The First Oil Tanker To Come To Milford Haven

From the beach at Sandy Haven one can look out into the Milford Haven Waterway and see Thorne Island with its fort and the end of what used to known as the “Esso jetty”.   It was built extending 1000m out into the Milford Haven Waterway to reach the deep water channel for the super-tankers of the Esso oil refinery.  The latter was built between 1957 and 1960 when it opened with a capacity of processing 4.5 million tons of crude oil per year.   The refinery was closed in March 1983.   The site today is used as a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal owned by Exxonmobile and is known as the South Hook LNG Terminal.  The old oil refinery jetty is now used for berthing the vast LNG tankers that arrive from Qatar.

As a schoolboy attending Milford Haven Grammar School, there as much talk in the town about the first oil refinery to be built in Pembrokeshire on the shores of the Milford Haven Waterway.  This long valley flooded by the sea had been described by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson on a visit the town in August 1802 as together with Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as being the two best harbours he had ever seen. To make way for the oil refining industry in the 1960’s,  farms were obtained  by compulsory purchase orders and the Esso refinery was built  between Milford Haven and Dale on the north shore of the waterway.

The very first oil tanker to arrive with the first cargo of crude oil was the 36,000 ton Esso Portsmouth.  She arrived on 8th July 1960, dressed overall in flags to celebrate the occasion. The ship was 669 feet long, 90.4 feet wide with a draft of 47.45 feet.   Her hull was divided into 33 tanks for carrying oil and some ballast water. She weighed 24,125 tonnes and carried a cargo of 32,000 tons of crude oil.   On the day after she berthed at the new Esso refinery jetty, five massive explosions ripped through the tanker and a vast plume of roiling grey smoke rose up and was drifted by the south-westerly wind to curve over above the east side of Milford Haven town.  The explosions were heard seven miles away in Haverfordwest and in Pembroke.  Many of the inhabitants including myself walked down to the Rath – the grass covered slopes at the front of the town to see what was happening.  It was rather frightening as we had been told that the new industry was perfectly safe and would provide great benefit to the town.  As I looked up at the expanding cloud over my head I had no idea what was happening or what would happen.   One began to understand how a citizen of Pompeii might have felt when looking up at the rising explosion clouds over Mt Vesuvius.

Happily the fire was brought under control, but one crewman died in the explosions. He left a wife and 5 children.  The accident was caused first by the breaking of two loading arms that resulted in a rather large spill of around 1,200 tons of oil on the jetty and the deck of the ship.  This was soon ignited by a spark from a temporary air dryer, as essential equipment on the jetty had not been completed by the contractors at the time of the berthing.   The explosions were caused by the fire reaching some of the 33 oil tanks aboard the ship.  The fire began at around 0620 am and was extinguished on the jetty around 0730 and aboard the tanker around noon. The ship was badly damaged.   The damaged central section was cut out and a new section 200 feet long inserted, that increased her overall length to 733 feet.  The repairs required the use of 4,000 tons of steel.  In 1972 she was sold and renamed the Winson.  On 7th August 1975 while under tow in the South China Sea she sank.

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