Ship part

When a wrecked freighter gave the islanders of Scilly a legendary boon

A quarter of a century ago this week, the merchant ship MV Cita swung at full speed over the craggy rocks of Port Hellick, off St Mary’s, making an impromptu stopover on the Isles of Scilly that went down in history. The 300ft container ship was en route from Southampton to Belfast but veered off course in the middle of the night in high winds.

She ran aground at 3 a.m. on March 26, 1997, tearing a hole in her hull. The mainly Polish crew of the German-owned 3,000-ton vessel were rescued within hours by the St Mary’s lifeboat, backed up by a Sea King helicopter from RNAS Culdrose.

With all the crew safely on dry land, the next task was to assess the wreckage and its implications, and the first concern was the high risk of pollution from the spilled oil – with memories of the Torrey Canyon disaster 30 years earlier still fresh in many minds. Read all about the Torrey Canyon disaster here.

Read more: 5 million Lego pieces plunged into the sea off Cornwall 25 years ago

As quick plans were put into action to pump the 90 tonnes of oil the ship was carrying from its tanks to a salvage vessel, the fate of the Cita’s 145 general cargo containers took an unexpected turn. At low tide, the shoreline on the south side of St Mary’s soon resembled a scene from a classic Cornish shipwreck tale of centuries past.

As damaged containers began to dump their contents, small boats were out in force scavenging for items in the water, while holidaymakers joined locals in scouring the beaches on foot in search of whatever prizes they could find – and there was plenty to go around. In fact, it was hard to choose from the selection and mix of department store style that did the dishes. There were computer mice and Action Man toys, car tires and parts, doors, toilets, fridge magnets, shirts, sneakers, boiler suits, wooden floors, 20 tons of canned water chestnuts, paint, batteries, barbecues, pepper mills and uninscribed granite tombstones. from India.

The Cita lands in Scilly a few days after crashing on rocks

There were no customs officers on hand yet to oversee the rescue, so everyone got stuck and took home the bounty that caught their eye. By the time authorities intervened, much of the scattered treasure had long since disappeared. Strictly speaking, those who withdrew ‘flotsam’ should have declared it to the receiver of the wreckage, on pain of potential prosecution, but no action was taken against the inhabitants of Scilly.

There are many doors still hanging in the island homes that fell from the Cita on this day 25 years ago. Someone got creative with the damaged granite headstones and turned them into barometers and clocks that stand the test of time and are inscribed: “Cita lost Scilly 1997”.

See more photos of the bounty in our gallery below

Identical plaid shirts dangled from nearby clotheslines, a certain brand of trainers and hoodies became the pinnacle of fashion for all, and a shopkeeper secured enough plastic bags to supply customers for months. A farmer has reaped a bumper crop of high-end golf bags that have become the go-to accessory on the local nine-hole course after trying unsuccessfully to return them to American manufacturers. Meanwhile, a generous collection of baby and toddler clothes, salvaged from a shallow offshore pool, have been washed, ironed and sent to charity for distribution to children in Romanian orphanages.

The Cita wreckage was visible for several days before sliding off rocks and plunging into deep water further from shore. Scilly-based professional divers have teamed up to recover containers strewn across the seabed, after brokering a deal with insurers. Their transport included three brand new forklifts which were again in full working order within hours of disembarkation and were sold to businesses on the mainland.

The containers that remained floating in the sea were gradually flooded and sank or were towed ashore out of the fishing lanes. An islander rescued a container full of tobacco hoping to claim salvage costs, only to find the contents were salt damaged and worthless.

Recovery diver James Heslin above some of the rolls of polyester plastic recovered from the Cita wreck
Recovery diver James Heslin above some of the rolls of polyester plastic recovered from the Cita wreck

It was the 340 massive rolls of polyester film, used to make audio cassettes, that caused the worst headaches, as whole swaths of it were washed away with every tide for months. Volunteers, including holidaymakers, helped collect thousands of bin bags filled with polyester and plastic waste which were burned in the islands incinerator.

Some residents may have benefited from the proceeds from the wreckage, but the Isles of Scilly Council ultimately paid a high price – over £100,000 – for the ongoing clean-up operation. The government at the time promised new measures to prevent coastal communities from bearing the cost of maritime disasters and to force shipowners to take full responsibility for their cargo. But an attempt to recover the cost of cleaning Cita from the German owners did not end up in court.

The official Marine Accident Inquiry into the sinking of the Cita concluded that it was an error in judgment and an untimely siesta that caused the crash. The officer of the watch who chose the route that led to the ship’s grounding then fell asleep on the bridge and woke with a start when the Cita struck granite.

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