DESCRIPTION: The supply boat has to stand by and watch Ocean Ranger sink. ODECO collects its eighty million from Lloyd's acknowledging no blame. The singer hopes the inquiry and "days when lives are sacrificed to corporate greed" end soon.
AUTHOR: Jim Payne
EARLIEST DATE: 1983 (Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou)
KEYWORDS: death sea disaster storm memorial
Feb 15, 1982 - The Ocean Ranger oil rig, 225 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, sinks in a storm. All 84/86 are lost. NSDB: "It's said everyone in NF was related to, or knew, someone onboard" (Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou, Northern Shipwrecks Database)
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou 55, "In Memoriam" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES [1146 words]: Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou: "ODECO, or the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company, is the American company that owned the Ocean Ranger."
For a detailed account of the disaster and its causes see Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology by James R. Chiles (HarperBusiness paperback, 2002), pp. 18-36. While Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou sees the ballad as questioning the courage of the crew of the supply ship Seaforth Highlander, Chiles has them doing the best they could. - BS
The way I read Lehr/Best-ComeAndIWillSingYou's notes, the song does not question the crew of the supply ship; rather, the song's author Jim Payne was offended that others had questioned the crew's actions, and wrote the song in part to defend them.
The problem at the heart of this song is probably deeper, going back to Newfoundland's desperate attempt to find something to base its economy on. It was founded on cod, of course, and then started making money off seals, then pulpwood. But the cod fishery declined, and no one wanted seals any more, and Newfoundland has only so many trees. So they started looking for another non-renewable resource, oil -- but perhaps moved too fast:
"The Newfoundland government and Ottawa locked horns on the question of jurisdiction over offshore oil, leading [Alfred Brian] Peckford [who became leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1979 at the age of 37] to win a provincial general election in 1982 by campaigning against Ottawa's position.
"Although Newfoundland and Ottawa were antagonists in the battle over which order of government would have jurisdiction over offshore oil development, both rushed to foster exploration and exploitation in the context of the energy crisis and the federal National Energy Program of the 1970s. The desire on the part of the federal and provincial governments for rapid development benefited the major multinational corporations such as Mobil Oil that were involved in the search for oil off the east coast. The Newfoundland government's interest focused almost entirely on which jurisdiction would control the economic benefits of development, and, like the federal government, it paid little attention to the regulation of offshore workers' safety. The offshore oil industry, sadly, took on a more tragic significance for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1982. On Valentine's Day, a winter storm damaged and led to the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. All hand aboard the oil drilling rig lost their lives; fifty-six of the eighty-four crew members were Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.... Subsequent investigations, including a royal commission, concluded that the Ocean Ranger had been generally well built, although it was designed for, and tested in, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- a very different marine environment than the Grand Banks.... Worst of all, the workers who operated the Ocean Ranger did not fully understand how to operate the ballast controls during an emergency such as the storm that developed that February night. Having to abandon the rig, workers were without survival suits and found its lifeboats almost impossible to launch in the prevailing conditions. Although the royal commission that investigated the tragedy was unwilling to say that the Newfoundland government's local hiring preference had led the rig's operators to hire untrained workers, it suggested that hiring 'guidelines requiring a very rapid phase in of local residents can affect the overall level of safety of the drilling operations.'" (Cadigan, pp. 268-269).
Looker, p. 49, says that the Ocean Ranger was a 15,000 tonne steel oil rig. "The largest of three rigs in the area, the Ocean Ranger was operated by ODECO, a Louisiana engineering firm, under contract to Mobil Oil of Canada." Major, p. 437, says "The Ocean Ranger was billed as the largest semi-submersible rig, and unsinkable. The deck and drilling area were the size of two football fields. It towered thirty storeys. The upper hull rested on eight vertical columns, set in two immense pontoons each holding a dozen ballast chambers. From the corner columns ran twelve gigantic anchors holding the rig to the ocean floor." Just six years old, Smith, p. 161, suggests that no one really knew how to operate her ballast systems *because* she was considered unsinkable. And there were no written instructions for the systems (Smith, p. 163), and even the most experienced operator was only half-trained! (Smith, p. 165).
She was commanded by Clarence Hauss, who, after being on the job for just eight days, almost sank her on February 6. But his error in running the controls was fixed -- that time.
On February 14, the storm was so bad that they cut the Ocean Ranger loose from the ocean floor (Looker, p. 50). The storm also caused the standby ship, the Seaforth Highlander, to be blown away; instead of being within two miles, as was supposed to be the rule, she drifted at least seven miles away.
At 1:05 a.m. on February 15, the Ocean Ranger sent a signal requesting assistance. Their last signal, at 1:30 a.m., reported that the crew was going to their lifeboat stations. It has been speculated that the ballast control system had been broken by the storm (Andrieux, p. 164; Major, p. 437, reports this as fact, and Smith, p. 163, reports failures in the electrical system).
The Seaforth Highlander arrived at 2:00 a.m. to find a badly damaged lifeboat whose crew were desperately bailing her out (Looker, p. 51; Major, p. 438, thinks the others had been destroyed by their fall from the listing oil rig). Before the Highlander could rescue them, the boat capsized, possibly due to the weight of the survivors all moving to the side closest the ship. Conditions were so cold that the men could not grasp ropes to be rescued (Smith, p. 165). The Ocean Ranger itself disappeared from radar at 3:38 a.m. Only 22 bodies were recovered out of the 84 Smith, p. 165, says were aboard (56 of them Newfoundlanders).
Andrieux, p. 165, has a photo of the Ranger and a picture of one of her overturned rubber boats. Pp. 167-168 have photos of salvage operations which re-floated the wreck (this was not a repair attempt; it was a navigation hazard, so the platform was raised and dumped in deeper water; Andrieux, p. 169). Smith, p. 162, also has a photo of the rig, and on p. 164 shows the overturned boat.
The song said that insurance paid out $80 million. In fact the payment, according to Looker, p. 51, was $86 million, which was more than the depreciated value of the Ocean Ranger, causing many people to think that the excess should have gone to the families. But ODECO was not under legal obligation to do so, and in any case needed to buy a new oil rig. It sounds to me as if the real responsibility to the families rests with those who put so many untrained crewmen on the Ocean Ranger. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Andrieux: J. P. Andrieux, Marine Disasters of Newfoundland and Labrador, O.T.C. Press, 1986
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- Looker: Janet Looker, Disaster Canada, Lynx Images, 2000
- Major: Kevin Major, As Near to Heaven by Sea: A History of Newfoundland & Labrador, 2001 (I use the 2002 Penguin Canada edition
- Smith: Ken Smith, A History of Disaster: The Worst Storms, Accidents, and Conflagrations in Atlantic Canada, Nimbus Publishing, 2008, 2014
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