Remembering a marine accident, and why it matters

ISSN 2369-873X

7 November 2013
Posted by: John Clarkson

On May 11, 1972, the British cargo and passenger vessel Royston Grange was headed to London, having just left Buenos Aires. Its refrigerated holds filled with a cargo of butter and beef, the vessel steamed down Río de la Plata, the river that forms the border between Argentina and Uruguay.

But shortly before 6 a.m., in dense fog, she collided with the Tien Chee, a Liberian registered tanker carrying 20 000 tons of crude oil.

The deadly result of a marine accident

The Tien Chee burst into flames immediately. Eight crew members died as a series of explosions rocked the vessel, which soon ran aground.

The Royston Grange fared even worse. A steamship’s engine requires a constant feed of forced air, which is drawn from outside the ship via powerful vents. But with the atmosphere filled with fumes from the volatile crude oil, all it took was a single spark to cause an explosion. The resulting inferno, fueled by the burning cargo, killed all 74 people on board—many of them vaporized, or reduced to ash and bone by the searing heat.

A later investigation suggested that the collision was caused in part by what mariners call hydrodynamics, forces that result whenever two ships pass or meet in the confines of a narrow channel.

With the onset and magnitude of these forces hard to predict, navigation in confined spaces can become very tricky, very fast—with ships drawn toward each other, toward the bank, or even grounded on the bottom of a channel, sometimes with little warning.

Why this marine accident matters

But why does a 41-year old marine accident on another continent matter to the Transportation Safety Board, a body that wasn’t even created until almost 20 years later?

Because shortly after the disaster, Uruguayan authorities asked the captain of the MV Amalric, a vessel bound for nearby Montevideo and that was only a few hours away, to board the Royston Grange and verify the state of the stricken hulk. To accompany him on this grisly task, the captain—my captain—selected a handful of crew members.

As a 19 year old cadet, I had been sailing for two years. Certainly, I’d never been exposed to tragedy on such a scale. But as I surveyed the scene, I couldn’t help wondering what—and how and why—things had gone so horribly wrong.

Could this type of marine accident happen again?

Hydrodynamics are still a reality today. In recent years, the TSB has investigated several marine accidents, right here in Canada, where these forces have damaged or completely grounded vessels, often bringing vital traffic to a halt for hours or days at a time.

And as this summer’s rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, made all too clear, shipping crude oil, no matter the method, carries risks that need to be accounted for, and which can sometimes prove fatal.

Fortunately, today’s transportation companies operate differently than they did 40 years ago, and so the likelihood of this particular marine accident repeating itself is rare. Today’s tankers, for instance, are built with double hulls when transporting crude oil, unlike the ill-fated Tien Chee. Vessels are almost never powered by steam, either. And all ocean-going ships are required to have a form of safety management that can help identify risks, so that steps can be taken before tragedy strikes.

Today, at the TSB, we continue to push for a safer transportation network, and we’re ever vigilant about the risks identified by our investigations. When problems are uncovered, we say so—loud and clear. After all, it’s not just cargo that could be at stake. There are lives to consider, too.

That’s a powerful lesson, one we remind ourselves of daily, and one first learned by a 19 year-old cadet more than 40 years ago.

Image of John Clarkson

Mr. Clarkson has over four decades of experience in the marine industry and was appointed as a TSB Board Member in February 2012. He has captained tankers and holds a certificate of competency as Master Mariner from Canada and the U.K. He has sailed vessels across all five oceans and through the Northwest Passage, and he’s never ever sick at sea. Well, hardly ever.

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