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“I must go down to the seas again, to
the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over”.
“Sea Fever” by John Masefield (1878-1967).
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)
Let me tell you a yarn, perhaps not so merry. However it is a true story and it does have a happy ending. I would like to show you some photographs and news paper articles describing the sinking and rescue efforts concerning the Drilling Vessel, Ocean Prince. I was aboard the rig when it started breaking up and ultimately sank. This all happened a long time ago. However, the story remains fresh on my mind.
The time was March 8, 1968. At the time of the sinking the rig was located in the North Sea, near the mouth of the Humber River in an area known as the Humber Wash.
The Mr. Capp
The story actually begins even before the Ocean Prince was built and put into service. It really all started with the jack-up drilling rig Mr. Capp. The reason that the Mr. Capp plays an important role in the story of the Ocean Prince is because most of the crew members on the Ocean Prince were from the Mr. Capp. The Mr. Capp was built in 1957 and was retired in 1987. It was a multi-legged jack-up and was the last rig built of this design. It worked primarily in the North Sea. The Mr. Capp was sold to Global Marine Drilling Company and almost all of the crew members went to work for Ocean Drilling Company on the Ocean Prince after it was sold. The Mr. Capp was a three legged Marathon rig and was one of the earliest Marathon designs. In 1967 it was severely damaged in a storm by high wind and waves and was towed into a UK shipyard for extensive repairs.
Personnel involved with the Ocean Prince operations
Some very colorful characters came to the Ocean Prince from the Mr. Capp . Jack Pillow, Claude Brantley, George Moystin, Stirley Goff, Ralph Fall, Dick Bradshaw, Curt Evans and Art Morrison were some of the crew. These guys were all very good oil field employees. However, they were not always "good" shore side people. We all lived in Scarborough and Middleborough, England. I can recall many nights out in the Two B’s night club in Scarborough and parties in the Fiesta and the Marimba Night Clubs near Middleborough with these characters.
Jack Pillow was the Hamilton Brothers manager. He was once interviewed by The BBC on television. It was early in 1967. We all gathered around the television in the Ocean Prince’s recreation room to hear the interview. It was in the very beginning of the offshore drilling in the UK North Sea. The whole concept was completely new to the UK and was big news. The BBC announcer was impressed with Jack and when Jack was introduced we could tell that he had had a few drinks prior to entering the studio. The announcer introduced Jack and then asked him, “Mr. Pillow, to what do you owe your success in the oil industry”? Old Jack peered into the camera and exclaimed, “I never hired a son of a bitch that I couldn’t whip”. No one in the room heard the rest of the interview because of the laughter.. The announcer, however, was completely mortified.
Old Jack is long gone from this life. However, if he were here, I would remind him again that we did find a son of a bitch that we couldn’t whip-The North Sea.
The crews from the UK were very knowledgeable. Whereas they were not old seasoned oil rig personnel, they quickly learned all they needed to know about the job. I remember Ronald McDonald, the barge captain, Tom Coxin, the rig mechanic and Ken Ellis the rig electrician. They were all very capable men.
I initially went to the North Sea and to Norway aboard the Ocean Traveler which was another semisubmersible drilling vessel. I was on the voyage of the Traveler from Grand Isle Louisiana to Stavanger Norway. When we arrived in Stavanger, the entire town turned out to see the rig. It was the first mobile drilling rig to go to Stavanger or for that matter to Norway.
Later I was reassigned to the Ocean Prince which was being constructed in England.
Construction of the Ocean Prince
The Ocean Prince was constructed in Smith’s docks in Middlesborough, England. The construction was started in1963. During the construction a North Sea storm hit the shipyard and because of the immense size of the rig the rig moorings broke and the rig was blown down the Tees River. A tug was finally secured to the rig and the rig was returned to dockside, with little damage.
The rig design was a copy of the Ocean Queen which was built in New Orleans and had been operating successfully in the US Gulf of Mexico. Prior to coming to the UK, I had worked on, first to Ocean Driller, The Ocean Explorer and then on the Ocean Queen. So, I was familiar with the design and the operations of the rig. However, as I learned later, I nor the rest of the crew were ready for the treacherous North Sea.
We were not the first rig to operate in the North Sea. We were, however, the first floating drilling operation. The Prince was the first drilling rig to be built in either the UK or Norway. No one in either the UK or Norway had ever seen a Semisubmersible drilling rig in the North Sea. We were also the first to discover oil in the North Sea.
The Ocean Prince was not the first rig to break up and sink in the North Sea. The first rig disaster had been the Sea Gem which sank in 1965, claiming thirteen lives and five serious injuries. The Sea Gem was a ten legged jack-up that sank while attempting to move to a new location.
The Sea Gem
We were among the first pioneers to drill in the North Sea and we were definitely the first to drill in a floating mode in the North Sea. We were the first to find oil in the North Sea. All of this was not without a lot of luck.
We were Gulf of Mexico drillers and had little knowledge of what the North Sea weather was really like. The Ocean Prince was built from a Gulf of Mexico semisubmersible template. The Prince was an Ocean Queen design as was the Ocean Traveler.. The Ocean Queen had been operating successfully for some time in the US Gulf of Mexico and it was reasoned that if this design had operated successfully in the Gulf it would also operate successfully in the North Sea. We were in for a rude awakening!
The rig design was probably adequate to withstand the rigors of the North Sea weather, however, only in a floating mode and not sitting on bottom. The rig’s outfitting was seriously lacking in functionality. The rig was not equipped with a motion compensator, as this piece of machinery had not yet been invented. To compensate for the rig vertical heave, bumper subs were utilized in the drill string. This proved to be extremely inefficient as it took a crew of men constantly working to repair the bumper subs.
The rig was fitted with Gulf of Mexico type anchors. These were wide fluked anchors designed by the US Coast Guard for the soft mud bottom in the Gulf. They were not designed for the hard sand bottom of the North Sea. These anchors would not seat and constantly slipped causing the rig to go off location on many occasions.
To compound the mooring problems we found that the work boat captains, while possibly competent blue water sea captains, were completely useless when they attempted to maneuver a supply vessel along side the drilling rig. These supply vessels were not fitted with bow thrusters. The boat captains would constantly run their vessels into the rig and even under the rig, occasionally causing serious damage to both the boat and the rig. In order to minimize the collision damage we utilized a line throwing rocket device. This device consisted of a rocket fitted to a gun and attached to a rope coiled in a box. The rocket would be fired across the stern of the supply vessel allowing the rope to fall on the deck of the supply vessel. A larger rope was then attached to the small rocket line and the large rope was then pulled aboard the boat. The anchor pendant wire was attached to the larger diameter rope and the pendant wire was then heaved aboard the boat, connected to the winch on the boat. Each anchor was run in this way. It was time consuming and dangerous. Once one of the crane operators fired a rocket into the wheel house on the supply vessel and the rocket set the chart table afire. The then ricocheted around the wheel house hitting the captain on the leg and breaking his leg.
Once while attempting to attach a towing line to a tug boat, the boat drifted astern and onto one of the sharp pointed hull pontoons. The pontoon point penetrated the stern of the tug boat and the tug’s engine room flooded. As the tug started to sink the personnel on the tug jumped from the deck of the tug onto the rig pontoon. No one was injured. During this sinking the boat captain called us on the rig and asked, in typical British understatement, “I say old boy, do you have a pump”. The tug sank beneath the waves approximately ten minutes later? The tug was the “Yorkshireman”.
The sub-sea systems were a disaster from the start. We did not have a sub sea engineer and the sub-sea maintenance and installation was performed by the drill crews and supervised by the drillers and toolpushers. The marine riser tensioners consisted of a cable attached to the riser and strung over a sheave and down to a counter weight. The counter weight was a joint of casing filled with water. The guide line tensioners consisted of the end of the guide lines being attached to an air hoist. The operating handle of the air hoist was held in the open position by a piece of soft line. A rig move was definitely an ordeal.
The rig was fitted with only one shale shaker and a desander. This was a solids control nightmare.
The Sinking of the Ocean Prince
The Ocean Prince on a good day
The Ocean Prince just after the last crew departed. This shows a sequence of a seventy foot wave coming through the rig.
The Day Before
On March 7, 1968 I traveled to the Bristow Heliport at Tetney, near Grimsby to travel out to the Ocean Prince. The purpose of my trip was to escort some rig inspectors from The NMD (Norwegian Maritime Directorate) to the rig as we had planned to drill some wells in Norway. When we arrived at the heliport we were told that the weather was too bad to make the flight. The pilot, captain Balls said that the winds were gusting over ninety knots and the helicopter was only designed to fly in winds of less that sixty knots. The Norwegians returned to Middlesborough and I went to a hotel near the heliport. Captain Balls called me later in the day and said that the winds had modified somewhat and that it was a possibility that we could fly. I returned to the heliport. However, the Norwegians could not be reached as they were in route to Middlesborough. I went to the heliport and Captain Balls flew me to the rig, which was about one hundred miles out.
After I arrived on the rig the weather began to deteriorate once again.
I went to bed around ten thirty that night. I was sleeping in the same room with Ronald McDonald, the barge captain and George Moystin, the tool pusher. About three o’clock in the morning of March 8, a very large rouge wave hit the rig on the starboard side. The rig shuddered violently which awoke the three of us. As I awoke I looked over and saw George on all fours on the floor. I looked out of the window and saw in the rig lights a very large wave that was just moving away from the rig. That wave was followed by a series of other large waves the caused the rig to shudder and bounce off of the bottom of the sea floor.
The three of us got up, dressed and went out on the deck. The wind was very strong and the seas were very high. It was very cold. We then went to the radio room which was located just mid ship on the port side of the rig and called the rig manager who was in Middlesborough. Our call woke him. We could tell that we had disturbed his sleep. We informed him that we thought that the rig was breaking up and that we needed to be evacuated. His advice to us was to “stick with it men as it was probably not as bad as you think”. He then promptly went back to bed. We then called a mayday in to the RAF (Royal Air Force) and they informed us that the winds were in excess of what it was safe to fly a helicopter. They said that they could and would send out fixed wing aircraft to look at the conditions. A fixed wing aircraft was of no use to us. We then called Capt. Balls, our regular helicopter pilot. He was asleep in his hotel room in Scarbourgh. We explained the weather conditions to him and explained to him that it was highly possible that the rig was breaking up. When we asked him if he could fly out and rescue us, his only comment was, “Well I’ll give it a go”.
The sea temperature was near freezing. We know that if the rig broke up and we had to abandon the rig and get into the sea we would not last very long. Hypothermia would quickly set in and we would certainly die.
The stand-by boat, the Hector Ganett, was completely awash. Large waves were crashing over the bow of the boat The boat was very near the rig, however, it was generally lost from view as the bow and the decks were being completely covered with large waves crashing over the entire boat and the boat was lost from view as it was not possible to see the boat in the large wave troughs.
The rig was not fitted with survival boats, only inflatable life rafts were available on the rig. We did not have survival suits and the sea temperature was near freezing. The starboard bow life boat washed overboard and was instantly shredded as it washed up and down the forward column. Shortly after making the radio call to Capt Balls, the port after side of the rig along with the radio room fell into the sea ending any communication with the shore base. Everyone began to realize that if the rig sank we would all be lost, drowned or die of hyperthermia if we fell into the sea. No one panicked or became hysterical. I remember the rig electrician going into the engine room and turning off equipment as it fell into the sea. Everyone was on deck as the doors to the living quarters were jammed due to the rig decks being warped.
The weather was miserable. It was misting heavily and the visibility was very poor. The wind speed was far in excess of what the helicopter was designed to fly in. The stand-by boat, the life rafts and the temperature of the sea all left very little hope of survival that day.
We were very close to another drilling rig, a jack-up named the Constellation, but that fact offered us no hope. The visibility was so poor that we couldn’t see it.
The sea was so noisy that we could not hear the helicopter approaching. Someone saw it and it landed without incident. We decided that the first crew to leave the rig would be the third party personnel, i.e. non-ODECO personnel. The second crew leaving the rig was to be the off tour personnel and the last crew was to be the working (on tour) personnel. Again there was no panic, pushing or shoving. The crew (eighteen people) boarded the helicopter with no luggage. They were flown to the Constellation as was the second crew. The last crew was flown to the shore base heliport.
Only four Americans were aboard the rig when it started to break up and eventually sink. They were, George Moystyn, Joe Moystyn, Curtis Evans and myself (Paul Baumgardner)
When I reached the apartment where I was staying, I was very tired and went promptly to bed. The next day I got up and picked up some newspapers. When I began to read the newspapers, I became even more frightened that I had been aboard the rig. Less that an hour after the final helicopter took off from the rig the entire rig collapsed and sunk below the waves.
Here I am in the “survivor” list………..
What caused the Ocean Prince to sink?
Every time we moved the Ocean Prince, and after it was deballasted, Ronald McDonald, Tommy Coxon and I would go down on the lower hull after the vessel was de-ballasted and the lower pontoons were exposed, and inspect the structure for cracks. We always found cracks in the steel structure and some of the cracks were quite large. We reported the cracks to management and when the shorebased supervisors were on the rig during a rig move we actually showed them the cracks. To repair the cracks would mean that the drilling operation would be shut down for a long period of time. Perhaps it would mean that the rig would need to be taken out of service and moved into a shipyard. Due to pressure from the oil company management and our own management we did not receive much support to take the rig out of service and do the necessary repairs.. The badly needed repairs were never done. We were instructed to have the rig welder weld up the cracks while the rig was under tow. This was not feasible as the hull was generally awash during towing operations.
The rig was experiencing a great deal of weather downtime and this became a major concern of Burmah Oil Company and consequently ODECO management was under the gun to reduce this downtime. It was decided to place the rig on the bottom in shallower water and drill the wells in these locations in the winter, during the worst weather months.
Ronald McDonald was the barge captain. He had been employed as a shipwright by Smith Docks before joining ODECO as a barge captain and was very capable as a captain. He certainly knew the rig both structurally and operationally. McDonald advised both Burmah and ODECO that placing the rig on bottom was a bad idea. His reasoning was that in the past when we had drilled in a bottom setting position, the sand on the bottom of the sea would scour out from under both the bow and the stern of the rig. The divers had reported that the scouring was so severe that they could walk under the bow and the stern of the hulls and not be able to touch the hulls with their arms extended. Because of the extreme tides in the Humber Wash the tidal currents were extremely, exceeding six knots during spring tides. This current caused excessive scouring. This meant that the rig was literally setting on a mound of sand supporting only the center of the rig. This placed the rig in what is classically known as an extreme hogging condition.
McDonald’s advice was overridden by Noble Denton, who was the marine surveyors. Because of Noble Denton’s report that the rig would be safe setting on bottom in the Humber Wash is was decided by both ODECO and Burmah management to go ahead with the plan to drill from this bottom setting location.
The rig was moved to the Humber Wash, just off the east coast of England. Because of the proximity of the rig to the coast, the tides were extreme. A spring tide is the highest tide and a neap tide is a lower tide. The spring tides occur during a full moon when the gravitational pull of the moon has the maximum effect on the sea.
Because of the extreme tidal surge in the Humber Wash location it was necessary to add a great amount of ballast to the rig during high tide and then remove the ballast during low tide. This additional ballast was called “overburden”.
When the storm hit us we were in sea conditions with winds over eighty knots and waves in excess of sixty-five feet. This storm surge in addition to the spring tide caused the rig to become buoyant. This caused the rig to actually float off bottom when the wave crest went through the rig. When the trough of the wave passed the rig it was slammed back on bottom. We could see cracks appearing in the main deck and structural beams. The vent piping running from the lower hull to the main deck was sucking and blowing a great amount of air, indicating that the hull tanks had ruptured. We had eight anchors out which kept the rig from moving off location.
Eventually the lower pontoon, midships on the port side of the rig broke in half. The main deck box girder also split. This allowed the whole port after side of the rig to fall away form the rig. The main truss supporting the drill floor, derrick and drawworks was severed allowing it all to fall into the sea. We watched as the derrick took a half twist and toppled into the sea taking with it the auxiliary pipe rack and both stiff legged cranes. We watched as the aft column bobbed up and down in the huge waves and gradually slipped underwater. Because the radio room was located on the box girder on the port side of the rig, it was also ripped from the deck and fell into the sea. This ended all communication with shore.
This is an artist impression of the rig, moored on location and submerged to drilling draft.
Scouring under the hulls were in excess of eight feet between the hull and the ocean floor, on the bow and the stern of the vessel, which meant that the rig was setting on a mound that supported the hull only in the middle of the rig. This put the rig in an extreme hogging condition. As the waves passed through the rig, the rig was picked up off bottom and then slammed back on the bottom.
Port aft column broken away and sinking
This is a newspaper photograph of the rig after the Port - After side had fallen into the sea along with the horse truss, the derrick and the auxiliary pipe rack.
This is the last pictures of the rig just before it sank into the sea. We had departed the rig just minutes before this picture was taken.
Were we heroes? Yes, perhaps but only in the sense that everyone was brave and no one panicked. The evacuation was orderly and efficient. The real hero was the helicopter pilot, Captain Balls, who rescued us in winds far in excess of what his Wessex helicopter was designed to fly. He made three landings on the Prince, two on the Jack-up Constellation and one back in Scarborough, England.
From an article in the Bristow news letter
“On at least three occasions, by their skill and bravery, Bristow pilots have saved rig crews in dire peril. Early in 1968, when the Ocean Prince was being pounded by hurricane force winds, Captain Robert Balls flew out to the rig from the Bristow base at Tetney, near Grimsby - a distance of 100 miles - in a Westland Wessex 60 and, loaded with the minimum of fuel, transferred the 45 members of the crew, in three trips, to another rig 20 miles away. Captain Balls was later made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and the citation read: "....... but for his initiative, bravery and splendid airmanship, the members of the Ocean Prince crew would have probably lost their lives". Just as the last group was lifted off, the helicopter platform collapsed and, soon afterwards, pounded by mountainous seas, the Ocean Prince sank.”
A British government official came around and visited each of us. They asked us if we thought that captain Balls deserved to be made a "Member of the Order of the British Empire". We would have surely recommended that he to be made the king of England, if that had been possible.
After the rig sank, I went back to the Gulf of Mexico and went to work on the ODECO Ocean Explorer. On August 17, 1969 we were caught on the rig in Hurricane Camille. The winds in that hurricane were in excess of 200 miles per hour. Someone was definitely trying to tell me something. I quit ODECO and went to work in Nigeria. This was a different antagonist. However, I was away from the storms for a while. I did go back to the North Sea in the mid seventies for five years and again in the early nineties for four more years.
I clearly remember that day in every detail. Was I frightened? I really don't remember fear. I remember a kind of peace flowing over me once I realized that that was probably my last day on earth. I now realize that the good Lord had other plans for me. I would go on to work in many places around. I would eventually marry and have children. That was to be my destiny and I thank God for letting me have a little longer on this earth.