EDITORIAL

Because the sea has many voices, we must from time to time reply

Peter C. Newman March 1 1982
EDITORIAL

Because the sea has many voices, we must from time to time reply

Peter C. Newman March 1 1982

Because the sea has many voices, we must from time to time reply

EDITORIAL

Peter C. Newman

Joseph Conrad once described seagoing men as the “grown-up children of the discontented earth.” Anyone who has ventured out on the ocean knows that a man’s seamanship is measured by his modesty: the longer you sail, the less you know about the sea.

Oil rigs are not ships, but that does not exempt them from the furies of waves as high as five-storey buildings that first tilted, then sank, the Ocean Ranger off Newfoundland last week. The causes of the catastrophe will long be debated and no one will ever know what agonizing options faced Capt. Clarence Hauss and the 83 members of his crew as they abandoned the doomed rig. The storm, which also claimed the Soviet vessel Mekhanik Tarasov, left no margin for error—yet there must have been error, human or mechanical, to allow the $115-million oil drilling platform to vanish beneath the waves only 12 hours after the first storm warning.

The tragedy hardly set a precedent. Some 241 lives have been lost in previous oil rig disasters. After each accident, well-meaning boards of inquiry have pinpointed the blame, earnestly imposing new safety codes. The inadequacy of those regulations has now

been established beyond dispute.

In the aftermath of almost every major industrial accident, worried officials scurry around allocating blame to everyone but themselves. It is hardly reassuring to realize that the Ocean Ranger’s biennial safety certificate (issued by the U.S. Coast Guard) had expired 49 days before it sank.

Absurd as it may seem, families of the U.S. victims of the oil rig’s plunge (14 of the crewmen were American citizens) will probably receive 10 times more compensation than is provided by Canadian law. That is the preliminary opinion of C. Arthur Rutter of Norfolk, Va., who heads the admiralty law section of the U.S. Trial Lawyers’ Association. He points out that this is true “in spite of the fact that they were working at the same job, for the same wages and taking the same risks.” The fact that the rigs were in Canadian waters, exploring for Canadian natural resources (even if the beneficiaries are the Americans), adds up to an intolerable injustice.

The sinking of the Ocean Ranger is a tragedy beyond recall. The only fitting epitaph for the men who sank with her is to halt further exploration of the Hibernia field until safety regulations become the deterrents to accidents they are meant to be.