Thirty-three years ago today, on February 15, 1982, the world’s largest oil rig, a semi-submersible craft called the Ocean Ranger, sank in a ferocious storm off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic. All 84 people aboard died. Although this sea disaster is not nearly as famous as many other maritime tragedies (like the Lusitania, Empress of Ireland or Scandinavian Star), it combines the exact factors of tragedy, hubris and environmental threat as do much more well-known episodes, like the loss of the Titanic in 1912. Like the Titanic, the Ocean Ranger was believed at one time to be unsinkable. Like the Titanic, the vessel came up against a formidable environmental challenge; and like the Titanic, human hubris and error helped sink it to its doom.
Ocean Ranger was on the cutting edge of a rather gritty business, that of oil extraction from the sea. When built in Japan in 1976 for the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, based in New Orleans, Ocean Ranger was the largest and heaviest semi-submersible oil rig in the world, capable of boring for black gold an astonishing 25,000 feet beneath the seafloor. She was built to stay in place–on large pontoons and with heavy anchors–in 110-foot waves and in high wind conditions. The crew, both those who worked for ODECO, which was at the time drilling for Exxon-Mobil, and contractor staff were generally veterans in the drilling business. Ocean Ranger had previously extracted oil in Alaska and off the coast of New Jersey. In November 1980, a little more than a year before the disaster, she was moved to the Hibernia Oil Field off Newfoundland, a huge undersea oil field discovered in 1979. This spot is not far from Sable Island, the sad little spit in the Atlantic where hundreds of ships have wrecked over the centuries.
This is not the Ocean Ranger, but a sister rig. Oil rigs like these are technically classified as vessels and have more in common with “normal” ships than they appear to at first glance.
On Valentine’s Day 1982, the crew of the Ocean Ranger got word via radio that a huge storm was moving in. Waves were already pounding the rig and winds were very high. The crew pulled in their drill bit, but had to “hang off” rather than take the usual precautions with the bit. Then a nearby oil rig reported that a gigantic rogue wave had struck them, doing serious damage. We aren’t entirely certain what happened next aboard Ocean Ranger, because all the evidence comes from radio communications overheard by people aboard the neighboring rigs. In one conversation a man talked about cleaning up “broken glass and water,” and another snippet of transmission seemed to refer to something wrong with one of the ballast tanks. Although there had obviously been some damage, specifically to a porthole, the crew didn’t sound alarmed. Everybody caught in the storm was busy looking after the safety of their own vessels, and it was a stressful time as the waves topped 55 feet and the wind howled at an incredible 100 knots.
At 10:00 PM, a radio operator on another rig talked briefly to someone on the Ocean Ranger who said the damage from the porthole was cleaned up and everything was operating normally. Ninety minutes later Ocean Ranger broadcast a weather report. Then there was nothing until a much more serious transmission at 1:00 AM on February 15 reporting that the rig was listing 8 to 10 degrees, and to notify the Coast Guard if they needed help. Nine minutes later a telex went out from the rig to the Coast Guard directly, reading: “ARE EXPERIENCING A SEVERE LIST UNABLE TO CORRECT PROBLEM… [WE] ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF SEVERE STORM AT THE TIME 12 DEGREES…REQUEST ASST ASAP.” In nine minutes, something had gone terribly wrong and now Ocean Ranger was calling urgently for help.
At 1:30 AM came the chilling final message from the rig: “There will be no further radio communications from Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations.” A few hours after this, the blip that was the largest oil rig in the world disappeared from radar. The storm hampered rescue operations. By the time boats and aircraft could get through to the rig’s final position, it was far too late. All that was left was a sheet of floating wreckage–and 22 human bodies.
This folk song by Eddie Coffey, a Newfoundland musician, emphasizes the human dimensions of the tragedy.
What happened? A lengthy series of investigations by the Canadian government and the U.S. Coast Guard shed some light on the disaster, but many things remained unknown. There was some evidence that lifeboats were launched, possibly with as many as 56 of the rig’s crew, but their emergency equipment was not the best and they weren’t trained as well in its deployment as they could have been. As for the Ocean Ranger itself, there were some design flaws, especially with the ballast system, which were possibly exacerbated by human error. A few weeks before the disaster, on February 6, there had been a temporary glitch involving the ballast system where water began pouring in. Some observers were skeptical of whether the captain of the rig was as well-versed in its systems as he should have been. In short, there were numerous problems.
The human cost of the tragedy was terrible. Families of 84 people were now mourning the loss of loved ones who should, by all rights, have survived the storm. There were legal actions and settlements with the various companies involved, and recriminations aplenty. As often with disasters of this nature, there were cultural and memorial responses. Newfoundland is a center of folk music in Canada, much of it with a seafaring theme, and several songs were written about the Ocean Ranger, such as the one included in this article. I’m reminded of the Gordon Lightfoot folk song about the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, a less lethal but much more famous maritime disaster, which also took place in a heavy storm.
The Ocean Ranger herself still rests on the bottom of the Atlantic, upside-down, with wreckage from its drilling operations still scattered about on the muddy bottom. The “unsinkable” machine, sent out onto the waves to extract oil to power other human machines, was itself undone by the power of the ocean and the atmosphere. As with all such tragedies, there are many lessons here to learn about safety, foresight, accountability, and the understanding of nature. It’s a shame we have to be re-taught them so often in ways such as these.