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Ocean Ranger vanishes off Canada

Big semisubmersible rig is presumed to have sunk during storm on Grand Banks off Newfoundland. No survivors found among 84 persons aboard the unit. Search efforts continue as Canadian and Newfoundland government organize probes.

Scanned (without permission) from Oil & Gas Journal, February 22, 1982

Ocean Ranger

Ocean Ranger, billed as the world's largest semisubmersible drilling rig, vanished last week during a raging storm in the North Altantic off eastern Canada.

The Odeco Drilling of Canada Ltd. rig was drilling an appraisal well in Hibernia oil field, 200 miles east-southeast of St. John's, Newfoundland, for a group led by Mobil Oil Canada Ltd.

Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company (Odeco), New Orleans, parent of Odeco Canada, said the rig apparently sank in about 260 feet of water at the drillsite on the Grand Banks.

North Altantic

Click on map to enlarge

All anchor buoys were in place when search teams later reached the site of Mobil et al J-34 Hibernia at 46° 43' 34.62" North Latitude, 48° 50' 11.15" West Longitude.

Two other rigs working in the area suspended operations during the storm but reported no unusual problems. However, high seas sank a Soviet freighter 75 miles east of Hibernia field two days after the Ocean Ranger was last heard from early February 15 St. John's time.

The rigs still at work in the area were to be moved to Newfoundland for inspection.

Ocean Ranger, rated to 25,000 feet in 3,000 feet of water, had been under contract to Mobil Canada since October 1980. Two other rigs based on the Ranger design are under construction.

Odeco estimated the value of the rig at about $60 million. It is fully insured by Oil Insurance Ltd., Bermuda.

Inquiries into the accident are to be conducted by the Canadian and Newfoundland governments. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives also called for an investigation in light of increased offshore drilling as a result of a stepped up schedule for leasing federal acreage on the Outer Continental Shelf.


At Oil & Gas Journal press time last week, no survivors had been found among 84 persons aboard the rig.

Nineteen bodies and two lifeboats had been recovered. Two of the bodies had been brought ashore.

The list of personnel aboard Ocean Ranger included Mobil Canada's Robert Fenez, St. John's, drilling engineer; Jack Jacobsen, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, senior drilling foreman; and Robert Madden, Calgary, Alberta, drilling foreman; and Odeco's Gerald R. Vaughn, Collins, Mississippi, toolpusher; and Michael E. Watkins, New Orleans, safety supervisor and industrial relations representative.

If no survivors are found, the death toll will fall 39 shy of the record offshore casualty list reported in the capsizing of the Alexander L. Kielland accommodation rig nearly 2 years ago in the North Sea.

Of the personnel aboard Ocean Ranger, 46 were Odeco employees, including 15 Americans. Sixty-eight of the total were Canadian, and one was English.

Lost contact

There were no confirmed reports on how the Ocean Ranger accident occurred. The rig lost radio contact during the storm whose winds of more than 80 knots whipped up 50 foot waves.

The fierce storm forced the crew to begin abandoning the rig.

A Mobil Canada spokesman said, "We were talking to the drilling foreman. He told us the rig was listing, and they were putting people in the lifeboats. That's the last contact we had."

Final radio contact with the rig was logged about 1:30 a.m., St. John's time, February 15.

Mobil Canada said it only could confirm that the rig was afloat at that time. "That's all we know."

The rig was said to be listing as much as 15° about the time the abandon order was given. But Mobil Canada said it could not confirm that figure, which was widely reported in the general press.

Hours after last contact with the rig, winds were clocked at about 60 knots and waves were estimated at 30 feet making search and rescue efforts dangerous by sea and air.

Search and rescue operations were still under way last week, but efforts were hampered by blowing snow, high winds, and poor visibility. Aircraft spotted debris and several bodies floating in the area as the storm's intensity slackened a little from its original force.

Light snow continued in the St. John's area at midweek. Offshore, sea heights were estimated at as much as 30 feet, lashed by winds of about 36-37 knots.

Al Spindler, a spokesman for Odeco, said the weather in the area had been rough the entire weekend leading up to the disaster. And Mobil Canada reported the weather had been far from ideal for weeks, but the storm had been predicted well in advance.

The Ocean Ranger, however, was designed for work in severe environments. It was built to withstand winds of 115 knots, waves of 110 feet, and a 3 knot current simultaneously.


Prior to the storm, Ocean Ranger had drilled Hibernia J-34 to 12,179 feet. Casing had been cemented, and the riser was in place, Mobil Canada said.

"We know the well has a cement plug in it," the Mobil Canada spokesman said.

"We know the drillpipe was up and the hole was plugged."

But it was not known whether the riser had been disconnected or drillpipe had been pulled up or sheared off prior to the rig abandonment.

Odeco reported drilling operations were suspended and the well secured prior to last radio contact.

Prior to its assignment at Hibernia J-34, Ocean Ranger drilled part of another Hibernia well, K-18, for Mobil Canada.

The Zapata Ugland completed the well, on which operations have been suspended.

Ocean Ranger also drilled Hibernia G-55A for Mobil Canada. It was a dry hole.

Ocean Ranger was moved from its previous location at Sheridan J-87, a dry hole, in November. Site is about 150 miles north of Hibernia J-34 location.

Hibernia J-34, spudded last November 29, was projected to 14,000 feet. It is a little less than 3 miles southwest of the P-15 Hibernia discovery well.

Members of the Hibernia group are Mobil Canada 28.12%, Gulf Canada Resources Inc. and Petro-Canada Exploration Inc. 25% each, Chevron Standard Ltd. 16.41 %, and Columbia Gas Development of Canada Ltd. 5.47%.

The search

Early in the search and rescue effort, heavy seas prevented immediate recovery of the bodies seen floating amid the debris, Mobil Canada said.

Vessels pressed the search during nighttime and daylight hours, while air operations were conducted during daylight only.

Two fixed wing Canadian armed forces search and rescue Buffalo aircraft from Prince Edward Island scoured the area, as well as two helicopters from Gander, Newfoundland.

Mobil Canada had three chartered Sikorsky S-61 helicopters on standby at St. John's. And four of six chartered workboats in the area were conducting search operations, while the two others were on standby.

A Canadian Fisheries research vessel, Gadus Atlantica, was in the area as well as the Java Seal seismic vessel. Both had responded to the rig's distress signal.

Odeco said the rig was equipped with four lifeboats but no escape capsules. Two of the boats had a capacity of 58 men each, and the other two had a capacity of 50 men each. The rig also had six inflatable life rafts.

One boat was sighted stern down, one upright, and one was reportedly seen capsized. The fourth had not been found.

One life raft was spotted partially inflated, floating in the water.

Earlier problem

Ocean Ranger reported ballasting problems 7-10 days before its disappearance, listing about 5° at one time.

Mobil Canada confirmed that the earlier problem was human error during ballasting, which was corrected within about 10 minutes with all systems functioning properly again within 20 minutes. An order to stand by lifeboats to abandon the rig was issued, then rescinded because the problem was corrected.

Steve Romansky, Mobil Canada's East Coast operations manager in St. John's, said the earlier incident was unrelated to what occurred during the storm.

An engineer with Canada's Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources inspected the Ocean Ranger the week before the disaster. Mobil Canada said the contents of his report and two other unrelated inspection reports were favorable, indicating that Ocean Ranger was seaworthy.

The U.S. Coast Guard in Boston said the rig was inspected in December 1979 for its certificate of seaworthiness while it was tied up in a Rhode Island harbor. Such inspections are generally conducted every two years. But the USCG's marine safety division could not complete the inspection because there was no available drydock big enough to accommodate the rig to allow inspectors to check areas below water line.

A Coast Guard spokesman in Washington said a special survey was conducted in April 1980 while the rig was located in U.S. East Coast waters to complete the December 1979 inspection.

The spokesman said, "They sent a diver down to go over the whole rig below the water line. He had a remote video hookup whereby the inspector on board the rig could see everything up close on the television screen."

The spokesman said the inspection revealed no structural problems or other problems that might affect the rig's seaworthiness. "If they had found anything, they would not have certified it. They found it to be seaworthy."

Other rigs

The Zapata Off-Shore Company Ugland and the Sedco 706 semi-submersibles, both drilling near Ocean Ranger, weathered the storm. The rigs were all in sight of one another.

A spokesman said Sedco 706, drilling Mobil et al Nautilus C-92, was tripping pipe at the time of the first warnings of the storm.

He said first reports of the approaching storm were heard on the afternoon of February 14 St. John's time. That was about 6 hours before the onslaught, giving rig hands enough time to prepare.

Drilling was discontinued, and the drillpipe was hung off in the rams.

The Ugland, drilling Mobil et al West Flying Foam L-23, reported no storm related problems. The Ugland recorded waves of about 60-65 feet and winds of about 90-100 knots during the worst of the storm.

The Ugland crew pulled drillpipe and hung it off in the riser, closed the blind rams, and disconnected the lower marine riser package.

Late last week, both rigs were waiting for the weather to moderate before moving to shore for safety inspections, probably at Marystown, Newfoundland.

The setting

Drilling on the Hibernia structure is far from easy because of seasons of rough weather.

Mobil Canada said Ocean Ranger had logged some downtime because of weather "but nothing we weren't prepared for."

According to Odeco accounts, quoting a Mobil Canada spokesman, "The area is plagued with sea and weather states that are considerably worse than those in the North Sea. Drilling is troublesome, with multiple geopressured formations that cannot be detected by seismic methods used with general success in other parts of the world."

"Overall, Hibernia operations are among the most challenging in the offshore industry."

Odeco's Ben Ocean Lancer drillship can attest to the area's severity. It worked off Labrador, beginning its fourth consecutive drilling season last June in Canadian waters.

The rig had to contend with icebergs in "Iceberg Alley." Most of the icebergs passed well away from the rig. But one came within a half mile of the drillsite and had to be towed clear.

On one occasion, the vessel heaved 25 ft and more in very rough seas and heavy swells.

When it headed back into St. John's, however, it encountered winds of 70 knots and seas of 40-50 feet. Ben Ocean Lancer Captain Jim Milne said, "There was no sleep for anyone that night due to the violent movement of the vessel."


Several U.S. and Canadian agencies will investigate the Ocean Ranger disaster.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard's marine safety division will represent the U.S. portion of the inquiry.

Canada's energy department and Department of Transport is conducting a joint inquiry, as well as a Newfoundland Royal Commission. Heading the Canadian federal probe is Supreme Court Justice T.A. Hickman. The provincial commission is headed by Gordon Winter, former lieutenant governor of the province.

Under terms of the Public Inquiries Act and the Canada Shipping Act, such an inquiry is called if there is loss of life.

Representatives of the energy department were on the scene last week, and officers of the federal departments involved had kicked off a preliminary investigation.

Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin and Energy Minister Marc Lalonde said the federal government will investigate all aspects of the loss of Ocean Ranger.

The investigation will be based in St. John's.

In the U.S., the House merchant marine committee plans an investigation into the loss of Ocean Ranger.

Representative John Breaux (D-Louisiana), who asked for hearings, said, "This kind of tragedy is intolerable in light of the fact that advanced design, engineering, and construction techniques were used to build this rig. This, coupled with progressive weather prediction technology, should have prevented this accident."

"Because an accelerated 5 year offshore leasing plan has been announced by the administration, I want to be assured that U.S. industry is capable of meeting this increased challenge safely and efficiently."

Federal/provincial scuffle

Probes by Canada's federal government and Newfoundland reflect - in part, at least - their dispute over which government holds jurisdiction over offshore resources.

The dispute could wind up in the Canadian Supreme Court, causing long delays in development of discoveries by Mobil Canada and other companies. Mobil Canada is preparing a development proposal for Hibernia field.

Newfoundland has asked its supreme court to determine the ownership of offshore resources, including Hibernia field where reserves are estimated at 1.5 billion barrels of oil.

The move is the latest escalation in the jurisdiction and ownership battle between the province and Ottawa. Newfoundland and the federal government have been negotiating for several months, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau recently threatened to refer the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada for a decision unless an agreement was reached by February 28.

Newfoundland Premier Brian Peckford accused the federal government of acting "in bad faith" and said the issue should be settled in Newfoundland first, rather than in a federal courtroom.

Earlier, Peckford issued an ultimatum demanding that the federal government confirm in writing that it was willing to put aside its claim of undersea mineral ownership until it concluded current negotiations.

Lalonde said Newfoundland's decision to go to court was "premature and intemperate." But he said Ottawa is still willing to discuss offshore issues other than ownership. These would include joint management of offshore development and revenue sharing.

Kielland accident

History's worst offshore rig accident in terms of loss of life was the capsizing of the Semi-submersible Alexander L. Kielland in the Norwegian North Sea on March 27, 1980.

Of 212 persons on board, 123 died. One man who had donned a survival suit and life jacket survived 2 hours 35 minutes in the sea, longest reported survival time.

The incident occurred at evening as the Kielland lay at anchor in Ekofisk field near the Edda 2/7-C production platform. Due to poor visibility and high wind and waves, the platform had been shifted away from Edda and the gangway removed that afternoon.

At about 6:30 p.m., one of the Kielland's five legs broke off. The platform listed quickly to 30-35° and capsized 20 minutes later. Only the bottoms of the four remaining legs remained visible at the surface.

Owned by Stavanger Drilling Company, the platform was under charter to Phillips Petroleum Company Norway as accommodations for staff of contractors working in the Ekofisk area.

A Norwegian inquiry traced the cause of the disaster to attachment of a hydrophone to one of the leg braces. A 10 inch hole was cut into the brace, then sealed. Cracks appeared and eventually led to fracture of the brace and separation of the leg (OGJ, April 13, 1981, p. 48).

The Kielland was towed to Gandsfjord north of Stavanger, where several attempts to right it failed. A politically unpopular decision to sink the rig at sea is being considered, along with a plan by Kielland survivors and others to right the rig.

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