Flashback in history: Supertanker TORREY CANYON grounding and oil spill, 18 March 1967


On the world stage, the grounding of the supertanker TORREY CANYON on Pollard’s Rock in the Seven Stones reef between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles is more significant than the 1989 EXXON VALDEZ oil spill. The TORREY CANYON was one of the first tankers large enough (120,000 tons capacity) to be designated a supertanker. It was also the first loaded supertanker to spill its entire cargo.

Torrey Canyon

After salvage efforts failed and the oil flow increased, the British Government decided to bomb the ship in an attempt to burn the oil. This was a radical decision because the wreck was outside the three-mile territorial sea limit prevalent at that time. The Royal Air Force had difficulty hitting the ship, so the Royal Navy sent its planes in.

They succeeded in striking the ship, but the bombs did not ignite the oil, which washed up on beaches throughout the British Isles and France. Worst hit were the Cornish beaches of Marazion and Prah Sands, where sludge was up to a foot deep. Up to 70 miles (113km) of beaches were seriously contaminated.

The actions of the British Government were subsequently ratified with the adoption of the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969. Liability of ship owners for such events was codified in the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969. By raising the awareness of both the industry and the public concerning the threat of maritime pollution, the disaster was also a major factor in development of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973.






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  1. Such is the history of maritime conventions - almost always created by way of a post incident response to the inevitable (e.g. 'Titanic') and rarely by way of pre-incident risk assessment and pro-active implementation of preventative measures. Much of this appears to be due to the cosy commercial arrangements between Class, Flag States and owners who appear to lead the IMO around like a well trained and toothless dog on a chain. Little wonder that the EU and EMSA as well as the USCG and the US EPA are evidently not much impressed with the IMO's efforts to reform the practices of an industry focused only on the bottom line. The Master of the 'Torrey Canyon' took a dangerous short cut to catch a tide. His reckless decision was based on a culture of greed, not safety, and therein in lies the underlying and still on-going problem.

    • ...and sadly little has changed. One only has to sit in on a single session at the IMO to see that despite the secretariat's best endeavours, its financial gain that generally dictates the outcome of attempts to improve seafarers' safety and further environmental protection.