Maritime Cork: Chance brought Betelgeuse into Bantry Bay

Maritime Cork: Chance brought Betelgeuse into Bantry Bay

Aerial view of the Whiddy Island oil tanker Betelgeuse disaster at Bantry.

“Destiny is no matter of chance.” I often wonder about chance and destiny when I think of the tragedy of the Betelgeuse oil tanker at Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay.

I was at the 40th anniversary remembrance ceremonies today , driving once again to Bantry and remembering how different it was that morning of January 8, 1979 when, before 2am I was rushing from Cork towards the huge red glow in the sky that I could see from the city, which seemed to grow fiercer all the way west.

The scene on the main street in the town when I got there remains in my mind.

A ball of fire seemed to hang in the sky from over Whiddy. Occasionally there were small explosions and flames would leap into the night sky. There was a sense of fear. It was, to me, an unearthly scene - moments of quietness, then more explosive sounds from out on Whiddy Island to where no one would take me. The only ones getting out were firefighters and rescue personnel.

That 42 French, seven Irish and one British national died on Whiddy when the Betelgeuse exploded was difficult to grasp. So too, is the ‘chance’ factor in the circumstances which brought the ship to where she was not originally scheduled to be. This is one of the lesser-known facts about the tragedy.

The tanker was built in 1968 by Chantiers de l'Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire, France, of 121,432 tonnes deadweight. Its name Betelgeuse originates from the Arabic phrase meaning “the shoulder of the central one” or “the hand of Orion,” the star in the constellation of Orion. It was owned and registered by Total S.A. at Le Havre, France.

On November 24, 1987, the Betelgeuse sailed from Ras Tanura, the Saudi Arabian main oil terminal port in the Persian Gulf, bound for Leixões, one of Portugal's major seaports, just north of the mouth of the Douro River, near the city of Porto, with a full cargo of oil aboard. She was to call at Sines, near Lisbon, but weather conditions were unfavourable for the ship to enter that harbour. More difficulties faced her there at Leixões. Another vessel had gone aground across the harbour entrance and Betelgeuse could not enter to discharge cargo. ‘Chance’ had intervened. She was instructed to sail for Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, which had depth and facilities to handle her.

En route she put into Vigo in Spain and changed some of the crew who were due to go on leave. They, it would transpire, were the lucky ones to get off the ship. ‘Chance’ favoured them.

After Christmas, on December 30, 1978, Betelgeuse left for Bantry and ran into heavy weather in the notorious Bay of Biscay. She reported an oil leak aboard. Company shore administration responded with an instruction to head for Brest in France at reduced speed for repair. However, the ship’s own engineers traced the origin of the leak, stopped it and resolved the problem. So ‘chance’ intervened again and the Betelgeuse held course Bantry Bay, where she arrived on January 4, 1979.

She would last barely four more days.

“Destiny is no matter of chance” were words famously uttered by the American orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan, whose mother was of Irish ancestry. Controlling the Democratic Party in the United States in the early 1900s, he had failed in three election attempts to become President of the United States, concluding it was not his destiny. However, ‘chance’ intervened several times to bring the Betelgeuse to Whiddy, which turned out to be her destiny.

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