SEVEN STONES, ISLES OF SCILLY Oct/Nov 1985/2016

First published: The Cornishman, October 1985

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The undersea reef known as the Seven Stones lies seven miles east-north-east of St Martin’s Head in the Isles of Scilly. The reef is a country in its own right. Pollard, South Stone, Flat Ledge, North East and Flemish Ledges make up the Stones, great fists and blades of sea-polished rock, black and striated and marbled white like shark’s teeth. At dead low water of Spring tides, the Stones raise their heads. The Pollard dries eight feet.

On March 18, 1967, the Pollard had its ears clipped by the super tanker Torrey Canyon; the Pollard won. Now, in the dim seething undertow of the reef, the great ship lies in pieces. Skin divers say that after nearly twenty years, nothing has colonised the hulk.

Although the main tops of the Seven Stones ‘dry’ for several feet on low water springs, you see them rarely, even from a vessel close-to, although in big ground seas, the swell can break suddenly across the Pollard and always closer than you think. It is like being snapped at.

The tides round the Seven Stones are hard and sudden in their streams. Even in flat calm, the ebb takes off like a river through the sea. The force of the stream can turn a sizeable boat three times about. Yet, in some years, there is lucrative crawfish ground to the west of the Stones. The central area of the reef  is known variously as The Village or The Town, where there is good lobster fishing. However, working inside the Stones is best suited to small vessels. Larger crabbers have been known to work inside, but not without paying a high price eventually. The Seven Stones will not move aside for anyone.

This is a strange uneasy world caught between the true seabed and the rocky outliers off St Martin’s Head. The channel fairway lies to the east of the Stones; it is broad, deep and safely navigable and is watched over by the Seven Stones lightship moored over two miles north east of the Stones. This is a hard berth in winter’s deepest storms, but ‘The Ship’ is essential to the safety of all vessels, other than an errant supertanker with a braking distance of seven miles to go.

SEVEN STONES 2016

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We remembered the day, Tuesday, March 28, 1967, ten days after the grounding of the Torrey Canyon. In a broad stony field at Higher Carnyorth, on the north coast of the Land’s End Peninsula, Mrs Betty Sykes, her young son and I were scattering nitrate pellets, preparing the cleared and raked ground for planting potatoes.  It was like some biblical parody; scattering nitrate ‘seed’ instead of seed corn. I worked for a time for Betty and her husband Donald, who farmed a difficult handful of acres across that hard country. We knew all about the grounding of the Torrey Canyon. It was the talk of the western land.

The tanker was nearly a thousand feet long and had a draught of nearly seventy feet; it had been lengthened, ‘jumboized’, during the oil boom years of the 1960s, thus doubling its capacity. It was carrying 100,000 tons of oil and was a lumbering catastrophe waiting to happen. It was American-owned, sailed under a Liberian flag of convenience and was charted by British Petroleum. The usual suspects. As much as thirty-one million gallons of oil leaked from the ship and spread across the sea and onto the English and French coasts. Tens of thousands of seabirds were killed and foreshore life was destroyed. It took years for a recovery that may still have left marine life depleted irreparably.

The tanker had struck on March 18 and a scramble to contain its haemorrhaging oil was well underway. Containment was disorganised and misdirected. The immediate tactic was to dump 10,000 gallons of ‘detergent’  that were sprayed, dumped and poured across the sea and beaches. Detergent was a cosier name for what was in truth highly toxic ‘solvent emulsifier’ that is believed to have done more damage to marine life than the crude oil would have done.

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BOMBING

After ten anxious days, the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, his intent even more focused perhaps because of his close connections with the Isles of Scilly, ordered bombing of the still visible wreck in a bid to ignite the oil. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy dropped over 160 bombs and over 5,000 gallons of kerosene on the Torrey Canyon. All of this had little effect. Rockets were even fired at the wreck in the wake of an embarrassing ‘miss’ rate of a quarter of the bombs dropped. Finally, the planes dumped 1,500 tons of napalm, the notorious and vicious ‘anti-personnel’ mix of gelling agent and petroleum that until then Britain had denied stockpiling. All of this firepower had little effect and the wreck finally broke up and sank among the mythical  ‘Towers of Lesoweth/Lyonesse’ while its oil bled away in a long and deadly slick across the sea.

On that March day in 1967, it was the first successful strikes by the warplanes that made our field day memorable at Trewellard. It was a grey day but the sky and sea were a vast canvas, the visibility crystal clear. Betty Sykes called out suddenly and there, far out across the sea, a great plume of black smoke mounted rapidly into the sky. There were distinct flashes of orange flame within the surface smoke. It was an unforgettable image that stays with me to this day and that crosses my mind each time I drive past Higher Carnyorth Farm.

LIGHT RELIEF

At the time of the Torrey Canyon wreck, I lived in a ramshackle old caravan in the small field adjoining the Sykes’ farmhouse.  Sharing the field for light relief were twenty or so chickens, a few heifers and a hermaphrodite pig we had dubbed Henry the Eighth. This was in the days when there was no mini-industrial estate at Trewellard. Instead, Donald Sykes’ old barns stood in its place. There was no estate of houses opposite as there is today; instead, a muddy field where my caravan and the carnival of animals held sway. Henry the Eighth would sprawl in front of the caravan steps on fine evenings. I still played guitar (badly) in those days – echoing memories from the Count House Folk Club just across the fields at Botallack. When I sang, Henry would fall happily asleep and snore peacefully. He was an appreciative old soul. Eventually Donald had to send Henry to market. I ate no bacon sandwiches for some years after.

Sometimes, the poet Sydney Graham called at the caravan on his way home along the rolling Cornish road from a session at Roger Hilton’s house at Botallack.  Sydney fell in rather than called in. Roared in… He would demand that I read him my latest sad scribblings and would then, with furious contempt, denounce them as juvenile rubbish. He was right, of course. I wrote no more verse for some years thereafter until Denys Val Baker drew me, with kindly encouragement, into his wonderful Cornish Review magazine. Even a slight verse or a very short story would earn a little Celtic cheque of half a guinea from Denys. He was a lovely man.  A kindly postscript to Sydney Graham’s towering critique came many years later when I had become a professional scribbler. Sydney, near the end of his life, sent me an inspiring letter praising my writing with sincerity. Funny old souls, writers…

WORKING THE STONES

Years after watching the blitzing of the Torrey Canyon, I worked the western edge of the Seven Stones reef for crawfish as a deckhand and then as a skipper. Once, on a day of untroubled sea but with big swells we were waiting for gear to rise on the slack. Decca Navigator was the main electronic fix in those days, accurate enough but nothing like modern devices for pinpointing precise locations. There was an easterly drift as the flood eased. The vessel drifted imperceptibly.  I had just checked the Decca readings when the Pollard cracked suddenly on a huge swell right alongside. Its hoary old head seemed to rear out of the water. It was a skipped heartbeat and a jump away and I put that boat hard over at full bore like a stung horse as the Stones roared and foamed and raged astern as if cheated of their prey.

No such chance for the Torrey Canyon. The super tanker took several miles to stop and a very long time to shift its course. The story was that the master was late for high tide at Milford Haven where oil was offloaded. Super tankers needed high water to enter the port and if the Torrey Canyon missed its slot, they would have to wait another week to discharge. The company would lose huge amounts of money in penalties. Cash ruled, as always.

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OFFICIAL RECORD

The proper track for a tanker the size of the Torrey Canyon was west of Scilly. The official record shows that the vessel was meant to do this but that she had drifted east onto a heading up channel between the islands and the mainland. If so, she should have cleared east of the Ship in the deepest water. The official conclusion was that by the time the master realised he was in deadly danger it was too late to bear off east and his only way was to keep to the west of the Stones. This was not a wise choice for a super tanker. There are patches of high ground, such as the pinnacled Bristow, that trim the narrow way even more and there were Breton fishing boats working the channel.  Countless other rumours of poor seamanship emerged, stories of confusion over whether or not the autopilot was engaged, of the master being in his bunk until a last minute rousting found him half-asleep and confronted with last minute decisions as the Torrey Canyon drove at full speed towards infamy on the Pollard.

One man died in the wake of the grounding, the captain of the Dutch salvage tug, Utrecht. The priceless biodiversity of a vast amount of seabed, seashore and marine life was devastated.  Life too ended in a way for the master of the Torrey Canyon. A notorious and brutal photograph of him did the media rounds. He had been tracked to a psychiatric ward in an Italian hospital. The guilt at such a disaster would destroy the mind of anyone. Paparazzi of the day pursued him until they found him hiding, terrified, beneath a table. The picture was unconscionable, inhumane. He was a man marked for life, his entire being concentrated forever on the ‘Towers of Lyonesse’ – the Pollard, South Stone, Flat Ledge, North East and Flemish Ledges – a vicious circle in the sea.

* It was not only the Cornish coast that the Torrey Canyon blighted. Even more damage was done to the Channel Islands and Brittany.  On Guernsey, recovered oil was dumped into a quarry on the Chouet headland. The legacy remains at this ‘Torrey Canyon Quarry’. The cruel attrition of the oil continues, filling the air of Chouet with its foul stench and trapping birds in its lethal grip.

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Torrey Canyon Quarry, Chouet, Guernsey

5 Comments

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  1. Linda Camidge Nov 7, 2016 — 10:15 am

    A fascinating piece – thank you. An interesting little codicil is that one of the tabloids apparently reported the (by implication backward and superstitious) people of Penzance falling to their knees and praying in the streets for the disaster to be avoided. the Mayor was not amused and sent off a stiff letter…

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  2. Linda Camidge Nov 7, 2016 — 10:19 am

    Lovely piece, Des – thanks.

    By the way, I have been meaning to ask you – do you have anything you can send me about the graffiti you showed us on that long-ago walk, up the hill at Morvah?

    I continue to reflect on your wisdom at not being a Litfest trustee. Did I say that already?

    Hope to see you at the selection meet if you’re still here, but if not enjoy the Australian summer,

    Linda

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    • Thank you Linda! Yes, the Torrey Canyon said everything about ‘corporate oil’ and tabloid dimwittery, never mind government deceit about napalm. I think I have something about the Carn Galver graffiti. Will seek it out.Trusteeship? Keep saying it to yourself – heroically.
      If selection meet is at Rachel’s on the 17th, I’ll be there.

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  3. Stephen Young Nov 16, 2016 — 2:47 am

    A small bottle of Torrey Canyon oil sits lonely on a Canadian shelf. Crack open the bottle top and I’m immediately transferred back in time to Sennen, U.S. Troops on beach clean up and Blackburn Bucceneers flying overhead and my Gollies smeared in oil.

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