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Remembering Captain Dave Ramwell, Derbyshire campaigner

4 March 2020

Former colleagues and fellow campaigners have paid tributes to Nautilus member Captain Dave Ramwell, who became one of the leading figures in the long fight to determine the cause of the loss of the British bulk carrier Derbyshire, and who has died at the age of 76 after living for many years with Parkinson’s disease.

Tribute by Andrew Linington

Former colleagues and fellow campaigners have paid tribute to his passion and determination, as well as the professional expertise he brought to the work to ensure that the lessons of the Derbyshire were acted upon.

The Liverpool-registered oil/bulk/ore carrier sank in a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean in September 1980, while sailing from Canada to Japan with a cargo of 157,446 tonnes of iron ore. All 44 people onboard – 42 seafarers and two officers' wives – were lost with the 169,044dwt Bibby Line ship.

With no distress call, no wreckage, no survivors and in the days before the Marine Accident Investigation Branch was created, the government decided not to hold a formal investigation, and the Derbyshire's loss was swiftly blamed on the typhoon in the area at the time of its disappearance.

However, the maritime unions NUMAST and RMT and relatives of those who died were disturbed by evidence that Derbyshire sisterships had suffered from cracks in their deck plating – and that design modifications, in which longitudinal girders had been terminated close to the superstructure, had compromised the structural integrity of the vessels.

Amid concern that the true causes of the accident, and wider issues about bulk carrier safety, were being missed and even deliberately covered up, the Derbyshire Family Association (DFA) was formed in 1984 to provide support to the relatives of those lost and to lobby for a formal investigation.

Dave Ramwell, who was then serving as the master of a North West Water Authority ship, first got involved in the campaign when he helped Cathy Musa, who lost her husband on the Derbyshire, to write letters to MPs, ministers and the Department of Transport. He quickly became one of the most active and effective supporters of the DFA.

The Association's chairman, Paul Lambert, whose brother died on the Derbyshire, commented: 'Dave's commitment was total – he gave 100% to everything he did, and must have written thousands of articles and letters about the Derbyshire, as well as giving talks about the campaign to find out the truth.'

Capt Ramwell's wife, Julie, said her husband had devoted his life to the sea. 'He had thrived in the Sea Cadets and decided then that he wanted to go to sea. He was passionate about the plight of other seafarers right to the very end, and he still felt there was so much work to do, but he never lost his sense of humour and his sense of fun,' she added.
After leaving school to become an apprentice with Palm Line, Capt Ramwell served on the company's West African routes but decided to stop serving deepsea after one of his ships was caught up in conflict in the Congo.

He worked on the NW Water Authority's ships until the service closed in 1998, after which he decided to devote all his time to the safety issues surrounding the Derbyshire's loss. His tireless efforts to convince ministers and MPs of the case for a proper investigation paid off with the creation of an all-party Parliamentary group for the Derbyshire, whose membership grew to more than 100 MPs and Lords.

Mr Lambert recalled how Capt Ramwell had managed to get the Parliamentary group re-established following a general election. 'A letter was put together to send to every MP. Dave said he would get the letter copied and set about personally addressing them to all 650 MPs using his old faithful typewriter. He also included 650 first class stamps with them and he paid for everything – copies, stamps, everything – and would not claim the money back, stating that this was his contribution to the campaign. This is what he was like.'

The depth and scope of Dave Ramwell's work can be seen in the papers he donated in 2008 to Liverpool Museums' Maritime Archives & Library. He also worked closely with the MNAOA and its successor unions NUMAST and Nautilus to build the widest possible support for the Derbyshire campaign.

This proved pivotal in helping to secure the International Transport Workers' Federation mission that discovered the wreck of the ship in May 1994 – a mission led by Mark Dickinson, then assistant general secretary of the ITF.

Capt Ramwell also drew from his professional experience and knowledge to collaborate with writer Dr Tim Madge on the 1992 book A Ship Too Far, which not only highlighted the questions surrounding the Derbyshire's loss but also the evidence of widescale safety problems with bulk carriers.

Capt Ramwell was praised in the House of Commons for his efforts and in 2011 he was awarded the Merchant Navy Medal for services to merchant shipping, Nautilus International and The Derbyshire Family Association.

Mr Lambert said the DFA's campaign would never have succeeded without Capt Ramwell.
'Dave was a godsend, and his commitment to the campaign and safety at sea was incredible. The families held Dave in great esteem – they knew what a difference he made and feel they can never thank him enough for what he has done. He was part of us, he never let us down, and he helped give the families peace of mind.'

Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson worked with Capt. Ramwell and other members of the DFA and remembers him fondly. 'He was a terrific guy,' Mr Dickinson said. 'So dedicated to seafarer safety and campaigning to highlight the appalling loss of bulk carriers that the Derbyshire typified at the time. A giant of a man who will be sorely missed.'

Capt Ramwell leaves his wife Julie, three sons and two daughters. His funeral took place on 13 February at St Albans Church, Macclesfield.

Tribute by Dr Tim Madge

I first met Dave Ramwell when I was doing research for my book Long Voyage Home, about the decline of British shipping, writes Dr Tim Madge. I met him at his home south of Manchester. It would have been 1991. He told me of his time with the Palm Line, back in 1961, and what it was like to sail the rivers of West Africa in a steamship with a triple expansion reciprocating engine – a museum piece even then. He had a way of telling stories, bringing alive merchant sailing at a time when it was all about to change.

Almost as an aside, he also told me an extraordinary tale of the biggest ever loss off the British shipping register, an almost new ship that had disappeared off the coast of Japan. That ship was the Derbyshire. Typically, he had got involved with the campaign to uncover what had happened to that ship. There was an injustice to be righted and, being Dave, he felt he had to be a part of the family campaign to find the truth.

In that meeting, he convinced me I should be a part of that as well. The result was, for a year, I put my other book to one side and, with him, researched and then wrote A Ship Too Far. Re-reading it now, I am struck by what a monumental task we set ourselves. A master mariner and a journalist, unpicking the complexities of modern ship design, metallurgy, hydrostatics, brittle fractures and the rest. Only Dave could have persuaded me we could do it; and we did.

It is testament to our endeavours that the original book manuscript was deemed so defamatory the report on it was longer than the book. The barrister, who wrote it, subsequently showed us, line by line, how we could harden up facts, remove the implied libel. The original title, 'The Truth About the Derbyshire', was deemed a libel; but I believe we uncovered that truth, subsequently shown in a final inquiry to have been structural failure.

I was privileged to sail with Dave, out of Liverpool, on the Consortium, along the coast from Liverpool. He made for a hilarious shipmate; I recorded part of the radio series Long Voyage Home (BBC R4) from the deck of his ship in 1994. A fount of great stories, frequently funny, he appeared rightly at home messing with his crew.

Dave was that rare thing: utterly honest, constant in his beliefs, fearless in pursuit of justice. To seek the truth, to find, to hold, and not to yield: Captain Dave Ramwell.




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