The Torrey Canyon

The wreck of the Torrey Canyon holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. I was living in the area of the disaster when it happened, saw the ship aground and witnessed the enormous environmental damage caused by the resulting heavy oil spill. The suffering and death of so much wildlife, especially the seabirds, was painful to see. Later, like so many other people in the west of England, I became involved in the massive clean-up operation. Being a diver I saw the underwater devastation the wreck caused. As time went by I was also privileged to witness the sea cure itself, eventually returning to its bountiful, pristine best.

It was an avoidable disaster, yet also inevitable. It was caused not by any one particular mistake, but by a series of small errors of omission that compounded upon one another. Like many other tragedies before and since, it might never have happened if safety had been the main concern of those in charge, and not profit.

The Torrey Canyon started life as a modest-sized oil tanker, 250 metres long and capable of carrying 67,000 tonnes of crude oil. In 1960 she was taken into the Japanese shipyard of Sasebo Heavy Industries and jumboed, that is, she was cut in half and a huge new section was added to her mid-ships. This almost doubled her oil-carrying capacity and increased her length by 50 metres. At the time of her loss she was owned by an American company and registered in Liberia. She was on charter to Union Oil, but on hire to British Petroleum (BP) for a single voyage from the Persian Gulf to Milford Haven in Wales. All the crew members were Italian and the skipper, Captain Rugiati, had 20 years’ experience in command of tankers.

On the night of 17 March 1967 the Torrey Canyon was off the Spanish coast heading north towards the western approach to Britain with the intention of passing the Isles of Scilly to starboard. Some 50 kilometres west of Land’s End, these islands have for centuries been a dangerous trap for ships approaching the English Channel. The safest route when passing on a northerly course is to stay out in the Atlantic to avoid the dangerous currents and rocks. This was the intention of Captain Rugiati, but at 6:45 am on 18 March the officer of the watch called his cabin to inform him that the Isles of Scilly appeared on the radar off the port bow. The Torrey Canyon had strayed too far to the east and would need to make a serious course change. The captain asked the officer if, on their present course, they would be able to pass the Isles to the east. The officer thought they could, so the captain gave the order to carry on at full speed. He did not leave his cabin or go up to the bridge to check on this dangerous situation.

There were two options for clearing the Isles of Scilly safely. The first was to turn the ship westwards, out into the Atlantic. The only other permissible route for a tanker of that size was to turn east, then north, and pass through the gap between Land’s End and an extremely dangerous group of rocks called the Seven Stones Reef. Within that gap was a well-defined 20-kilometre-wide deepwater channel. Having a number of pressing considerations on his mind, Captain Rugiati took neither of these options.

He had previously received a radio message from BP informing him that if he failed to catch the high tide at Milford Haven at 11 pm that day he would be unable to enter the harbour because of the ship’s huge draught. He would then have to wait to discharge his oil for another five days. The captain also knew that he would need time to redistribute some of the ship’s load. Tankers of the size of the Torrey Canyon tend to sag in the middle when they are fully loaded and Rugiati knew that several thousand tonnes of oil would need to be transferred from the mid-ships tanks to the fore and aft tanks to take the bulge out of the bottom before he could get into the harbour, even at high tide. This process had to be conducted while the ship was stable and would take a minimum of five hours. The sea was calm enough for it to be done while in transit to Milford. However the captain, for reasons of his own, insisted they must arrive outside Milford at 6 pm, transfer the oil, and then enter the harbour at 11 pm.

Rugiati calculated that, travelling at their best speed of 16 knots (30 kilometres an hour), they could cover the remaining 280 kilometres in time only if they did not alter course. He therefore decided to pass to the east of the Isles of Scilly and to the west of the Seven Stones Reef, which at that time, nearly high tide, was mostly covered by water. This was not a wise decision. The Torrey Canyon was so large and difficult to manoeuvre that she took a long time to turn and needed over 10 kilometres to stop. We can only assume that the captain based his decision on the desire to save the oil company money. Certainly, it had nothing to do with safety.

At just after 8 am the captain appeared on the bridge and realised that their course was too close to the Seven Stones Reef. The ship was in automatic pilot, which meant that a course change of only three degrees could be achieved, and as they really needed to turn radically to port, Rugiati should have ordered the steering to be turned over to manual. For reasons that remain unexplained he merely changed the autopilot heading by three degrees and then again by a further two degrees, after which the ship was still heading in a more northerly direction than desired.

The ship then met a number of fishing vessels with nets out, which prevented a further turn to port. The officer of the watch took some fixes with the compass that gave their position as much further south than they were. This was the final mistake that made them think they had more time and more sea room than they actually did have. They were not aware that during the night there had been a strong northerly set to the tide, which had carried them much further north than they realised. Captain Rugiati was now a very worried man. He switched the steering from automatic to manual and himself put the ship on a course of due north. However, because he was so preoccupied with getting to Milford on time he did not do the one thing that may have saved the day — slow down, stop or even go astern.

Sea captains and sailors the world over know by heart a little rhyme that has saved many of them in times of danger:

Both in safety and in doubt,
Always keep a good look-out.
In danger with no room to turn,
Ease her, stop her, go astern.

With his mind on the expense the company would incur if he was late, Captain Rugiati did none of these things. The ship ploughed on due north, straight for the shark-tooth rocks of the reef. By the time warning rockets were fired from the Seven Stones Light Ship it was too late. ‘Hard to port!’ the captain shouted to the helmsman, but the Torrey Canyon did not respond to the helm. The captain then remembered that he had switched the steering back to automatic. They hastily disengaged autopilot and swung the wheel but the ship struck one of the Seven Stones, the Pollard Rock, and came to a dead stop, impaled on the reef.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 7.44.52 PM
The Torrey Canyon aground on the Seven Stones Reef. Image from Helston History.

Within a very short time there was a lifeboat, an ocean-going tug, a helicopter and a destroyer in attendance to the ship which was doomed the moment she hit the reef. The tug Utrecht attempted to pull her off astern, but had no success. The cargo of crude oil formed a massive slick, which headed for the coast of Cornwall.

At the subsequent court of enquiry Captain Rugiati was asked why he had chosen such a dangerous route, rather than one in accordance with the British Admiralty Channel Pilot, the official book of instructions for captains sailing in those waters. Rugiati made no reply, but was later forced to admit there was no copy of that essential book on board the Torrey Canyon. The conclusion was inevitable. The captain was found guilty of serious negligence, his licence was revoked and he never went to sea again.

The accident, if we can call it that, occurred at the very beginning of Easter weekend and government departments were consequently hard to contact. It was not until Monday that the government realised what an enormous environmental disaster was occurring. By Tuesday a number of futile attempts had been made to tow the ship off the rocks, but all that was achieved was the release of thousands more tonnes of oil from the shattered wreck. Crude oil is a very thick, viscous substance. It is hard to ignite, but it does give off a very volatile gas. On Wednesday, around noon, there was a massive explosion in the engine room. It blew off the skylight, injured a number of men and blew two men right over the side into the sea. The men were rescued but one, Captain Stal, a salvage expert, died of his injuries before he could be airlifted to hospital. He was the only human fatality. During the following week further attempts were made to free the Torrey Canyon, but it became apparent that the Pollard Rock was sticking up inside the ship. No amount of pulling would move her. On the following Sunday she broke her back and started going to pieces, releasing the remaining oil.

The British Government, who until that moment had talked a great deal about ‘having the situation in hand’, but who had actually done nothing, now panicked. They ordered the Navy and the RAF to bomb and napalm the wreck in the vain hope of burning off the oil. It did not work. Although the air-boys thoroughly enjoyed themselves rocketing the wreck, even the napalm could not keep it alight. It flowed towards the holiday beaches of the British coast and spread relentlessly west, polluting the shoreline of north and south Cornwall for some 300 kilometres.

More than 2,000 British troops and at least as many civilians were involved in the clean-up operation, spraying the oil with detergent and shovelling it up for disposal. It was a long, arduous battle, won eventually by sheer determination and hard slog. Meanwhile, a north wind pushed some of the oil offshore, across the Channel and on to the coast of Brittany, France. The French also sprayed detergent on the oil and after months of hard work managed to clear it up before the start of their holiday season.

After the clean-up, the beaches of west Cornwall were said to be less polluted than they had ever been. This was probably true, although it was at a terrific cost to wildlife. In spite of a massive rescue operation by the RSPCA it was estimated that some 25,000 birds perished, many of them from the effects of the detergent, not the oil. Underwater, the scene was equally heartbreaking with dead fish, dead shellfish and even dead seaweed making the seascape barren.

One interesting feature of the disaster that has remained in my mind is how quickly the sea overcame the pollution and returned to normal. Only a year later, I was diving in an area that had been badly contaminated but was swiftly regenerating. All of a sudden I saw a ball, almost as big as a football, rolling along the sea bottom in the current. I swam down to see what it was and was amused to find it was a huge ball of tar, the remains of the oil, completely covered in pebbles. It was the last visible evidence of the Torrey Canyon spill, and I was intrigued. A strange thought crossed my mind as I watched the ball roll slowly into the distance. How great, I thought, that the sea had captured the tar, sealed it in pebbles and was having a bit of fun rolling it along the bottom. What a great way for nature to overcome man’s recklessness and disregard for the environment in his selfish race for profit at any cost. It’s funny how your mind works under the sea.

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