Oil Tanker Runs Aground Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1967 shipwreck of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon resulted in one of the worst human-caused ecological disasters in history when more than 119,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the ocean.

Summary of Event

On March 18, 1967, the 974-foot oil supertanker Torrey Canyon, traveling at 15.75 knots, neared the southwestern coast of England. It was carrying 119,328 tons of Kuwaiti crude oil from the Persian Gulf to the British petroleum refinery at Milford Haven in Wales. Fully loaded, the vessel could enter the harbor only on certain days and then only at high tide. Ship captain Pastrengo Rugiati had been warned several days earlier that missing the evening high tide of March 18 would mean a delay of six days in offloading, a very expensive error for the Union Oil Company. Torrey Canyon (ship) Ecological disasters Oil spills [kw]Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground (Mar. 18, 1967) [kw]Torrey Canyon Runs Aground, Oil Tanker (Mar. 18, 1967) Torrey Canyon (ship) Ecological disasters Oil spills [g]Europe;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [g]United Kingdom;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [c]Disasters;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [c]Energy;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [c]Natural resources;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] [c]Transportation;Mar. 18, 1967: Oil Tanker Torrey Canyon Runs Aground[09200] Dumas, Pierre Foley, Maurice Greenwood, Anthony Majury, James Rugiati, Pastrengo Thomson, Matthew Wilson, Harold Zuckerman, Solly

To shorten his sailing time, Captain Rugiati decided to sail between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly instead of using the usual, and safer, route to the west of the Isles. The Seven Stones Reef bisected his route, but a lightship, three lighthouses, a radio beacon, and his own sophisticated equipment should have provided him with the necessary navigational information. Rugiati chose to navigate the 6-mile-wide western channel between the Isles of Scilly and the Seven Stones Reef instead of the 12.75-mile-wide eastern channel. The weather was clear, the seas were calm, and visibility was 8 miles.

Rugiati had sailed the route several times before, but never as captain and always with a much smaller ship. As he approached the channel, a series of errors resulted in disaster. In his path were at least two fishing boats, which had nautical right-of-way. The first mate had miscalculated the ship’s position. Steering corrections did not work because the ship was on automatic pilot instead of on manual. Finally, it was spring high tide, the highest of the year, thus submerging the Seven Stones completely. At 7:50 a.m., at full speed, the Torrey Canyon impaled itself on Pollard Rock, the largest of the Seven Stones.

Oil immediately gushed from the ruptured bottom of the tanker. An SOS was quickly sent, and various rescue craft quickly responded to the Torrey Canyon, which appeared to be in no immediate danger. It was, however, firmly aground, and it was spilling oil at an alarming rate. With ecological disaster looming, and with the knowledge that oil-polluted beaches would be a catastrophe for the Cornish tourist industry, Prime Minister Harold Wilson swiftly created a government task force to provide disaster relief. Maurice Foley, secretary of the navy, was chosen to coordinate the cleanup and to speak for the British government. By the following Wednesday, a flotilla of nineteen Royal Navy vessels, each provided with detergents, was spraying the spreading oil slick. The number of cleanup vessels increased as the size of the oil spill grew.

It was initially believed that the supertanker and the remainder of its cargo could be salvaged, but efforts at towing the Torrey Canyon off Pollard Rock failed. On March 21, an engine-room explosion killed a salvage expert and blew a hole in the deck. The ship was then completely abandoned by the crew. Further efforts at moving the ship made it clear that it was only pivoting on Pollard Rock. Gale-force winds prevented further attempts at salvage until March 25, by which time the oil slick measured 35 by 20 miles and had made landfall on the Cornish coast. On March 26, the Torrey Canyon broke in half.

As the wave of oil spread inexorably around the Cornish coastline, the cleanup accelerated. Anthony Greenwood, minister of housing and local government, was the government’s on-site liaison, with James Majury in command of the military forces detailed for clean up. Eventually, more than five thousand soldiers and volunteers worked to clean the Cornish beaches with detergents and to save oil-coated wildlife. Although the cleanup was relatively quick and efficient, the extensive use of detergents would ultimately prove to be as harmful to the environment as the oil. In an effort to stem the black tide still pouring from the Torrey Canyon, the British government determined that igniting the oil still aboard was essential. The ship was bombed from March 28 to March 30, resulting in some burning as well as the destruction of the ship. The Torrey Canyon was declared empty of oil on March 30.

By the end of March, the oil spill had spread over 250 square miles of ocean, befouling not only the immediate coastline of southern England but also reaching as far as the Channel Isles and France. On April 7, the Guernsey beaches were awash with oil, and oil reached Brittany on April 11. Nearly ten thousand French troops and volunteers struggled to remove the oily mess. At sea, the French used detergents, but their primary oil-fighting tactic was that of spreading sawdust and chalk dust on the slick to make the oil coagulate and sink. Some two hundred naval and four hundred fishing vessels were eventually mobilized to fight the oil. Pierre Dumas, the French state secretary for tourism, promised Bretons that the beaches would be clean by the August tourist season, a promise that was kept.

Cleanup costs reached the tens of millions, and collateral damage to tourism was even higher, but assigning blame and assessing compensation were difficult. The ship’s captain was quickly made the scapegoat with a court of inquiry concluding in April that he was solely responsible for the disaster. The problem of compensation was more complex: The Torrey Canyon was indirectly owned by the Union Oil Company of California, flew the Liberian flag, operated out of Bermuda, had been chartered by British Petroleum, and was piloted by an Italian crew. Union Oil contended that the bulk of the oil had been released by the bombing and therefore that neither it nor the other companies involved was liable for damages. Years of litigation resulted in tangible remuneration for only a small portion of the damage caused. Even more tragically, the Torrey Canyon disaster resulted in few meaningful changes in oil transportation or safety.


The origins of the Torrey Canyon disaster lie in the virtually insatiable demand by humankind for fossil fuels. Less expensive Middle Eastern oil remains much in demand, but transporting the oil from the Middle East to its destination was a major problem at the time of the spill.

Political instability in the Middle East continually threatened the West’s oil supply. Prior to World War II, the main water route from the oil fields of the Persian Gulf region to the West had been the Suez Canal. The canal was already the scene of fighting in 1956, and it was believed that further fighting between Egyptians and Israelis would again disrupt shipping. Soon after the Torrey Canyon disaster, the Six-Day War of 1967 closed the Suez Canal for almost twenty-five years. Pipelines from the wellheads were a partial solution, but the pipelines crossed international borders and were susceptible to terrorist sabotage.

It was widely believed by oil companies that the longer but ultimately safer route around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa was the only practical solution. It would, however, be economical and efficient only if tanker size were increased dramatically. The 16,600 deadweight (dwt) tonnage (cargo space measured in long tons) of the 1940’s was replaced by the supertanker. The Torrey Canyon, listed at 120,000 dwt, was one of the first of this new breed of oil carrier. Sizes of 400,000-plus dwt are common, with the largest being 600,000-plus dwt. The economics are simple: Giant tankers save money; the larger the tanker, the more money saved.

The problems with supertankers are readily apparent in the wreck of the Torrey Canyon. Despite constant improvements in navigational equipment and charts, human error results in accidents, which, when massive oil spills follow, result in ecological disaster. Giant tankers hold huge amounts of oil. By 2005, the Torrey Canyon disaster ranked only seventh in spill size. The largest oil-well spill occurred off the Yucatan Peninsula in 1979 and spilled an estimated 600,000 tons of oil. The largest American spill was the Santa Barbara Channel blowout in 1969, which ranked a mere forty-sixth in size.

Legal responsibility for oil spills is difficult to assign. Combined ownership of vessels such as the Torrey Canyon makes litigation tortuous at best. Oil-spill cleanups cannot wait for an assignation of legal responsibility. Tragically, the mess can be so massive and the need for cleanup so immediate that speed and efficiency are often more important than safety and biodegradability.

During the Torrey Canyon oil cleanup, five tactics were used: skimming, sinking, absorbing, burning, and emulsifying. Skimming was the least harmful, but the primitive equipment of 1967 failed to work when waves exceeded two feet. Sinking with powdered chalk hid the mess but devastated marine life close to shore. Absorbing oil with straw and sawdust resulted in massive amounts of debris to be collected and destroyed. Burning worked only when the oil was compact and only when wave and wind action was low. Emulsifying was the best solution at sea but a disaster near or on shore. More than 700,000 gallons of detergents were used by the British alone, causing great damage to marine life. The study and report issued by Solly Zuckerman’s commission concluded that no cleanup method really works well—prevention is better. Torrey Canyon (ship) Ecological disasters Oil spills

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blashfield, J. F., and W. B. Black. Oil Spills. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1991. Surveys the causes and effects of oil spills. Directed at students in grades 4 through 8, the book offers an excellent overview of the difficulties in dealing realistically with petroleum-related disasters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Joanna. Oil Spills. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. A study of the environmental aspects of oil spills, with chapters on the history of oil spills; response, cleanup, and rehabilitation; and the effect of spills on wildlife, fish, birds, humans, and vegetation, among others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, Edward. Oil and Water: The Torrey Canyon Disaster. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. An American journalistic account by the reporter of record for The New York Times. A relatively balanced report of the wreck, the inquiry, the legal responsibilities for such accidents, and the ecological impact of the disaster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gill, Crispin, Frank Booker, and Tony Soper. The Wreck of the Torrey Canyon. New York: Taplinger, 1967. A British journalistic account of the wreck produced after the inquiry by three reporters assigned to the story. A chronological overview, it provides pertinent data without citations or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Frank, Jr. “Oilspeak, Common Sense, and Soft Science.” Audubon 91 (September, 1989): 102-111. Surveys the impact of oil spills on the environment and the oil industry’s public relations responses. Notes the differences in findings released by oil companies and by scientists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Research Council. Oil in the Sea. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1985. Summarizes scientific investigations of major oil spills from the Torrey Canyon until 1985. Counters the contention by oil industries that ocean oil spills have minimal environmental impact and warns against complacency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petrow, Richard. In the Wake of Torrey Canyon. New York: David McKay, 1968. A more timely account of the wreck, by a British journalist. Written with the assistance of the confidential transcript of the official inquiry and of interviews with Captain Rugiati. Offers significant information pertaining to the ecological dangers of oil spills.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pringle, Laurence. Oil Spills: Damage, Recovery, and Prevention. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1993. Directed at younger readers, this work offers an overview of humankind’s need for petroleum and the problems associated with transporting oil from the wellhead to the refinery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robert J. Meyers and Associates, Research Planning Institute. Oil Spill Response Guide. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Data Corporation, 1989. Describes the equipment and methods for dealing with oil spills. Although the focus is on the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, the techniques used are similar to those used during the Torrey Canyon cleanup.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, J. E., ed. Torrey Canyon, Pollution, and Marine Life: A Report by the Plymouth Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968. A scientific analysis of the ecological disaster. Provides a wealth of information based on the studies that emerged from the disaster. Particularly significant are the data pertaining to the effects of detergents on the environment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Jane. Oil Spills. New York: Gloucester, 1993. A concise word-picture overview of the causes and effects of oil spills of all kinds. Although this work is directed at young readers, it offers a concise overview of the nature of oil spills.

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Categories: History