On Saturday March 18 1967, around half past six in the morning, the first officer of the Torrey Canyon realised that his vessel was in the wrong place. The 300m-long ship was hurrying north past the Scilly Isles, 22 miles off the tip of Cornwall in the southwest of England, with more than 119,000 tonnes of crude oil. The aim was to pass west of the islands, but the ship was further east than expected. The officer changed course, but when the sleep-deprived captain Pastrengo Rugiati was awoken, he countermanded the order. A two-hour detour might mean days of waiting for the right tides, so Rugiati decided instead to carry on through the treacherous channel between the Scilly Isles and the mainland. Most serious accidents have multiple causes. A series of mistakes or pieces of bad luck line up to allow disaster. The Torrey Canyon was hampered by an unforgiving schedule, barely adequate charts, unhelpful winds and currents, confusion over the autopilot, and the unexpected appearance of...

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