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Posted on Saturday, September 02, 2000 - 01:32 pm:   

Threat of disaster from 'drunken sailors'

Exxon-Mobil is in the dock again over allegations about a tanker captain playing Russian roulette with the environment, writes Antony Barnett

Antony Barnett


Sunday August 13, 2000

An environmental disaster off the British coast was averted when the skipper of a huge oil tanker and his senior crew allegedly went drinking on land and capsized their inflatable craft on the way back, The Observer can reveal.

In an incident described as 'horrifying' by environmentalists, the Matco Clyde, owned by Exxon-Mobil and involved in one of the world's worst oil disasters, in Alaska 11 years ago, was left with a depleted crew while the skipper and three crew went out drinking in gale-force winds and rough seas.

The allegations, to be aired in a court case next month and which Exxon has tried to keep secret, hark back to 23 March this year. The Matco Clyde, which carries up to 100,000 tonnes of oil, was anchored 12 miles off Buckie in north-east Scotland.

The wind had hit force seven when the captain, chief engineer, third mate and bosun went ashore in an inflatable dinghy. According to sources, they went drinking and allegedly ignored a request by the chief mate, who was looking after the vessel, to return when the weather worsened.

At about 6pm, the captain and fellow crew tried to make their way back to the tanker in the Moray Firth when their dinghy lost power and capsized, leading to a full-scale air and sea rescue.

A helicopter airlifted the crew to RAF Lossiemouth, where a rescuer reported the crew appeared drunk. 'Their breath smelt of drink,' one source told The Observer.

An environmentalist with knowledge of the incident said last night: 'The company had to launch an investigation due to the high-profile rescue. If not for that, the incident probably would have been covered up, as is the case for most large companies.'

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency immediately revoked the captain's and the chief engineer's shipping licences, preventing them from going to sea. The agency would not comment on the details, which will be disputed in a shipping tribunal court on 18 September in Eastleigh, Hampshire. But this is the first time the agency has suspended such a licence before the outcome of a full investigation.

The crew deny that they were drunk and they have the backing of their trade union, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, which is angry that the Coastguard Agency suspended their licences before the inquiry.

It is understood that the seamen will claim they were suffering from hypothermia, which causes slurred speech and bad co-ordination, and that this might have been confused with drunkenness.

The incident involving the 18-year-old Matco Clyde will inflame sensitivities in Scotland, where locals are still dealing with the consequences of the Braer oil tanker sinking off the Shetlands in 1993, spilling more than 80,000 tonnes.

Exxon was responsible for one of the world's worst ecological disasters when the Exxon Valdez foundered off the Alaskan coast in 1989 and blighted the area with more than 11 million gallons of spilt oil.

A statement made to The Observer by Exxon said: 'We can confirm an incident took place involving crew members of the Matco Clyde while returning to the vessel in March 2000. The incident did not involve the Matco Clyde vessel. A full investigation was started immediately and crew members involved were suspended pending the result of that investigation.'

Environmental campaigners have long been concerned about drinking among crews of large oil tankers. Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'It is shocking Exxon appears not to have learnt from the Valdez disaster and is playing Russian roulette with the environment.'


Useful links:
For Friends of the Earth:


On survivors of the Exxon Valdez oil-spill:


Posted on Saturday, September 23, 2000 - 06:32 pm:   

Helicopter 'saved drunken crew'
Gerard Seenan

Tuesday September 19, 2000

Coastguards were forced to launch a hazardous rescue mission to save a group of drunken sailors after they attempted to sail 13 miles back to their ship in force six gales, a tribunal heard yesterday.

The captain and three senior crew members of the 100,000 tonne Matco Clyde oil tanker had been drinking for almost five hours in a pub in Macduff, Aberdeenshire, when they attempted to return to their ship.

The tribunal, being held in Eastleigh magistrates court, Hampshire, heard that the group, led by Captain Clive Mottram, 54, from Southampton, had arrived in the Macduff Arms at noon on March 23.

Mottram had anchored 13 miles off the coast of the fishing town and, along with chief engineer John Blamires, from Buxton, Derbyshire, and two other senior crew members, had decided to take a boat into Macduff for an afternoon's drinking session.

The group drank heavily until, shortly before 5pm, they received a call from the tanker urging them to return because of the worsening weather.

Belinda Bucknell QC, representing the maritime and coastguard agency, told the tribunal that Mottram had consumed between six and seven pints and all four crew members were drunk. Despite this, they left Macduff for the tanker while a storm brewed.

"As they attempted to steer their craft from the harbour back to the Matco Clyde, they collided with the east harbour wall, scraping 50ft along the breakwater," Mrs Bucknell said.

While concerned local people looked on, Mrs Bucknell said, the crew smashed their single-engine rig into the wall once more. The bystanders urged the crew to return to the harbour, but they responded with "an obscene gesture".

Fearing for the crew's safety, the Macduff harbourmasters alerted coastguards.

The crew had a 13 mile journey back to the tanker, but within six miles their boat ran out of petrol and was swamped.

At around 7pm, a Royal Navy helicopter managed to locate the stricken boat by the lights on the crew's lifejackets. The helicopter sent down a winch man to airlift the four to safety, but, Mrs Bucknell said, he arrived to find one of the crew slumped drunkenly over the wheel.

The tribunal heard that the semi-conscious crewman was believed to have been the captain - and another crew member was similarly inebriated.

As the crew were thought to be drunk, the helicopter pilots refused to return them to the Matco Clyde and, instead, took them to their base at Lossiemouth. They were questioned by police and Mottram and Blamires were charged with serious negligence and misconduct under the Merchant Shipping Act.

Mottram's solicitor, Stephen Kilelea, said that as a result of the incident his client had been dismissed by Mobil, the tanker owners, after more than 25 years' service.

But Mr Kilelea said his client had not been drunk and had not consumed the quantities of alcohol suggested by the MCA. He said Mottram had shown symptoms of alcohol abuse, but was actually suffering from a mix of hypothermia and low blood sugar.

Later Captain James Ebdy, who had been aboard his ship in Macduff harbour on the afternoon on the incident, said he had watched the crew trying to get into the rig to return to the tanker.

"They were taking longer to put on their survival suits - in excess of five minutes. They were very slow and deliberate as they started to descend the steps. I believe they were intoxicated," he said.

The hearing continues.

Posted on Friday, September 29, 2000 - 03:36 pm:   

Suspensions for two in drunken sailors case
Helen Carter

Wednesday September 27, 2000

The captain of a 100,000-tonne oil tanker who sparked a sea rescue after attempting to sail back to his ship in force six gales after a four-hour drinking session, was declared fit to serve at sea by a tribunal yesterday.

But the hearing ruled that Clive Mottram, of Southampton, had been negligent and incompetent in charge of his duties.

His captain's licence was suspended for 14 months, but he will be able to take up a captaincy at sea next year as he has already been suspended for six months.

His chief engineer John Blamires, from Buxton, Derbyshire, was also found guilty of negligence and misconduct and had his licence suspended for six months by the tribunal at Eastleigh magistrates court, Hampshire.

Coastguards had been forced to launch a hazardous rescue mission to save the group of four sailors who were attempting to sail 13 miles back to their ship, the Macro Clyde, in March.

After an afternoon of heavy drinking in the fishing village of Macduff, near Aberdeen, they received a call urging them to return to the tanker.

As they attempted to steer their 16ft craft Sea Rider from the harbour, they collided with a wall. Six miles out to sea, the craft was hit by a wave and started to take on water.

Lionel Persey QC, who chaired the inquiry, said both Mottram and Blamires had previously unblemished records. When they were rescued, their alcohol levels were below the drink drive limit.

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