In November 1990 the pelagic trawler Antares sank in the Firth of Clyde with all four crew members on board all losing their lives. The loss of the vessel was immensely controversial as it emerged that the Antares was sunk when its nets became tangled with a Royal Navy nuclear submarine which passed underneath. The incident led to major changes in the way the Royal Navy carried out training in areas where civilian vessels were likely to be present.
The FV Antares was small trawler which was built in Sandhaven, Aberdeenshire in the 1960s. It was around 50ft in length, had a gross tonnage of 34 tons and was made mostly out of wood. Although it could carry out a number of different types of commercial fishing it was being used as a pelagic trawler to catch fish which live in mid-water such as herring and mackerel. The Antares left its home port of Carradale on the 19th November 1990 and began to fish around the Firth of Clyde.
The other vessel involved in this incident was the Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant. A hunter/killer submarine Trenchant was built in Barrow-in-Furness and commissioned in 1989 making it the fifth of the seven Trafalgar-class submarines completed for the Royal Navy. Trafalgar-class submarines are 85 metres long, displace around 5,300 tons, have a crew of around 130 and being powered by a nuclear reactor their range is only limited by food supplies and long-term maintenance requirements. At the time of the incident Trafalgar–class submarines were armed with Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes, although the submarines are now armed with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles as well.
HMS Trenchant was in the Firth of Clyde as it was taking part in the Submarine Command Course, more commonly known as ‘The Perisher.’ This course is designed for officers looking to eventually take command of their own submarine, and is known as the Perisher due to its extremely demanding nature and low success rate. It takes the form of a sixteen week course which includes land-based training, simulator work and simulated war fighting. During the Perisher course the officers being assessed are referred to as ‘students’ and the commanding officers are known as ‘teachers’. The Perisher course culminates in each student taking command of a submarine during a simulated war scenario where they are given tasks to complete while being ‘hunted’ by other Royal Navy vessels in a mock battle situation. Any student failing the Perisher course is immediately removed from the submarine by boat or helicopter and cannot serve on a Royal Navy submarine in any capacity for the rest of their career. The Perisher course is world-renowned and navies from all over the world send crew members to take part in Perisher training.
Timeline of the Incident
The Antares had fishing in the Clyde for several days and had been returning to port in the town of Largs each day to unload her catch. On the 21st November the crew decided to head to a deep water area known as the Arran Trench and began a long period of fishing which would continue overnight. Two other fishing vessels, Heroine and Hercules III were also fishing around the same area. The captain of the Antares made a telephone call to his wife at approximately 22:30 and reported that everything was fine and there were no issues with either the boat or the crew. This is the last known communication with anyone on board the Antares.
On the same night HMS Trenchant was in the same area conducting the Perisher course. As this was the final stage of the course a student was in command of the vessel under the supervision of their commanding officer. The student was required to carry out a simulated mine laying operation while a Royal Navy Leander-class frigate HMS Charybdis hunted for the submarine on the surface.
At 02:17 the sonar of HMS Trenchant suddenly detected a vessel on the surface and turned to avoid the contact. Loud banging was heard by the crew of the submarine followed by further unusual ‘disturbance’ noises. The submarine reached periscope depth and assessed the situation and saw only two fishing vessels (Heroine and Hercules III) which did not appear to be in any distress. HMS Trenchant then surfaced and the remains of a trawl net were found around the hull and casing of the submarine, with trawl wires and chains embedded in a sonar dome on the submarine’s hull. Trenchant then attempted to radio the two fishing vessels which it could see nearby. Although radio contact could not be made the trawlers appeared to be engaged in normal fishing activity. HMS Trenchant then radioed HMS Charybdis which also reported that they had not noticed anything amiss in the area. The crew of HMS Trenchant assumed that they had collided with the trawl nets of one of the fishing vessels but since no harm appeared to be done they radioed their home base of Faslane and informed them that they had snagged a trawler’s nets and could not contact the vessel but the vessel was safe and engaged in normal fishing. Following this HMS Trenchant continued with the Perisher course.
Between 8:00 and 9:00 that morning concern began to mount that the incident may have been more serious than the crew of HMS Trenchant realised. On hearing that a submarine had collided with a trawlers’ nets the Secretary of the Clyde Fisherman’s Association began phoning around ports and contacting trawlers out at sea via radio to ensure that all fishing vessels out that night were accounted for. The crews of Heroine and Hercules III informed him that they had lost both visual and radar contact with the Antares but assumed that it had left the area to either return to port of look for better fishing elsewhere. When it emerged that Antares had not docked in any port a full-scale search was launched to look for the vessel. Helicopters, lifeboats and coastguard vessels all joined in searching for the Antares, as did land-based search teams who searched through beaches and coastlines to look for any evidence of the Antares, while trawlers broke away from fishing to join the search. HMS Charybdis was also recalled to the area to co-ordinate the search effort. Despite the scale of the search the only evidence of the Antares was fish boxes and oil floating on the surface. However, the following day the sonar of one of the search vessels picked up a new, uncharted wreck on the seabed. This was quickly confirmed to be the Antares. In the following days the wreck was raised to the surface and the bodies of three of the crew members were recovered. The following year the body of the fourth crew member was recovered when it was brought up in the net of a trawler which was fishing in the area.
What Happened to the Antares?
The exact details of what happened to the Antares will always remain something of a mystery as there are no living witnesses or survivors from the incident. However, from the reports of the crew of HMS Trenchant and the evidence gained from the wreck a fairly accurate picture of what happened can be pieced together. Antares was engaged in fishing, dragging nets through mid-water along the deep water of the Arran Trench. The nets used by the Antares were approximately 30 metres wide by 100 metres long and were set at a depth of sixty metres. The Antares had just passed Heroine (one of the other trawlers in the area) and was conducting a turn to steam back along the Arran Trench. HMS Trenchant picked up contact on its sonar and changed course causing it to collided with the trawl nets of the Antares. This caused the Antares to capsize and quickly turn upside down in the water and be briefly dragged along until the trawl wires snapped. In its upside down position the Antares would have rapidly filled with water and then sank. The official report into the investigation stated that the banging noises heard by the crew of the Trenchant was the initial contact with the trawl net and wires while the secondary ‘disturbance’ noises picked up by the submarine were likely to have been the sound of the Antares sinking to the seabed.
Resulting Actions and Changes
The official investigation into the incident was published two years after the events in 1992. It found that no blame at all could be attached to the crew of the Antares who were going about their legal business of commercial fishing, and instead placed all of the blame on the crew and commanding officers of HMS Trenchant. The official findings of the investigation were that there was a “partial breakdown in both the standards and structure of watchkeeping on board HMS Trenchant.”
The following issues were all highlighted in the report:
- Royal Navy rules in force at the time stated that submarines should remain at least 2,000 yards away from civilian vessels, HMS Trenchant failed to do this.
- The crew of HMS Trenchant believed that at sixty metres depth they were clear of all surface vessels and trawl nets. They were unaware that the depth of the Arran Trench area meant that fishing vessels would have their nets sent deeper than usual.
- A critical mistake was made when the crew of HMS Trenchant mistook the Antares and Heroine as a single vessel on their sonar. This meant that after the Antares had sank the surfaced HMS Trenchant was only looking for a single fishing vessel. On spotting the Heroine they thought that nothing was amiss.
- The report was highly critical of the way the crew paid immense attention to the positioning and activities of HMS Charybdis and believe that this led to a lack of attention being paid to the civilian vessels which were in the area at the time, and ultimately led to the collision with the trawl nets of the Antares.
- There were serious deficiencies in the way the crew of the Trenchant checked the fishing boats involved in the incident were safe. Following the collision with the trawl net the Trenchant surfaced and made visual contact with two fishing boats (Heroine and Hercules III). Attempts to make radio contact with these vessels failed but since they appeared to be engaged in normal fishing the crew of HMS Trenchant simply reported the incident and continued with the training. No attempt was made to signal the fishing vessels with lamps. The report highlighted that it was highly unlikely that a fishing vessel would be engaged in normal fishing shortly after a nuclear submarine had collided with its nets. The crew of the Trenchant should have been aware that they had collided with the nets of a third fishing vessel and the two fishing boats they could see were not involved in the incident.
- Following this the command team of HMS Trenchant should not have reported to Faslane that the fishing vessels involved in the incident were safe. This led to an eight hour delay in launching the search operation which may have contributed to the loss of life.
- Although the Antares was a well maintained boat and was suited to the type of fishing it was engaged in a mistake had been made with the storage of the boat’s life raft. This should have been thrown free of the vessel and automatically inflated if the Antares capsized. However, as it was stored in the incorrect place this did not happen and the life raft was taken down with the boat. Analysis of the wreck showed that at least two of the crew managed to get free of the Antares as it sank to the seabed but it cannot be determined whether or not they would have survived if the life raft had operated in the correct manner.
- The crews of Hercules III and Heroine did not keep a listening watch on the radios of their vessels. Although there was no requirement to do this it is recommended as good practice, and their failure to do this meant that they could not be contacted by Trenchant when the submarine surfaced. The official investigation stated this may have been a contributory factor to the loss of life.
The official report into the loss of the Antares made a number of recommendations which were aimed at preventing an incident such as this from happening again. They stated that dived submarines should remain at least 3000 yards from fishing vessels whenever possible. The scheme which informed fishermen of the areas where submarines were training was expanded and it was also recommended that submarines travelling through an area where fishing vessels were active should do so on the surface wherever possible. The Royal Navy was also strongly urged to review its guidance to submarine commanders on avoiding fishing vessels and a review of all current charts and maps which showed current submarine training areas was ordered.
These recommendations had a significant impact on the British Government and Royal Navy’s procedures for submariner training and operations. Plans were put forward to have ‘pingers ’ fitted to the nets of trawlers so that a signal would be emitted which could be easily picked up by submarines and underwater collisions avoided. However, after an unsuccessful trial period in the early 1990s this idea was discontinued. Instead a new document was published in 1997 entitled “The Code of Practice for the Conduct of Submarine Operations in the Vicinity of Fishing Vessels.” This was a collaboration between the Royal Navy and the Marine Safety Agency and formalised the new procedures which would prevent a repeat of the Antares situation. The code applied to all Royal Navy submarine activity within UK territorial waters and included the following:
- All submarines should keep a distance of 1500 yards from fishing vessels when at periscope depth and 4000 yards when deeper.
- Designated Submarine Exercise Areas were set so that fishing vessels could clearly distinguish if they were operating in an area where submarine training or operations were taking place.
- A system of SUBFACTS broadcasts was established. This provides a source of broadcasts to fishing vessels informing them that submarines were active in the area.
- A designated Fishing Vessel Safety Ship (FVSS) should be used when submarines are on exercises. The role of this ship is to provide information to the submarine to help avoid fishing vessels and also make fishing vessels aware that submarine activity was taking place in the area. Any fishing vessels coming within 6000 yards of the FVSS must inform the FVSS of its presence.
- Foreign submarines operating in British waters must also be fully briefed of the code and operate in keeping with the code.
The new code has been effective at preventing the collisions between trawlers and submerged Royal navy submarines.
Summer Morn: The loss of the Antares was not the only incident of fishing vessels snagging their nets on nuclear submarines. A few years earlier in 1990 a Northern Irish fishing boat Summer Morn was dragged backwards for ten nautical miles when fishing in the Irish Sea. When the crew of the boat were eventually able to break their nets free and they found that a section of sonar or radar equipment from the submarine had become entangled with the cables which were reeled back onto the boat. Despite the piece of equipment being stamped with the words ‘NAVAL ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS COMMAND. Mfd by Spears Associates Inc., Norwood, Mass’ the US Navy initially denied that any of their submarines were operating in the area, although they did later admit that “the indications are that it was one of ours.“
Bugaled Breizh: In January 2004 the French trawler Bugaled Breizh was fishing fourteen miles off the coast of Cornwall when it sank with the loss of all five crew members on board. The vessel had been fishing in good weather and although the crew did send a brief radio message that they were sinking they did not have time to launch any of the life rafts or attempt any other form of escape. While there were theories were that it had hit a sandbank or collided with a surface vessel analysis of the wreck ruled these out and the official inquiry into the sinking of the vessel stated that a submarine colliding with the nets of the trawler was the most likely cause of the loss of the vessel.
This theory was strengthened when it emerged that a NATO exercise was taking place in the area at the time the Bugaled Breizh sank, with Dutch, British and German submarines all active, as well as rumours that additional submarines from a unknown country (most likely Russia) were also observing the exercise. However, the loss of the Bugaled Breizh is still officially classed as unexplained, and no nation has accepted that one of its submarines may have been responsible for the loss of the vessel. This has meant that the families of the crew have been unable to hold anyone to account or claim any compensation for the incident, and, as of 2015 there is still an ongoing legal campaign to uncover the truth about the sinking of the Bugaled Breizh.
Aquarius: In March 2015 a Scottish trawler was involved in an incident which was thought to be caused by a submarine. The Aquarius was fishing off the Outer Hebrides with two nets when one of them became swept around in front of the vessel. The fishing boat had to increase its revs to avoid running over its own net which would have caused its propeller to become tangled up. Angus Macleod, the captain of the Aquarius, stated that he has convinced that only a collision with his vessels nets and a submarine could have caused the incident. While the UK government said that no British or NATO submarines were active in the area there had been a number of Russian submarines operating in Scottish waters, due to increased tensions with Russia and the West over the Russian annexation of the Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. Angus Macleod said that the incident had cost him both his catch and fishing time, and also caused damage to the steering mechanisms and rudder of the Aquarius which would cost around £10,000 to repair.
Karen: In April 2015 the Northern Irish trawler the Karen was fishing eighteen miles off the coast of County Down when it was suddenly pulled backwards at a speed of around 10 knots (11.5 mph). The crew had to rapidly scramble to cut the steel wires connecting the 60-ft trawler to the submerged nets in order to free the vessel. In an interview with the BBC the skipper Paul Murphy said that the incident had caused £10,000 worth of damage to his vessel and caused him the loss of two tons of catch. He also added that his crew were lucky to escape unharmed. Again it was believed that a Russian submarine was responsible, as the Royal Navy stated that one of their submarines would have surfaced to check on the welfare of the trawler crew if they collided with a trawler’s submerged nets. The continuing tension over the Russia/Ukraine crisis could again explain the prescence of Russian submarines in British waters: Exercise Joint Warrior – a major NATO operation – was taking place in Scottish waters, and the Russian submarine may have been heading to spy on this exercise.
Update: In September 2015 the Ministry of Defence admitted that it had indeed been a British submarine which caught the nets of the Karen. Armed Aorces Minister Penny Mordaunt said that the incident occurred because “…the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel with nets in the water, and thus did not give her the berth she would otherwise have had.” The UK government and the ministry of defence were heavily criticised for the incident and for waiting for five months before admitting that a Royal Navy submarine was involved.
After the recovery of the wreck of the Antares the vessel was restored and was displayed at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, North Ayrshire. However, the vessel was removed and scrapped in Troon in 2008 as the cost of maintaining the vessel had become prohibitive. HMS Trenchant is still currently in active service with the Royal Navy and is set to serve until 2019 when she will be replaced by a new Astute-class submarine.
It is believed that since 1970 there have been at least twenty cases of submarines snagging the nets of trawlers with as many as 150 fishermen losing their lives in these incidents.