5th January 1993

Crude oil tanker grounded off Shetland

MV Braer was already battling rough seas when it lost engine power on the morning of 5 January 1993. Carrying 84,000 tonnes of crude oil, the Japanese-built tanker was en route from Norway to Canada when the propellors stopped turning after seawater contaminated its own fuel.

As the official investigation into the accident discovered, “seawater contamination was discovered in the diesel oil supply line to the boiler and attempts were made to drain it. Some three hours later seawater contamination had also been discovered in the diesel oil service supply to the main engine and the generator. Attempts to drain the water from the diesel oil tanks continued, but at 0440 hrs the main engine stopped, followed by the failure of the generator.”

Crew evacuated

Almost half of the crew was evacuated as the ship started to drift towards Horse Island in the Shetland Islands, and it eventually grounded itself at Garths Ness shortly after 11am. Now the real work began. The grounding punctured the vessel’s cargo tanks and the crude started to flow out.

Under the headline Oil Spill Nightmare, the Aberdeen Evening Express described how “oil started gushing out of the vessel below the water line almost immediately and its stern tanks ruptured… Shetland Islands Council promptly activated its major disaster plan for what is grimly forecast to be one of the worst environmental tragedies in European maritime history.”

Could have been worse

Fortunately, Braer was carrying a lighter form of oil, which was dispersed by the storm, and elsewhere in the same issue of the Aberdeen Evening Express, in a story headed “Oil prof talks of good day for a spill”, Cliff Johnston of Herriot-Watt University explained that it was “highly unlikely that all the oil would escape [and] if any did escape, half of it would evaporate very quickly. Assuming the leak happened on the exposed shore, the rough seas would disperse much of the rest.”

The following day, the Aberdeen Press and Journal reported that Dutch salvage expert, Geert Koefferman, who had overseen the salvage of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized in Zeebrugge in 1987, was being brought in to manage the recovery. The Mirror, meanwhile, projected that the slick could cover 25 square miles to a depth of four inches and cost £80m to clean up.

Clean-up operation

Dispersant solutions were sprayed onto the slick from 6 January and both officials and volunteers set out to help rescue wildlife and move livestock out of harm’s way. More than 1500 birds were killed.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch published its official report into the grounding in December 1993 and made six specific recommendations, including that ships should be able to lower their anchors even when they’ve lost power. Doing so might prevent drifting and grounding, as MV Braer had done.



Other events that occured in January

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