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  • Writer's pictureKyle Sooley-Brookings

Remembering The Ocean Ranger Disaster


Thirty-nine years ago Newfoundland was being battered by a monster winter storm.

267 kilometres east of St. John's was the Ocean Ranger. The Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit. Onboard were 84 crew members. None survived.

On 26 November 1981, Ocean Ranger commenced drilling well J-34, its third well in the Hibernia Oil Field. Ocean Ranger was still working on this well in February 1982 when the incident occurred.

On 14 February there were reports of an approaching storm linked to a major Atlantic cyclone. The usual method of preparing for bad weather involved hanging-off the drill pipe at the sub-sea wellhead and disconnecting the riser from the sub-sea blowout preventer.

Due to surface difficulties and the speed at which the storm developed, the crew of Ocean Ranger were forced to shear the drill pipe after hanging-off, after which they disconnected the riser in the early evening.

At 7:00 pm radio transmissions were heard from Ocean Ranger, describing a broken portlight and water in the ballast control room, with discussions on how best to repair the damage. Ocean Ranger reported experiencing storm seas of 17 metres, with the odd wave up to 20 metres, thus leaving the unprotected portlight at 8.5 metres above the water line vulnerable to wave damage.

Some time after 10:00 pm radio conversations originating on Ocean Ranger were heard on Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland, noting that valves on Ocean Ranger's ballast control panel appeared to be opening and closing of their own accord.

The radio conversations also discussed the 190 km/h winds and waves up to 20 metres high. Through the remainder of the evening, routine radio traffic passed between Ocean Ranger, its neighbouring rigs and their individual support boats. Nothing out of the ordinary was noted.

Just prior to 1:00 am on February 15, a Mayday call was sent out from Ocean Ranger, noting a severe list to the port side of the rig and requesting immediate assistance.

The standby vessel, the M/V Sea-forth Highlander, was requested to come in close as countermeasures against the 10–15-degree list were proving ineffective. The onshore MOCAN supervisor was notified of the situation, and the Canadian Forces and Mobil-operated helicopters were alerted just after 1:00 local time.

The M/V Boltentor and the M/V Nordertor, the standby boats of Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland respectively, were also dispatched to Ocean Ranger to provide assistance. At 1:30 local time, Ocean Ranger transmitted its last message: "There will be no further radio communications from Ocean Ranger. We are going to lifeboat stations." Shortly thereafter, in the middle of the night and in the midst of severe winter weather, the crew abandoned the platform.

The platform remained afloat for another ninety minutes, sinking between 3:07 and 3:13 local time.

All of Ocean Ranger sank beneath the Atlantic, by the next morning all that remained was a few buoys.

Rescue attempts by the standby vessels were hampered by the adverse weather conditions and the conclusion that the standby boats were neither equipped nor configured to rescue casualties from a cold sea.

As a result of the severe weather, the first helicopter did not arrive on the scene until 2:30 local time, by which time most if not all of Ocean Ranger's crew had succumbed to hypothermia and drowned.

Over the next week, 22 bodies were recovered from the North Atlantic. Autopsies indicated that those men had died as a result of drowning while in a hypothermic state.


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