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Could the Ocean Ranger disaster happen again?

Valentine's Day, 1982: a terrible storm rages off the coast of Newfoundland. On the Grand Banks, the Ocean Ranger, the world's mightiest drilling rig, is pounded by waves more than 20 metres high. At the height of the storm, the "indestructible" rig begins to tip over, then capsizes. All 84 men on board — 56 of them from Newfoundland — perish. It is Canada's worst tragedy at sea since the Second World War.

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It's been 19 years since the Ocean Ranger sank, and while many improvements have been made to oil rig safety, they are still dangerous places to work. Dr. Sue Hart is a professor at Memorial University's school of business. She says that all the changes to oil rig equipment, training and regulation still don't make them safe in Atlantic storms like the one that sank the Ocean Ranger.
• Lifeboats like those on the Ocean Ranger are lowered from the rig using a winch and two cables. When the boat reaches the water, a helmsman inside the lifeboat activates a release cable. He must get the timing exactly right — if the boat is released as the crest of the wave passes, it could tumble deep into the trough and smash apart.

• A new system for launching lifeboats was unveiled five years after the Ocean Ranger disaster. It uses fibreglass poles to pull the lifeboats away from the rig, lessening the risk of lifeboats being smashed against the legs of the rig. The Ocean Ranger's lifeboats were smashed in this manner.

• Lifeboat designer Dan O'Brien, who was a diver on the Ocean Ranger in 1981, says most lifeboat launch systems are unsafe. He says the "davit system" of using cables to lower lifeboats is 500 years old — he says it was used by Sir Francis Drake — and historically has an 86 per cent failure rate. Because the boats hang from cables, davit systems seldom work when a ship or rig is listing badly.

• The Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster recommended that regulators examine oil rig evacuation equipment and force the industry to prove it works in severe storms. In 1992 the Canadian government decided it was impractical to set evacuation system standards, but that decision has been reversed and research has resumed.

• The British Marine Accident Investigation Branch says that over a 10-year period, 12 people were killed and 87 injured in lifeboat drills in non-emergency situations. These drills were held in harbours during calm waters.

• There are other problems associated with recovering lifeboats and transferring their occupants to rescue ships. The boats that first reached the Ocean Ranger were not designed to pick up people or lifeboats. Nets were thrown over the side, but the Ocean Ranger's crewmembers had hypothermia and were unable to grasp the nets. Instead, they simply slipped beneath the waves.

• The wreck of the Ocean Ranger was only 32 metres below the surface of the ocean, and posed a hazard to large ships. On Aug. 22, 1983, the wreck was refloated and towed upside down out to deeper water where it remains to this day. Three divers were killed in the effort to refloat the sunken rig.

• Ocean Ranger royal commission chair Alexander Hickman says he still thinks about the disaster every Feb. 15th. "I think about the weather that prevailed that day and I'd like to think that there won't be any repetition," he says. "But that may be wishful thinking, because the sea is so powerful, so angry, so unremitting."
Medium: Radio
Program: This Morning
Broadcast Date: Feb. 15, 2001
Guest(s): Sue Hart
Host: Shelagh Rogers
Duration: 9:24

Last updated: November 19, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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