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The Legacy Of The 'Torrey Canyon'

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On 18 March 1967, the huge tanker Torrey Canyon, carrying 119,193 tons of crude oil, ran aground on Pollard Rock, off the Isles of Scilly. The resulting oil spill reached all the way to France’s west coast and caused devastating environmental damage.

Part of the problem lay in the crew’s incorrect setting of the ship’s Sperry automatic steering system. We’ve examples of Sperry kit in our Shipping gallery:

Sperry automatic steering system, detail (David Rooney).

Sperry automatic steering system, detail (David Rooney).

There was one positive effect of the disaster: tighter controls on marine pollution and industry-funded research into new spill-beating technologies. When I visited our Wroughton store last week, I encountered our Vikoma ‘Sea Skimmer’ – a device introduced in the 1970s to mechanically chew oil off the sea’s surface (before pumping it onto a salvage vessel):

Vikoma Sea Skimmer 100 oil-spill machine (Peter Turvey)

Vikoma 'Sea Skimmer 100' oil-spill machine (Peter Turvey)

This meant oil could be removed at the spill site, rather than ending up on shorelines and being blasted with detergents. An even better solution is to try to contain the oil inside the ship in the event of an accident, which is why the maritime world is now moving rapidly to double-hulled vessels.

Typical of the breed is Olympic Serenity, launched 1991. We’ve a model of her on display. She’s still going strong: according to this tracking site, she was last logged in the Persian Gulf en route to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.

Olympic Serenity oil tanker, model (David Rooney)

'Olympic Serenity' oil tanker, model (David Rooney)

The Isles of Scilly have been the scene of many maritime shipwrecks. One particularly significant event took place in 1707, when Admiral Cloudesley Shovell led his fleet onto treacherous rocks following a navigation error. That disaster led to the passing of the Longitude Act in 1714, which was the catalyst for the development of the marine chronometer I mentioned previously. But it wasn’t enough to save Torrey Canyon

Written by David Rooney

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  1. jane fleming

    I would like to see some of the aerial photos of the disaster. Marine disaster, clean up, time-line.

  2. Christopher Raeburn

    Today’s Royal Navy ships are all fitted with devices that cancel the ship’s auto helm mechanism when the wheel is rotated over 15 degrees. This device is known as a Torrey Canyon switch. Now I know why.

  3. David Rooney, Curator of Transport

    Hi Jane – I’m currently reading ‘The Black Tide: in the wake of Torrey Canyon’ by Richard Petrow (1968). It’s got fascinating photos and tells the whole story of the disaster and aftermath. Copy in the Science Museum Library (and presumably many elsewhere). Hope this helps, David.

  4. David Rooney, Curator of Transport

    Hi Christopher – that’s really interesting – I had no idea. Thanks very much for the insight. Cheers, David.

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