Kolskaya – an outsider with a tragic fate
Drilling superintendent Eivind Hansen was looking for a suitable rig to do this job on Hod. But few jack-ups of the day were capable of standing in 70 metres of water and extending over a topside 25 metres above sea level. However, Hansen got a tip about a Russian rig called Kolskaya. Through a Norsk Hydro employee in Moscow who knew somebody who had worked in Norway’s Dyvi shipping company and had founded Seatech (later Stena Drilling), an invitation was secured to inspect the rig at work in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea.
Kolskaya was a jack-up drilling rig intended to work in the Russian Far East. Built by Finland’s Rauma-Repola in 1985, it was owned by Russia’s ArktikmorNeftegaz-Razvedka (AMNGR), a subsidiary of Zarubezhneft. The unit measured 69 metres in length and 80 in width, and had berths for 102 people. It could operate in water depths down to 100 metres and drill as deep as 6 500 metres. Hansen was initially a little sceptical about using a Russian rig, but became more interested on learning that it had been built in Finland and carried American equipment.
Visas and tickets were swiftly arranged, and an Amoco delegation departed for Moscow on 1 September 1989. “I remember the date particularly well because it was the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, and there was a lot of commotion in Moscow that day,” Hansen recalls. The actual trip out to the rig proved fairly dramatic. The Aeroflot flight to Murmansk was uncomfortable and the supply ship they sailed on lacked both amenities and hygiene. Poor weather also helped to depress the party’s spirits by the time it arrived.
An interpreter who was supposed to handle communication between the Russians and the visitors became seasick after 20 minutes and disappeared until they were on Kolskaya.
“I still remember the two-and-a-half days that trip took as the worst travel experience of my life,” Hansen says 25 years later.
Comprising four Amoco staffers and three from Seatech, the delegation nevertheless formed a very good impression of the rig. All was clean and tidy, and everything worked perfectly.
The rig had actually been overhauled recently because it had suffered substantial damage when drilling in icy waters a year earlier. So extensive had this been that repairs off Murmansk took several months. Kolskaya was incidentally responsible for proving oil off the island of Kolguyev in the Soviet Barents Sea, which had attracted great attention when it was announced. After Hansen returned to Norway, he recommended the rig to his American boss. Not unexpectedly, the latter expressed clear doubts about using a “Russian” unit.
Hansen’s recommendation was nevertheless accepted and a contract awarded to Seatech. Amoco chartered the rig with a couple of Russians on board who were familiar with the unit. The whole deal was a cheap solution which fitted well with a tight Hod budget.
The weather was very bad when the tow began on 13 December, with the Soviet authorities using only two supply ships as tugs. That quickly proved inadequate. Wind strength increased sharply off the Kola peninsula, and the towing cables parted. The rig drifted rapidly towards land and the position became critical. Less than a kilometre from shore, Mayday calls were sent and the rescue service dispatched a helicopter to take off the crew. The latter were working feverishly to avoid a grounding and to lay out the anchors. Waves were breaking right over the rig when the helicopter arrived and lifted of seven crew – mostly women.
“Fortunately, the rest managed to get the unit under control and moor it,” reported Reidulf Pettersen, the Norwegian pilot on board. “It spent some days off Kola before we could continue the tow towards Norwegian waters.”
Another storm blew up off Troms county. The wind caught the rig’s high legs and forced it directly towards land. Fifteen crew had to be evacuated, but the outcome was fortunately better than many had feared. As it was about to go aground on the rocks along the Troms coast, Kolskaya was rescued by Hydro’s supply ship Ocean Viking. A Russian tug also helped to save the rig.
Amoco did not want to risk more accidents, and chartered heavy lift vessel Mighty Servant 1 to carry Kolskaya without difficulty to Stavanger, where it underwent final preparations for the Hod job.
The rig was deployed to the field in the summer of 1990 to drill the first four production wells. Hansen said afterwards that it functioned very well, despite the earlier doubts. After the work had been completed,Kolskaya was towed to Esbjerg in Denmark before being utilised by a Dutch company under the nameNeddrill Kolskaya.
The difficulties experienced by the rig on its way to the North Sea served perhaps as a little premonition of the way Kolskaya would end its days. While under tow, the unit found itself in a violent storm on 18 December 2011 which caused it to list and sink in the Sea of Okhotsk. The rig was being towed by the Magadan icebreaker and Neftegaz-55 tug after completing an exploration well for Gazprom off the Kamchatka peninsula in north-east Asia.
This incident occurred about 200 kilometres off the coast of Sakhalin island, in waters more than 1 000 metres deep, and the tow was irregular since its designers had explicitly specified no towing in winter or in zones with a typically winter climate.
A search and rescue operation was launched immediately after the sinking, but halted five days later on 22 December. Only 14 of the 67 people known to have been on board were rescued.
The death toll of 53, including 36 whose bodies were never found, made this accident the one with the largest number of injured in the Russian oil business.
Interview wit Eivind Hansen, September 2014.
Nordlys Morgen 9.1.1990 s. 16.
Nordlys Morgen 10.1.1990 s. 15.
LF6A Valhall 25 år (side 106–108).
Nordlys Morgen 11.1.1990 seksjon INN.
NTB 11.1. 1990.
Amoco Info Mars 1990 p. 6–7.