey to the port of Newcastle, north of Sydney, towed stern-first because of the damage to her bow. In Newcastle, her Sea Dart missiles were removed and further repairs were carried out.
It was not clear whether it was economic to repair her, but Nottingham had recently undergone major modifications to her radar and other electronics, and it was determined that it would be less expensive to return her to the UK and repair her than to bring another Type 42 destroyer up to her new specification.
After arriving in Sydney on 15 October, the damaged ship was lifted on board the heavy lifting vessel MV Swan and welded to her deck for transport. On 28 October, Nottingham left Sydney harbour on board MV Swan for the journey back to the UK. By 9 December, she had arrived at Portsmouth Harbour for repairs at Fleet Support Limited. The destroyer Glasgow was temporarily reactivated to cover for Nottingham while she was being repaired.
On 7 July 2003, the anniversary of the collision, Nottingham was refloated and in April 2004 she sailed again following the £39m repair and refit. The ship returned to duty in July 2004.