Runs Aground

The 1993 shipwreck of the oil tanker Braer demonstrated that nature can, at times, deal with major oil spills.

Summary of Event

On Tuesday morning, January 5, 1993, the 89,700-ton, single-hulled oil supertanker Braer was traversing the twenty-two-mile-wide strait between Shetland and Fair Island, off Scotland’s northernmost coast. Carrying 24.6 million gallons of light crude oil, the Braer was on its way from the port of Mongstad in Norway to refineries at St. Romuald, Quebec, Canada. The weather was abysmal, with waves of fifty feet and more and winds in excess of sixty miles per hour, with gusts up to eighty-five miles per hour. Suddenly, the ship’s single engine failed. Without power, the Braer began drifting toward the nearby rocky shores of the Shetlands. At 5:20 a.m., the ship’s captain, Alexandros Gelis, radioed for help. Oil spills
Disasters;oil spills
Braer (ship)
Ecological disasters
[kw]Braer Runs Aground (Jan. 5, 1993)
Oil spills
Disasters;oil spills
Braer (ship)
Ecological disasters
[g]Europe;Jan. 5, 1993: Braer Runs Aground[08520]
[g]United Kingdom;Jan. 5, 1993: Braer Runs Aground[08520]
[g]Scotland;Jan. 5, 1993: Braer Runs Aground[08520]
[c]Disasters;Jan. 5, 1993: Braer Runs Aground[08520]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan. 5, 1993: Braer Runs Aground[08520]
Gelis, Alexandros

Daylight comes late so far north in the wintertime, but rescue of the thirty-four crew members on the Braer was of utmost priority. A Sikorsky S-61N, flying for Her Majesty’s Coast Guard and based on the main island of Shetland, was immediately dispatched. A Royal Air Force Westland Sea King HAR MK.3 based in northern Scotland was also sent to assist in the rescue. Operating in moderate to severe turbulence, in pitch-dark conditions, with only a few emergency lights on the Braer to guide them, the helicopters moved in to pluck the sailors from the stricken vessel. Because the ship’s helipad was awash, the helicopters were forced to hover thirty to forty feet above the ship’s stern, only thirty feet from the Braer’s exhaust stack.

Sixteen sailors were evacuated by the Sikorsky, and the Sea King carried the remaining seventeen sailors and the ship’s captain to safety. Initially, it had appeared that the Braer would quickly be blown onto the rocky shoreline, but a wind shift gave rise to salvage hopes. Captain Gelis, two crewmen, and a helicopter crewman returned to the Braer, hoping to rig a tow line to save the ship and its cargo. Several valiant efforts to effect a tow failed, however, and at 11:20 a.m., the Braer hit Garths Ness, a rocky promontory that guards the entrance to Quendale Bay. As oil began to pour from the Braer, the four men were lifted from the ship’s deck.

From the two-hundred-foot cliffs above Garths Ness, observers could see the Braer being pounded by heavy seas. As the seas around the grounded vessel turned chocolate brown, memories surfaced of another shipwreck off the British coast, the Torrey Canyon
Torrey Canyon (ship) disaster twenty-six years earlier. In that oil supertanker shipwreck, forty million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Atlantic, creating a 250-mile oil slick and fouling the beaches of southwestern England and western France. Cleanup costs had been in the tens of millions of dollars, and environmental damage had been of catastrophic proportions. A more recent oil spill, that of the Exxon Valdez
Exxon Valdez (ship) in Alaskan waters in 1989, was also frequently noted. With the Braer carrying about 65 percent of the volume of the Torrey Canyon and more than twice as much as the Exxon Valdez, environmentalists and the mass media offered visions of yet another ecological nightmare.

The tragedy simply did not happen, however. Despite predictions of an environmental catastrophe by conservation organizations, the sea was able to take care of the problem before humans had an opportunity to do so. In earlier oil spills, floating booms were used to corral the oil, and detergents were sprayed onto the oil in an effort to force coagulation and to assist in dispersal. In the case of the Braer, the high seas and winds blocked all human efforts. Strangely enough, the wind and the sea, the culprits behind the shipwreck itself, also provided the solution to the problem.

It was fortunate that the oil type contained in the Braer was a more lightweight crude than that carried in either the Torrey Canyon or the Exxon Valdez. The more volatile components, comprising about 40 percent of the Braer cargo, quickly evaporated in the high winds. The pounding seas emulsified the remaining oil, inducing a natural dispersion. To the surprise of most observers, cleanup crews never had the chance to begin work. Although the entire cargo was spilled within six days of the shipwreck, there was virtually no visible evidence of any oil spill within two weeks of the Braer’s running aground. As for the environment, the official death toll among animal life was lower than had been feared, including only 1,542 seabirds, several thousand pounds of salmon, ten gray seals, and four otters, two of which had been inadvertently run over by a camera crew covering the spill. The potential Braer catastrophe simply failed to materialize.


The wreck of the Braer underscores the numerous problems that exist with the shipping of vast quantities of petroleum to meet the world’s demand for energy and fuel. Multinational corporations, intent on preserving profits, may skimp on training and maintenance in order to maximize returns. International regulations are difficult to negotiate and to enforce because national interests often supersede international concerns. The fears of scientists and environmentalists, although based in reality, are often at odds with the cost-containment policies of governments and corporations, resulting in distrust and suspicion on the part of all. Despite all this, on occasion, nature still surprises with its ability to withstand and to deal with humankind’s abuses of the environment.

The economics of large ships is simple: Giant tankers save money; the larger the tanker, the more money saved. Sizes of 400,000 deadweight (dwt) are currently common, with the largest being above 600,000 dwt. The Braer itself was small as modern supertankers go; still, the problems with supertankers can be seen clearly in the wreck of the Braer. Despite constant improvements in ships and equipment, accidents still happen; when massive oil spills follow, environmental disaster can occur.

Compounding the problem of size is the difficulty of assignment of responsibility for such oil spills. The Braer’s captain was Greek; the ship’s crew was a multinational mix of Greeks, Filipinos, and Poles; the ship sailed under a Liberian registry and was operated by Bergval and Hudner Ship Management of Stamford, Connecticut; and it had been chartered by a Canadian firm. Such multinational practices make adherence to professional standards, ship maintenance, and crew training haphazard, at best.

Early analyses of the wreck focused on those very problems. Some observers criticized Captain Gelis for having left the Braer so quickly. It was theorized that had someone remained on board, a line could have been fired from the Braer to a salvage tug, thereby permitting an opportunity to tow the tanker away from danger. Given the weather conditions and the dangers of shipwreck, however, the captain and his crew could hardly be faulted for leaving when they did. On the other hand, underpaid and poorly trained crews do pose problems. Working without gloves, in tennis shoes, in subzero temperatures, as had been observed on other supertankers, is simply not conducive either to high ship morale or to a smoothly functioning crew. Ship maintenance suffers when working conditions such as these occur. Moreover, communication on multinational crews can be difficult, particularly in an emergency such as that of engine failure.

It was also suggested that specific problems indigenous to that particular type of ship, and complicated by the nature of the crew, may have led to the shipwreck. A twin of the Braer, the Celtic, had had similar problems with its engine, also in January. On the Celtic, ice had been allowed to build up around the ship engine’s cooling system, causing the engine to overheat. A similar problem could possibly have caused the Braer’s engine to shut down.

The investigation also revealed that, in 1992, the Braer had undergone extensive repairs to its engine and pumps. The Braer was eighteen years old, and an extensive overhaul was probably overdue. When a ship is being overhauled, however, it is not making money, so overhauls are postponed until absolutely necessary. It is possible that the engine might well have failed as a result of maintenance left incomplete to get the Braer back to sea quickly. The failure may have resulted from seawater fouling fuel because of the storm. This, too, could have been the result of improper training and procedures. In any event, once the Braer’s engine hit Garths Ness, there was no way to tell with absolute certainty what caused it to stop; the damage done in the collision destroyed any useful evidence.

International and national policies make the enactment of laws dealing meaningfully with the above-noted problems difficult, if not impossible. Nations can enact and enforce their own maritime laws. The United States has many laws dealing with water pollution. The Oil Pollution Act, Oil Pollution Act (1990) enacted in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez disaster, provides for strict regulations and penalties within U.S. territorial waters. Internationally, the Intergovernmental Marine Consultative Organization Intergovernmental Marine Consultative Organization has sought to tighten international regulations, establishing significant agreements in 1954, 1962, 1975, 1982, and 1988. Unfortunately, international laws govern only certain areas and then only deliberate acts. National governments are loath to transfer their own power and control to international agencies.

Dangers clearly exist because of the tremendous size of oil tankers. The supertankers Atlantic Empress
Atlantic Empress (ship) and Aegean Captain
Aegean Captain (ship) collided in 1979, spilling 300,000 tons; the 250,000 dwt Castillo de Bellver
Castillo de Bellver (ship) sank off Capetown, South Africa, in 1983; and the 223,000 dwt Amoco Cadiz
Amoco Cadiz (ship) ran aground off the Breton coast in 1978. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of eleven million gallons (37,415 tons) ranked only thirty-first in tanker oil spills by 1995. These spills are dwarfed when compared with oil well blowouts such as one that occurred off the Yucatán Peninsula in 1979, spilling 600,000 tons of oil.

Tragically, oil spills at sea can be so massive and the need for cleanup so immediate that speed and efficiency are often more important than safety and biodegradability. Oil cleanup tactics include skimming, sinking, absorbing, burning, and emulsifying. Skimming is least harmful, but high seas often make this impractical. Sinking through the use of an adhesive agent such as powered chalk hides the mess but usually devastates marine life close to shore. Absorbing oil with straw and sawdust results in massive amounts of debris to be collected and destroyed. Burning works only when the spill is compact and only when wave and wind action are low. Emulsifying is usually the solution of choice, but its use near or on shore is a disaster. As an example, the Exxon Valdez cleanup left clean but biologically dead beaches and rocks.

In the case of the Braer, nature cleaned up the mess before humans had the opportunity to make things worse. One marine biologist noted, “I don’t think anyone would have thought the oil would disappear so quickly. After two weeks even the press left.” Still, it is important to remember that less than 10 percent of oil spilled into waters comes from disasters such as that of the Braer. Most comes from deliberate dumping, the only cure for which is improved enforcement of regulations. As for major oil spills, virtually every study and report issued after an oil disaster concludes that nothing really works well. The only cure is prevention. Oil spills
Disasters;oil spills
Braer (ship)
Ecological disasters

Further Reading

  • Burger, Joanna. Oil Spills. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Comprehensive volume includes an overview of the history of oil spills as well as discussion of their impacts—legal, economic, social, and ecological. Also examines the efficacy of cleanup efforts.
  • 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 those released by scientists.
  • National Research Council. Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2003. Summarizes scientific investigations of major oil spills and counters the contention by oil industries that ocean oil spills have minimal environmental impact.
  • Robert J. Meyers and Associates, Research Planning Institute, Inc. Oil Spill Response Guide. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Data, 1989. Describes equipment and methods used in dealing with oil spills. Focuses primarily on the 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill.
  • Spyrou, Andrew G. From T-2 to Supertanker: Development of the Oil Tanker, 1940-2000. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2006. Describes the efforts of the oil tanker industry to improve these vessels’ safety and efficiency over time.

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