Jim Furlong: The Ghost of the Ranger

Sitting down to write about the loss of the Ocean Ranger isn’t easy. So much has been written and written well in what is  surely a cautionary tale. As a journalist I was assigned to the Ocean Ranger Inquiry. I listened to the testimony, much of it technical, but even in its technical details it was so sad because the Ranger was a tragedy that need not have happened. 

Like so many tragedies if not most the loss of the Ocean Ranger was a particularly pernicious alignment of the stars. A lot of little things had to go wrong. 

Design flaws

We know of design flaws like the ballast control room within reach of the raging Atlantic. We also however have to live with a series of “what ifs”.

The shorting out of the electrical panel in that ballast control room didn’t have to be a fatal wound. Salt water and electricity don’t mix, but there was a manual override system.

The problem is that nobody on board the Ranger that night knew how it worked. Workers with that expertise were not on board. That override system  involved a series of brass rods inserted into tubes that controlled the entry of water into the ballast system. 

The problem is that for someone who didn’t know the system the rods operated in a way that was counter intuitive. You screwed the rods IN to allow water to flow. You unscrewed the brass rods to stop the water. The saddest memory I have from the Ocean Ranger inquiry is a photograph entered in evidence that shows someone on board the Ranger that night was trying to operate the brass rods. 

The Ocean Ranger now finds itself as an item in a deadly litany. In Newfoundland the price of squeezing a living from the Atlantic has too often been; death. When I was growing up stories in our family were of the Newfoundland disaster from the seal hunt in 1914 and the loss of the Southern Cross with all hands that same year. In my immediate memory was the loss of both the Blue Wave and the Blue Mist on the south coast and an endless series of smaller vessels that never made it back to port.

The price of fish in terms of risk has always been terribly high. It is true with oil as well and books have been written and songs sung about the grim toll of the Atlantic. 

Risk in the pursuit of money has forever been an unbalanced equation it seems. The question always will be whether we have learned our lesson. In all the previous disasters mentioned there is a “profit” issue. In mid-February, despite Valentine’s Day and the promise of an early spring, there isn’t a heart in Newfoundland and Labrador that doesn’t look back to the night in 1982 when the Ocean Ranger was lost with all hands.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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