The Sea Gem: A Story of Material Failure

Lisa Burke


Offshore structures are continuously subjected to large loads caused by environmental conditions in their local operating area. In the North Sea, this can include wave, wind, ice and current loads. Material failure, such as fatigue, is a seemingly small problem that can quickly cause major damage and sometimes even catastrophic failure.
In the 1960s, the pioneering days of the oil and gas industry, engineering and safety standards for design and operation of drilling rigs were severely limited. Operators were eager to discover first oil and begin development of this promising and lucrative industry. Shortly after British Petroleum (BP) obtained leases for the British North Sea, the company chartered an American barge to be converted into a 10-leg drilling platform. The Sea Gem was the first drilling rig to discover oil in the British North Sea. However, in 1965, as it was jacking down, the platform collapsed. 19 out of a 32-person crew died on December 27, 1965, just three months after discovering what is todays West Sole Field.
It was determined that the disaster was due to material failure caused by corrosion, brittle fracture due to temperature change, and cyclic loading on the legs. This paper investigates the circumstances around the disaster, the aftermath and the engineering lessons learned that sparked critical changes in the oil and gas industry.

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