Fifty years ago the tanker Torrey Canyon struck the Seven Stones reef off Lands End unleashing its environmentally deadly cargo of crude oil with devastating effect on the Cornish coastline.
In the intervening years navigational aids, new regulations and stringent procedures in the shipping industry have seen a reduction in casualties around our shores.
This week we have seen the Sennen Cove and Penlee lifeboats launched to go to the aid of the Dutch coaster Lady Alida which suffered total engine failure just three miles from the shore at Gwennap Head, Lands End. The lifeboats took the Lady Alida in tow keeping her away from the coast until a salvage tug arrived on scene.
The nearest tug capable of towing the vessel was 7 hours away in Brixham. Falmouth harbour tugs cannot carry out offshore towage work.
Eventually the tug Alp Centre took the Lady Alida in tow for Falmouth.
The French patrol their coastline with Emergency Towing Vessel’s (ETV) and an advanced radar centre whilst here in the UK the situation is far different nowadays with only one ETV on station in Scottish waters.
Following the Braer tanker disaster off the Shetlands in 1993 Lord Donaldson recommended Emergency Towing Vessels be stationed around the UK coast to protect the environment.
The Far Minara then the Anglian Princess were stationed here for over a decade protecting the South West waters from potential maritime disasters.
In 2011 the government in its wisdom, following extensive consultation, took the view that commercial enterprises would in future provide salvage tug cover. The ETV’s were made redundant apart from the tug stationed in Scotland.
Last year when renewing the contract for the Scotland ETV UK Government Transport Minister Robert Goodwill said:
“The emergency towing vessel in Scotland saves lives and protects the Scottish coast from damaging pollution. I am delighted to confirm the UK Government has secured its future by providing funding for the next five years.
This service is absolutely critical to ensuring emergency services can respond swiftly to incidents off the coast of Scotland.
This is an important measure to ensure maritime safety and pollution prevention measures in the waters around Scotland.
The Maritime Coastguard Agency review concluded the commercial towage market cannot currently reliably meet the need for a dedicated service to cover the seas around Scotland.”
Yet here in Cornwall, close to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes this week we relied on the RNLI lifeboats to save the day. Where was the nearest commercial tug ?
Then there is the hot potato surrounding the Port of Refuge issue where ports are reluctant to facilitate the reception of disabled ships. Gone are the days when Falmouth was an internationally renowned Port of Refuge winning warm plaudits from leading European salvage tug companies for being an efficient, professional port for casualty reception.
Friendships were forged between the salvors, pilots, agents, ship repair people and port authority. Tug owners such as United Towing, Bugsier and Wijsmuller would station salvage tugs here.
Nowadays, with new regulations and port authorities adopting a “more than my job’s worth” mentality, hiding behind every rule in the book not to accept a casualty, disabled ships are often treated like pariahs.