Oil Tanker Disasters

Video highlights from Salvage Code Red

From the Sea Empress disaster to Torrey Canyon, five of the worst oiltanker disasters revealed.

When super-tankers heavily loaded with oil crash, the environmental cost is always high and the global media spotlight bright. We take a look at five of the worst oil tanker disasters to take place close to the British Isles in recent decades

As Salvage Code Red illustrates, emergency marine salvage is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Because of their sheer size and highly toxic cargo, supertankers can be great liabilities at sea. When they are involved in an accident, the environmental cost can be high and the media spotlight bright. We take a look at five of the worst oil tanker disasters that occurred close to the British Isles in recent decades.

The Amoco Cadiz
March, 1978

One of the single worst oil tanker disasters close to the British Isles occurred when super-tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the coast of France in bad weather in March 1978, en route from the Persian Gulf to Le Havre.

The environmental impact was catastrophic.

Attempts to save the ship’s cargo and oil were waylaid when storms caused the Amoco Cadiz to split in two, releasing all the oil on board into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Brittany coast. The isolated location of the ship and the rough sea restricted the cleanup efforts for the first two weeks after the incident. As much as 220,000 tonnes of oil flooded the sea – the entire 1,619,048 barrels on board the ship - creating an oil slick 30 km. wide and 130 kms. long and polluting 320 kms. of coastline in the process. More than 30 ships tried to contain the oil slick, including Royal Navy tugs and a special vessel from Holland equipped with mechanical shovels. Although the clean-up operation did manage to collect as much as 100,000 tonnes of oil and water, less than 20,000 tonnes of oil were recovered from this liquid after treatment in refining plants. The oil slick was responsible for killing or injuring an estimated 300,000 sea birds.

Torrey Canyon

March 1967: The Torrey Canyon supertanker crashes near Land’s End, Cornwall

In March 1967, the Torrey Canyon supertanker struck Pollard’s Rock and spilt 31 million gallons of oil into the Cornish sea. Desperate rescuers, in a bid to minimise the oil slick and the environmental impact, used napalm and petrol to try and burn off the oil on the sea’s surface. The ship’s entire cargo, approximately 860,000 barrels, either ended up in the sea or were burnt off over the next twelve days.

Salvage crews worked hard to save the vessel, but several attempts to float the ship off the rock failed; one member of the Dutch salvage team involved was killed in the process. In the end, to try and stop as much oil as possible from leaking into the ocean, the RAF bombed the vessel so that the ship would sink and the remaining oil would burn. It is believed that as much as 190 miles of Cornish coast and 80 kilometres of the French coast were contaminated by the spill, killing more than 15,000 sea birds and marine animals. A later inquiry into the cause of the crash, held in Liberia, where the ship was registered, pinned the blame on the captain of the ship who had been hoping to take a ‘short cut’ en route to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, West Wales.

January 1993: The Braer runs aground off Shetland, Scotland

Travelling from Norway to Canada in January 1993, the Liberian-registered supertanker Braer encountered hurricane-force winds off the Shetland Islands and ran aground. Though all the crew were evacuated via rescue helicopter, 85,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled. The North Sea is fierce in January and the clean-up operation was severely hampered by a month-long storm that made access to the ship and the site difficult. However, the bad weather did have one positive effect in that it helped to disperse the massive oil slick caused by the incident. However, more than 6,500 sea birds are believed to have been oiled as a result.

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