Bang in the night – The Exocet affair

Onboard ULCC Hawaii. I was lying on the bunk in the pilot cabin adjacent to the wheelhouse, asleep dreaming on how I would spend my danger money, I had seen a second hand DB4 during my last visit to the the UK, that took my fancy, however I ended up buying a yacht, a 24 foot Cornish Crabber, (see previous chapters), when a sodding great bang woke me up. The cabin immediately fill up with smoke, “shit! we have been hit”, was my immediate thought, I grabbed my torch and bag and went into the wheelhouse, it was bedlam, it was obvious a state of confusion was present. I went out onto the bridge wing, a huge sheet of flame was coming from the engine room skylight, it extended to the top of the funnel.

The attack which was from an Iraqi helicopter gunship occured when the vessel was about four hours out of the Iranian oil terminal of Kharg Island, where the vessel had loaded 350,000 tons of crude oil, destined for the Ain Suknah pipeline in Egypt, then onto Europe.


This occurred during the Iraqi / Iranian tanker war, when both countries were attacking vessels coming to and from their respective ports.

The Hawaii was owned by a London Greek company, manned by Greeks. The vessel had suffered heavy cargo losses, I had been hired to witness the loading and investigate the looses. I suspected these losses were ‘paper losses’. The Iranian were calculating oil quantities using antiquated tables, whereas the oil companies were using the more modern ASTM-IP tables. The Iranians refused to use these as they were American. It turned out I was correct, the tanker loading computer programs I had written soon sorted it out, there were no losses or if there was it was minimal. Iranians calculated in cubic meters whereas the industry standard was US barrels, this no help either.

Iranian crude oil contained a lot of water, due to ship and pipeline damage. The quantity had to agreed upon by the Iranian Terminal and the vessels and deducted from the cargo loaded figures. This was open to a lot of fiddling. One owner got caught out and ended up with a lot more water than was measured at the loading terminal. Their next vessel was to load from a Kharg shuttle tanker at Sirri Island. Oil was normally shipped from Kharg to Sirri by Iranian owned or chartered vessels; when there was a short of shuttles, (many were ‘put out of action by Iraqi attacks), a non Iranian vessel was invited to load at Kharg, as was the case with the Hawaii. The price of oil from Kharg where risks were high, was much cheaper than oil loaded at the relatively safe port of Sirri Island, near the entrance to the Gulf.

The Iranians had stated that there was no water in the cargo. Owners rightly enough were suspicious and sent me to Sirri Island to investigate, they had refused to load from the shuttle until an independent survey was carried out, that was me. We sampled the tanks, no water was found. Smug Iranians until I went down the pump room and checked the bearing of the three cargo pumps, they were extremely hot. They had been circulating the liquid in the tanks around the vessel, mixing the water with the oil. They had stopped pumping when they saw my launch approaching. I sealed the cargo pumps and returned a few days later after allowing the water to settle out and resampled the tanks and found a lot of water. If the vessel had loaded the oily/water mix, (as it was only oil was transferred), the water would have settled out and have been found at the discharge port, the vessel heavily fined. In some instances vessels were accused of ‘stopping off’ and stealing the oil and topping up the tanks with water.

Back to the attack on the Hawaii

In the wheelhouse panic rained, it was immediately apparent to me that no “what if”, continuance plans had been drawn up, this amazed me coming from the RFA where we had continuance plans / exercises for everything. No attempt had been made to fight the fire, later I checked the engine room foam smothering system, it had not been employed, however when I checked a few days later when the fires were out, the valves had been opened to give the impression that the system had been employed. It was decided to launch a lifeboat, no way could the vessel possible sink with all the cargo tanks intact. I pointed this out and was ignored.

The crew got into the lifeboat, including the Chief Engineer as it was a motor lifeboat his expertease might be needed! The Captain attempted to follow him, until I pointed that the captain is meant to go down with the ship, he was not amused but stayed on board along with three others. We adjourned to the forecastle where we watched the fire gradually die down. At daylight two Iranian fire tugs arrived and pumped tons of water on board destroying the accommodation, which was not on fire. They aimed two fire hoses across the front of the accommodation housing, to prevent us from entering, while they looted the cabins. Crew owned electronics and other desirable items were transferred to the tugs. They then headed for shore.

The lifeboat returned early the next morning. A very cold (it was mid winter) and hungry crew members climbed back on board. Later a launch arrived to take the crew off to be repatriated, The captain and chief engineer were ordered to remain on board, one other also stayed. The captain ordered me off the ship, I refused, I was here to look after the cargo and while that remained on board so was I, besides which my danger bonus was being paid by the day, I stood to make a lot of money by staying onboard as long as possible.

A couple of days later a Smitt Tak salvage tug arrived, we were shown documents that stated that they had been hired by the owners to tow the vessel to Sharjah, where they would be pumping the cargo out into other vessels. I attended these operations too, but my bonus stopped on arrival at Sharjah. We set off on the slow passage down the Gulf to Sharjah, without any idea what was going on. I put up with this for a day, got bored, found then the VHF radio in the wheelhouse was undamage, I found some electrical cable and run a cable from the emergency batteries on the monkey island to the VHF set and switched on. We could speak to the outside world. Any of the three crew members who remained on board could have done this, but they just seemed to be in a permanent state of trance.

We arrived at Sharjah, I left returning later to monitor the discharges.

The Hawaii was deemed to be a CTL, not economical to repair, but the days of ULCC’s was over. It is pity as she was a very fine vessel, built for Brostrom Tanker AB of Sweden, she had excellent accommodation, a gym, swimming pool, sauna etc.

The Exocet entry point, fuel oil settling tank. Most Exocets were duds, they did not explode, just made a hole. The one which hit the Hawaii was not a dud, it entered the heated oil tank and exploded.
The ‘hole’, flames rose to the top of the funnel, burning off the paint so the original owners colours were visible.

Photos taken during the STS off Sharjah

The cargo control room, fire and water damage


Through the company who employed me, I did a lot of work during the ‘tanker war’, including reporting back on damage to vessels the missiles and used their effectiveness etc. At the end of the war, my boss a Commander RNR head of the local British Legion etc, received the MBE. He had stayed well out of harm’s way, arranging parties for visiting RN vessels, probable the reason for the MBE. No glory or medals for me, I was content with the bonuses. He was not a nice person! On one occasion, he sent me out to survey damage to a gas carrier that was leaking a very dangerous gas (VCM) without a respirator, “no problem, the holes have been plugged, I am busy, otherwise I would go”. The vessel’s dome tanks had been hit with RPG’s fired from a chap in a speed boat, the resulting holes in the tank were small and easily plugged with wooden plugs. One plug blew out, I got a whiff of the gas, it was just like being drunk. The crew had jumped overboard when the vessel was hit. I was not given time to check what VCM was, if I had I would have refused to go. Exposure to the gas can destroy your lungs. I told him about my exposure and asked for a medical assessment, he refused!

‘Hook’ utilised for attaching an Exocet Missile to a helicopter gunship. Presented to me on my 50th birthday by Happy Day, we recovered and disposed of a few missiles from various vessels together.