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Bospherous Passage
COMMENTARY · 21st March 2012
Merv Ritchie
EDITED 21/03/2012 ,,, 5:20 pm regarding Petersfield acccident
At the recent invite only seminar held in Kitimat Tuesday, March 13, various statements and claims appear to have been misleading, misguided and intentionally obstructive to those questioning the safety of tanker traffic entering Douglas Channel bound for Kitimat.

Read report on seminar here.

The following is a report on an accident and oil spill from a small empty crude tanker. It was being managed by three tugs at the time, all tethered, and it was safely in harbour when one of the three tugs needed to be disconnected due to a small fire on board the tug. The report concludes with; “The incident served as a valuable lesson to all the parties concerned…”. It must also serve as a valuable lesson today.

This following report is a direct copy from the Scotland, Shetland Islands Council following an accident in 1978.

Esso Bernicia

On the 30th December, 1978, the SS "Esso Bernicia" while berthing at No. 2 tanker jetty at the port of Sullom Voe, collided with three dolphins. As a result of the collision the starboard wing bunker tank was ruptured allowing some 1,174 tons of heavy fuel oil to escape into the waters of the harbour. Considerable damage was caused to the jetty structure and to the vessel itself.

The "Esso Bernicia" was a British registered tanker of 96,903 grt, and had left the port of Milford Haven to pick up a cargo of crude oil from the port of Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands. The vessel was carrying no cargo on her way to Sullom Voe and had 21,000 tons of clean ballast water and 39,000 tons of "dirty" (cargo tank) ballast water aboard. From Sullom Voe the vessel was scheduled to call at Slagen, Norway, to unload her cargo of crude oil.

Prior to the opening of Sullom Voe the tanker, which was built in 1968, was scheduled for break-up. Due to her size and suitability for the short haul route from Sullom Voe it was decided that the tanker's working life should be extended. In 1979, following the accident at Sullom Voe, the "Esso Bernicia" was scrapped due to the uneconomic cost of repairs.

At 23.32 hours on the 30th December 1978, as the "Esso Bernicia" was being manoeuvred into position alongside Jetty No. 2, a fire broke out aboard the "Stanechakker", one of three tugs employed in berthing the tanker. The tug is owned by Shetland Towage Limited. Because of the hazard to the tanker which the fire presented, the tow rope between the "Esso Bernicia" and the tug was released. Shortly thereafter the tanker "sheared" and collided with the jetty structure.

Following the extinguishing of the fire aboard the "Stanechakker", the now partially disabled tug, together with the two other tugs, safely berthed the "Esso Bernicia" at 03.20 hours on the 31st December 1978.

The port of Sullom Voe lies within the Sullom Voe pilotage district where pilotage for all vessels over 1,600 grt is compulsory. Shetland Islands Council, as pilotage authority for the district, employ marine officers who have amongst other duties the duty of pilotage. From the time the "Esso Bernicia" entered the pilotage district up until her final berthing at 03.20 hours on the 31st December 1978, the tanker was under the instructions of a First Class pilot employed by the port authority. This class of officer is fully experienced in handling tankers of all sizes up to the maximum size of 350,000 dwt which the port is capable is dealing with.

Initial efforts by the Shetland Islands Council harbour staff and the staff of the terminal operator BP Petroleum Development Limited to contain the oil spillage were successful. Floating booms were deployed to contain approximately 700 tons of viscous heavy fuel oil. Weather conditions were severe and the islands had experienced heavy snowfalls during the 24 hours preceding the accident. Containment of the oil continued until the 3rd January 1979, when both the boom containing the spillage and a back-up boom failed. Considerable areas of the coastline were polluted and clean-up operations took over six months to complete.

The incident served as a valuable lesson to all the parties concerned and contributed greatly to the magnificent response that everyone was able to provide when the Braer grounding occurred some 15 years later. The basis for all the emergency planning and impact assessment, as well as the response systems and procedures came from this incident.


At the Kitimat forum, Marine Captain Fred Denning from the Canadian Marine Pilots Association stated the incident with the Petersfield (a 2009, Cargo Vessel accident in Douglas Channel) would not have occurred with the navigation aids.

The Petersfield accident was due to a broken steering gear and no navigational aid would have assisted, the vessel could not steer. Only a tethered tug could have assisted in preventing it from ramming the rock shelf, and even this is questionable. (See link to video on tug assisted vessels with broken steering gear here.)

(The above information has been disputed and proven incorrect by the TSB report on the incident located here. The accident has been determined to be due to a failure of the navigation equipment. Two local pilots were on board. A full study of the report will provide the reader with a clear understanding of how human error and equipment malfunction collaborate to create a disaster. The initial report of a malfunction in the steering was derived from the initial report here. )

The Esso Bernicia had a First Class Pilot on board, one trained for the largest crude carriers in the world. The vessel was virtually stopped and still had two tugs tethered to it, yet it collided with the docking dolphins ripping open the bunker fuel hold spilling approximately 350,000 gallons of raw crude bunker fuel. It must also be noted this vessel was empty of its cargo. It was arriving to pick up a load of crude to deliver to Norway for refining. It must also be understood this bunker fuel is the dirty thick product, which remains after a primary refining process removes the thinner valuable fuel oils such as diesel.

The next question which needs to be considered is, if two tugs cannot control an unloaded small vessel barely moving in a safe calm harbour, how can we expect two tugs to control a vessel almost twice as large, fully loaded in high seas around Gill Island?

“We don’t feel the levels of risk are any greater up here than any other passage on the coast,” stated Denning as he referred to the large numbers of vessels visiting Vancouver.

Comparing the waters, weather and sea conditions of Hecate Strait and Wright Passage to that of English Bay and Juan de Fuca Strait shows an ignorance almost inconceivable coming from such a senior captain. The Terrace Daily has posted, for a month, a reward of a free return flight for two (Vancouver/Terrace) to anyone who provides a comparable route to Douglas Channel, handling the same volume of VLCC traffic and we have had no winners. Read more here.

Denning concludes stating if one of the two tugs fail the other will be able to do the work. This statement is even more ludicrous. Four tugs, one on each corner, could not completely control a fully loaded VLCC should its steering gear break and the rudder lock under power in the narrow passages entering Douglas Channel. Watch a comprehensive video presentation on tugs, tankers, channel width and accident prevention here.

Captain Steven Brown spent his time attempting to minimize the size of the ships and the hazards of entering and exiting Douglas Channel. In an obscure fashion he suggested these ships weren’t unusually large as there are 600 in the world today as if to suggest the quantity of them makes them smaller. Then he referred to the Panama Canal accepting 2000 tankers. Using this as an example one might refer to this gentleman as Captain Crunch. One would have to crunch these ships into half their current width to fit into the Panama Canal. A VLCC is 200 feet wide. The Panama Canal is only 106 feet wide. And further it is accessed by open water on both the Atlantic and Pacific, no channels. The mid section of this passageway is a calm, non-tidal, man made lake. Brown did mention they are widening the Panama to accept VLCC’s but acknowledged they still won’t be accepting loaded tankers.

Brown suggested if the community refuses the Oil tankers then they must also refuse the Natural Gas tankers as they are just as big. He may have a point however the content of one ship is simply not comparable to the content of the other.

The most blatant misrepresentation had Brown referring to two of the busiest waterways in the world, the Melaka Strait near Indonesia and the Bospherous near Turkey. The Bospherous may be the only Strait in the world relatively comparable to the route past Gill Island at the entrance to Douglas Channel. The main difference however is the Bospherous is virtually non-tidal; no extreme highs and lows, no rip tides and little extreme weather. The Bospherous is closed when the current exceeds 4 knots and no large ships are allowed at night and no large ships are allowed when the visibility is reduced to 1 nautical mile.

Captain Brown didn’t stop there with his misrepresentation of the truth, he claimed they do not even require pilots. Yes, one could claim this except this is not due to the lack of effort of the bordering Country, Turkey. Due to the Montreux Convention of 1936 the Bospherous has been declared an international waterway and all nations (Turkey) must permit the unobstructed passage of commercial ships. Turkey has been able to impose many conditions and pilots are the one condition they have not been able to force, just recommend.

And further he neglected to mention the 1999 Russian tanker that spilled 889,572 litres of heavy crude oil spoiling 10 kilometres of beach. He also neglected the mechanical failures of hundreds of ships, mostly rudder failures; 138 in 2005 and 163 in 2006. He was correct in stating there is a sharp turn similar to one of the 90 degree turns to access Douglas Channel but he didn’t say there was only one; that it was in the middle of a non-tidal, non-extreme weather event location, day time only route, accessed only when there is over one nautical mile of visibility.

The route planned for the Enbridge Crude VLCC carriers includes no less than three in a location with the worlds most extreme tides, most extreme current events, most extreme weather, with no restrictions on daytime or night time travel and no current restrictions on visibility. This Captain is no Captain at all, he does everyone of his compatriots a disservice.

When the audience were able to question Brown, he was asked about the ‘vetting' of the ships and who would be responsible. Brown spoke confidently about the ownership, insurance and flags attempting to indicate all these things would ensure the responsibility issue was an easily managed affair. Once again the truth is obvious as a quick look at the recent Rena Disaster off the coast of New Zealand. The responsibility issue remains before the courts with all parties attempting to use their lawyers to claim the other party was responsible. The mess remains unmanaged today.

It is these types of half truths and misinformation that should have everyone questioning and double checking everything anyone supporting the Enbridge project states as truth. Captain Brown is the President of the BC Chamber of Shipping. One can safely assume his point of view is not an unbiased position and his presentation of half-truths and trickery to the residents of Kitimat should be seen for what it is, a bucket of lies to promote his industry. Captain Fred Denning is looking out for his members as well and his bias is also evident.

The only presenter who dared speak the truth was the BC Government Environmental representative, Norm Fallows. He described how under funded and under staffed the Environment Ministry is. He stated there are only 10 full time response officers in British Columbia. One officer in Prince George, two in Fort Saint John, two in Kamloops, one in Cranbrook, three in Surry, one in Nanaimo, one in Penticton, one in Nelson and then four program staff. None on the Northwest Coast. To put this into perspective, Washington State has 79 people in their program compared to 17 in British Columbia. He even suggested the BC Government will not put any money into the programs and protection measures until they start collecting taxes and royalties from the pipeline.

Fallows last statement was instructive, it was likely the most important statement made regarding the proposal by Enbridge and the resistance to it. It was what Fallows referred to as a “Life Lesson” from his father.

“Son, the world is run by those who show up. If you want to make a difference on this planet you need to show up son.” This was met by a round of applause.

And it is true. Just like the captains of industry spouting off half truths and out-right lies, they can only get away with this if people don’t show up and hold them to account.

Captain Brown stated, “I can say this hand on heart, that if every waterway was as straight forward as the Douglas Channel, for professional Mariners, we would sleep more easily in our beds at night than we actually do.”

How he can sleep at night with his conscience today after presenting such a one sided misleading and blatant corruption of facts is a wonder.

What isn’t a wonder is how only selective media were informed of this event. It was a struggle to be provided with the permission from Paul Stanway to use the recording, the Enbridge Media Guru who was apparently in charge of the media attending. It appeared to be an invite only event. Could it be they didn’t want anyone attending that might challenge their misrepresentations?

“Son, the world is run by those who show up. If you want to make a difference on this planet you need to show up son.” This bears repeating and repeating.
The Esso Bernicia next to a berthing dolphin
The Esso Bernicia next to a berthing dolphin
Mooring Dolphin
Mooring Dolphin
The rip in the lower side of the Esso Bernicia which released the bunker crude into the environment.    All tankers and freighters have these easily exposed tanks.
The rip in the lower side of the Esso Bernicia which released the bunker crude into the environment. All tankers and freighters have these easily exposed tanks.
Peterfield Grounding
Comment by Shawn Ksisiiaks on 21st March 2012
On a whim I read through the TSB report on the grounding. A very through read of the incident.

The report makes no mention of a broken steering gear. Rather partial failure of and conflicting information from the natigational equipment (plus others) resulted in a incorrect starboard turn and grounding.

Ed Note: Thank you for this Shawn. We recalled the steering gear failure from the first reports of the incident. This report was also one of the initial on the incident.

Although not clearly stating it was a steering gear failure, it was a steering failure. Again, thanks for the TSB report link.