THE dramatic story of how Tor Bay was saved from a potential diesel slick by luck and a handful of wooden wedges has been told for the first time by the Royal Navy commander in charge of the operation.
It has emerged two Royal Navy ships exercising off the South Devon coast who were first on the scene when the drama began on Sunday night carried out a textbook exercise.
A small handful of sailors spent seven hours in freezing, cramped, toxic conditions below the waterline driving small wooden wedges into the metal hull of the Greek tug Christos XXII which was carrying 200 tonnes of diesel and was in danger of drifting on to the rocky shore off Torquay.
Commander Steve Moorhouse, the captain of the frigate HMS Lancaster, who co-ordinated the Royal Navy's rescue, which also included men from the offshore patrol ship HMS Severn, said: "Luckily we were there in time and were able to stabilise the situation.
"It is obviously very rocky along that bit of coast and it could have been taken on to the rocks by the tide, foundered and the fuel would have spilled.
"If that 200 tonnes of fuel had been spilled it would have been enough to spread a film across the whole of Tor Bay."
Pip Hall, coastguard sector manager, said: "They did a good job carrying out a textbook nuclear biological chemical exercise.
"Fuel oil spreads on top of the water and can go for miles, depending on wind and tide. It would have affected the fishing industry, tourism and birds."
The Christos XXII was rammed and holed by her own 80 metre long tow, the German naval training ship Emsstrom, which was going for scrap from Germany to Turkey, as the tug tried to anchor a mile off Hope's Nose.
As the unmanned Emsstrom began to list and sink, the emergency centred around rescuing and saving the stricken Greek tug, with its crew of eight and its load of diesel.
Cmdr Moorhouse said: "The teams took over some basic damage control equipment — pumps and some small wooden wedges. They look like good-sized chunks of Edam cheese. You hammer them into the metal and because they are soft wood they really are very, very effective at stemming the water flow.
"Eventually they managed to halt 60 per cent of the water coming in. The capacity of the pumps was about 40 per cent so that was enough to stabilise the situation.
"The gash was below the water level. The teams were taking it in turns to work in the water.
"They had to feel around in the dark, feel where the water was running in, mark it with their thumb, stick their head down under the water and drive the wedge into the hole.
"They got about five or six wedges into a hole a metre long to fill the key bit below the water. It was very dark because the tug had lost its lighting on board. "
Cdr Moorhouse said: "The men train for this, but had never used it in real life before, thankfully. The team came back very cold and tired, but high on adrenaline and big smiles on their faces at a job well done."
The situation remained touch and go until the Dutch salvage boat Brent came alongside and they got some patches welded on underwater.
Torbay lifeboat coxswain Mark Criddle said he was working with senior crew John Heale and Richard Fowler alongside the tug. "The Royal Navy managed to get the wedges banged in from inside and stopped 60 per cent of the water coming in. If they hadn't done that there is no question it would have sunk," he added.
The Christos was towed to Portland's outer harbour, with the captain and chief engineer still on board. The other six men were taken by lifeboat to Brixham's Quayside Hotel.
Jerry Carter, Brixham pilot operations manager, said: "It was good teamwork."
Paul Raybould, of Torbay and District Trades Union Council, said: "The great rescue coordinated by Brixham Coastguards showed what a valued and expert service is being closed. Local knowledge saved lives. Save this service."