On this day in history : 27th December 1965 – Britain’s first North Sea offshore oil drilling rig, ‘Sea Gem’, capsizes…. Thirteen men are killed with a further five more injured….

Sea Gem had started out as a 5,600 ton steel barge which in 1964 was converted to act as an oil rig for British Petroleum…. Ten steel legs were attached raising the barge to 49ft (15m) above the water’s surface…. Living accommodation for a crew of 34 was added, along with a drilling tower and its supporting structures – there was also a helipad…. The rig was the first to discover natural gas off of the British coast – and the first to light a flare over the North Sea….

Situated 42 miles off the coast of Lincolnshire Sea Gem was in the process of being moved to a new location just over two miles away…. This involved lowering the rig down on to the surface of the sea and floating it to its new site…. However, as it was lowered two of the steel legs gave way and crumpled…. The whole rig then tilted to the side – and sank….

The radio cabin went down with the rig and so the crew were unable to call for help…. However, a passing British freight ship, the SS Baltrover, witnessed what had happened – men from the rig were seen jumping into the freezing water and then clinging to wreckage…. Baltrover sent out a distress call and began a rescue operation – soon to be joined by an RAF helicopter and also a civilian helicopter…. They battled against 20ft high waves – some of Sea Gem’s crew were in the icy water for two hours…. The survivors were taken ashore to Hull….

In all thirteen men died…. In May 1966 the crew of the RAF helicopter were awarded for their bravery; Flight Sergeant John Reeson, who was the winch-man, received the George Medal…. In addition pilot Sergeant Leon Smith was awarded with a Queen’s Commendation and Flight Lieutenant John Hill, the navigator, received the Air Force Cross….

At a public inquiry it was concluded that metal fatigue had been present in a section of the suspension system connecting the legs of the rig to the hull…. Sea Gem’s well was written off and new wells were drilled in the area – that was to become known as the ‘West Sole Field’…. A new purpose built floating rig, ‘Sea Quest’, became operational in July 1966….

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