The Torrey Canyon

The Torrey CANYON shortly after grounding

More than 50 years ago the maritime world and the international press were taken up with the spectacular grounding of a loaded tanker, the Torrey Canyon. What happened made things worse and the pollution was made far worse by the bizarre decision to bomb the ship. The background is that on her final voyage, Torrey Canyon left the Kuwait Company refinery at Mina Al Ahmadi (later Al-Ahmadi), with a full cargo of crude oil, on 19 February 1967. The ship had an intended destination of Milford Haven in Wales. On 14 March, she reached the Canary Islands. Approaching the land ,Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock on the extreme Western end of the Seven Stones between the Cornish mainland and the Isles of Scilly. It was the 18th of March 1967. The later enquiry confirmed that there was some confusion on the bridge over the auto steering. There were fishing vessels around which the big ship was trying to avoid, and finally it was claimed that large scale charts of the Isles of Scilly were not onboard.

The prime minister at the time made a poor decision to bomb the ship in an effort to burn off the oil.

In total some 161 x 1000lb bombs, 11,000 gallons of kerosene, 3,000 gallons of Napalm and 16 missiles had been aimed at the ship. Foam booms did not work due to the sea conditions prevailing. About 50 miles of French Coast, and 120 miles of Cornish Coast were contaminated. 15,000 sea birds died along with many other marine species before the oil finally sank and dispersed. Damage by the detergents was massive. 42 vessels were deployed spraying 10,000 tons of the dispersants. Some of the oil was dumped in a quarry on Guernsey where it still remains today.

In evidence later, it was claimed that the charts onboard were inadequate for the Scilly Isles. Just before grounding, she was in traffic and avoiding a fishing vessel. On the bridge, there was some confusion about the auto steering being engaged and while this was being seen to, the vessel struck the rocks. In the hours and days to follow, extensive attempts to float the vessel off the reef proved unsuccessful and even resulted in the death of a member of the Dutch salvage team, Captain Hans Barend Stal. The vessel began to break up, releasing tons of crude oil which threatened to get much worse. At this point the British government led by prime minister, Harold Wilson made a fatal decision to bomb the vessel and set fire to the oil. Blackburn Buccaneer planes dropped 42 x 1000 lb bombs. Aviation fuel was added in an effort to light the crude.

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