Somewhere in a box, stored either here or there, is a framed, aerial photograph of an offshore semi-submersible drilling rig – the Ocean Ranger – being pulled out to sea just off the coast of Newfoundland. The derrick in particular, if I remember correctly, is lit soft orange by early morning sunlight and the ocean is dead calm.
I bought the picture in the fall of 1982, had it framed and gave it to my parents for Christmas that year. They dutifully hung it in their living room, an odd addition to the Greg Curnoe’s and the various other art that hung nearby along with the bric-a-brac my mum liked to display. I’m sure they never really knew why I gave them this photograph. I’m not sure I know myself, I never worked on the Ranger. However, it was a bird’s-eye view of the kind of rigs I did work on and that would be interesting to them. But that’s just it. It was merely a bird’s-eye-view and a benign one at that – the rig’s gentle wake belying its enormity and that ocean: darker and colder and wilder than one could ever imagine.
The Ocean Ranger was the largest offshore drilling rig in the world and it sank violently and without mercy during a fierce North Atlantic storm in the early morning hours of February 15, 1982. All 84 men onboard perished.
My parents certainly knew about the rig in the photograph; almost everyone in Canada knew about the Ocean Ranger after it sank. It was international headline news. But my guess is, while acknowledging the tragedy and mourning the lives lost, they, like most others, were more in awe of the boldness, the heroism, the technology, the out-of this-worldiness of it all. They could point to the photo and tell friends and family, “My son works on an offshore rig like this one.” Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t any of us? That’s the narrative largely told of any industrial disaster. What Susan Dodd in The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil refers to as “redemption narratives,” reconstituting the promise of a future, in this case of oil, and working through personal and public trauma by assuring changes will be made and lives will not be lost in vain.
The story goes something like this… A Royal Commission inquiry reveals that job training and safety protocols were inadequate, safety preparation and requisite equipment basically non-existent. It finds the design of the rig was flawed. People speak or write testimonials that clearly establish corporate greed more than anything else made the powers that be (ODECO, owner of the Ocean Ranger, and Mobil Oil) cut corners. It reveals that governments did nothing to keep these corporations from cutting these corners, unwilling to enforce the few regulations that did exist.
But then the story takes a twist (as stories often do). For Newfoundland in the early 1980s, oil was the future, the way out of poverty and dependence. For others from outside the province like me who lacked a university education, it was a job, one that offered a sizable paycheck (I made more money than my father, a professional architect). It’s the story of opportunity. Corporate greed and government inattention doesn't fit that narrative.
So a story bordering on the criminal now shifts to one of an extraordinary storm and how that storm taught valuable lessons to a pioneering offshore oil industry – the people who died no longer victims, but heroes who gave their lives for progress or security or both. Sound familiar?
Regardless, that’s the narrative I accepted. Why else would I go to sea, onto that very same killer ocean, onto rigs like the Ocean Ranger for weeks at a time and remain and leave and then return again and again even after witnessing storms equal to the one on that dread-filled night in 1982?
But there are so many other stories worthy of attention: the Schlumberger wireline operator I got to know, who had worked on the Ranger and carried in his wallet the handwritten names of all 84 men on a tightly folded up piece of paper; the Mobile Oil company man, a looming Texan who ended his three-week shift on the Ranger just days before it sank, who could not sleep during storms and instead would open the doors to his office so people regardless of their ‘station’ could gather and talk through the night. I remember his three-shelved memo box labeled “no sweat… sweat… sweat profusely.” Elsewhere, the story of the Canadian driller who dove into the South China Sea off the coast of Thailand to “swim home” after reading the letter that his wife and kids had left him; or the one about the directional drilling service hand who would run laps on the platform’s heli-deck a hundred feet above the same South China Sea, night after night, around and around, training for his first marathon.
Over 30 years after the sinking of the Ocean Ranger, after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon and all the tragedies in between, and certain in the future, the stories of those who lost their lives and those who survived them who lost a father, a brother, a lover, a friend still need to be, must be, told and retold. To quote Nadine Gordimer, “truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”
I left the "oil patch" in the summer of 1987 and I never looked back... until now. While I left with a fairly hefty bank account and a lifetime of experiences, I was a pretty empty soul who had distanced himself from family and friends. Reclaiming my stories of a life working rigs is long over due. It’s time to dig out the photograph and tell a new story.
May 3-4, 2014 StoryCenter will host a digital storytelling workshop in Berkeley, California we’re calling "Gig" designed for those wanting to reclaim stories of a working life. For more information and to register, please visit storycenter.org/joes-digital-diner/#workshops.