THE CYPRIOT OIL-TANKER Amoco Milford Haven, later known simply as the Haven, was launched in 1973. The twin of the Amoco Cadiz, which sank, notoriously, in 1978 (The Biggest Wreck In The World, Diver, February 2000), the Haven was incredibly big, 334m long and displacing 110,000 tons. Centro Immersioni Techdive in Varazze conducts dives to the Haven, 00 39 019 95250, e-mail: email@example.com
Even broken in two, as it is now, it is certainly the Mediterraneans biggest wreck.
The Haven might have been decommissioned after 1987, after being damaged by a missile in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. Instead she was extensively repaired and modernised in a Singapore shipyard, and resumed operations, running from Irans Kharg Island to the Mediterranean.
Then, soon after mid-day on 11 April 1991, as the big ship lay seven miles off Genoa in Italy, an explosion occurred.
The Haven had at that stage unloaded 80,000 of 230,000 tons of the crude oil in its holds and separated from the Multedo floating platform. The rest of the oil was to be unloaded later, and a routine internal transfer operation was being carried out, with oil being pumped from two side-holds into a central one.
I heard a very loud noise, like iron bars beating against each other, said First Officer Donatos Lilis later. Perhaps the cover of a pump had broken. Then there was an awful explosion.
Five crewmen died as fire broke out, and oil started leaking from the hull as the plates overheated. The flames rose 100m high, a series of further explosions occurred, and 30-40,000 tons of oil poured into the sea. For three days, dense black clouds of smoke blotted out the sun over a wide stretch of the Italian coast.
Hundreds of men fought the blaze. Meanwhile more than six miles of inflatable barriers, submerged a metre below the surface, were extended around the vessel.
By the following day the Havens bow was beneath the surface. It was feared that the hull had broken in two, and that leakage would now be uncontrollable. The Haven was ordered to be towed close to the coast, in a bid to reduce the coastal area affected and make intervention easier. A steel cable was passed around the rudder - but the Haven was too far gone.
The bow section had come to rest in 450m of water, and on 14 April, a Sunday morning, the 250m-long main body sank a mile and a half from the coast, between Arenzano and Varazze.
On her way down the Haven grazed a rocky spur, though fortunately not hard enough to open any new holes in the hull, and came to rest at an angle on the flat, sandy seabed.
A few days later the wreckage was checked by a diver in a minisub. He reported that most of the 80,000 tons of crude had burnt or was at the surface. Most of that on the surface was able to be sucked up, and what remained below was in a solid state.
At the end of last year I was able to dive the Haven, with Gino Sardi from Centro Immersioni Techdive.
We set off beneath a cloudy sky on the 20-minute journey from Varazze Harbour on the dive centres powerful inflatable. We moored to the buoy that marks the Havens position, and Gino put the decompression station in place. The wreck lay below in 83m of water.
We followed the rope down to the shallowest point of the wreck, the first bridge section in 33m. Continuing down, we entered the wheelhouse, from which the captain would have manoeuvred the big tanker. It was almost empty - there were no gauges, instruments or controls. Everything had been burned away in the very high temperatures before the sinking.
We investigated steps leading down to some of the cabins, in one of which we found a large fish that disappeared as we flashed our torches. Only the metal parts of the beds could be made out.
Our descent continued inside the wreck and we emerged at 50m. Looking sternwards, the high funnel lay immediately before us. It would once almost have reached the surface, but had been cut off at 33m so as not to endanger shipping.
We swam towards the rudder at our maximum depth of 65m. Beneath it, the big propeller was still in place, though it was too dark to see the bottom. But looking up from this point, the tanker was majestic.
We started back, stopping to examine a big winch covered with shells and clouds of damselfish. A scorpionfish lurked beneath some steps, which we followed down to find an area within the steel skeleton where marine life was taking hold.
Almost at the upper bridge, I could see the side wings, about 10m long and used for mooring the vessel when in harbour. These wings had been bent by the high temperatures. Following the upper deck, we found the rope that would bring us up to the decompression station.
On the way back I had taken time to look for further signs of life growing on the scorched sheets of metal. That the wreck is so well colonised is down to the burning away of the paint and antifouling layers. Aided by currents, the Haven has attracted all the filter-feeding creatures such as crinoids and ascidians, and there are plenty of holes to be occupied.
But fishermen dont care about crinoids or ascidians - their catches in the surrounding area are reported to have halved. The sinking of the Haven remains the worst oil-pollution incident ever to occur in the Mediterranean Sea.
The vessel was owned by the Troodos Group, and its owners Stelios Haji Ioannou (better known as the publicity-conscious proprietor of EasyJet) and his father were prosecuted in Italy in both 1997 and 1998 on charges including manslaughter, extortion and attempting to bribe a witness following the sinking.
They were cleared, and the sinking blamed on human error rather than the negligence which would have cost the Haji-Ioannous $1 billion in claims (as it was it cost $200m).
However, the case is due to come up on appeal before the Italian Supreme Court again, 11 years after the Havens sinking.