This is the in-depth story of the Ocean Ranger Oil Rig Disaster of 1982. This documentary is about the tragic loss of the semi-submersible oil rig Ocean Ranger and its crew on February 15, 1982, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Human arrogance and pride contributed to the demise of the “unsinkable” Ocean Ranger oil rig. It was drilling an exploration well for Mobil Oil of Canada, Ltd. (MOCAN) on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 267 kilometres (166 miles) east of St. John’s, Newfoundland, when it sank, with 84 crew members on board. There were no survivors.
Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, Inc. (ODECO) of New Orleans designed and owned Ocean Ranger. The ship was a large self-propelled semi-submersible with a drilling facility and living quarters. It could operate beneath 1,500 feet (460 meters) of ocean water and drill to a maximum depth of 25,000 feet (7,600 m). According to ODECO, it is the world’s largest semi-submersible oil rig to date.
Ocean Ranger was built in 1976 for ODECO by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Hiroshima, Japan, and measured 396 feet (121 meters) long, 262 feet (80 meters) wide, and 337 feet (103 meters) high. It had twelve anchors weighing 45,000 pounds (20,000 kg). The mass was 25,000 tons. It was floating on two 400-foot (120-meter) pontoons.
The vessel was approved for ‘unrestricted ocean operations’ and was built to withstand extreme sea conditions such as 100-knot (190 km/h) winds and 110-foot (34 m) waves. It had previously operated off the coasts of Alaska, New Jersey, and Ireland before relocating to the Grand Banks area in November 1980.
Ocean Ranger began drilling well J-34, its third well in the Hibernia Oil Field, on November 26, 1981. Two other semi-submersible platforms were also drilling nearby: Sedco 706, 8.5 miles (13.7 km) NNE of Ocean Ranger, and Zapata Ugland, 19.2 miles (30.9 km) N. On February 14, 1982, the platforms received reports of an impending storm associated with a major Atlantic cyclone. Preparing for bad weather usually entailed hanging off the drill pipe at the subsea wellhead and disconnecting the riser from the subsea blowout preventer. The crew of the Ocean Ranger was forced to shear the drill pipe after hanging-off due to surface difficulties and the speed with which the storm developed, and they disconnected the riser in the early evening.
At about 19:00 local time, the nearby Sedco 706 experienced a large rogue wave which damaged some items on deck and caused the loss of a life raft. Soon after, radio transmissions were heard from Ocean Ranger, describing a broken portlight (a porthole window) and water in the ballast control room, with discussions on how best to repair the damage.
Ocean Ranger reported experiencing storm seas of 55 feet (17 m), with the odd wave up to 65 feet (20 m), thus leaving the unprotected portlight at 28 feet (8.5 m) above the water line vulnerable to wave damage. Some time after 21:00, 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 100-knot (190 km/h) winds and waves up to 65 feet (20 m) high. Through the remainder of the evening, routine radio traffic passed between Ocean Ranger, its neighboring rigs and their individual support boats. Nothing out of the ordinary was noted.
On 15 February, at 00:52 local time, Ocean Ranger issued a Mayday call, noting a severe list to the port side of the rig and requesting immediate assistance. This was Ocean Ranger’s first communication identifying a major problem. The M/V Seaforth Highlander, the standby vessel, was asked to come in close because countermeasures against the 10-15-degree list were ineffective. The situation was communicated to the onshore MOCAN supervisor, and the Canadian Forces and Mobil-operated helicopters were alerted shortly after 01:00 local time. The M/V Boltentor and M/V Nordertor, standby boats for Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland, were also dispatched to Ocean Ranger to assist.
Ocean Ranger sent its final message at 01:30 local time: “Ocean Ranger will no longer be communicating via radio. We’re heading to the lifeboat stations.” The crew abandoned the platform shortly after, in the middle of the night and in the midst of severe winter weather. The platform floated for another 90 minutes before sinking between 03:07 and 03:13 local time. Ocean Ranger sank completely beneath the Atlantic, leaving only a few buoys behind the next morning. Her entire crew of 84 people was killed, including 46 Mobil employees and 38 contractors from various service companies. While the rig was given an Emergency Procedures Manual that detailed evacuation procedures, it is unclear how well the platform evacuation went. There is evidence that at least one lifeboat with up to 36 crew members was successfully launched, and witnesses on the M/V Seaforth Highlander reported seeing at least 20 crew members in the water at the same time, indicating that at least 56 crew successfully evacuated the rig.
Aftermath and Findings
A Canadian Royal Commission investigated the disaster for two years. The Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster Royal Commission found that the crew was untrained, the safety equipment was inadequate, there were no safety protocols for the supply ship, and the platform itself had a number of flaws. The Royal Commission determined that the Ocean Ranger had flaws in its design and construction, particularly in the ballast control room, and that the crew lacked proper safety training, survival suits, and equipment.
The Royal Commission also concluded that government agencies in the United States and Canada were ineffective in their inspection and regulation. The commission recommended that the federal government invest annually in research and development for search and rescue technologies, such as improving the design of lifesaving equipment, in addition to key recommendations for Canada’s offshore oil and gas industry—a commitment that has been met in every fiscal year since 1982.
The wreck of the Ocean Ranger was refloated and sunk in deeper waters in August 1983 by the Dutch company Wijsmuller Salvage. The federal government had expressed concern about the wreck’s location since its sinking the previous year. The wreck of the Ocean Ranger posed a danger to shipping because it was located approximately 30 meters (98 feet) below the water’s surface. Ocean Ranger was towed upside down, with her two pontoons breaking the surface.
On the grounds of the Confederation Building, the seat of Newfoundland’s provincial government, a permanent memorial to those who died was erected.