Sleepers, Awake

Twenty years ago, just past midnight, the American tank ship Exxon Valdez was slicing through cold black water, cutting a course through the Gulf of Alaska. Anyone who was an adult in the ’80s knows what happened next: a misjudged turn, a grounding on the reef and 258,000 barrels of crude oil spilling into the ocean.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s post-mortem on the incident makes for riveting reading, packed with figures and costs that leave you light-headed: damage to vessel, US$25 million; clean-up operations, US$1.85 billion. Yet a central concern of the report is sleep. The evening of the spill, the third mate on duty, Gregory Cousins, was documented as having returned to work after only four hours’ rest, following an already “stressful, physically demanding day”. Fatigued and under-slept, Cousins’ judgement was deemed impaired; he may even have fallen asleep at the wheel. All that spilt oil, and over lost sleep.