As the name suggests, Ocean Ranger could indeed range. But in February 1982 this mobile semi-submersible offshore drilling platform was firmly anchored 267 km (166 mi) off Newfoundland in the Grand Banks area of the North Atlantic. Granted the location, it was as well that Ocean Ranger was built to withstand the worst weather and sea conditions nature could conjure up.
This rugged capability would be tested to the limit. Along with two other platforms drilling Hibernia Field, Ocean Ranger received reports of a fast-approaching storm whipped up by a major Atlantic cyclone. There wasn’t time to go through the full procedure to isolate the drilling system, but the crew managed to disconnect from the sub-sea blowout preventer. During the evening, wind speeds reached 100 knots (190 kph, 118 mph) and waves towered to 20 m (65 ft). Messages from Ocean Ranger reported minor problems but nothing to hint at the disaster that was about to occur.
At 00.52 the following morning, a Mayday signal went out, reporting that Ocean Ranger had suddenly developed a severe list and requesting help. Even as the rig’s Seaforth Highlander support vessel stood by and those from the two neighboring rigs raced to provide assistance, a final communication was received at 01.30 – Ocean Ranger was doomed and the crew was taking to the lifeboats. It was a badly botched evacuation, made even more difficult by darkness and atrocious sea conditions. Observers on Seaforth Highlander watched helplessly as many crew members struggled in the water, unable to do anything because their ship was neither equipped to rescue casualties from the water nor capable of even attempting the feat. By the time rescue helicopters arrived at 02.30, Ocean Ranger’s entire crew had perished in the icy sea by drowning, hypothermia or a combination of both.
When: February 15 1982
Where: Grand Banks, North Atlantic
Death toll: 84
You should know: The disaster was triggered by a freak wave that broke a portlight window, allowing water into the ballast control room. Consequent short-circuits caused ballast valves to open in the forward tanks (or be opened by the controller in error when the instrument panel malfunctioned), creating a list too severe to be corrected by the pumps and leading inevitably to capsize. The crew’s chances were lessened by the fact that evacuation training was inadequate and there were no survival suits on board.