A little oil on troubled waters

Back in the 1950’s some of the RFA’s fleet of tankers were hired out to commercial companies on charter. RFA Wave Emperor was one such tanker which was chartered to the Esso Standard Oil Company, and engaged in freighting oil from the Caribbean to various ports on a fixed term contract.



RFA Wave Emperor

On the 2 March 1953 RFA Wave Emperor was in ballast and lying in the tide way of New York Harbour ready to sail to Aruba to collect another cargo, when a member of the crew accidentally knocked over a drip tin under one of the discharge valves, before the scuppers could be blocked the contents of the drip tin spilled down the side of the ship and into the harbour.

Despite being under charter, the ship was still flying the RFA Ensign and a case was referred to the US State Department under the Oil Pollution Act, and that is where the story takes an interesting twist.

According to US Law of the day, oil pollution was classed as a misdemeanour and was punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 dollars, or imprisonment for between 30 days and one year, yet the case seems to have attracted something of a political problem for the Admiralty.

The Admiralty sought a solution to this problem through Diplomatic channels, and contact was made between the US State Department and the Admiralty’s Legal Department to try and have the case dismissed. The Admiralty argued that the ship was a Government vessel even though at the time she was under commercial charter and claimed Sovereign immunity.

This presented the American State Department with something of a problem as the vessel was claimed to be a ‘Publicly Owned’ vessel of a foreign government, and therefore, if they went ahead with the prosecution, who would they prosecute, would it be the company who chartered the vessel, the Admiralty or as was more likely the Captain of the ship, or the member of the crew who had knocked over the drip tin.

A feverish round of diplomatic wrangling took place and it is not clear what the outcome of this incident was, but it does seem clear that some action was taken by the US Authorities as HM Government of the day was mindful of an International Conference on Oil Pollution that was due to take place on the 26 April and it was not thought prudent to object to proceedings being taken against someone in respect of the oil pollution caused by RFA Wave Emperor.

Shortly after this incident the Wave Emperor sailed from New York to Aruba to load a cargo of oil, which was eventually discharged at Norfolk, Virginia.