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Torrey Canyon

Related subjects Air & Sea transport

The Torrey Canyon was the first of the big supertankers capable of carrying a cargo of 120,000 tons of crude oil, and was wrecked off the western coast of Cornwall in 1967 causing an environmental disaster.

The ship

When laid down in the United States in 1959 she had a capacity of 60,000 tons but she was enlarged in Japan to 120,000 tons capacity. At the time of the accident she was owned by Barracuda Tanker Corporation, a subsidiary of Union Oil Company of California but chartered to British Petroleum. She was 974.4 feet (297.0 m) long, 125.4 feet (38.2 m) beam and 68.7 feet (20.9 m) draught.

She left the Kuwait National Petroleum Company refinery at Mina al-Ahmadi, on her final voyage on 19 February 1967 with full cargo of crude oil, reaching the Canary Islands by 14 March. From there her planned route was to Milford Haven.

Accident

On March 18, 1967, owing to a navigational error, the Torrey Canyon struck Pollard's Rock in the Seven Stones reef between the Cornish mainland and the Scilly Isles.

This was the first major oil spill; a fairly adequate outline of how to deal with a coastal oil spill had been issued to local authorities some years previously but had apparently been forgotten, so it was widely reported that no plans had been prepared beforehand to deal with it. The tanker had to be ready to deliver its cargo to anywhere in the world, and so only had small-scale charts; she used LORAN but not the more accurate Decca Navigator. When the risk of collision with a fishing fleet became obvious, there was some confusion between the Master and the helmsman (who was actually the cook and had little experience) as to whether she was in manual or automatic steering mode; by the time this was resolved, it was too late. Unsuccessful attempts were made to float the ship off the reef, and one member of the Dutch salvage team was killed. The ship broke apart after being stranded on the reef for several days and bombed by aircraft. Attempts to use foam booms to contain the oil were also of limited success due to their fragility in high seas.

Impact

Some 50 miles (80 km) of French and 120 miles (190 km) of Cornish coast were contaminated. Around 15,000 sea birds were killed, along with huge numbers of marine organisms, before the 270 square miles (700 km²) slick dispersed. Much damage was caused by the heavy use of so-called detergents to break up the slick - these were first-generation variants of products originally formulated to clean surfaces in ships' engine-rooms, with no concern over the toxicity of their components, and many observers believed that they were officially referred to as 'detergents', rather than the more accurate 'solvent-emulsifiers', to encourage comparison with much more benign domestic cleaning products. Some 42 vessels sprayed over 10,000 tons of these dispersants onto the floating oil and they were also deployed against oil stranded on beaches. In Cornwall, they were often misused - for example, by emptying entire 45-gallon drums over the clifftop to 'treat' inaccessible coves or by pouring a steady stream from a low-hovering helicopter. On the heavily-oiled beach at Sennen Cove, dispersant pouring from drums was 'ploughed' into the sand by bulldozers over a period of several days, burying the oil so effectively that it could still be found a year or more later. It is probable that the general resistance to the proper use of later-generation, much-improved oil-spill dispersants arose as a result of this botched operation.

Claims were made by the British and French Governments against the owners of the vessel and the subsequent settlement was the largest ever in marine history for an oil claim. The British Government was only able to serve its writ against the owners by arresting the Torrey Canyon's sistership, the Lake Palourde, when she put in for minor provisions at Singapore, four months after the oil spill. A young British lawyer, Anthony O'Connor, from Singapore's leading law firm, Drew & Napier, was deputised to arrest the ship on behalf of the British Government by attaching a writ to its mast. O'Connor was able to board the ship and serve the writ as the ship's crew thought he was a whisky salesman. The French Government, alerted to the Lake Palourde's presence, pursued the ship with motor boats, but were unable to board and serve their writ.

The disaster led to many changes in international regulations, for example the Civil Liability Convention (CLC) of 1969, which imposed strict liability on ship owners without the need to prove negligence, and the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

The Torrey Canyon disaster was the subject of a satirical song by Serge Gainsbourg on the album Comic Strip.

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