The steel motor tanker Braer was launched as the Hellespoint Pride from the yard of Oshima Shipbuilding Company in Nagasaki on 31st May 1975. She measured 241.51m x 40.06m x 18.8m and weighed 44989 gross tons. Her 9 cylinder Sulzer oil engine by Sumitomo Industries delivered 20300 bhp. She was originally owned by Tucana Shipping Company of Singapore. Purchased by the Hancock Shipping Company registered in Monrovia she was renamed Brae Trader before she was named Braer when she was acquired by the Braer Corporation in 1990.
At 05.19 hrs on Tuesday 5th January 1993, Lerwick coastguard were advised that a tanker, the Braer, en route from Mongstad, Norway to Quebec, laden with 85,000 tonnes of Norwegian Gullfaks crude oil, had lost engine power but was in no immediate danger. She had sailed from the Norwegian port on 3rd January intending to pass through the northerly Fair Isle Strait before heading into the open Atlantic towards her destination. The journey up to this point had been fraught with problems as first four steel pipe sections which had been secured on the port side after deck broke loose and were dangerously rolling about on deck. Later on the 4th, after routine adjustments to the auxiliary boiler, difficulty was experienced in re-igniting it. This boiler was needed to pre-heat the heavy engine oil used to run the main engine and so the main engine was switched to lighter diesel fuel until the problem with the auxiliary boiler could be resolved. The final straw in this litany of problems occurred when seawater contamination in the diesel fuel stopped the engine and caused the main generator to fail at 4:40am on 5th January. It was later established that fuel lines had been damaged by the loose pipe sections allowing seawater to penetrate the fuel lines and contaminate the diesel fuel.
Her estimated position when she sent the first distress message was 10 miles south of Sumburgh Head, Shetland and she was drifting in predominantly southwesterly winds of force 10-11. The coastguard alerted rescue helicopters from Sumburgh and RAF Lossiemouth, and made enquiries about the availability of local tugs. At the Coastguard’s suggestion, the master agreed that non-essential personnel should be removed from the vessel. 14 of the 34 crew were taken off by the coastguard helicopter from Sumburgh at 08:25.
At 08:50 it was feared that the ship would founder near Horse Island and the coastguard then persuaded the 46 year old Greek Captain Alexandros S. Gkelis to abandon ship. However, because of strong northwest local currents, Braer moved against the prevailing wind and missed Horse Island, drifting towards Quendale Bay. With the arrival on scene of the anchor handling vessel Star Sirius, it was decided to attempt to try to establish a tow. The master and some personnel were taken back to the ship by helicopter and lowered back on board. Efforts to attach a heaving line were unsuccessful and, at 11:19, the Braer was confirmed grounded at Garths Ness, with oil being seen to flow out into the sea from the moment of impact. At this time, the men on board were rescued by the helicopter and taken to Sumburgh airport.
The ship was hard aground in Quendale Bay exposed to the south west gale that was now raging and was bumping heavily. Damaged as soon as she hit it was clear that a major, environmentally disastrous oil spill was inevitable. By the following morning the bay was full of oil and the slick was spreading north and south from the bay along the Shetland coast. Critically however, the oil aboard, recently recovered from the North Sea oilfields, was not as heavy as crude oil from other oilfields and breakers that were smashing the Braer to pieces were, in fact, already helping to disperse the oil very quickly. The spillage was still enormous and very damaging but thankfully the final environmental impact was much less than was initially feared. The ship, in it’s very exposed position, finally broke on January 11th and most of it disappeared beneath the surface. Only the upturned bow was visible as a reminder of the loss of the ship and eventually, around seven years later, it too vanished beneath the waves.
The wreck site of the Braer is on the west coast of Garths Ness in position 59° 53.369’N, 001° 21.512’W (WGS84). The sea here is shallow and very exposed to prevailing winds so the wreckage is smashed flat in less than 10 metres of water with little recognisable remaining.