THE GLOMAR JAVA SEA DISASTER

This is one of the 29 accidents described in “A Catalogue of Disasters” It is exactly as it is presented in the book with the other 28. For more details of the book go to the publications section of the website A Catalogue of Disasters.

The drillship Glomar Java Sea, owned by Global Marine, capsized and sank with all hands in the China Sea on October 25 1983. The accident was investigated by the US Coast Guard and their report was published on May 28 1985.

THE VESSELS INVOLVED.

The Glomar Java Sea had been built in 1975 by the Levingston Shipbuilding Company, as the sixth of a series designed by Global Marine. In the midships of the unit was a drilling derrick capable of drilling wells to a depth of 25,000 feet (7620 metres), in water depths of up to 1000 feet (304.8 metres). It was 400 feet (121.9 metres) long. It was designed and constructed in accordance with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) rules. On the deck of the ship were storage areas for the casing, riser, drill pipe and other stores. Within the hull were tanks for fuel, water, liquid mud and cement and barytes, and an additional hold for large quantities of casing. Also in the hull were the main engines having a combined output of 4500 bhp. In the after deck housing was the majority of the accommodation and social areas, topped by the Pilot House. There was an anchor control house forward and also limited crew accommodation in the hull. The vessel as rated at 5930 Gross Tons, and was provided with berths for 84 people excluding the hospital.

The Glomar Java Sea – as uploaded to Oil Rig Photos by ML Gillick.

It was provided with standard marine communications equipment, and in addition had a number of radio sets installed for the purpose of company communications of various sorts. These included Single Sideband Radio (SSB) which was the comms system favoured by the charterers and a satellite phone using the Marisat system. The ship’s radio system was capable of sending an automatic distress, as was the Marisat satellite phone, the latter just by the press of a button. The ship was also provided with an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and a lifeboat radio which was an ITT Mackay Marine Type 401A. Readers might wonder why the report goes into such detail about this radio. Well we will see.

The ship maintained its location during drilling, by means of a mooring system which consisted of 10 anchors, with no’s 1 and 6, the ones on the centreline of the bow and stern being provided with 2000 feet (609.6 metres) of 3” wire, and the remaining anchors being fitted with 2000 feet of 2 ¾“ chain.

The ship was provided with a Marine Operations Manual, which specified that the eight chain moorings would be used and the  wire moorings would be held in reserve in case of an emergency, specifically should the moorings have been slipped or lost, the ship would still be provided with a means of anchoring.

There were two motor propelled lifeboats (TEMPSC) one on each side of the aft accommodation, each with a capacity for 64 people. It also had three liferafts on board two with a capacity for 20 people and one with a capacity for 15 people.

Two supply vessels were assigned to the operation, one of which remained on the location while the other remained in port, standing by or loading. They were the Nanhai 205 which had been built in Norway in 1975 as the Seaway Perm, and the Nanhai 209 which had been built in Japan in 1979. They respectively had 8000 and 6000 bhp available. The two ships were provided with SSB and VHF radios. They were operated by the Nan Hai West Shipping Company

PREAMBLE.

The Glomar Java Sea had been on hire to Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) since it had entered service. It left United States waters for China in December 1982, and on arrival in Chinese waters commenced work for ARCO China. The drill site where the ship was operating was designated as Ledong 30-1-1. The main support base was at Zhanjiang, north of Hainan Island where Global Marine and ARCO management were based. The supply vessels operated from the port of Sanya at the south end of Hainan Island. Also near Sanya was a Chinese military facility at Tiandu, from which the contracted helicopters operated.

The drillship was manned with US citizens in most of the management positions, with Chinese workers in the lower level positions. There were also four Brits, a Filipino, an Australian and two Singaporeans.

The Captain had a Master’s License and had worked in a variety of roles in the US merchant fleet, and on civilian manned vessels belonging to the US Navy. He had served as master with Global on drillships during 1981 and 1982, the 1982 tour of duty on the Glomar Java Sea. The two senior drilling personnel on the ship were long term Global employees, and both apparently held Merchant Marine AB’s certification. The Assistant Rig Manager, arguably the senior Global employee on the ship, was a mechanical engineer who had been assigned to the Glomar Java Sea team in September 1983. He had been Assistant Rig Manager for one month, and at the time of the accident was on his second visit to the ship. The senior drilling person the “Drilling Superintendent” was the person in charge of the unit, and under him were the Captain with the deck crew, the Chief Engineer with the engineering crew and the Toolpushers with the drilling crew.

The ship was positioned for the drilling operation at a location about 63 miles south of Hainan Island, in an area considered to be vulnerable to tropical storms with a 42% probability of occurrence with a wind speed of 34 knots or more. The maximum cyclone conditions for the area had been recorded in May 1971, with wind speeds of 80 knots and a significant wave height of 37.9 feet (11.5 metres).

For good reasons there is much discussion in the USCG report about the use of radio communications, focus being placed on the SSB radios provided by ARCO which were the principle means of communication between the drillship, the supply ships and the shore stations. Apparently the crew of the drillship had difficulty communicating with the supply vessels at night, because they felt that the Nanhai 209 and the Nanhai 205 turned off the SSB radios during the hours of darkness. The drillship had been instructed by ARCO China to contact the shore and the supply vessel on location hourly during cyclones but there is no record of this having been done. Efforts were made to contact the Glomar Java Sea and the Nanhai 205 which was the attending ship at the time, throughout the night of the casualty, and they finally made contact with the Nanhai 205 at about 6:20 in the morning. Also while continuous radio coverage was maintained by the drillship, using two Chinese operators and one US licensed operator, and by the ARCO TianDu radio, there was no coverage at Zhanjiang between 2300 and 2400 and 0600 to 0700. The report says that there was no coverage between 2300 and 2330 on the day of the accident.

At the Ledong 30-1-1 drill site 9 anchors were deployed including No 1, this was in accordance with the requirements of the Marine Operations Manual. The ship’s heading was about northnorthwest and the water depth was 317 feet (96.6 metres). At the time of the rig move to the location the two regular masters were on board, one being relieved later by Captain Swanson who died in the casualty. The anchor pattern was just a little unusual in that when the anchors were laid No 7 windlass was inoperative, so the anchors were deployed leaving No 7 out. Subsequently, once the windlass was repaired, No 7 was laid close to No 6.

In an emergency the moorings could be released from the central control positions forward and aft, as long as main power was available, but it appeared that the hydraulic system could not be supplied from the emergency switchboard. Some of the supervisory staff felt that it was still possible to release the moorings manually from the windlasses, but one of the alternative Captains felt that this might not have been common knowledge.

The time zone in which the ship was operating was 8 hours ahead of GMT, and the times shown in the report are those which were local to the ship. The time in Houston was 14 hours behind that at the drill site.

US Federal regulations required that Mobile Drilling Units be provided with specific instructions for preparing for severe storms and preparing to move the vessel. Instructions were provided in the Glomar Java Sea Operating Manual, the Global Marine Drilling Company Procedures Manual 5 – Marine Operations, the Global Marine Drilling Company Critical Procedures and the Glomar Java Sea Typhoon Plan.

Apart from the Operating Manual and the Manual 5 – Marine Operations which contain identical content, the procedures are different in several respects in the other guidance, particularly the timing of the various actions to be taken, and the sending ashore of the non-essential personnel. None of the documents identify the non-essential personnel and, although as part of the preparation for emergency move off the anchor chains are disconnected in the chain lockers, the person making this decision is not identified.

THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS.

October 14 1983.

The tropical disturbance which is to become tropical storm “Lex” is first detected by the US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre in the vicinity of the Marshall Islands.

October 20 1983.

0400. A tropical cyclone formation alert is issued as the storm approaches the Philippines.

October 22 1983.

0800. Routine drilling operations are taking place on the Glomar Java Sea. Wind speeds are 12 knots, swell about five feet (1.5 metres). The ship is rolling one degree and there are 83 people on board. The Nanhai 209 is standing by.

1030. The ARCO contracted weather service advises the drill ship of a tropical depression with wind speeds of 32 knots, moving westnorthwest at 10 knots. Those in charge of the drilling operation on the ship determine that they will “hang off” the drill string after changing the drill bit.

1630. The drill ship obtains a forecast upgrading “Lex” from a depression to a tropical storm, with a predicted more westerly path.

Two persons depart the ship, leaving 81 on board. The Nanhai 209 is replaced by the Nanhai 205.

1800. The weather forecast places tropical storm “Lex” 390 miles away with wind speeds at 35 knots.

2230. The weather forecast places “Lex” 360 miles to the east winds gusting 40-50 knots. It is due to pass 45 miles to the northwest of the drillship.

October 23 1983.

0000. The drill crew have completed hanging off the drill string and are pulling the marine riser.

0653. “Lex” is upgraded to tropical storm status.

1015. The marine riser is on deck and secured. The swell has increased to six feet and the drill ship is experiencing a four foot (1.2 metre) heave and a three degree roll.

The Nanhai 205 is anchored about 1.5 miles away.

October 24 1983.

0500. The storm has remained stationary for the previous 12 hours and has not intensified.

Morning. The swells have continued to build and now reach 12 feet (3.7 metres). The drillship is heaving 16-24 feet (4.9 to 7.3 metres) and rolling 7-12 degrees. The wind now northeast at 10 knots.

1030. The weather report indicates that there will be an increase in wind speed to 45-55 knots. The storm is approximately 250 miles due east of the ship and is predicted to pass to the north of it.

1050. The Captain of the Nanhai 205 reports to the drillship that casing has broken loose on the after deck. He receives permission to weigh anchor and sail into the wind while re-securing the pipe.

1600. Swell at the drill site has increased to 16-18 feet (4.9 to 5.5 metres). Wind 10 knots.

1800. The weather forecast indicates an increase in the wind speed gusting to 40 knots and with a corresponding increase in sea and swell.

1830. Nanhai 205 is anchored again with, according to the report “its engines secured for the night”.

2230. The weather report indicates that the 20:00 position of the storm is 235 miles to the east of the drillship, moving westnorthwest at three knots.

October 25 1983.

0000. Winds at the drill site are 20-25 knots. Seas 10-12 feet (about 3.5 metres), swell 16-18 feet (about 5.2 metres).

0200. The US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre cites sustained wind speeds of 65 knots, and classes the storm as a typhoon. (The report says that no other agency classed “Lex” as a typhoon).

0730. The Nanhai 205 gets under way to ride out the storm. The 07:30 weather forecast predicted wind speeds of 40 knots and gusts of 47 knots, and for conditions to worsen with wind speeds of 55 knots and swells of 20 feet (6.0 metres).

0800. Wind speeds at the drill site have increased to 25-30 knots, and the wave height has increased to more than 20 feet with a corresponding increase in swell height.

0850. The Radio Operator on the ship talks with his opposite number at TianDu, complaining of the weather conditions, the fact that he feels unwell, but does not pass any official information. Also at that time the Liaison Officer with the shipping company suggests to the ARCO Drilling Superintendent at Zhanjiang that the Glomar Java Sea be moved because he thinks the typhoon will pass through the location. The Drilling Superintendent responds that he thinks the storm will pass to the north, and anyway the ship is prepared for the storm.

0930. Two sections of the Nanhai 205 deck sheathing is carried away due to seas on deck.

1030. “Lex” is 145 miles east of the ship, moving westnorthwest at seven knots.

1100. The Assistant Manager of the Nanhai West Shipping company telephones ARCO, concerned about his ship. He is told that the Glomar Java Sea is remaining on location and that the Nanhai 205 is to remain there too.

1200. In an increasingly rough sea the ship is rolling and heaving heavily. Normal radio communications pass between the drillship and TianDu. The Nanhai 205, now dodging on location, is about six miles away.

1300. The supply vessel, now rolling heavily, reports that the wires and chains securing the cargo have parted and that the casing is loose on the deck. One piece has been lost overside, and there is no possibility of securing the load again.

1500. The Nanhai 205 is 8 miles from the drillship and is reporting wind speeds of 55 to 60 knots. And a bit later the drillship is experiencing seas of up to 38 feet (11.6 metres).

1614. Some communications take place between those on the drillship, and their opposite numbers in Zhanjiang. The Drilling Supervisor reports that the ship is okay and that the Nanhai 205 has problems with its cargo but is still standing by. The ARCO Chief Geologist speaks to his opposite number ashore reporting that the weather is rough, but no worse than on previous occasions. By now the wind speed is about 65 knots and the ship is heaving 24 feet (7.3 metres).

1740. The Nanhai 205 Captain is advised by his company to put the wind astern and leave the area. The storm is now going to pass 20 miles north of the location.

1800. The ARCO Drilling Supervisor tells the ARCO Drilling Superintendent in Zhanjiang that the vessel is riding well and everyone feels comfortable.

2000. The Nanhai 205 is now close to the Glomar Java Sea and a refrigerated container breaks free and is driven by the sea under the winch. The supply ship is rolling heavily.

2100 to 2255. The Radio Operator on the Glomar Java Sea and the one at Zhanjiang exchange a number of calls, in general indicating increasingly heavy weather.

2300. The Glomar Java Sea attempts to call Zhanjiang, unsuccessfully (The Radio Operator has gone off duty), and so calls TianDu. The Radio Operator says that the wind and sea are “very heavy” and that they have been asked by the Global Marine Drilling Superintendent to put on their lifejackets.

2315. The Nanhai 205 calls the drillship and says, according to the report that “they will have to get under way, sailing into the wind.” (This is quite a difficult message to understand considering previous instructions, but one assumes that stern to the weather they are taking seas on the main deck, and so need to turn head to wind again).They are 16 miles from the Glomar Java Sea, and together with the drillship decide that they will for the immediate future communicate by VHF .

2330. The relief Radio Operator arrives at Zhanjiang and tries to call the drillship, but is told by TianDu that the drillship’s 23:00 call indicated that “the ship was listing very much”. Neither are able to contact the ship.

2348. The Assistant Rig Manager of the Glomar Java Sea (on board the ship) calls the company office in Houston via the satellite phone, and informs the Vice-President in charge of the drilling group that the ship is experiencing a 15 degree starboard list, and 75 knot winds over the bow. All personnel are up, and wearing lifejackets. They do not know what is causing the list and they are pumping out the starboard drilling mud tanks on the deck. The call is cut off and attempts to re-establish it fail.

2351. The Glomar Java Sea capsizes (as indicated by the clocks recovered later).

2400. The Nanhai 205 attempts to contact the drillship via VHF, with no success.

October 26 1983.

0000-0620. Both the shore stations attempt to contact the ship and the supply vessel by SSB without success, and the supply vessel also attempts to contact the drillship by VHF.

0330. Global Marine Houston inform the 12th Coast Guard District that contact with the ship has been lost. They in turn hand over to the US Air Force Western Pacific Rescue Co-ordination Centre who attempt by a variety of means to contact the ship.

0620. The Nanhai 205 contacts the shore stations by SSB.

0705. The Nanhai 205 is now in contact with the shore stations and is reporting that it is searching for the drill ship by radar. Also that the wind speed is decreasing from Beaufort Force 12 to Force 8-9. 

1110. The Nanhai 205 arrives at the well site. It finds the anchor buoys in place but no sign of the ship.

Evening. Two airliners report that they had received distress messages on 121.5 mHz, this is one of the two frequencies used by the EPIRBs.

October 27 1983.

1307. A merchant ship Willine Toyo, receives a distress signal on 500 kHz, the frequency on which emergency lifeboat radios transmit. The signal uses the Global Java Sea’s call sign and gives a latitude and longitude.

October 28 1983.

0810. A Chinese helicopter reports sighting an overturned lifeboat, but no other search unit sees it. However a tug recovers an empty liferaft from the drill ship.

 In the following days an intensive search was conducted by aircraft and ships from the US Navy and Air Force and the Chinese Navy and Air Force and by other vessels hired by Global Marine. There were various sightings of debris and in one case a possible body in the water by the aircraft, but the vessels who followed up these sighting never found anything material. The official search was discontinued on November 4th but the private vessels hired by Global Marine continued well after this date. Nothing of any material importance was turned up.

On 29th October an EPIRB was recovered by a Chinese Naval vessel, and handed over the American authorities. It was determined that in all probability it was the one assigned to the Glomar Java Sea and had operated effectively.

The USCG reports that “the crews of the ships and aircraft risked their lives to pursue the search under extremely adverse weather conditions. Some of the vessels involved sustained damage themselves during the search”.

THE INVESTIGATION

Subsequent to the loss of the ship, Global Marine mounted two diving expedition to attempt to determine the reasons for the casualty and, one assumes, to recover the bodies from the wreck. The first expedition was undertaken by the Smit Manila a 150 foot (45.7 metre) salvage vessel with a small saturation diving setup. It undertook what turned out the be preliminary surveys of the areas and of the ship, and the condition and distribution of the moorings and the vessel itself which was upturned with its aft superstructure buried in the seabed.

In March 1984 another expedition was mounted with the much larger Tender Carrier which was equipped with a 10 man sat system and a three man diving bell. This expedition obtained details of much of the state of the vessel and recovered all the bodies they could from the wreck. But none of the bodies of the senior personnel were found. They had probably been in the Pilot House, the Radio Room or the Manager’s Office, all of which were buried in the mud, and deemed too dangerous to access by the Diving Supervisors. 36 bodies were located on the ship and 31 were recovered.

In addition what were called “Coupons” were cut from the hull to determine the origins, if possible, of the various cracks and crushings in the hull. The divers also determined that three of the anchor cables on the starboard side had failed, probably due to a sudden excessive overload, and the investigators went on to comment on this failure and the other information obtained by the divers. No logs or other formal documents were recovered; they were all buried in the mud.

Importantly, as far as the report is concerned the divers investigated the lifeboat installations, and it appeared from the state of the lifeboat davits and the winches that the port boat had been wrenched from its location but that the starboard boat had been launched. By now they were aware that it appeared that one of the boats had got away.

The investigators also travelled the world in order to interview the management of the unit, and the Chinese personnel involved, as well as the crews of the drillship who had been on leave. They also visited a sister ship of the Glomar Java Sea, and they reported that everyone had been very co-operative with the investigation.

The Tender Carrier expedition determined that the watertight integrity of the  ship was compromised in a variety of ways, but that in the end the failures to dog watertight doors, and to hook back others, instead of ensuring they were closed would have made no difference to the progress of the event. However in this area and many others they found failings in the general manner in which drillships were operated, as well as the way they were manned and the exemptions they had received from normal merchant ship regulations.

As part of the investigation a variety of stability studies were carried out all of them indicating that the ship conformed with the Federal and ABS requirements in every possibly way. In this area there were no failings. However, in the brief discussion between the Assistant Rig Manager and the Vice President back in Houston it had been revealed that the ship was experiencing a 15 degree list and more importantly that the personnel who do those sort of things were attempting to correct the list (at no point in the report were the people who were in charge of transferring liquids identified). Of all the information contained in the report it may be that this information is the most important in identifying the reason for the capsize.

In order to determine the vulnerability of drillships to adverse weather the investigators sent out a request for data to operators of these craft, and received replies from five drilling companies with data from the operation of 15 drillships over a period of 10 years. The results were in general indicative of the ability of vessels to withstand severe weather, but in two cases, in conditions less severe than those experienced by the Glomar Java Sea, moorings had parted.

The investigating board came to a number of conclusions, some of them relating directly to the casualty, and some related to the operation of the Glomar Java Sea, and in some cases the operation of drillships in general.

They felt that it was probable that the list resulted from shifting casing and riser on deck, and that this combined with boarding seas, and possible free surface in some spaces, resulted in the capsize. Even though three moorings had failed while the ship was on the surface this would have just resulted in a change of position, rather than contributing to the capsize. They also felt that, on balance, it was very likely that one lifeboat had got away and that later, because it would have been necessary to open some of the access hatches to put up the lifeboat emergency radio aerial, it might have been swamped and broken up. This view is supported by the requirements of the ITT Mackay 401A radio, which needed the aerial to be mounted on the roof, and the radio grounded probably by submersion of the earth wire in the sea. The range of the radio was probably les than 50 miles, but environmental conditions can always result in signal being received much further away due to “skip distance”.

The report goes on to indicate that the radio on board the drillship no longer conformed with US regulatory requirements. The approval of this radio type had been withdrawn in June 1980, and the type approved at the time of the loss was the ITT Mackay Marine Type 403A which had a number of advantages, including the deployment of the aerial within the lifeboat structure. No-one including the Coast Guard Marine Inspector who had recertified the drillship shortly before the loss, seems to have been aware of the new lifeboat radio requirements.

As is usual in such investigations the report found that there were failings in other areas of the ship’s operation. The Tender Carrier divers had found that many of the watertight and weathertight closures were ineffectively dogged down and in some cases hooked open, and that this could have resulted in some water ingress which might have contributed to, but not caused, the casualty.

They also went into great detail about the supervisory relationships on board the unit. This focused on the tendency for drilling companies to establish a different supervisory hierarchy on their marine craft, from that common on merchant ships. The Glomar Java Sea was no different in this respect with the Drilling Supervisor being the senior person on board, and the master being a departmental head. The other masters interviewed by the investigators indicated that there was absolutely no problem with this and that they would be in charge in the event of an emergency. Nevertheless the report indicates that professional seafarers are those most likely to be capable of evaluating the status of a vessel, whether at anchor or under way, in adverse weather conditions, and that the probability that decisions relating to the safety of the vessel would be undertaken “by committee” could result in confusion in emergencies.

And related to the marine manning of the drillship, the investigation identified the fact that a number of the supervisory drilling personnel held AB’s certificates, so fulfilling the manning requirements of the ship under way, but in fact it is doubtful if these people actually ever undertook the roles. Also that the means by which Global Marine provided the senior deck officers when the ship was on the move was by having both masters be on board. However, once moored, the only navigating officer was the master, so if the moorings had to be released, who would keep the navigation watch other than him?

The report also went into some detail about the list and the attempts to correct it, and in a way this also related to the marine expertise on the unit, describing as it did the fact that liquids were routinely transferred around the vessel as part of the drilling operation, without any reference to the marine department, which only existed in the person of the master. It additionally considered the fact that the stability of the vessel might have been adversely affected by the attempts to correct the list, and also that guidance should have been contained in the Marine Operations Manual, that attempts to correct lists where the cause was not known should be avoided. This was a regulatory requirement and the lack of its inclusion in the Operating Manual had been highlighted at a previous Coast Guard inspection, but even so the required change had not been carried out.

The lifeboats also came in for some criticism, in that it was extremely difficult  to hook them on for recovery after deployment. The falls had to be hooked on through small hatches fore and aft, making it quite likely that personnel would suffer hand injuries in any sort of weather. This meant that the boats were seldom exercised at the required three month intervals. In addition to this deficiency the report identified that even though drillships required 100% lifeboat capacity on each side when under way, there was a Coast Guard dispensation that only 100% capacity was required in total, when it was moored.

The report goes on to make 13 quite lengthy recommendations, some of which are summarized here, almost all of them requiring action on the part of the Coast Guard.

It was suggested that the Coast Guard re-examine the manning scales for drillships, and make it a requirement that all be provided with two navigating officers in all situations, and that they look into the practice of crediting the vessel with marine crew who were actually drillers or drilling supervisors.

 The report also went into considerable lengths to deal with the problems of lifeboat exercise, and seemed to accept that it was very difficult to actually put the boats in the water without risk. Other solutions, they said, might include specialist training on specific lifeboat types with consequent certification.

It was recommended that the Coast Guard take action to ensure a review of the requirements for lifeboat radios with the ultimate objective of ensuring that they   could be operated without opening any of the access hatches.

The Coast Guard were also required to amend the current regulations for the operating manuals of offshore drilling units. The revisions were to include details about what to do about non essential personnel, and who they would be, and procedures concerning all aspects of increasingly adverse weather so as to provide adequate guidance, and to ensure that all marine crew, drilling crew and supervisory personnel would be aware of the guidance.

Drillship operators were specifically required to examine their command structure to ensure that one individual had the “absolute authority”, and that that individual be the master.  

COMMENT

The report does not actually describe a possible scenario during which the capsize might have taken place, which would have been so rapid that it was not possible to send a distress, even though the Assistant Rig Manager was actually seated at the satellite phone, which had a button on it which would have resulted in a distress being sent.

During the conversation with the Vice-President the only detail about what was happening on the ship was that it had a 15 degree list. One can’t help feeling that during the three minutes something further was said, that is, unless the Vice President was doing all the talking. And if it comes to that, if one of the boats got away, which seems pretty certain (if for no other reason than more than 40 bodies were not recovered from the wreck) the personnel in it must have been embarking, or already embarked at the time of the capsize, and hence during the time that the Assistant Rig Manager was on the phone. Was he unaware that this was happening, or had happened? If he knew surely he would have told the Vice-President in Houston.

In addition to this, looking at the statistics about the ship in the report, it would appear that at the design draught the freeboard would have been five foot nine inches, or just a little under two metres. And it is possible, since the ship had been routinely resupplied at sea, that it was overloaded, further reducing the freeboard, and exposing the deck to wave action. It is also possible that less importance was place in the 1980s on the results of deck edge immersion, which we know will cause an unacceptable reduction in the stability margin on most vessels.

So if one was constructing a possible scenario which would fit the known information one might think that as the weather worsened and the ship was reacting in a more and more sluggish manner to the impact of the seas, a group of personnel, who may have initially been mustered in the recreations rooms, decided to prepare for evacuation by lowering the starboard boat to the embarkation deck and getting into it. One or more of the more senior personnel might have led this group.

Meanwhile the Assistant Rig Manager had decided to telephone the Vice- President who would have been in the office at the time, although it is difficult to understand what he could have been phoning about, except maybe permission to evacuate the vessel. While he was on the telephone, probably unaware of the system’s facility to send a distress, three of the starboard moorings failed causing the ship to move downwind. If the tension in the moorings contributed to the list, and if the attempts to reduce it increased the tension, then the ship would have been rolling heavily, maybe causing the stowed pipework to shift and scooping up heavy seas. The resulting free surface might have been sufficient to cause the capsize. In addition, the change in heading might have been the cause of the loss of signal on the satellite phone, since it required a directional aerial, and therefore there might have been an interval of maybe half a minute between the loss of communication and the capsize.

The lifeboat would have already been at the embarkation deck, and loaded up with personnel, and the effect of the extreme motion of the ship might have caused the coxswain of the boat to take the next action. The boats were fitted with Rottmer release gear, which according to the report allowed the boat to be released by pulling a single handle through 180 degrees. It is likely that this was “on load” release gear, which would allow the boat to be released even if it was not in the water. One can easily imagine therefore a critical moment when the ship was rolling violently and the coxswain pulled the release handle allowing the boat to fall a few feet into the sea, and possibly sustaining damage. Some assumptions are made in the development of this scenario, but damage to the boat during launching might be a more likely reason for its disappearance after 36 hours afloat, than the opening of hatches to install the radio aerial.

It is noticeable in the report that at no time does anyone mention the master of the ship, other than to say that he was on board, and that he was one of the casualties. And even though, when the masters who were not aboard were interviewed, they said there was no problem with the management structure, and that in an emergency they would be in change, it is evident that at the very least he was not the one communicating with the management ashore.  Could it have been that because the drillers were communicating with the management, that everything seemed to be absolutely fine? The oil industry does not really like mariners because they are always pessimistic. It goes with the job.

Since the Coast Guard are a marine body it is quite natural that the investigators should see that the person in charge of a ship was not the master, and should take steps to alter that situation. In fact by then the Canadian authorities had already taken a similar view after the loss of the Ocean Ranger, and readers will be aware that even up to today many drilling companies dodge round this requirement  by a variety of subterfuges. Others, on the other hand, have bitten on the bullet, and have found that their units work just as well with a mariner in charge.

Since the accident many thousands of words have been written, and the conspiracy theorists have suggested that the ship was engaged in some sort of secret government operation and was therefore overloaded and that the lifeboat which got away ended up in Vietnam. But by now we are aware that none of this was correct.  The reality is, just as the investigators determined, the weather forecasting was less than helpful, the marine guidance was inadequate and that as a result, with the onset of extremely high seas and swells, insufficient action was taken to protect the ship.

Go to the information about the book here A Catalogue of Disasters . And not in the book, when I look at the photographs of these early drillships I wonder what the hell they were thinking about letting them out there, into what is a hostile environment. 

 
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