• June 1, 2015


This morning a large oil tanker, the MV Emerald Spirit, was left without engine power and drifted for an hour in the Fair Isle Channel she was on passage to Norway.

Fortunately the weather was good, the vessel soon restarted, and the incident resolved quickly and quietly.

It was just as well as the Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) which for many years were stationed by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) around Britain are no longer a feature of maritime safety around our coasts.

Coincidentally the ETV fleet (of four vessels) was introduced following the Donaldson Enquiry into the MV Braer disaster off Shetland. The MV Braer, which was smaller (89730DWT) than the vessel involved in today’s incident, also lost power off Shetland.

Initially it was thought there was no immediate danger, but four hours into the incident some of the crew of the MV Braer were evacuated and tug assistance summoned. However, despite the late arrival of a tug the MV Braer eventually drifted on to rocks and wrecked.

The incident had a serious environmental impact and would have been much worse if the Braer had been carrying heavy crude oil and not the lighter Gulfaks crude which was more biodegradable than North Sea crude oils.

Nonetheless there was considerable environmental impact and loss of life amongst sea bird populations in the area.

Lord Donaldson’s report emphasised the desirability of heavy towing capacity being available at all key points around the United Kingdom. The MCA subsequently stationed two large towing vessels in the South of England at Dover and Falmouth and two in Scotland to cover the Western Isles and Orkney & Shetland.

In 2010 the MCA cancelled the contract as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review and, while there was a brief extension and an attempt to get a Shipping Industry plan to fill the gap, the blanket cover envisaged and implemented after Donaldson has gone.

The Celtic League argued against the move at the time and contributed to the MCA working group, but to no avail.

Today’s incident with the MV Emerald Spirit shows that this is a problem that has not gone away. Will it take another Braer (Shetland), Sea Empress (SW Wales) or Prestige (Biscay) before the United Kingdom rethinks this dangerous omission to Maritime safety and environmental security?

Related links:

Emergency Towing Vessel MCA to Hold Consultative Meetings

MCA Share League Concerns but ETV Provision Will End

Loss of ETV Brings Imminent Threat to Coastal Communities

Protest Grows as Sea Rescue Cuts Looms

Emergency Tug Withdrawal: DOT Press for Copy of Risk Assessment(s)

This wiki link with a photograph of the heavy tug Anglian Monarch shows the type of cover that was available 24/7 around our Coasts.

This is an extract covering our work in this field from the League Memoire I presented at this year’s AGM:

“OIL SPILLS AND THE ETVs: Following the Braer (1993 Shetland) Oil Tanker disaster we campaigned for action including Emergency Towing Cover (pic) in critical locations. After the Sea Empress (1996 Wales) and Erika (1999 Brittany) disasters it was expanded. In place for over a decade it was finally withdrawn due to UK austerity cuts in 2012. The League made submissions to the ETV Working Group which resulted in a brief reprieve but ultimately the service was axed. (Initial correspondence A Heusaff MCA 1990s – AGM resolution Breizh 1996)”

J B Moffatt (Mr)
Director of Information
Celtic League


(Please note that replies to correspondence received by the League and posted on CL News are usually scanned hard copies. Obviously every effort is made to ensure the scanning process is accurate but sometimes errors do occur.)


The Celtic League was established in 1961and has branches in the six Celtic Countries. It works to promote cooperation between these countries and campaigns on a broad range of political, cultural and environmental matters. It highlights human rights abuse, monitors all military activity and focuses on socio-economic issues

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