The 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster: what went wrong?

The Ocean Ranger in the early 1980s taken by David Boutcher, one of the 84 men who did not survive the tragedy. The photo was donated to the The Rooms Provincial Archives by Priscilla Boutcher, David’s mom

Thirty five years ago a ruthless nor’easter swept across the Northern Atlantic Ocean catapulting a wave of disastrous events leading to the demise of an “unsinkable” oil rig.

Located nearly 300km off the Newfoundland coast in the Hibernia Oil Field in 1982, the Ocean Ranger was the largest semi-submersible offshore drilling rig in the world at the time. The platform sat atop eight columns fixed upon two pontoons beneath the surface of the water. Stability of the platform, and overall safety of crew and operations, was achieved by the placement of water and fuel in ballast tanks inside the pontoons. According to a NASA Study from the NASA Safety Center, only two men aboard the Ocean Ranger performed the huge task of maintaining the appropriate equilibrium of the platform.  The two men operated in the Ballast Control Room, rotating on 12 hour shifts.

Configuration of Ocean Ranger, viewed when facing the bow.

Located only 30 feet above the surface, the Ballast Control Room contained an electric control panel embedded with lighted push button switches configuring valves, pumps, and tanks. These valves were used to pump ballast forward, backward, onboard or overboard from the tanks to account for any “list” (tilt) from various cargo loads or changing sea states. As small as a five degree list would hamper drilling production. In order to assess current sea conditions, there were four circular glass portlights (windows) constructed in the control room. These portlights would eventually lead to the disaster of the Ocean Ranger.

On the evening of February 14, 1982, a strong nor’easter pummeled the Hibernia Oil Field with hurricane-force winds and waves up to 15 meters. The crew knew of the impending weather and took necessary safety measures for strong winds and high seas. Two offshore platforms, Zapata Ugland and SEDCO 706, were also in the Hibernia Oil Field in close proximity to Ocean Ranger. SEDCO 706 reported high seas, however confirmed the rig was safe. The Ocean Ranger had endured over 50 storms in the few short years it was operating, which led the crew to believe it could survive the approaching storm.

Strong nor’easter seen off the coast of Newfoundland at 7:00am EST, February 14, 1982. NOAA Central Library: U.S. Daily Weather Maps

At approximately 7:45pm EST, a strong wave slammed into the portlights in the ballast control room, shattering glass and discharging salt water onto the electric control panel. Power to the control panel was either lost by the crew to prevent shock, or it was short-circuited. The crew noticed the switches blinking red, green, and black; a sign that the valves in the pontoon were opening and closing on their own. With the valves open, unnecessary and unwanted water poured into the ballast tanks and the platform began a disastrous tilt.

Just before 9:00pm EST, the crew decided to cut power to the console which would result in the valves closing. Most believe if the crew kept the power shut down with the valves shut, the Ocean Ranger would have survived the storm. However, for an unknown reason crew members restored power to the ballast control room, opening the valves, and allowing even more water into the ballast tanks. Due to either short circuits or miscommunication between operator commands, the rig began to list forward. Ballast control room operators had very little knowledge on how to handle the situation from this point on. Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, Inc. (ODECO) required 80 weeks of offshore experience before a ballast control operator could begin on-the-job training. Neither of the two operators had more than 40 weeks, with one operator having as little as 12 weeks of offshore experience. One final attempt to gain stability among the platform failed miserably due to the insufficient training and experience among the operators. Water continued to fill the ballast tanks, further increasing the tilt. Consequently, the forward list allowed the chain lockers located in the forward corner columns to become flooded.

Close to 1:00am EST on February 15th, Ocean Ranger sent distress signals via radio transmissions to the Seaforth Highlander, the emergency standby vessel located roughly 5 miles from the platform. However, due to the perilous winds and waves, the vessel would not arrive to the platform for at least an hour. By 1:30pm, Ocean Ranger sent a final radio transmission, known as the last few words from the men on Ocean Ranger, stating the crew was boarding lifeboats. When conditions couldn’t seem to get worse, hurricane force winds and relentless waves led to damaged lifeboats and crew members fearfully jumping into the 30-degree water. A few short hours after midnight the rig capsized. There were no survivors of the 84-man Ocean Ranger oil rig.

Between the vicious nor’easter, faulty rig design, electrical failures in the ballast control room, and personnel errors, the Ocean Ranger disaster paved the way for future engineering and design of offshore oil platforms. The ballast control room was built higher above the ocean’s surface, greater safety training was required, and rescue equipment was upgraded.

Designed by ODECO, Ocean Ranger was constructed in Japan in 1976. It was designed to operate beneath 1,500 feet underneath the ocean’s surface and drill to a depth of nearly 25,000 feet. The platform was approved to operate in ‘unrestricted ocean operations’ and withstand extremely harsh conditions at sea. Prior to Grand Banks, it had operated off the coast of Ireland, Alaska, and New Jersey.