On New Year's Day, 1982, Karl Nehring's tenure as captain of the largest floating oil rig in the world came to an abrupt end.
The Ocean Ranger, prospecting far offshore of Newfoundland, had spilled 100 gallons of diesel fuel the day before, and Nehring had ordered a report of the incident radioed to the Coast Guard.
His order was countermanded by a drilling superintendent, and the report was not sent. Nehring was told he did not have permission to use the radio.
Having been a ship captain for 40 years, 20 of them as a Panama Canal pilot, Nehring saw that as a final erosion of his authority on the deep-sea explorer. He resigned on the spot.
Six weeks later the Ocean Ranger sank in a storm, killing the entire crew, including the replacement captain.
"If the oil drilling industry wasn't as bad as it is," Nehring says now, "I wouldn't have quit, and I would be dead too, like the 84 men who were my friends."
Nehring was not called as a witness during investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress. In three days of interviews at his home in Costa Rica, however, he recounted his experiences as master of the Ocean Ranger. His is just one perspective on the disaster, but it is uniquely qualified, and offers several insights into the perils of deep-sea drilling.
The Ranger was considered invulnerable even to hurricane-force storms. But Nehring's recollections, corroborated by other former crewmen, industry analysts and testimony taken in the United States and Canada, depict it as subject to sudden tipping episodes caused by crews who did not understand the complicated controls that were supposed to keep the rig safely level.
According to Nehring, maritime concerns were a low priority on the rig, where the search for oil was paramount. His attempts to engage crewmen in lifeboat skills received no support from drilling supervisors, and Coast Guard regulations requiring certified lifeboatmen were ignored.
On the Ranger, drilling 170 miles from land in frigid, stormy waters, land-bound, oil-field tradition prevailed. The status of the captain was reduced to that of a supernumerary. Ultimate responsibility, including the right to order that the ship be abandoned, was vested in the chief drilling supervisor, known as the "toolpusher," who had no training in nautical matters. Tilting at Sea
The Ocean Ranger was designed to withstand 100-knot winds, 110-foot waves and a four-knot surface current simultaneously. When the rig was anchored for drilling, as she was most of the time, the Coast Guard did not require a licensed captain to be on board.
Yet, the floating island had tipped precariously several times during a seven-year career that took her from Alaska, around Cape Horn to the Baltimore Canyon off Maryland, to Ireland, and finally to Newfoundland.
Just two weeks before she sank, Capt. Clarence Hauss of Baltimore -- Nehring's replacement -- accidentally pushed the wrong button in the rig's control room, causing the platform to tilt 6 degrees and the crew to be ordered to lifeboat stations. Hauss was chewed out by the toolpusher, Kent Thompson, and ordered never to touch the ballast controls again -- although ballast control was the captain's primary responsibility.
Karl Nehring had done the same thing, 18 months earlier.
"It happened on my first hitch in Newfoundland," Nehring said. "I was green, just like Capt. Hauss. I pushed the wrong button. The rig went over, almost to 5 degrees, in less than two or three minutes. By the time the control room operator got back down to the control room, I had corrected my mistake and the rig was coming back up."
Nehring was also chastised by Thompson, but his duties were not curtailed. "Kent came on the telephone yelling. 'Who've you got operating down there? Captain Bligh?' " Nehring said. "I just said, 'Take it easy; I'm new to the job.' "
Accidental lists were common on the Ranger, according to Frank Jennings, a control room operator who served on the rig for more than five years, longer than any other crewman.
"Virtually everybody who went down to the control room got crossed up during their first few hitches and put a list on it," Jennings said in an interview. "Karl did it. I did it. I can name you three or four other captains with decades of experience who did it."
Jennings had struggled with a list of 9 degrees, during a storm while the Ocean Ranger was being towed from Ireland to Newfoundland. "That was the only time I thought we might not make it," he said.
The list that sank the Ranger, according to the Coast Guard investigation, was 10 to 15 degrees. 'Who's in Charge?'
On a ship, the captain rules. Tradition is different on deep-sea oil rigs, however, as Nehring learned after first joining the Ranger in late 1980, when she was drilling off Ireland. Once aboard, he was surprised to find he reported to the toolpusher.
"Since the days of the Phoenicians," Nehring said, "there has been nobody above the captain but God. The Coast Guard says it. And the law says it. And there must be 500 court cases that uphold the authority of the master."
Nevertheless, he went about the captain's traditional first duty: inspecting his ship. Descending 80 feet below the surface into the chain lockers, his only illumination the flashlight he carried, Nehring found there was no alarm system to report flooding and no pumps to get rid of flood waters. On a ship, all closed spaces in the bilge area have the capacity to be emptied of water.
Although drill rigs face a continuing threat of explosion, Nehring said he found many of the Ranger's seawater-fed fire hydrants leaking or frozen shut. The 12 anchor chains that held the rig in position over the drill hole, he noted, could not be cast off quickly in an emergency, such as a well blowout, because the release pawls had been removed.
Soon after Nehring's inspection, the Ranger was moved across the ocean and began drilling off Newfoundland. Nehring brought up these findings with the toolpusher, Thompson, who he said did not seem particularly concerned.
The two men from different traditions had different priorities. Nehring, noting that the passageways of the Ranger frequently were waxed and buffed, told Thompson the practice was forbidden on ships because wax makes floors slippery. He pointed out that in the loss the year before of a rig off Norway, killing 123, survivors had reported slipping on waxed floors. Nehring said Thompson answered with a refrain that was to become familiar in the year ahead:
"Who's in charge, Karl?"
"You are, Kent."
"Then let's get the floors waxed, okay?"
Nehring could have complained in writing to the home office in New Orleans. He did not. "I thought I needed the money," he said. "If I complained, I would have been run off. My attitude was: If we worked together, we could make things satisfactory."
If the captain's authority was subject to challenge, so was that of the toolpusher, Thompson. His boss, a shore-based supervisor, Jimmy Earl Counts, was often aboard. According to former crewmen, Counts had an aggressive style and made it clear to all that he outranked Thompson. The men had shouting matches over routine matters. Thompson once declared he was resigning, packed up and flew ashore by helicopter, only to return after a day.
Relations remained strained between the two. On the night the Ranger sank, Counts was ashore. Thompson called him to discuss drilling matters, but did not call to report the broken porthole.
Another authority on the rig was the Mobil Oil of Canada supervisor, the "company man," who was empowered by the drilling contract between Mobil and the Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co., which owned the Ranger, to issue instructions on matters affecting the rig and drilling. Since Mobil was paying the bills -- as much as $100,000 a day -- his influence was substantial.
Conflicts of judgment could occur -- and did, one month before the Ranger sank, when a hurricane-force storm battered the rig. Although large waves caused the rig to exceed the motion limits for safe drilling, the company man requested that drilling continue. The toolpusher refused.
Problems with divided command had been revealed by 1976, when the ODECO floating rig Ocean Express sank in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 13 crewmen.
That accident had an extraordinary sequence of decision-making. The abandon-ship alarm was sounded by the chief driller, without consultation. The captain thought it unnecessary. The company man, representing Marathon Oil Co., called his superior ashore, who called the Coast Guard, without telling the captain. When rescue helicopters arrived, the captain insisted that the rig was not sinking. The company man soon ordered the crew to board lifeboats. The toolpusher gave the order to abandon ship. The captain refused to leave, claiming he could save the rig. Finally, he was rescued by helicopter as the rig literally sank beneath his feet.
A Coast Guard report concluded that what had occurred on the Ocean Express was the "simultaneous exercise of leadership," a condition as dangerous as no leadership. Testing the Lifeboats
Nehring said he was always concerned about the ability of the Ocean Ranger crew to escape the rig. He and his alternate captain, Geoffrey Dilks -- the two relieved each other every three weeks -- began a course in lifeboat skills. By the summer of 1981, half the crew had completed the voluntary course. Nehring then tried to schedule the drilling workers, who worked 12-hour shifts for 21 consecutive days.
"I wanted to get them about 10 o'clock in the morning for about half an hour," Nehring said. " 'Oh, they can't do that,' Thompson told me, 'it would take them away from their work.' 'All right,' I said, 'I'll get them after they come off work and get cleaned up.' But no, Thompson said, that was the men's own time and they needed to relax. I said it was important. Kent said it was not required."
Nehring said he also talked to Kelvin (Blondie) Gernandt, the drilling company's operations manager in St. Johns, about the insufficient number of certified lifeboat personnel on the rig. His recollection is that the conversation went:
Gernandt: "No, we don't need lifeboatmen; we're anchored."
Nehring: "The certificate says we need lifeboatmen."
Gernandt: "No, we'll work on that; I'll talk to the boss."
An ODECO spokesman said Gernandt would not be available for comment. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
One summer day in 1981, with rare pleasant weather, Nehring went through a practice run, lowering a lifeboat to the water with men in it. Thompson and the company man, Jack Jacobsen, were on hand.
Nehring took his place as commander of Lifeboat No. 1. Thompson, on deck, manned the brake system that controlled descent.
"He lifts the brake, and the boat goes down, and it won't stop!" Nehring recalled. " 'Stop, stop, stop!' I'm yelling. He yells back at me, 'It won't stop!' So we hit the water. There's a seven- to eight-foot swell running, but we weren't actually waterborne. We're hanging on the falls, and the water is coming up and smacking us. I'm screaming into the radio, 'Get us up! Get us up!' Finally, they get an electrician and heave us up again.
"First thing we did was the mechanic and I took the brakes apart. We found the brake linings were shot. I said I needed a replacement immediately, because now we don't even have lifeboat capacity for half the crew. But it took six weeks to get those little brake shoes relined. The other lifeboat's brakes were in the same shape, and we had to send them ashore, too. So for more than three months we had only one lifeboat on the rig."
Nehring got his chance to be in sole command in October 1981, when orders came to move the rig to a new drilling location about 100 miles away. By ODECO policy and Coast Guard regulations, the captain was the final authority while the vessel was under way and had to be provided with a qualified first mate to relieve him.
With the help of several work boats, the Ranger's dozen 45,000-pound anchors were raised and clamped to her hulls, and the massive cables were reeled onto their spools. During that operation, which took more than three days, Nehring got about four hours of sleep per day.
It was the usual practice of the company to provide, as first mate, the alternate captain -- in this case, Dilks. But when it came time for the move, Nehring was told that Dilks would not be there.
" 'You can do it yourself, Karl,' Blondie Kelvin Gernandt told me," Nehring said. "I had the choice of refusing and getting fired, or going ahead. At that time I was not ready to get fired. I knew we were breaking the Coast Guard regulations."
In transit a gale blew up and the Ranger's projected speed of 6 knots was reduced to 2 knots. There was no one to relieve Nehring. "I was on the bridge continuously for three days, just snatching some sleep on the settee," he said. "We had a couple of weathermen on board, pretty smart guys, and so I promoted them to first mate. They brought food up from the galley."
He had been in command, finally. But it was as the only qualified seaman on a vessel with 83 other people.
ODECO spokesman Al Spindler said in a telephone interview: "If Nehring was the captain and he didn't want to do it, why did he do it?" 'The Final Straw'
In early November, Nehring wrote a letter to ODECO Vice President W.J. Wilkinson, complaining about being ordered to move the rig with no second officer and warning of potential problems with the Ranger's divided command.
His letter was not answered.
On Dec. 30, a supply boat arrived alongside the Ranger with a cargo of fuel oil. Seventy-knot winds and 25-foot seas were forecast, and Nehring, who was in charge of fuel transfers, decided to delay the transfer several days, as the sea was already rough. The next day Thompson ordered it to take place. The fuel lines became fouled in the propellers of the supply ship and were severed. About 100 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the sea.
Nehring attempted to report the oil spill, a duty required of licensed captains.
"At 7 p.m. that evening," he noted in his log, "I attempted to reason with Mr. Jimmy Earl Counts on the necessity to report the oil spill, but he said that I was making a big thing out of nothing . . . . Further attempts to reason orally with Mr. Counts resulted in his statement that he couldn't talk to me, he was in charge of the rig and he would do as he pleased."
The next morning, Nehring ordered the radio operator to send his oil spill report to the Coast Guard. Counts countermanded the order.
"That was the final straw on my back," Nehring said. "I saw in my mind that the ship is sinking, we need assistance, and they're not going to let me use the radio? And I'm supposed to be the captain of the vessel? I quit right then."
Thompson later wired his side of the story to the home office. He said Nehring was upset because ODECO would not pay for his plane tickets to Costa Rica, where Nehring was planning to start a drilling company.
"He talked to a number of people about this, and it got to be a regular daily routine with him," Thompson wrote. "To me, Capt. Nehring appeared to be unstable both mentally and physically." The cable confirmed the oil spill and Nehring's attempts to report it. It did not discuss why he was not permitted to report it.
Nehring left the rig on Jan. 6 and never returned.
More than two years later, as he reflected on his career aboard the Ocean Ranger, Nehring's thoughts returned to Kent Thompson, whose role as toolpusher had usurped the captain's role.
"We were friends, Kent and I, for all that," Nehring said. "After I'd resigned, we all went to the airport as usual to have some drinks and wait for the planes home. When the boarding call came, the guys I was with happened to walk by Kent's boarding gate. As I passed I grabbed him around the neck and kissed him, and I said, 'I love ya, ya son of a gun.' I was pretty snockered, I guess. I never saw him again."