Torrey canyon oil spill disaster research paper sample

List of Figures

Figure 1 Torrey canyon supertanker and surrounded with oil spills6
Figure 2 A-Geographical location of the disaster. B-Route at the time of accident9
Figure 3Torrey Canyon and Air strike: World’s first ever environmental disaster11
Figure 4 : The Renown Torrey quarry11
Figure 5: Dead bird in Torrey Canyon query12
Figure 6Plumes emitting from burning Torrey Canyon13


On 18th March 1967, the ship Torrey Canyon, carrying a load of 120000 tons of crude oil dashed against Pollard’s Rock of the reef of Seven Stones near Cornwall, England. The resultant oil spill contaminated beaches, caused the loss of marine lives, and polluted the environment. In this treatise, an effort has been made to explain factors, and steps are leading to the disaster. Detailed account of the stages of the disaster has been delineated, and dwelt at length on causes leading to the disaster. Several factors including engineering as well as human combined to accentuate the incident. The design and location of the lever were not conducive as well as the mode of navigation could not conveniently be altered. On the last moment of its journey, the ship was cruising on autopilot mode that did not permit maneuvering more than 20 degrees. The captain was also not well equipped to handle the situation as he had been provided with a chart that did not contain detailed information. The inexperience of junior officers, inadequate sleep of the captain, and panic created contributed to the incidence of disaster. The fall out of that disaster has been extensive and devastating. The aftermath, the investigations, and changes in marine regulations find mention in this treatise.
– Introduction
This treatise aims at providing an overview of the oil spill from the LR2 Suezmax Class oil tanker SS Torrey Canyon which shipwrecked in March 1967 with crude oil to the tune of 120000 tons at the western coast of Cornwall in England. It has been termed as the greatest environmental disaster by that time that caused gigantic loss of marine lives beside the environmental pollution due to the oil spill of around 32 million gallons. Hundreds of miles of coastline of several countries were affected by the oil spill. Besides anomalies in designing of the tanker, errors of human judgment on the spur of the moment caused the disaster. It was a gigantic task to manage things after the incident, and the tanker had to be bombarded by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Naval Force to sink it to the bottom of the ocean to prevent further spilling of oil.
2. Background
The tanker Torrey Canyon set sail with a cargo of crude oil from the shores of Kuwait on 19th February1967 for Milford Haven situated in West Wales as its destination. It shipwrecked on Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones Reef situated in the middle of the Isles of Scilly and the Cornish mainland on 18th March 1967. At the time of its commissioning in 1959 in the United States, the tanker was designed with a capacity of 60000 tons, which was enhanced to 120000 in Japan later. At the time of disaster, the ship was registered in Liberia under the ownership of Barracuda Tanker Corporation, a subsidiary of California’s Union Oil Company. However, it was chartered to British Petroleum, and measured 974. 4 feet long, 68. 7 feet draught, and 125. 4 feet beam (” Torrey canyon oil,” 2014).
Figure 1 Torrey canyon supertanker and surrounded with oil spills
The ship cruised at a speed of 17 nautical miles per hour, and took around five miles to stop from this speed. The ship had a single propeller and engine, and needed around one minute to turn by twenty degrees. All these implied that it was practically not maneuverable especially in harbors and coastal waters. Hence, it was imperative for those in charge of its operation to plan well ahead, and see to it that no sudden developments derail their plan.
There had been three modes with which the ship could have been piloted, and these were auto, manual, and disconnect. In auto mode, the autopilot is in charge, and best suited for open sea operations, while, under manual, a person is at the helm of affairs and maneuvers things manually. Under the third mode, disconnect, one can steer the ship from somewhere else within the ship. Even when the ship is in auto mode, one can change its course by +/- 3 degrees.
The Atlantic Ocean bound ship set sail with full capacity of cargo of crude oil from Kuwait on 19th February 1967 reached Canary Isles on 14th March, and had to reach the destination Milford Haven by 18th March 1967. Keeping in view the magnitude and size of the ship, the captain and the Italian crew had to utilize high tides at 11 pm failing which they had to wait for 6 more days, but they were expected to be at the entrance by around 6 pm on 18th March. Hence, they started by using the technique of classical navigation with no GPS satellites in the sky, in auto mode. Their target was to reach Isles of Scilly as their first landfall which was the standard practice in navigation. The only constraint was availability of only one chart of the Land’s End and Isles of Scilly and even that chart did not contain detailed information for close navigation. However, the captain of the ship had the experience of sailing through these waters for 18 times previously, and possessed some acumen to interpret the chart.
2. 1 The Disaster
On 18th March 1967, the fateful day, the captain woke up at around 6. 30 am after a sleep of only 3 hours to find Isles of Scilly on the radar in the left side rather than on the right as intended. The captain instructed to go ahead on that very course, and it was a momentous decision. He decided to pass the ship through the gap between Isles of Scilly and Land’s End due to the time crunch. Had he decided to go through left of Isles of Scilly he had to traverse 40 miles more which would have taken two hours and the ship could have reached Milford Haven late.
At around 8. 15 am, a junior officer was in charge of navigation, and the ship was on autopilot heading towards Seven Stones reef only 30 minutes away. These seas have reefs around Land’s End and Isles of Scilly, are highly dangerous. The two most dangerous reefs are Seven Stones and Wolf Rock, and while the former has a shiplight, the latter has a light house to warn ships. The captain intended to sail through the channel between the Seven Stones and Isles of Scilly as this channel being seven miles wide was considered safe even for a ship of the magnitude of Torrey Canyon. The tides at the moment running from left to right, the reef got submerged into water and was not visible. The ‘ bearing & distance’ method employed to plot position on the chart went awry due to miscalculations with respect to chart and radar signals. Also, the presence of fishing ships complicated the maneuvering as the captain in trying to avoid the fishing nets moved the ship towards right of the channel inadvertently close to the reef. The mistake was discovered at around 8. 40 am, and hectic actions were initiated to diffuse the situation and save the ship from wrecking, but to no avail. The ship that was sailing at a speed of 17 knots could not be stopped. In a panic, the ship cruising on auto mode could not be switched on to manual mode immediately, and the ship was erroneously late, and the Torrey Canyon hit Pollard’s Rock of the Seven Stones reef system to rip open six tanks. The entire oil spilled into the ocean for a few weeks and spread to the shores of South England, and coasts of France near Normandy.
2. 2 Causes of Disaster
Disasters of such extensity and magnitude take place due to the combined effect of some factors that may include mechanical and environmental engineering inadequacies and failures as well human inability to handle the situation properly.
2. 2. 1Mechanical Problems
First, design of the ship created problems with its maneuvering. If the ship could have been properly maneuvered, the disaster might have been averted as the last ditch unsuccessful efforts were made to maneuver the ship to wean it away from the reef of Seven Stones. Secondly, the auto mode of navigation though functioned properly, its design and location of the lever was not conducive to easy maneuvering. These led to the selection of wrong control mode as happened in the present incident. Had the control mode been switched to manual mode from the auto one at once and immediately in the first effort, the tanker might have been saved. Thirdly, operational issue also came in to adversely affect the journey of the ship. It was not until the ship reached Canary Islands that the captain was told about the final destination which created pressure of time management on the captain. Also, the ship was not well equipped with all necessary information and charts containing detailed outlines before it left the Kuwaiti shore.
Figure 2 A-Geographical location of the disaster, B-Route at the time of accident
2. 2. 2 Human Inability
Another operational issue relates to the tiredness of the captain due to inadequate sleep the previous night and resultant panic reactions. The pressure of time management also took its toll on the mind of the captain who decided to pass the ship through the gap between the Isles of Scilly and Seven Stones reef to be on time at the destination. Hence, the contribution of human errors is no less important in this sordid episode (“ The Torry Canyon’s last voyage”).
3. Immediate Fallout
On the 28th of March 1967, fire brigades from Cornwall and vessels of the Royal Navy used huge amount of detergent in a desperate attempt to disperse the oil. Meanwhile, the ship started breaking up, and the then Prime Minister of the U. K. Harold Wilson decided to set the remaining oil to fire to minimize the effects of the oil disaster. In compliance, planes named Blackburn Buccaneer of RNAS Lossiemouth was sent by the Fleet Air Arm to bombard the ship with forty-two 1000-lb bombs to set it on fire. Also, Hawker Hunter jets from the fleet of RAF Chivenor were employed to drop aviation fuel packed to blaze the oil. However, high-rise tides put out the fire, and heightened efforts were made and liquefied petroleum jelly was used to reignite the oil. Vigorous attempts were made to restrain the spread of oil by the use of foam booms, but these efforts led to limited success. The bombing of the ship went on incessantly to the next day when the ship Torrey Canyon was buried to its watery grave. The wreckage of the ill-fated ship now lies 30 meters deep in the sea.
Figure 3Torrey Canyon and Air strike: World’s first ever environmental disaster
A part of the oil salvaged from the ship had been dumped in a large deep pit called a quarry in the Channel Islands, and it still lies there. Nevertheless, efforts are on to make the island free from oil spills, but these have met with limited success.
Figure 4 : The Renown Torrey quarry
3. 1 The Impact and Environmental Issue
The impact of the shipwreck and oil spill has been extensive and far reaching. The oil spill contaminated around 120 miles of Cornish and 50 miles of French coast. As per an estimate, numerous marine organisms and more than 1500 sea birds died. The oil spill made around 270 square miles of the coastal area glossy. The toxic detergents were used on a large scale to break up glossiness, and it caused extensive damage to marine life. These detergents were solvent emulsifier that was used to clean, glossy parts of vessels, engines, and other highly oily surfaces. These chemicals amounting to 10000 tons were sprayed by around 42 vessels on the oils floated on seawater and accumulated on beaches.
Figure 6: Plumes emitting from burning Torrey Canyon
The British Government came in for sharp criticism for its mishandling of the situation arising out of the shipping disaster which was the biggest and costliest by that time. The efficiency of RAF and the Royal Navy was also questioned due to missing the target by 25% of the 42 bombs dropped on the ship. The French and the British Governments staked their claims for damages against the owner of the ship, and the settlement packages awarded were the highest in the history of marine oil claim. The disaster also had some cultural impacts. A satirical song by the famous Serge Gainsbourg had this disaster as its subject. A little known botanist named David Bellamy gained prominence as he was appointed as a consultant about the environment developing after the disaster. He rose to become a prominent environmentalist and campaigner for nature of the country.
3. 2 Changes in Regulations
Several international regulations were changed as an aftermath of this disaster, and that included International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage of 1969 which made ship owners liable for such incidents without any requirement to prove negligence. The other regulation in which glaring changes took place was the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships in 1973. It also led to the development of newer ways to save human lives by enhanced security and safety in sea voyages(” Torrey canyon oil,” 2014). This incident in 1967 has been termed as Britain’s worst ever oil spill and was tackled utterly inaptly. The environmental fallouts have been disastrous as marine creatures are still adversely affected in the region of this disaster. Even birds were affected by the air polluted by the oil spill.
According to Barkham, 2010,” It was first of those ecological disasters. Nobody knew what to expect. All that sunk in was that the boat was stuck on the rocks. The implications were slow to filter through.” Jayne Le Crass associated with Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as its operational director commenting on oil spill said.” It stinks. It honks. Everyone’s is known about it, but no one has wanted to do anything about it.” He further added,” Because of its thickness and stillness birds see it as a solid surface; they land on it, and consequently the weight of the oil holds them down. I would hate to know how many are underneath it” (Barkham, 2010).
The effects of pollution were also prominent in the littoral zone. Main changes perceived in the balance of ecosystems relate to annihilation of grazing organisms at sites where detergents had been used extensively. The effect had been all the more glaring in littoral ecosystems. Long term effects due to detergents or oil spill on algae were absent. In the present times, it has been left to the decision of individual country affected by the oil spill to take up cleansing work keeping in view the cost factor. Efforts have been on to mitigate the fallouts of the disaster, and to forestall such incidents in the future (Law, 2011).
3. 3 Investigation & Findings
The ship, Torrey Canyon, was registered in Liberia where an enquiry was constituted to find out the culprit of this disaster. The entire circumstances were taken into account to adjudge the captain Pastrengo Rugiati responsible for the disaster as it was he who decided to take the shortcut route to reach Milford Haven. Had he decided to pass around the Isles of Scilly, he would not have reached the destination on time, and hence, he took the momentous decision to pass the ship between the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End. The passage had the infamous Seven Stones reef which the captain could not pass safely by maneuvering the ship properly due to various technical reasons and human errors. The operational wrongs such as late information about the final destination, warning for late arrival at the destination, inadequate details in the chart, and the likes were ignored. The captain being at the helm of affairs failed to apply his mind firmly on the spur of the moment, and hence, he was held responsible for the incident (Law, 2011; ” Torrey canyon oil,” 2014).
4. Conclusion
Torrey Canyon, the ship carrying 120000 tons of crude oil from Kuwait to Milford Haven, England, dashed against Pollard’s Rock of Seven Stones in the Isles of Scilly spilling the load of oil in the sea. The tanker set sail on19th February, 1967 which eventually proved to be its last voyage shipwrecked on 18th March 1967, and subsequently met its watery grave on 29th of March 1967. Several factors technical as well as human combined to accentuate the incident. The design of the ship made it maneuverable by only 20 degrees, and it took at least five kilometers to stop. The design and location of the lever were not conducive to easy maneuvering. Also, the mode of navigation could not conveniently be altered. On the last moment of its journey, the ship was cruising on autopilot mode that did not permit maneuvering more than 20 degrees. The ship had to be put on manual mode for navigation to facilitate maneuvering more than 20 degrees to save the ship from dashing against the Pollard’s Rock. Delayed information about the final destination forestalled planning beforehand. The time crunch in reaching the destination also contributed to the disaster. The captain was also not well equipped to handle the situation as he had been provided with a chart that did not contain detailed information. The inexperience of junior officers, inadequate sleep of the captain, and panic created contributed to the incidence of disaster. The fall out of that disaster has been extensive and devastating. Besides huge loss of marine lives, it led to high level of environmental pollution. The investigation into the incident held the captain responsible as he was a man who decided to pass the ship between the Isles of Scilly and the Land’s End. The disaster led to changes in several international marine regulations. This largest oil spill disaster of England till date has ramifications even now.


Barkham, P. (2010, June 24). Oil spills: Legacy of the torrey canyon. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www. theguardian. com/environment/2010/jun/24/torrey-canyon-oil-spill-deepwater-bp
Law, R. J. (2011). The Torrey Canyon Oil Spill. Oil Spill Science and Technology, 1103-1105.
The Torry Canyon’s is last voyage. (n. d.). Loughborough University. Retrieved from http://web. archive. org/web/20090705050805/http://www. lboro. ac. uk/departments/hu/prospect-/er/ergsinhu/aboutergs/lasttrip. html
Torrey canyon oil spill (2014). [Online]. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Torrey_Canyon_oil_spill