Coastal Catastrophe and a Steep Learning Curve – The 50th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Torrey Canyon

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” were not written to tell an exciting tale but occasionally their immediacy allows a story to unfold, minute by minute, in great detail. This one had me on the edge of my seat!

The 18th March 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of a shipping disaster which had a long term environmental impact on the British and French coasts. Over 100,000 tons of crude oil seeped into the Atlantic affecting the coastline of Cornwall, Brittany and the Channel Islands. The details still shock today and the incident impacted coast and wildlife for decades.

The “Torrey Canyon” ran aground on Pollard’s Rock, between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles on the 18th March 1967. She was an early super tanker and owned by the Barracuda Tanker Corporation (chartered to BP at the time of the incident).

As you can see on this “Lloyd’s Voyage Record Card” she left Kuwait (Mina Al-Ahmadi) on 18th February 1967. She ran aground a month later following a navigation error.

The “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” for 1967 take up the story…

The first reports appeared on the day of the incident, stating that the Liberian tanker “Torrey Canyon” had run aground near Seven Stones and that her position was extremely dangerous. There were thirty six Italian crew on board. In gale force winds two Dutch, two French and two British vessels were on their way to assist, the St Mary’s lifeboat had been launched (report above), the Penlee lifeboat was standing by and a request had been made for helicopter assistance. Eyewitness accounts confirmed that oil was pouring out of the vessel and desperate attempts were made to re-float her until the salvage operation had to be called off for the night.

The next day, fourteen of the crew were taken off the vessel and an ominous report from St Just stated “St Mary’s lifeboat reports that steam tanker Torrey Canyon does not look too good”. By mid-morning it was estimated that 20,000 tons of her oil cargo had been lost.
Attempts were made by tugs to pull her free of the rocks and the Royal Navy began to tackle the oil spill with detergent. Sadly this not only failed to stop the slick reaching the shore but the detergent was toxic, thus adding to the environmental impact of the incident.

The weather deteriorated and the St Mary’s lifeboat rescued a further nine of the crew who were in danger. The “Torrey Canyon’s” Master and some crew stayed aboard in spite of hazardous conditions, accompanied by two radio operators from the Dutch tug “Utrecht” which had been one of the first on the scene.

By March 20th the helicopter pilots reported that the main bulk of the oil now extended some 22 miles south of the Scilly Isles. The sea area covered was reported to be 100 square miles. More dispersant was used, and an expenditure of £500,000 was authorised by government for the incident. Questions were already being asked about who would pay for the enormous cost of tackling the oil spill and its aftermath.

On the 24th came the bad news that “a change of wind has heightened the danger of west country beaches being polluted by oil from the tanker”. Desperate attempts were made to save them but the oil reached Cornwall’s beaches on the 25th and by the next day the situation was disastrous…”Up to yesterday, oil-fouled beaches stretched from St Ives to Lizard Point, but heavy winds and sea swell have now spread deposits from the wreck twice as far up the north Cornish coast…a naval spokesman at Plymouth reported oil offshore for about nine miles from St Ives to Portreath and a further eight miles from there to Perranporth.” (April 4th report). Oil had also contaminated Lizard Point to Mount’s Bay.

On the 26th came the unwelcome news of the vessel’s fracture and more reports of oil reaching the coast at Sennen Cove and Cape Cornwall. One can only imagine the increasing dread of people living and working on the Cornish coast.

Two days later a new way of tackling the problem was tried:

“London, Mar.28.
Planes from the Royal Naval Air Station at Lossiemouth will attempt to destroy steam tanker Torrey Canyon with bombs this afternoon.”

The aftermath was also reported in The “Casualty Reports”

“Coastguards at Sennen said that the tanker was a mass of flames, with dense black smoke rising to 2,000 ft.” (March 28th reported in April 4th issue)

By the 29th March the oil slicks covered “an area from 15 miles east of the Lizard to 40 miles west-north-west of Guernsey”

The “Casualty Reports” for April 1967 take up the next instalment of the unfolding disaster as the oil had by then reached the coast of Brittany. Reports from St Brieuc describe the French Navy’s “Operation Orsec” which aimed to stop the oil reaching oyster beds worth millions of francs. The French authorities seem to have taken a different approach, using powder containing volcanic ash to make the oil coagulate so that it could be scooped from the surface. They also applied sawdust requisitioned from local mills. It is in these reports that the effect upon wildlife is recorded. The French authorities feared that they would be unable to save the majority of 60,000 birds nesting at a government owned sea bird sanctuary at Sept Iles. The plight of thousands of other sea birds was also highlighted.

Claims were made against the owners of the vessel by the British and French governments which later led to the arrest of the “Torrey Canyon’s” sister ship the “Lake Palourde” at Singapore (reported 15th July see below).

It should be remembered that the agencies involved were facing new challenges and trying to find the best solutions as the crisis unfolded. An inquiry was later held in Liberia (where the vessel was registered) which placed the blame for the incident on the Master of the vessel. Changes in legislation occurred as a result of the disaster e.g. the 1969 “International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage” which placed liability firmly on a ship owner.

If you would like to read the “Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports” to find out more, you are welcome to visit Guildhall Library to view them. We are a public reference library and open to all.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian & Keeper of the Lloyd’s Marine Collection



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