‘Feels like yesterday’

Thirty years have passed since the ‘Ocean Ranger’ disaster on Feb. 15, 1982

Paul Herridge editor@southerngazette.ca
Published on February 14, 2012
The caption accompanying this picture in the Mar. 3, 1982 edition of The Southern Gazette read: “The Sacred Heart Parish Church in Marystown was the scene of just one of the many memorial services held in schools of the Burin Peninsula Roman Catholic School Board on Friday, February 19. Conducted by Father P.J. Kennedy, the memorial service for the deceased members and their families of the oil rig ‘Ocean Ranger’ was attended by all students in the Marystown R.C. school system. Also present were teachers, School Board personnel and members of the community at large. Students from the schools took part in the readings and prayers of the faithful. Similar memorial services were held in other parish churches in the school district on Friday afternoon.”

The date Feb. 15, 1982 has gone down as a day of infamy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

It was in the early hours on that morning 30-years-ago tomorrow the ‘Ocean Ranger', a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit, sank during a fierce winter storm some 267 kilometres east of St. John's while drilling ax exploration well for Mobil Oil of Canada, Ltd.

All 84 crewmembers on board perished in what is the worst offshore drilling accident in Canadian history.

According to editions of The Southern Gazette around the time, the winter of 1982 was a rough one, as evidenced by an editorial explaining the paper's deadlines back then.

On four occasions, delivery of The Gazette, which was published then on Wednesday, had been delayed a day because bad weather had closed the Burin Peninsula Highway.

Clyde Reid of Baine Harbour was a plow operator for the provincial government at the time and recalled the night the ‘Ocean Ranger' was lost last week.  

"I had one of the worse nights of my life. I thought I was finished that night."

In his 22 years on the grader, Mr. Reid indicated he never saw a worse storm before or after.

"There was too much wind and storm for anything. The wind howled. When I'd hoist the blade up on the side of the grader, I was afraid sometimes she was going to blow over."

The 88-year-old year said a line of vehicles were waiting for him to break through around the Bay L'Argent branch, including Slaney's Taxi out of St. Lawrence, which had a crowd of draggermen on board who were heading to their homes off the peninsula.

"I was pounding (snow) the whole night."

Mr. Reid acknowledged one older gentleman from Fogo Island on the taxi was a tremendous help to him. Unfortunately, he forgot the man's name and his attempts to find out have proved fruitless. 

Mr. Reid said he found out about the fate of the ‘Ocean Ranger' on the highway that morning. Also stuck on the road was another man from Point May who happened to be making his way back to the ill-fated rig.

"He filled right up. There was a lump in this throat. Poor devil. It hit him some hard."

Out on the sea, Archie Mackinnon was the chief electrician on drilling rig ‘Sedco 706', which along with the ‘Zapata-Ugland', were nearby where the ‘Ocean Ranger' was also located.

The ‘Sedco 706' and the ‘Zapata-Ugland', both operated by Mobil Oil, would arrive in Mortier Bay days after the disaster for safety inspections at the Marystown Shipyard to offset allegations the two rigs may be unsafe, in light of the ‘Ocean Ranger' sinking.

The inspections were carried out by a nine-member team Eastern Technical Services Limited of St. John's over several months and overseen by the American Bureau of Shipping. 

Mr. Mackinnon never made it to Marystown, leaving for Japan the day after the disaster to go to Japan to work on the construction of the new ‘Sedco 710'.

The 63-year-old now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is involved in marine repair sales.

"It feels like it was yesterday."

Mr. Mackinnon recalled the rogue wave that nailed the ‘Sedco 706' and then the ‘Ocean Ranger', just six nautical miles away. He noted the ‘Sedco 706' had a 65-foot air gap between the deck and the ocean. There was another 75 feet to the heliport.

On clean nights, he said you could see the ‘Ocean Ranger', but not on that occasion.

"The wave that actually turned the ‘Ranger' over ... came over our heliport. I don't know what size the wave was. It was just massive."

Describing the ‘Sedco 706' as a seafaring rig, he indicated there was horrendous damage afterwards.

"The wave curled quarter-inch deck pipe like it was carpet. We had to straighten all that out."

Mr. Mackinnon acknowledged there was chatter on the radio from the ‘Ocean Ranger' and the rig was on the radar before the wave hit and then it was gone.

"There was some good that came out of it. We never had survival suits until then. And we didn't have a proper way of launching a lifeboat. There was a lot of changes made right after the ‘Ranger' - for the good."