Remembering the Ocean Ranger

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the oil rig, Ocean Ranger, off the coast of Newfoundland with the loss of the entire crew—84 men, my brother Jim among them. The Spectator is marking this anniversary by republishing the preface to my 2012 book, The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil, with permission from Fernwood Books.

The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the promise of oil, coverThese few personal pages recount the story of how I moved from the shock of loss to a broader social and political view.

The rest of the book presents the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger as a case study in the ways liberal capitalism recovers from the threat of what one thinker has called a “legitimation crisis.” My overall argument is that when industrial disaster strikes, it reveals a destructive tendency that lies at the heart of liberal capitalism. And then, in disaster’s wake, a whole range of social, legal and economic practices kick into gear. In this way, the aftermath of disaster offers a clear view of the recovery of public confidence in the partnership between governments and industry.

The re-establishment of that confidence is, at the same time, a kind of forgetting about the destructive tendency at industry’s heart.

The good news here is that regulation does work. It needs to be supported by the independent research of universities, backed by public funds, and enforced with hefty fines and lawsuits, but it does work.

It works in occupational health and safety, and it can work to avert a climate crisis, too. Maybe this is a ridiculously simple point, but I want to repeat it because it feels these days as if the voice of critique speaks only of inescapable webs of social control.


Last week, I promised to say something about how this disaster’s legacy sheds light on “safety culture,” and what I see as intensifying challenges to democratic governance especially as the climate crisis heats up. We might think of climate change as one very long industrial disaster, where the destructive tendency of profit-seeking shows itself all around us, especially in our bizarre weather. It’s increasingly obvious that we need to change as individuals, but also as a global culture. The challenge that I want to try to address, once I have it clearer in my mind, is of the right ways to effect that change.

We need to pay attention to the ways that crises invite anti-democratic decision-making. You don’t have to be a trucker to see that whenever debate is pushed aside to make way for social scientific experts, we succumb a little bit more to what I’ve come to think of as “behavioral management creep.”

But more on that some other time.

This week, we mourn the loss of my brother, Jim, and his 83 co-workers. As I write this, I can hear the drone of aircraft out of Greenwood and I wonder if it is Search and Rescue hoping to find survivors from the Spanish fishing vessel, Villa de Pitanxo that sank this week—on the very anniversary of the Ocean Ranger loss—off the coast of Newfoundland. We mourn, also, those dead, and we hold out hope for the crewmen who have yet to be found.

Positive changes did come from the Ocean Ranger disaster. At the same time, we need to keep constant political pressure, to prevent companies from prioritizing profits over life, limb, and nature.

Thank you, Spectator, for reprinting the preface to The Ocean Ranger on this somber 40th anniversary.

Further on the Ocean Ranger disaster:







“They’ve gone to the lifeboats and we’re waiting for news.”

Searching for oil under the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean Ranger and its eighty-four-man crew were anchored in the Hibernia oilfield off the east coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland on February 14, 1982. It was the heart of winter, in the early days of Canada’s offshore drilling.

Designed, owned and operated by the New Orleans-based oil giant, the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Company (ODECO), the rig was under contract to another American petroleum mammoth, Mobil Oil, which managed the drilling of the well. Built by Mitsubishi and staffed by Schlumberger and others, the Ocean Ranger was the largest semi-submersible oil rig in the world. Deemed “unsinkable,” the rig was a symbol of cutting-edge marine oil exploration technology.

Ocean Ranger

Ocean Ranger, Rooms, Archive Photo

But that Valentine’s night, the rig was hit by an awe-inspiring North Atlantic storm. Waves crashed against the rig’s giant legs, one of which housed a room where men monitored and controlled the rig’s stability by letting water in and out of its massive pontoons. A portlight in the ballast room was smashed during the rising storm, and salt water rushed in to soak the ballast control panel. Its lights flashed erratically.

No one knew what to do.


The men had no formal training. They had no marine captain who understood the rig. There was no one ashore they trusted to advise them. Their operating manual was incomplete at best, and their training had been misleading at worst. If the men had closed the portlight, mopped up the water and gone to sleep, they might have lived to see the dawn. As it was, the flashing lights on the ballast control panel falsely indicated that water was moving randomly in and out of the pontoons. The men cut the power to the panel. The rig tilted slightly. The men intervened manually and then turned the power back on. The rig’s slight tilt became a dangerous list. Waves crashed into the wells that held the anchor chains and pulled the rig further off balance. While the February storm raged, the men called in their mayday and disappeared from the airwaves.

It is very hard to think about that evacuation.

Much of the Ocean Ranger’s safety equipment did not work. The men were not trained to muster at designated boats or to launch and operate the lifeboats. They did not have cold water immersion suits. Some of them—we will never know who—jumped into the February North Atlantic in their jeans and flannel shirts.

The rig’s supply ship, the Seaforth Highlander, steamed towards the Ranger’s last know position. They were an hour away because they had no established protocol to stay close in bad weather. When the Seaforth Highlander finally arrived, its crew found a boat full of living men who had somehow escaped being crushed against the sinking rig by the wind and waves.

Not knowing, as Mobil head office knew, that a rope attached to that kind of lifeboat in rough seas will cause it to capsize, the would-be rescuers on the Highlander secured lines to it. The men in the lifeboat crowded out of the enclosed capsule and the boat flipped.

The men plunged into the sea. One man from the Ocean Ranger’s crew nearly reached the hand of a crewman on the Seaforth Highlander, but the storm pulled him away. Despite the ship’s role as an emergency resource for the rig, the Highlander’s crew had no equipment designed to pluck men from the sea.


The telephone cut through the early morning at our house in Berwick, Nova Scotia and I heard my mother run to answer the call.

“You might as well tell her,” Mom said hours later when I joined my parents in the kitchen.

My eldest brother had a job on the Ocean Ranger.

“Jim’s rig is in trouble. They’ve gone to the lifeboats and we are waiting for news,” said my Dad, in his best “Major Dodd” voice. My father was retired from the air force, and he had a good idea of what it must be like out there that night because he had flown many search and rescue missions over the wintry North Atlantic.

Map: Ocean Ranger, Hibernia Oil Field

Map created by Mark Kirby, Map Room, Queen Elizabeth II Library, MUN, using ArcMap 9.3, November, 2010. © 2010.

Jim was the oldest, most adventurous and biggest trouble-maker of us five children. As my mother recalls, “None of you are stupid, but Jim…Jim was really something…” I remember Jim, defiant after his arrest for selling hashish at the family cottage. With his hair to his shoulders, he split wood behind the house, waiting to serve two months in jail for a charge that today would get him no more than a small fine: “Paying my debt to society,” he explained sarcastically. When we talked, Jim liked to mock aged wisdom addressing naïve youth. “Suzie, the only two worse things I could have done for Dad’s career would be to be a homosexual or a communist. A drug-dealing homo-commie would have it all,” he joked. Jim loved reading and music, and though I was still in elementary school, he gave me his university English books, including Equus, “because you like horses.” My bookish ways amused him. He also gave me the Stone’s Exile on Main Street—we grew up on Main Street.

I was ten and he was eighteen when he went to jail for those two months. Two months is a long time to spend in jail when you only live to be twenty-four. It seemed long that summer and it seems even longer now, considering that the people responsible for Jim’s death were never charged or fined, let alone locked up. They’re out there still, running oil rigs, or they’re retired, somewhere warm.


Jim hitch-hiked out West when I was in grade four. He started in the oil fields with all the other “Eastern creeps and bums,” as Ralph Klein, then mayor of Calgary, called them. They went out to make a little money and have an adventure before returning home. Jim came home every summer. He did well out West, studying at community college to become a “mud engineer,” analyzing the ooze used in drilling. One of the lucky ones, Jim got a job back on the East Coast. The pay and work schedule were so great that he didn’t even mind the required “corporate disco hair cut,” as he called it. He was talking about continuing university and getting along with “the folks” for the first time in ages.

The night before he flew out for the last time, he stayed up late in the warm kitchen with Mom, eating cookies and talking.

We hoped during the search, but unreasonably, and we knew it. Between phone calls from Jim’s distraught shore manager, Mom and Dad played cards. My brothers Ian and Ron came home from Acadia University, in nearby Wolfville, and my brother Dave flew home from a surveying job in northern Alberta. Casseroles arrived. CTV news anchor Knowlton Nash pronounced all eighty-four men “missing and presumed dead,” though they did recover twenty-two bodies. And that capsized lifeboat heaved and heaved in the grey television waves.

They didn’t find Jim’s body, so we had our memorial service and wake without him. “Mobil Oil will pay for the beer.” We laughed.

Reprinted by permission of Fernwood Publishing


Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012, winner of the inaugural Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, 2018) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, 2017.