IT was one of the worst storms of the twentieth century. The gigantic waves were crashing over the bows of luckless vessels caught in the maelstrom of the Irish Sea.

They caused the worst peacetime maritime disaster in British coastal waters.

Now, survivors and relatives of those who perished are set to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster that led to the loss of 136 lives.

The MV Princess Victoria, a pioneer ro-ro ferry, foundered off Belfast Lough after its car deck became flooded on its way from Stranraer to Larne. All women and children on board were lost. By the evening of Saturday, January 31, 1953, only 44 people were left alive of the 180 who had set out.

On the fatal morning, James Ferguson, the captain, heard that the weather forecast was for north-westerly gales which were expected to moderate to strong winds later. He gave the go-ahead for the vessel to sail at 7.45am.

Soon after leaving, it became clear that the forecast was wrong. The Princess Victoria's stern load doors were burst open by heavy seas. Unable to turn back because of the weather, she limped on towards Ireland on one engine.

The first emergency call was sent out two hours after the ferry set off, to say it was in difficulty, but not in distress. Ships in the Irish Sea and North Atlantic raced to the point from where the mayday was sent, not realising that the ferry was still under way.

At 1.08pm, an order was given to abandon ship. Tragically, the last message sent from the Princess Victoria gave an inaccurate position and, when the Portpatrick and Donaghadee lifeboats arrived, they could see no sign of her.

Captain Ferguson was still on the bridge, giving instructions, as the waves closed over him when he gave the final order to abandon ship just before 2pm. The Donaghadee lifeboat, the Sir Samuel Kelly, would later haul 30 survivors on board.

One of those, Albert Dickie, 75, broke down in tears yesterday as he recalled the traumatic experience at his home in Kilmarnock.

''The boat should never have sailed,'' he said. ''It is very, very sad. I lost two friends. Many others died unnecessarily. I still have a very, very sore heart.''

Mr Dickie, the youngest child of a family of 16, was aged 26. He was going home on 14 days' leave to Aghadowey, in Northern Ireland, after serving in Germany with the Army as a lance-corporal with the Royal Corps of Signals.

He had made the journey many times before. He boarded the Princess Victoria at midnight in Stranraer on the eve of the fateful journey, which he recalls as being tossed about like a bouncing cork in water, making him sicker than he had ever been in his life.

''The journey was a nightmare,'' he said. ''People were hanging on to whatever they could as the boat was buffeted by huge waves.

''It was terrible. There was a lot of screaming and shouting. I remember the captain was shouting to abandon ship. I remember jumping off the side of the ship and into the water. I was pulled into a lifeboat soon after that.''

Albert Dickie learned the next morning of the magnitude of the tragedy while lying in bed in Newtonards Hospital.

When he returned to his regiment, he was billed for the Army kit which he lost when the vessel sank. He said he spent the rest of his service in debt paying for the lost equipment.

Mr Dickie, who returned to Scotland where he married and became an ambulance driver, hopes to attend two ecumenical services being held in Larne and Stranraer on January 31 where commemorative plaques detailing the names of those known to have perished will be unveiled.

The services are being organised by Dumfries and Galloway Council and Larne Borough Council. The two authorities have offered an open invitation for survivors or relatives, or anyone in any way involved in the disaster, to attend.

Mr Dickie said: ''I am going to try to attend both services. I want to pay tribute to my two friends and all the others who died.''

Stephen Cameron, author of Death in the North Channel, which tells the story of each of the crew and passengers on board the stricken vessel, said: ''Every year since the tragedy, there has been a very low-key commemorative service at a memorial in Larne.

''It is now 50 years on and there are only a handful of survivors left. It is fitting now that those who died are fully remembered.''

John Pickin, curator at Stranraer museum, said yesterday: ''Although the tragedy happened half a century ago, the event is still very fresh and emotive in the minds of the communities in Stranraer and Larne. The anniversary is a chance to bring people together and, in some ways, to draw a line under the event.''