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The Atlantic Empress/Aegean Captain collision

If ever there was an accident waiting to happen, it was your typical oil supertanker. These floating monsters can stretch over 400 meters, weigh more than 400,000 metric tons and require five kilometers to stop. And yet they are astonishingly undermanned, underpowered and ill prepared for unexpected problems. Where many smaller ships use multiple propellers to steer and brake, most tankers have just a single massive propeller. And the tools that help compensate for these limitations can contribute to a false sense of security; two ships relying on radar, which is great for navigating unchanging environments, may wind up traveling too fast to break from a collision course. Industry critics warned of an eventual collision between two supertankers, and on July 19, 1979, it happened: the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain (which was apparently hauling bootleg oil to apartheid South Africa) collided near Tobago in an unexceptional rainstorm. Together they lost 26 crewmembers and spilled more than 185 million liters of oil-more than four and a half times as much as the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989. But because it happened out of sight, this, the largest tanker spill ever, was soon out of mind and off the news.

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