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A Black Wave Too Far

James Skinner on The Prestige Oil Tanker Disaster

Weeks went by before anyone from the Government dared to venture to Galicia to see for him or herself exactly what had been going on. By the time some did turn up it was too late.

Part 1
‘On the 13th of November 2002, 5 miles off the northern coast of Galicia, Spain, a rusty old tanker called the ‘Prestige’ carrying 70000 tons of oil leftovers, sprang a leak in one of its tanks. For several days, whilst a plethora of gurus of all walks of life pondered on what to do with it, the doomed vessel was taken for a ride around the north Atlantic. The inevitable happened. She broke in two and sank. From that moment on the worst environmental catastrophe in history affecting the planet’s oceans was about to unfold. This is the story of a tragicomedy. It is a story involving crooks, politicians, scientists, lawyers, wheeler-dealers and many other international so-called associated professionals. The ensuing plot delves deep into the aftermath of the sinking, its effects, the eventual economical disaster, but above all it exposes the weakness and strengths of human nature. Rising to the crest of this black wave is the real heroes. The men and women of Galicia, who depend on the sea for their livelihood, took the matter into their own hands. They fought back.
‘Captain, there’s a crack in a tank!’ shouted Pablo, the Filipino deck hand as he entered the bridge. The ship was in heavy ‘gale force’ seas only a few miles off the coast. She was struggling south towards the Mediterranean with a belly full crummy oil. ‘Shit’, shouted Stradislakus, the Greek captain. ‘Reduce engines’, he bellowed at his engineer, the only other professional on board. The rest of the crew began to panic. They literally hadn’t a clue what to do. Stradi scratched his head, uttered further obscenities and after a short pause, sent off the dramatic ‘Mayday’ signal. He waited. The nearest coast guard station soon picked up his call, and as helicopters and Red Cross volunteers were sent to the rescue, a message arrived at headquarters. It read: ‘Oil tanker in peril. Carrying 70000 tons of crude’. The word soon spread around the world. It didn’t take long for the contents to literally sink in.

What to do was another matter!
‘Chema, we have a problem’, said the Minister. ‘There’s a tanker leaking oil off the coast of Galicia and the bloody Gallegos won’t let us tow it to port. Besides’, he went on, ‘I’m not sure we have the means to tow the bastard anyway’. The President took a deep breath and replied, ‘round up some experts and sort it out. Meanwhile I’ll find out who’s responsible for this! They’re going to pay’.
‘What about the opposition? What’ll I tell them’.
‘Bugger them. They’ll only blame us as they usually do’, he retorted. It was not long before the captain received a bloodcurdling radiogram, which read, ‘Start up your engines and head north, away from the coast’. The message also reached Britain and France.
‘Tony, there’s a Spanish, at least I think it’s Spanish oil tanker somewhere off the Iberian coast that’s in trouble,’ said Jack as he entered the PM’s office. ‘Trouble is, they’ve ordered it to head up this way. You know what the Cornish fishermen would do if they found out’, he added. ‘Yes, I know, I know,’ he growled back. ‘That damned Loyola has been accusing us in Brussels and somehow brought Gibraltar into it. What the hell the Rock has to do with this stupidity I don’t know’. ‘Send a note back that not on your Nelly will we allow the ship to enter our waters. It’s not our problem’.
Jack walked out of number 10 scratching his head. Back at his desk and with a grin on his face as he picked up the phone. ‘Get me the Admiralty!’

Pedro was looking out to sea. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Not far from his beloved fishing ground he could see a strange but ominous discolouring of the sea’s surface. The telltale rainbow colours were breaking through the surface of an otherwise pale blue ocean. Although the waves were menacingly huge, he took to his small fishing boat and set off towards the area. As he reached it to check it out, the nauseating but familiar smell began to enter his nostrils. ‘Oil, bloody oil!’ he thought. He turned back, docked and headed straight for his ‘local’. ‘There’s oil out there!’ he shouted out at his fellow fishing companions seated around several of the tables. ‘Coruña, God damn it, is being hit. Again!’ he sobbed as he reached for his wine. Roberto, a tough old sea lion who’d seen it all before didn’t bat an eyelid. He stood up walked to the bar and paid his bill. ‘We have to muster up the ‘Cofradias’ and get moving soon, ’ he said. ‘But what about the government?’ asked Pedro. ‘Leave it to them and they’ll screw it up. We have the fight of our lives on our hands. I’ll let you all know soon enough’, he said as he walked out of the bar.

The room was full of smoke, cigar smoke. Seated round the conference table were two shipping magnates of unknown origin, three lawyers, two insurance experts and a handful of non-entities all carrying clip boards and portable PC’s. ‘OK you guys, what’s happened?’ a voice flashed across the table. ‘Will somebody give me a brief on the ‘Prestige’!’ Mostovich stood up and walked about as silence continued to fill the room. ‘Come on ladies and gentlemen. The facts, guys, what are the facts?’ He looked at a cringing individual seated at the far end and continued, ‘she’s busted her side, she’s still afloat, why the hell won’t they let her dock? Can someone tell me why the crummy politicians don’t realise that I’m losing money by the bucketful if I don’t get my oil ashore?’ He turned and faced another pale individual. ‘What about insurance, has anyone worked out our insurance coverage? Eh?’ A young female lawyer, in her mid-thirties came forward eventually and broke the ice. ‘Sir, the world is screaming for blood because of the spill, and...’ Mostovich broke in and started laughing. Looking at her colleagues he said ‘Oil spill? What oil spill? That’s not my problem’. He thumped the table. ‘Sort it out. That’s what I've got you guys for, right?’ Silence in the boardroom reigned once again.

Over the next few days, as the tanker was moved about like an international pawn on a floating chessboard, the media started having a field day. Television stations began competing for prime spots with incredible news and film coverage. Thanks to the chat shows, the world had never realised how many experts on oil spillage there were until this ship decided to ‘test the waters’ with its liquid cargo. The papers on the other hand were great. Some of the headlines were heartbreaking. They read:
Journalists and photographers alike were in their element. ‘How about this boss? An old lady holding up a black seagull? Or this one with the little boy on the beach making black sandcastles? Huh?’ These were typical statements floating through the pressrooms as the morning editions were being assembled.

Then, one morning, almost a week after the damage, the ship sank. The many authorities involved in the initial decision making had decided to let it break up and sink. Hopefully it would settle deep enough down on the ocean bed to solve the problem. Little did they realise that the drama had just begun.’

Part II

‘They took to the beaches and to the sea’
‘We have the matter in hand. The ship is resting in deep water and the experts advise us that it’s cargo of fuel-oil, due to the cooling effect of the ocean will soon solidify and cease to cause damage’. The Vice-president of Spain a few days after the ‘Prestige’ broke in two and sank made this infamous statement. He would live to regret it!

Meanwhile, Roberto was in the process of rounding up sufficient fishermen from the north of Galicia to begin planning the massive cleanup job that lay ahead. The present situation regarding the wreck, its whereabouts and fate were not of his immediate concern. Although he was partially correct deciding to organise the ‘Cofradias’* into action, little did he realise that small leaks of oily treacle were beginning to surface above the wreck. The tanker had turned into a sort of gigantic aerosol can full of black goo with the sea acting as it’s user, constantly spraying the surface above! Roberto was not alone in his grief.

Herman stood outside his home stretching his weary limbs before preparing his usual breakfast of handouts from the village housewives. Nobody knew neither how old nor how long he’d been living in his little cave above the cliffs. Due to his fair complexion, long blond and greying hair everyone knew him as ‘the German’. For ages he’d managed to capture the hearts of the locals. TVG, the regional television station had even interviewed him on two occasions. Despite his hermit lifestyle as well as avoiding the taxman, he’d steadily built single-handedly a unique art novae rock museum. His objects were designed and constructed with whatever the sea managed to wash up. Drift wood, plastic canisters, broken fishing nets were all assembled and set together with a multitude of shapes and sizes of rocks he’d managed to collect over the years. He was a legend. Well loved by his Galician hosts he was still a loner yet content to accept the respect as well as subsistence received in exchange for a view of his art. A happy soul, that is until the sea handed him a new contribution to his portfolio. In fact the cruel sea plastered it all over his lifelong objects. He just wasn’t able to take it. With tears in his eyes, he looked at the sky, kneeled on his rock bed and passed away. He was buried at the local cemetery the following day. Galicia mourned yet again!

‘I’ve heard about the danger to our beaches and the little response from the government. What are you going to do about it?’ asked Maruxa, Roberto’s wife. ‘We’ve arranged an emergency meeting down at the ‘local’ with all the heads. We’re going to need every able-bodied seamen plus materials to clean the shit off the rocks and beaches as fast as we can. There’s no other way.’ He paused. ‘There isn’t a goddam bastard outside Galicia that has moved an inch to help.’ He continued ‘in the meantime, I need you to contact the ‘marisqueadoras’** and sort out supplies. Food, drink and any other stuff you can think of. The lads don’t only need moral support. They also need calories!’ Maruxa began thinking, ‘water, bread, ham, pots and pans for the stew, kitchens.’ She turned and looked at Roberto and said ‘what about money?’ Roberto stretched out his hands, palms up ‘this is the money, our money! This is all we need’ and walked out of the room.

Condeleeza, prim and proper as usual and always lean as a cat as she addressed her boss with news, knew that George had only one thought on his mind. Come hell or high water he was out to make Sadam eat sand, grain by grain or hang by the highest lamppost in Times Square. He’d promised dad he would! ‘I’ve had a call from Sr. Zapateiro regarding the oil spill off Spain. He’s asking for advice’, she said as she faced him. ‘Zapata? Are you sure? Isn’t he some ‘Chicano’ bandit?’ ‘No, no sir. He’s the socialist opposition leader in Spain. He’d like to know how we handled the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez back in the eighties. Remember? That’s all’, she concluded. The President thought for a moment. ‘That’s OK. The world should know we’re the good guys always ready to help. Give him all we’ve got.’ He paused and added, ‘by the way, how much did that goddam wreck cost us?’ he paused again. ‘Don’t forget that Condy, just don’t forget to charge them’.

The Spanish authorities did finally react. Once they’d realised that they had a real problem on their hands, the various ministries responsible for different sectors of the catastrophe became involved. Environmental associations, universities, scientific laboratories and other expert organisations were summoned by the government to produce their respective reports aimed at two fundamental questions: ‘What happened and what to do about it’. The armed forces were called to assist with the activities of cleaning up the beaches and the rocky shore. A task that was already underway by the thousands of volunteers both from the Galician fishermen’s ‘Cofradias’ and the rest of the citizens of Spain as well as Europe sympathetic with the locals. The government had also helped in equipping these make shift armies with the necessary tools and clothes to carry out the work. Yet they failed on the most important issue of all in any democratic society. Not one member of the ruling body turned up as soon as the alarm bells had been rung. Weeks went by before anyone dared to venture to Galicia to see for him or herself exactly what had been going on. By the time some did turn up it was too late. Their image as an able bodied government had been tarnished. Galicia was too hurt and beyond repairs both physically and psychologically.

Meanwhile back at the beaches and out at sea, the sights were impressive. It was like Dunkirk all over again. Every conceivable floating craft, large, small, fat, slim, old was out with men in white overalls and gloves, literally scooping the crap off the surface and into the awaiting buckets on board. Thousands of others were on the beaches; similarly clad scratching and scooping blob after blob of the oily smelly muck off the sand. A human chain carried the buckets to the trucks that would eventually transport the tons of oil to where it truly belonged, far away from the ocean. Day in and day out, weekends included, the men and women fought for the survival of the sea, their sea. The politicians persisted in their rhetoric and cross-accusations. Journalists from all sectors of the media plodded on with their coverage of the disaster. Yet the ‘Prestige’ continued to belch and spit out its bile as if suffering from a never-ending hangover. The last word in Galicia on everyone’s lips to this very day is ominous: ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’
What do you think?’
*Cofradías: Fishermen’s associations.
**Marisqueadoras: Seafood collectors.

© James Skinner

Read Serene Maiden - James Skinner's novel which covers the sinking of the Prestige

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