The Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain – 1979

When they embraced, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain were not sweethearts. They were VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers), each 350 m (1,000 ft) long and laden with over 200,000 tons of oil. The Empress was bound for Beaumont, Texas, from Saudi Arabia; the Captain was heading for Singapore from Aruba.

They met in the evening in thick fog and heavy rain 29 km (18 mi) east of Tobago and 160 km (100 mi) northeast of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela. At 19.15 the Empress smashed into the Captain’s bows, fracturing the forward tanks of both ships in a massive explosion of flames and dense smoke, and splattering both Greek crews with burning oil. The ships became funeral pyres and were abandoned.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Coast Guard saved the Aegean Captain by containing the fire and enabling the crew to retake control. It limped to safety in Curacao. The Empress was a drifting inferno, but tugs risked immolation to get tow lines aboard and pull its dreadful cargo further from some of the world’s loveliest (and most valuable) beaches. Two days later, it had left a slick of crude oil and naphthalene across 260 sq km (100 sq mi). Four aircraft and seven specialist boats bombarded it with dispersants. After a week, the heavily listing ship was still blazing when two explosions shattered the remaining tanks, doubling the rate of spillage to some 15,000 gallons an hour. As it poured from the stricken tanker, it ignited, fueling a 2 km (0.6 mi) burning wake. There was one further explosion; then, two weeks after the original collision, the still-blazing Empress sank in deep water off Barbados. Its cargo of 276,000 tons was the largest amount of crude oil ever lost from a single ship.

When: July 19 1979

Where: Off Tobago, Caribbean Sea

Death toll: A total of 26 sailors from both ships were killed or disappeared, presumed dead and 50 crew members were seriously injured or burned. Because none of the oil reached the beaches, no impact studies were ever made of the damage to wildlife or the ocean floor from the 287,000 tons of heavy crude that was lost. The Aegean Captain was declared a ‘CTL’ (Constructive Total Loss) and broken up after her remaining oil was transferred. The collision became a major event in litigation because at the time oil prices were extremely high, it led to a ‘significant change’ in salvage law after the salvors claimed compensation for their efforts in trying to prevent both a major spill and major shore pollution.

You should know: Among shipping and oil companies, the tug that saved the Aegean Captain is as famous as the collision itself. The Oceanic salvage tug was a veteran of rescue operations. For the Aegean Captain it was like having Red Adair fly in to cap your oil well.

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