On the evening of Thursday 15th February 1996, a 1993 built LBR flag single hull tanker, the SEA EMPRESS loaded with 130,824 tonnes of Forties crude (light crude from fields in the North Sea) en route for the Texaco refinery in Milford Haven, ran aground on the rocks at Saint Ann’s Head at the entrance to Milford Haven Bay (this location includes a number of refineries providing the UK with 25 % of its requirements in refined products). She loaded her cargo of Forties light crude oil at Hound Point, in the Firth of Forth and sailed from there for Milford Haven on 13th February. All the cargo tanks were filled to normal capacity, with recorded ullages on completion of between 1.08 and 1.40 metres. The vessel’s figure for cargo on board was 130,018 tonnes. The dedicated ballast tanks had been emptied except for about 890 tonnes in the Aft Peak tank, for trim purposes. A route via the English Channel to Milford Haven was decided upon and a sea passage plan was prepared to a position 4.5 miles south-southwest of the entrance to the West Channel to Milford Haven. This position was designated ‘Way Point 20’.
After the alert, a contingency plan was implemented by the British Maritime and Coast Guard Agency (MCA). Meanwhile, the MPCU (Marine Pollution Control Unit) sent three DC-3s aircraft with dispersant spraying equipment and OSRL (Oil Spill Response Ltd) sent three trailers with shore response equipment, two storage barges, an Egmopol skimmer barge and a Hercules C130 fitted with an ADDS Pack for spraying dispersants. However, the prime objective was still to keep the vessel afloat and transfer the cargo as quickly as possible.
It was established immediately after the grounding that four cargo tanks and several ballast tanks had been ruptured and a significant quantity of oil had been spilled . The Cypriot shipowner entered into a salvage contract on Friday16th February with Smit Tak Bv, Cory Towage Ltd and Klyne Tugs Ltd under Lloyds Open Form (LOF) 1995 . Harbour tugs were on site almost immediately after the grounding, and larger tugs arrived on 16th February .
On Sunday 18th February, the Russian crew and the experts were airlifted off the tanker by a Royal Air Force Sea King helicopter around 0530 due to the storm. Winds were westerly force 8 and wave height was 4 to 5 metres, which damaged the tanker. Later in the evening, the tanker was refloated with the assistance of three tugs, the Klyne tugs ANGLIAN DUKE and ANGLIAN EARL together with a Chinese salvage tug DE YUE that was at Falmouth.
On Monday 19th, the tanker ran aground again around noon near Channel Rock. Six tugs managed to pull her off the rocks by the end of the afternoon, but she grounded again by the stern just outside the Channel near Saint Ann’s Head. At this juncture, her starboard wing and centre tanks were holed. Of the 24 tanks on board only three were left intact. The pumping room was flooded but the engine room was dry thus affording the vessel full propulsion capability.
On Tuesday 20th February , nine tugs attempted to refloat the tanker at high tide (the highest tide of the month) but failed in their attempt and the situation grew steadily worse. Twenty thousand tonnes of crude had been spilled since the 19th.
11 tugs took part including SMIT – 1987 built tug VIKINGBANK; Cory’s tugs – 1995 built PORTGARTH, Milford Haven based 1985 Japanese built DALEGARTH, 1983 Japanese built THORNGARTH, 1985 built STACKGARTH former Tees Towing ESTON CROSS, Milford Haven based 1976 built ESKGARTH, 1985 built YEWGARTH and 1981 built ELDERGARTH , Klyne tugs 1977 built anchor handler ANGLIAN DUKE former MAERSK BLOWER and the 1977 built anchor handler ANGLIAN EARL former UNION THREE with the assistance of the Chinese tug DE YUE built in 1979.
Photo by Capt. Lawrence Dalli. Do not use these images without my permission. © All rights reserved. Malta Ship Photos & Action Photos – www.maltashipphotos.com