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I find that, despite the fact that on many occasions, I have used the Ocean Ranger accident as an example of how a minor incident can turn into a catastrophe, during my 20 odd years and a safety consultant, I have not included a description of it on the website. This is an extract from my book ‘Supply Ship Operations’, and even today as I sit in my office enjoying the morning sunshine in the foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama north of Madrid, when I reread these words, I still feel the distress that I felt the first time I read the report of the Canadian enquiry into the accident.

INTRODUCTION (from Supply Ship Operations)

The histories of the seafaring nations of the world are filled with the records of marine incidents, some of which have entered the national memories of the counties within whose boundaries they occurred or where the vessels were registered, and some of which have changed the way marine commerce is conducted. In Canada the loss of the Ocean Ranger is imprinted on the national consciousness, and has altered the manner in which offshore operations are carried out. In Britain the disaster at Piper Alpha has similarly affected the regulatory approach to offshore operations, and those of us who are more than 25 years old can recall where we were when we first heard the news. It is also likely that the loss of the Bourbon Dolphin will make a similar impression on the Norwegian nation, despite a far lower loss of life than either of the two events already mentioned, and is certain to focus considerable attention on the task of rig moving over the next few years.
Other incidents will not appear on the radar. They will be recorded in the marine periodicals and may get a brief mention on the local news but their moment will pass. An investigation may take place and the results may also be reported in the trade press, and then silence. It is possible that the investigations may cause changes to the rules under which ships and rigs operate, but if they do, the changes will be slow and virtually unnoticeable.

Yet a third group of incidents will change nothing except for the lives of the families of those who are lost. Sadly these incidents are in the majority.


The Seaforth Highlander (From Shipspotting)

The Ocean Ranger was an extremely large and relatively well-found semi-submersible which, in the spring of 1982, was drilling for Mobil on the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. It had eight columns. The corner columns from which the moorings were deployed were larger than the intermediate columns. Importantly to the enquiry, each of the columns contained three chain lockers which were empty when the rig was moored, the rig being provided with a chain/wire mooring system. When on location all the chain would be on the seabed, and the wire would be connected to it. Also key to the events which followed, the Ballast Control Room was situated in the aftermost intermediate column on the starboard side, below the level of the main deck.

No ships at all were involved in the disaster prior to its occurrence, but it was a marine event, caused by a combination of poor design, bad practice and lack of knowledge. One of the many failings detailed by the enquiry was the curious diversity of responsibility for the rig. During the enquiry a number of former masters of the Ocean Ranger were interviewed and they testified that they had responsibility for marine matters without the authority to properly discharge their duties. The masters had no crew directly under their control and even the ballast control operators took their orders from the tool-pusher, the senior drilling person on the unit. The report on the sinking stated that “He had no knowledge of the ballasting system or the principles of stability. And yet the ultimate authority and responsibility for the safety of the rig and its crew rested in his hands”.
The initiating event in the disaster was the weather, which turned from unpleasant to apocalyptic over the days up to 15th February 1982. On the previous evening the wind speed was about 70 knots and the rig was heaving alarmingly. Other rigs in the area, the Sedco 706 and the Zapata Ugland were both hit by large waves. The Sedco 706 was engulfed at about 1900 and the report says that the wave dislodged a small shed which was welded to the deck in the area of the drill floor, a point about 60 feet above the sea when the rig was at operating draft. The Zapata Ugland was also struck by a large wave which washed over the helideck.

On the Ocean Ranger a large wave broke the port glass and flooded the Ballast Control Room, dousing the ballast control board. For those unfamiliar with the function of this equipment, the board is used to electronically control the valves and pumps which operate the ballast system on semi-submersibles. During the drilling activities, which involve the movement of drill pipe and liquids, as well as containers and other objects, the ballast control system is used to transfer water between tanks, mainly in the pontoons. Water may also be taken on or pumped out in order to change the draught.

The problem therefore, for the Ocean Ranger, was that when the control board was doused in water, valves in the pontoons started to open and close randomly, to the distress of the control room operators. They knew that they had a problem but they did not know how to solve it. Like many ballast control systems, the one on the Ocean Ranger was provided with solenoids which changed the electrical power into hydraulic power. A switch on the board would activate the solenoid which would open or close to allow hydraulic pressure to be exerted on the valve actuator, or to be removed, usually allowing the valve to close. Realising that they had to do something, someone inserted a set of brass rods into the solenoids, apparently thinking that the valves would be closed, but instead the valves were opened. This allowed water to flow freely between the tanks, and since the ballast tanks in the Ocean Ranger were distributed along the lengths of the pontoons all the water ran from aft to forward. The rig gradually trimmed by the head until the chain lockers filled up, and then in the dark at three in the morning on 16th February the rig disappeared from the radar screens of the ships in the area.

The involvement of support vessels in this tragedy was limited to their activities as standby vessels. They were not standby vessels in the sense that we now know them, but were supply vessels assigned to the task. There were two OSA ships, the Boltentor and the Nordertor standing by the Sedco 706 and the Zapata Ugland, and the Seaforth Highlander standing by the Ocean Ranger. At five past one on the day of the disaster, only two hours before the sinking, the Mobil foreman requested that the Seaforth Highlander come to close standby, and a few minutes later the other rigs dispatched their standby vessels towards the distress. The Nordertor was 20 miles away, the Boltentor eight miles away and the Seaforth Highlander six miles away. In 60-foot waves one should remember that any movement of a ship in a specific direction, rather than just maintaining a heading to reduce the possibility of structural damage, is something of a feat.

The report states that during the approach to the rig the Seaforth Highlander made ready the equipment it had available which might assist in the rescue. This, pathetically, consisted of a cargo net, a grappling hook, a boat hook, two heaving lines and two lifebuoys fitted with lines.

There was some inconsistency in the evidence from those directly involved as to what happened next, but the enquiry decided that the Master of the Seaforth Highlander saw a flare at about 2.14 as the ship was approaching the rig, and that this flare had been fired from a lifeboat.

At 2.21 the Seaforth Highlander reported the sighting of another flare, had seen the lifeboat and was proceeding towards it. At about this time the Mobil Superintendent back in the base port advised the Mobil drilling foreman on the Sedco 706 to tell the ship’s masters not to attempt to attach the lifeboats by lines because, eerily for those of us who have just read the previous report, he had heard of an incident in the Gulf of Mexico where a lifeboat had capsized under tow. However, the ship’s masters did not recollect having received such an instruction.

The Seaforth Highlander approached the lifeboat and decided to place the ship stern to wind with the lifeboat astern of the ship. In this way he would be able to maintain the heading, and would not be at risk of running the lifeboat down; a possibility if he had tried to carry out the rescue head to wind. The witnesses said that the lifeboat was also head to wind apparently under power. The Seaforth Highlander now stern to the seas was manoeuvred closer to the craft and the seas breaking over the after deck were freezing instantly and making it difficult for the crew to do anything useful in their less than adequate protective clothing.

Just after 2.30 the Seaforth Highlander reported that the lifeboat was alongside. The crew on the deck managed to throw lines which the survivors in the lifeboat managed to attach, and at this time a number of men emerged onto the port side. It seems reasonable to assume that others had undone their safety belts, and had stood up, and obviously the bailing activities which had been going on now ceased. These changes probably contributed to a loss of stability and as a result the lifeboat rolled slowly over, throwing a number of men into the sea. The overturned lifeboat was close to the port side of the ship, and to reduce the possibility of injury to those now in the sea the Captain stopped the port engine. As a result the ship began to drift away from those in the water, although the deck crew made valiant attempts to recover them, with some considerable risk to themselves since the seas were still breaking over the deck.

Meanwhile the other ships arrived. The Boltentor was asked to assist in the recovery of the lifeboat, and the Nordertor was sent to monitor the rig itself, the Nordertor reporting the loss of the radar echo of the rig at three o’clock. Then all three vessels took up the task of searching for survivors or bodies in the sea, but the report of the enquiry notes that “sea conditions and inadequate retrieval equipment frustrated all efforts to recover bodies”.
During the final but unsuccessful attempts to recover the lifeboat, the Captain of the Nordertor observed that there were about twenty bodies inside. Several floated out through a hole in the bow, and one was washed onto the deck of the ship. Over the following days the search continued for bodies, the fleet now enhanced by a number of other vessels, and by 20th February a total of 22 bodies had been recovered. Not one person, of the 83 man crew, was saved.



Deepwater Horizon -The President's Report
Deepwater Horizon - The Progess of the Event

The KULLUK Grounding
The Costa Concordia Report
The Costa Concordia Grounding
The Elgin Gas Leak
The Loss of the Normand Rough
The Bourbon Dolphin Accident
The Loss of the Stevns Power
Another Marine Disaster
Something About the P36
The Cormorant Alpha Accident
The Ocean Ranger Disaster
The Loss of the Ocean Express

The Life of the Oil Mariner
Offshore Technology and the Kursk
The Sovereign Explorer and the Black Marlin

Safety Case and SEMS
Practical Safety Case Development
Preventing Fires and Explosions Offshore
The ALARP Demonstration
PFEER, DCR and Verification
PFEER and the Dacon Scoop
Human Error and Heavy Weather Damage
Lifeboats & Offshore Installations
More about PFEER
The Offshore Safety Regime - Fit for the Next Decade
The Safety Case and its Future
Collision Risk Management
Shuttle Tanker Collisions
A Good Prospect of Recovery

The History of the UT 704
The Peterhead Connection
Goodbye Kiss
Uses for New Ships
Supporting Deepwater Drilling
Jack-up Moving - An Overview
Seismic Surveying
Breaking the Ice
Tank Cleaning and the Environment
More about Mud Tank Cleaning
Tank Cleaning in 2004
Glossary of Terms

An Unusual Investigation
Gaia and Oil Pollution
The True Price of Oil
Icebergs and Anchor-Handlers
Atlantic SOS
The Greatest Influence
How It Used to Be
Homemade Pizza
Goodbye Far Turbot
The Ship Manager
Running Aground
A Cook's Tale
Navigating the Channel
The Captain's Letter

The Sealaunch Project
Ghost Ships of Hartlepool
Beam Him Up Scotty
The Bilbao OSV Conference