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The Ocean Ranger Oil Rig Disaster: Deadlier than Deepwater

Written by Matthew Copes 

On February 15, 1982, the semi-submersible drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized in heavy seas and hurricane-strength winds approximately 170 miles (270 km) east of St. John’s, Newfoundland. 

Located in the North Atlantic east of Nova Scotia and south of both Newfoundland and Labrador, the Grand Banks have always been subject to notoriously harsh weather.

In fact, the fishing vessel Andrea Gale immortalized by the blockbuster movie The Perfect Storm (starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) sank just east of the Grand Banks in a storm that was even more severe than the one that took Ocean Ranger. 

But though conditions were partly to blame for the deaths of each of the Ranger’s 84 crewmen, a number of other factors contributed to the epic tragedy as well, and if findings from American and Canadian inquiries were correct, the disaster may have been averted altogether. 

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Background

Built in Hiroshima, Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for New Orleans-based ODECO (Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company), Ocean Ranger was delivered in 1976. 

Having passed pre-service trials and various safety inspections with flying colors, the vessel was approved for unrestricted ocean operations shortly thereafter. 

Engineered to withstand the worst conditions imaginable, losing such a leviathan was unthinkable, but ironically the wind and waves she endured on her final day shouldn’t have caused more than relatively minor damage. 

396 feet (121 m) long, 262 feet (80 m) wide, and nearly 340 feet (103 m) tall at her highest point, the 25,000-ton leviathan was kept afloat by two 400-foot (120 m) pontoons, and anchored in place by a dozen 45,000-pound (20,000 kg) anchors. 

Prior to her assignment in Mobil’s Hibernia Oilfield, she’d spent time in Alaska, Ireland and off the United States’ Atlantic coast.

Powered by two 3,500-horsepower electric motors, Ranger was both a drilling platform and living quarters for more than 80 employees and outside contractors. 

Capable of reaching 1,500 feet (460 m) below the surface and drilling 25,000 feet (7,600 m) into the seabed, ODECO claimed Ocean Ranger was the world’s largest oil rig when she entered service. 

But despite her impressive stats and history of safe operation, she was subject to extensive rules and regulations set forth by both Canadian and American authorities. 

On the surface it appeared as though adequate safety precautions were in place and that the crew had been properly trained, but in the ensuing chaos things spiraled out of control quickly, ultimately leading to the deaths of everyone on board. 

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The Storm

At the time of the disaster Ocean Ranger was one of three drilling platforms working in the area. 

Sedco 706 was located approximately 8 miles (13 km) to the northeast, while Zapata Ugland was about 19 miles (31 km) to the north. 

The day before the storm slammed into the Grand Banks, the rig’s crews were warned by regional forecasters that a large Atlantic cyclone that’d originated in the Gulf of Mexico was approaching and gathering strength. 

For most of Valentine’s Day Ocean Ranger was battered by winds exceeding 60 miles per hour (100 km/h) and monstrous waves, the largest of which reportedly crested at nearly 90 feet (30 m).

But though the waves were immense by any standards, what made things even worse was that they were coming “high and short,” which meant that they were packed closely together, and as a result Ocean Ranger had precious little time to stabilize herself between strikes. 

During potentially catastrophic emergencies, rig crews are trained to take a number of relatively routine precautionary measures to ensure that crude oil isn’t released into the sea, and that the vessel is prepared to ride out the rough conditions.   

The fury and speed with which the storm assaulted Ocean Ranger may have damaged the rig, but in addition, disagreement among senior managers not only delayed, but in some cases prevented them from taking the necessary actions altogether. 

In short, the crew may have drastically underestimated the enormity of the situation, and as things went from bad to worse they became increasingly flustered, which according to multiple sources, resulted in uncharacteristically erratic and irresponsible actions. 

Conditions continued to deteriorate on the 14th, and communications received from Ocean Ranger by the other rigs reported that at least one porthole in the ballast room was damaged or missing, and that the rig was taking on water. 

In fact it was later determined that one of the portholes used to regulate the water in the ballast tanks and keep the rig on level trim had been torn away completely.

Ocean Ranger was equipped with steel plates specifically designed to cover the portholes in such events, but the crew hadn’t been trained on how to install them, and despite the fact that the porthole in question was nearly 30 feet (9 m) above the water line, the waves were nearly three times higher.  

To give Ocean Ranger much needed buoyancy and allow her to ride higher in the water the crew released water from the ballast tanks, but by then the deluge of water flooding in was unstoppable. 

In addition, in quick succession various gauges, monitors and computer systems became inoperable, and many of those that were still functioning gave false readings which prevented the harried crew from making educated decisions that might have saved their lives. 

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Sometime after 2100, both the Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland picked up radio communications from Ocean Ranger stating that her ballast control valves were opening and closing erratically, but despite this alarming turn of events, communications between the rigs and support ships remained relatively routine until after midnight. 

By 0130 the following morning however, the situation had become untenable. 

Ranger’s night radio operator called Mobil shore base and informed them that the crew was abandoning the rig and going to lifeboat stations, and asked that they transmit a mayday on their behalf. 

This was Ranger’s final transmission, after which Mobil personnel informed Search & Rescue Canada (SAREC) of the situation and promptly dispatched a number of support vessels and private rescue helicopters, the latter of which didn’t arrive on scene until approximately 0230. 

Already dangerously unstable and listing by as many as 20 degrees, Ocean Ranger ultimately stayed afloat for another 70 minutes before flipping over onto her top and sinking at about 0310. 

Though it’s not clear how or if all the men exited the stricken rig, by some accounts nearly a third made it into powered lifeboats, the first of which was located by the support vessel Seaforth Highlander.

But of the men on board the lifeboat none were wearing immersion suits, and though the craft was still under power it had sustained heavy damage. 

Highlander’s captain maneuvered the 1,500-ton supply tug as close as he could to the lifeboat while crewmen braved the wind and waves to secure the two craft together. 

However, Seaforth Highland was anything but a rescue vessel, and the lifeboat was taking on water and listing heavily to port. 

Shortly after they’d been secured, the lines snapped and the lifeboat rolled belly up throwing the sodden and shivering men who’d congregated on the opposite gunwale into the sea at just after 0230. 

Immediately immobilized in the frigid water, eye witnesses stated that the men were unable to make even the slightest effort to grasp the lines that’d been thrown to them, and all further rescue attempts were equally futile. 

The same lifeboat was eventually located just after daybreak with 20 lifeless bodies still inside. 

The second lifeboat and a number of smaller rafts were discovered the following day, but all were eerily empty.  

Over the following week, 22 bodies were recovered from the Atlantic. 

Salvage and Relocation

In the weeks following the incident, Ocean Ranger was located by sonar resting upside down amidst a large debris field approximately 500 feet (150 m) from the original wellhead. 

Since it was likely that bodies would be found on the wreckage, the ensuing operation was carried out with the utmost respect for the deceased. 

There were also concerns that the rig might pose an imminent threat to shipping because she’d settled only 100 feet (30 m) below the surface, and the following summer a Dutch marine salvage firm was hired to float, tow and re-sink her in deeper water.

However during the tense and time consuming operation, two salvage divers were killed by an underwater explosion, and just weeks later another was killed by falling debris as he resurfaced. 

Ultimately, despite numerous delays and additional loss of life, the rig was permanently sunk safely in the depths, but though salvage crews customarily place memorial plaques on wrecks, in Ocean Ranger’s case a permanent monument was erected in Newfoundland’s provincial capital instead. 

Inquiries and Investigations

As with all fatal maritime incidents, the Ocean Ranger disaster set a series of inquiries and investigations in motion by both Canadian and American authorities. 

Of these, the Royal Commission’s investigation was among the most thorough. 

Though the commission was tasked with gathering hard data, determining why so many lives were lost, and why the rig sank in a storm that it was designed to withstand, the ultimate goal was to implement sweeping regulations with enough teeth to ensure that similar tragedies wouldn’t occur in the future. 

The storm and unimaginably heavy seas were significant factors, but the two other rigs that’d been nearby had made it through the night with only minor damage and no loss of life, and to many this was proof positive that the disaster was more than just a fluke.  

After nearly a year spent collecting and analyzing data and interviewing experts in various fields, the commission concluded that the catastrophe was largely caused by – 

  • Inherent flaws in Ocean Ranger’s design 
  • Lax safety standards and poor emergency training
  • Inadequate safety gear, including the lack of basic immersion suits
  • Outdated and ill-equipped vessels and helicopters used in the rescue attempts
  • Careless and inadequate regulatory oversight
  • No requirement for companies and crews to demonstrate emergency readiness
  • Crews not knowing how to install hatch covers and operate emergency system overrides

Of these, the confusing and ineffective two-country regulatory system was found to be seriously deficient.

Evidence suggested that neither Canada Oil & Gas Lands Administration, the Newfoundland-Labrador Petroleum Directorate or the United States Coast Guard had ever verified that ODECO or Ranger’s crew were in compliance with many of the countless regulations with which they were supposed to adhere.  

To remedy this glaring lack of oversight, the Commission suggested that in the future, a single Canadian agency be tasked with regulating everything from drilling and oil and gas production, to emergency response and safety training. 

Just a few years later, most of these reforms were in place, and to make sure they weren’t swept under the proverbial rug, the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board was established in 1985, though its name was later changed to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. 

In the end, had the new regulations been instituted prior to February 15, 1982, many or all of the crewmen on board Ocean Ranger may still be alive today. 

Ocean Ranger Legacy

The Ocean Ranger calamity devastated coastal communities up and down Newfoundland’s coast. 

Of the men lost that day, many were born and raised in and around St. John’s, and most families never got anything near closure. 

Though sinkings and deaths aboard fishing vessels were relatively common, never before had such a huge loss of life occurred in such a short time. 

Many locals still recall huddling around staticky radios in the days after the sinking listening intently for good news that would never come, but when bodies began coming all hope was lost.  

Though families were the hardest hit, according to the men aboard the rescue vessels who’d watched helplessly as the hypothermic crewmen drifted into the darkness, the memories refuse to fade away. 

The families of the deceased filed a number of lawsuits, but most were settled out of court for peanuts. 

In 1988, Canadian folk singer and songwriter Ron Hynes penned the tune “Atlantic Blue” to memorialize the rig’s deceased crewmen.

In 2002 the documentary film, The Ocean Ranger Disaster was released in Canada, but perhaps most poignantly of all, in 2012 Susan Dodd – who’s brother Jim perished on Ocean Ranger – published the non-fiction book, The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil.

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