On February 15th, 1982, the exploratory, semi-submersible drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 people were killed in Canada’s worst maritime tragedy since the Second World War. 56 of them were from Newfoundland.
I grew up hearing about the Ocean Ranger disaster, but I didn’t learn many details about it until I went to university. I had always had the impression that the rig just disappeared one night in a storm, but the full story of the disaster, the doomed attempts by the crew to save the rig, the helplessness of the onlookers, and the failed rescue attempts is far more heartbreaking.
Unsurprisingly, the disaster is important in Newfoundland’s recent cultural, and economic, history. The oil industry has transformed Newfoundland over the last 30 years, and the Ocean Ranger was part of the original wave of exploration that created today’s era of relative prosperity.
One of the most well-known cultural responses to the disaster is Ron Hynes’ song “Atlantic Blue.” Hynes considers it one of the most difficult and important songs he’s ever written.
Another good cultural resource for understanding the human scale of this disaster is Lisa Moore’s Book February, which tells the story of the aftermath from the perspective of a woman who loses her husband on the rig.
I’m also a big fan of Gerard Collins short story “Break, Break, Break” which is featured in his collection Moonlight Sketches. It is a beautifully written story of young heartbreak on Valentine’s Day, framed against the power of the raging storm that sank the Ocean Ranger, and that would impact the protagonists lives in ways that they don’t yet comprehend.
One of the best resources for understanding the disaster is Mike Heffernan’s book “Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster.” I think it might be out of print but it’s available on Amazon Kindle and in libraries, etc.
Mike interviewed many people connected with the disaster for this book, and their stories bring the lives of the men and those left behind into sharp focus. The descriptions of the Seaforth Highlander‘s crew trying in vain to save men in a lifeboat – coming within metres of reaching them before losing them to the waves – remain some of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever read.
CBC’s Digital Archives has a good collection of contemporary news clips and information about the disaster.
This remembrance and re-examination of the importance of the Ocean Ranger continues today, more than 30 years later. Recently, the mother of one of the men killed in the disaster donated a collection of his photographs, showing life and work on the rig, to the Newfoundland Provincial Archives at The Rooms. Click the link to see the CBC story and browse some of the photos.
The Maritime History Archive at Memorial University has also recently added a collection of slides from the Ocean Ranger to their public photo catalogue. Click here to browse their Ocean Ranger photos. The collection has some good photographs of people on the rig, which does a lot to bring a sense of reality to the disaster. It’s sometimes hard not to think of events such as this as abstract historical events, rather than tragic events that involved real peoples’ lives.
While working at the Maritime History Archive for the Heritage NL website project, I wrote an article on the Ocean Ranger disaster:
This was followed up by a great article by Jenny Higgins:
For the technical-minded, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Disaster is available from Library and Archives Canada. It’s important to note that the Commission and its recommendations formed the basis for a lot of the regulation implemented in the offshore exploration industry in Canada in the years and decades to come.
The loss of the Ocean Ranger remains one of the most tragic maritime disasters in Newfoundland’s history, and one that occurred recently enough to still impact lives today. It is also a stark reminder that prosperity has its price, and we should well remember the sacrifices made in the name of progress.