The Torrey Canyon

More than 40 years before the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, British Petroleum dealt with another spill that was the contemporary equivalent of that disaster. The Torrey Canyon was built for Union Oil at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Company in 1959. At the time it was finished, it had a length of 810 feet, a draught of 44 feet and had the capacity to carry 470,000 barrels of oil.

In 1964, the Torrey Canyon, along with another Union Oil Ship, the Lake Paloirade, were temporarily taken off the oil market in order to be “jumboized.” That simply means the size of the ships were increased, expanding to lengths of 974 feet and a draught of 68.7 feet, while increasing maximum capacity to 850,000 barrels of oil.

“Jumboizing” was a fairly common practice by this time, with many World War II – era ships being converted. The process was simple, with each ship being effectively sliced in half and a new midsection being added. A Japanese shipyard handled the job over a four-month period. When completed, the ship was primarily responsible for transporting oil from Persian Gulf states to a refinery in Los Angeles.

British Petroleum chartered the Torrey Canyon in 1967, taking off for Milford Haven, Wales from a Kuwait refinery on February 19. By mid-March, it was nearing its destination before a deadly error in navigation began the nightmare.

In an effort to reach Milford Haven by the deadline of high tide on March 18, the shipmaster steered the ship between the Seven Stones and the Schilles. Leaving the next leg of the trip to the first officer while he was resting, the officer changed course and ended up running aground and spilling approximately 30 million gallons of oil, devastating the coastline of four countries.