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Accident date
Accident area
Off Cape Finisterre, Galicia
Spill area
Cause of spill
Structural damage
Quantity transported
77, 000 tonnes
Nature of pollutant
heavy fuel oil (n°2, M100)
Quantity spilled
64, 000 tonnes
Ship / structure type
Oil tanker (Single hull)
Built date
Hitachi Zosen-Maizuru Works, Maizuru, Japan
243.5 m
14 m
Mare Shipping Inc., Libéria
Universe Maritime, Greece
Crown Resources AG, Suisse
P&I Club
London Steamship Association
Classification society
American Bureau of Shipping

The accident

On Wednesday 13 November 2002, the single-hulled oil tanker Prestige, flying the Bahamas flag, sent a distress call offshore in the region of Cape finisterre (Galicia, Spain). The tanker, carrying 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil loaded in St Petersburg (Russia) and Ventspils (Latvia), was heading to Singapore via Gibraltar. The vessel developed a reported 30 degree starboard list whilst on passage in heavy seas and strong winds and hence requested partial evacuation of the crew.

Twenty-four of the twenty-seven crew members were evacuated by helicopter while the captain, the first mate and the chief mechanic stayed onboard. The engine was damaged and the ship went out of control and drifted according to the weather conditions. Aerial observation revealed a fuel leak at sea.

All night long, the tug boats Ria de Vigo, Alonso de Chaves, Charuca Silveira and Ibaizabal I from SASEMAR (Sociedad de Salvamento y Seguridad Maritima), the Spanish organization in charge of sea rescue and pollution control, tried to take the oil tanker in tow.

The emergency towing system of the ship didn’t work and the different attempts failed. In the end, the Prestige was taken in tow by a ship from Smit Salvage on 14 November. It was towed to the north-northwest all day, and then to the south. On the 15th, it was torn over 35 metres on the right side. On the 16th, its towing was turned to the south-west to avoid the Portuguese waters. On the 19th at 9 am, the vessel broke in two, coordinates 42°15N and 12°08W, about 130 nautical miles off the Spanish coasts, west-southwest of Cape Finisterre. At 12 pm, the stern part of the Prestige sank into 3500 metres of water. The bow part followed at about 4 pm.

One of the characteristics of this spill was the weathering process of the oil that remained out at sea for a considerable period of time. This spill was "unique" in many respects, first with regard to drift, as it was really the very first time that a spill managed to contaminate 6 countries, and weathering, not to mention the highly significant effect of the slick break-up process and how that had an effect on the choice of response measures and techniques off shore and then inevitably on shore.

The offending oil was tracked throughout the entire time it was drifting in and around the Bay of Biscay and the westernmost reaches of the English Channel, thanks to French and Spanish floating buoys and ship-based and aerial data that was fed into various slick drift forecast models. The main slick spilt up into so many smaller ones on account of the wind and current regimes prevailing in the area that the oil drifted seemingly forever before eventually landing on the beaches in France and even then only after a period of steady westerly winds.

Legal proceedings

The court case began on 16 October in A Coruña (Spain). A few figures: 1,500 claimants forming 55 civil parties, 300,000 pages of documents, 133 witnesses, around 100 experts, 4 main defendants: the Greek captain of the oil tanker, the first mate, the chief engineer and the former head of the Spanish merchant navy. Some of them risk up to a 12-year prison sentence for damage to the environment and to a protected natural area. The judges sought to assign responsibility to the Spanish administration.

Some other figures: 1,140 oiled beaches, 2,900 km of coastline affected in France, Spain and Portugal and between 115,000 and 230,000 dead birds.

In France, 17 coastal communes in the Landes area affected by the pollution joined forces to form a civil party. The Spanish state, unlike France, does not recognise environmental damages and many French victims could therefore not make claims. The claimants called for the repair of non-economic losses. In this respect, they claimed €2.8 million for Les Landes, €3.4 for Vendée and €1 million for Brittany.

Two days after it opened, the case was adjourned until 13 November 2013. This request, from defence lawyers who disputed the evidence and expertise presented, was accepted by the judge.

After 8 months of hearings and eleven years to the day since the accident, the Spanish judge delivered his verdict to A Coruña provincial court on 13th November 2013. The captain, chief mechanic and the head of the Merchant Navy at the time were found not guilty of causing damage to the environment and to natural protected areas. The fourth defendant, the second officer, is on the run. The court could not formally establish any criminal responsibility. Given that no criminal liability was found, the Spanish court dismissed the compensation claims by the French and Spanish States for damages valued at around €4 billion.

Only the captain was found guilty of any charge, and was sentenced to 9 months in prison for "serious disobedience of authority": he had initially refused to have the vessel towed out to sea at the time of the accident. Due to his age, the 78-year-old will not serve his sentence.
This acquittal met with general outrage in Spain and in the hours following its announcement the social network Twitter exploded with furious reactions towards the captain, the court and Spanish politicians. Vigipol, the joint union for the Breton shoreline, denounced the ruling and announced that it would examine the possibilities of appeal against this decision.

On 18th November 2013, the Spanish State announced that it was to appeal to the Spanish Supreme Court over the verdict on the exemption of civil liability. The Spanish State did not question the verdict on the captain's criminal responsibility.

On 22nd November, the French State also lodged an appeal, for the same reasons as Spain. The cost for French victims totalled an estimated €110 million, €68 million of which was borne by the State for pollution response.

Last update on 01/04/2014

See also

Sea &Shore Technical Newsletter, 2017, Number 46

Sea &Shore Technical Newsletter, 2012, Number 35

External links

Sea Alarm, Full report on Sea Alarm’s involvement

NOAA database (IncidentNews)

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