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The Ocean Ranger Disaster

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Winter storms in the North Atlantic can be ferocious. One such storm destroyed a huge oil drilling platform off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Ocean Ranger

The Hibernia oil and gas field was discovered in 1979. The field contains an estimated three billion barrels of oil, of which 1.2 billion barrels are recoverable. It is the fifth largest oil reserve in Canada.

At the site, the sea floor is 80 metres (262 feet) below the surface. The oil is at depths of between 2,400 metres (7,800 feet) and 3,700 metres (12,140 feet).

One of the rigs sent out to recover the oil was called the Ocean Ranger. It was big—very big. At the time, the platform was the biggest of its type in the world.

It was self-propelled and semi-submersible and was capable of drilling to depths of 7,600 metres (25,000 feet). It weighed 25,000 tons and floated on two long pontoons that were 24 metres (79 feet) below the surface. The level of ballast in the pontoons was held stable by valves and pumps that were controlled by switches located in one of the rig's supporting legs.

The vessel had been built in Japan and was owned by the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company (ODECO) that was based in New Orleans.

In February 1982, the rig was anchored 267 kilometres (166 miles) east of St. John's, Newfoundland.

The Deadly Storm

Valentine's Day in 1982 fell on a Sunday, but the rig workers didn't take a break from drilling. There were 84 people aboard, 56 of them being Newfoundlanders. Early in the morning, weather forecasters alerted the Ocean Ranger to an approaching storm. Wind speeds were expected to reach 166 km/h (103 mph) and waves would be cresting at 11 metres (37 feet). But, the vessel was designed to handle wind speeds of 190 km/h (118 km/h) and 34-metre (110 feet) waves.

The approaching storm did not appear the present much of a danger to the drilling rig. At about 4:30 pm, the crew stopped drilling and prepared the Ocean Ranger to ride out the gale.

At 7 pm, two other rigs in the area reported being hit by a massive rogue wave that caused minor damage. At about the same time, these rigs and support vessels heard some radio chatter from the Ocean Ranger about a window, called a portlight, being broken. Then, at 9 pm, the Ranger radioed that water had got into the ballast control room, but everything had been cleaned up.

There was no indication that anything was amiss until 1 am on Monday, February 15. The senior manager for Mobil Oil on the Ocean Ranger radioed to the shore that the rig was listing. Ten minutes later the first Mayday call went out. The last radio message came at 1:30 am advising “There will be no further radio communications from Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations.”

Stand-by supply vessels were in the area and closed in to offer assistance, but the rough sea made this next to impossible. Shortly after 3 am, the Ocean Ranger capsized and sank.

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Search for Ocean Ranger Survivors

The supply ship MV Seaforth Highlander came close to one damaged lifeboat with men aboard. They managed to attach a line but the crashing waves snapped it. Another supply ship observed the same lifeboat and crew could see bodies inside. Again, the storm-tossed water made recovery impossible; the lifeboat and its sad cargo drifted away and was never seen again.

Over the next few days, various ships found 22 bodies, all had died by drowning or hypothermia. No one was found alive; all 84 men on the rig had perished.

Memorial to the 84 men lost in the Ocean Ranger disaster.

Memorial to the 84 men lost in the Ocean Ranger disaster.

The Ocean Ranger Inquiry

A month after the tragedy, a Royal Commission was struck to find out what went wrong. After two years of hearings and investigation, the commission found that ODECO was largely at fault in the disaster.

Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador summarizes the conclusions: “The Royal Commission found that the rig had several design flaws: the shattered portlight and chain lockers that were not water tight, for instance.” Essentially, water got into the ballast control room and shorted out the panel that powered the rig's stability.

Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador continues, “The crew did not fully understand what to do in the case of an emergency involving the Ranger's ballast control system. The lifesaving equipment was judged inadequate, and the crew lacked training in its use. All of these factors played a role in the sinking and loss of life.”

Max Ruelokke was part owner of a diving company who did work for the Ocean Ranger. He was on the rig many times and he told the CBC that safety was not much of a concern: “In the words of the people that were responsible for the rig . . . This rig can't sink, and that was the mindset. Why should we be worried about safety?”

Accepting that it bore some responsibility for the tragedy, ODECO agreed to a settlement that averaged $444,00 for each bereaved family.

As a result of the awful loss of life, new safety measures were put in place.

Bonus Factoids

  • Almost exactly 70 years earlier than the Ocean Ranger catastrophe and 200 miles from the location another “unsinkable” vessel sank. That was the RMS Titanic.
  • The same storm that wrecked the Ocean Ranger also hit a Soviet vessel, the Mekhanik Tarasov, the next day with almost the same outcome. She sank taking 32 of her crew of 37 with her.
  • In March 2009, a helicopter ferrying workers to a Hibernia oil rig crashed into the Atlantic killing 17 of the 18 people aboard. The operator sued the chopper-maker, Sikorsky, for misrepresenting a safety feature on the machine. Sikorsky settled out of court.

Sources

  • “The Loss of the Ocean Ranger, 15 February 1982.” Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador, undated.
  • “40 Years After Ocean Ranger Disaster, Families Recall Lethal Storm That Changed Them Forever.” Chris O'Neill-Yates, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, February 15, 2022.
  • “Settling the Rig Disaster.” Bonnie Woodworth, Maclean's Magazine, January 9, 1984.
  • “Cougar Settles Lawsuit Against Chopper-Maker Sikorsky.” CBC News, November 25, 2011.
  • “Ocean Ranger.” Robert D. Pitt, Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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