OCTOBER 1983: GLOMAR JAVA SEA SINKS IN SOUTH CHINA SEA

March 10, 2019

The drillship Glomar Java Sea was built in 1975 by the Levingston Shipbuilding Company, as the sixth of a series designed by Global Marine. The 400 ft long vessel was capable to drill in water depths up to 1,000 ft. and maintain its location by means of a mooring system which consisted of 10 anchors. The Glomar Java Sea had been on hire to Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) since it had entered service. It left US waters for China in December 1982, and on arrival in Chinese waters commenced drilling operations for ARCO China. The drilling site was positioned at about 63 miles south of Hainan Island in an area considered vulnerable to tropical storms. On October 14, 1983, the tropical storm Lex was detected and alert was issued as the storm was approaching the Philippines. On October 22, the weather forecast placed Lex 360 miles to the east winds gusting 40-50 knots. Arco decided to suspend drilling operations, hang off the drill string and pull out the riser. On October 25 Lex, with sustained wind speeds of 65 knots, was classed as a typhoon. The Glomar Java Sea was reported to ride well in the rough sea. At 20:00 the radio operator reported that the drillship was heaving 24 ft with winds up to 65 knots. The Global Marine superintendant asked the crew to put on their lifejackets. At 23:30 the Global Marine rig manager on board informed the company Vice-President in Houston that the drillship was experiencing a 15 degree starboard list and 75 knots winds. He said that they did not know what was causing the list and that the drilling mud was pumped out of the tanks. The call was then cut off and attempts to re-establish it failed. At 23:51 the Glomar Java Sea capsized. The following day, the Nanhai 205 stand by vessel arrived on site and found the anchor buoys in place with no sign of the ship. Diving expeditions were organized and the vessel was found upturned with part of the substructure buried in the seabed. In March 1984, 36 bodies were located and 31 recovered from a total of 81 crew members. A fanciful polemic appeared later, the Glomar Java Sea operating in waters in dispute between China and Vietnam, was a spy ship used as a listening station by the CIA. The Vietnamese sank the ship, the missing men being held in prison in Vietnam. But the Java Sea was not equipped to spy for the CIA and the missing bodies were probably inside the pilot house that was found buried in the seabed and inaccessible to divers.
The sinking of the Glomar Java Sea is the 5th most deadly accident of the offshore oil and gas industry after the disasters of Piper Alpha, Alexander Kielland, Seacrest and Ocean Ranger.