Glomar Java Sea

Rig:

Glomar Java Sea Drillship

Date:

25 October 1983

Location:

South China Sea

Operator:

Arco

Fatalities:

81

Introduction

Designed by Global Marine, Inc., the Glomar Java Sea was constructed in 1975 by the Levingston Shipbuilding Company of Orange, Texas, and was the sixth and final vessel in a series based on the initial Glomar Grand Isle design. It was 400 feet long, weighed in at 5930 gross tons and was built to drill wells down to 25000 feet in water depths of up to 1000 feet. From its delivery to Global Marine in September 1975 to September 1981, the vessel worked for ARCO in the Gulf of Mexico followed by a stint off the coast of California. On 01 December 1982, the vessel departed the United States and arrived in the South China Sea on 07 January 1983, where it was contracted to ARCO China.

Sinking of the Glomar Java Sea

From the U.S. Coastguard Marine Board of Investigation:

"The U.S. drillship GLOMAR JAVA SEA, with 81 persons onboard, capsized and sank in the South China Sea at a position approximately 63 nautical miles southwest of Hainan Island, People's Republic of China and 80 nautical miles east of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Prior to the sinking, the GLOMAR JAVA SEA had secured drilling operations due to the severe effects of tropical storm 'LEX' approaching from the east of the drilling site. At 2348 local time, the Assistant Rig Manager, onboard the drillship, called Global Marine's office in Houston, Texas and reported that the drillship had a 15 deg starboard list of unknown origin and was experiencing 75 knot winds over the bow. Communications were cut off during the conversation, and all attempts to re-establish contact failed. At about 2351 the GLOMAR JAVA SEA capsized and within minutes sank in 317 feet of water. An extensive search was conducted but no survivors were found. A diving expedition found the wreck in an inverted position approximately 1600 feet southwest of the well site. The wreck was searched and 31 of the 36 bodies found were recovered. The remaining 45 persons are missing and presumed dead. "

At least, that's the official conclusion. Further reading of the official USCG report reveals the following:

  • The signal from an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) was picked up by two passing commercial airliners on the morning of 25 October. An EPIRB was later found by a Chinese search vessel, which appeared to have stopped functioning after its battery ran out.
  • The starboard lifeboat was apparently launched - evidence indicated that the lifeboat had been intentionally and properly lowered. A capsized lifeboat was spotted by a Chinese helicopter three days later.
  • On 27 October, a merchant vessel picked up a distress signal using the Glomar Java Sea's call sign, on the international frequency used by emergency lifeboat radios. The Coast Guard report admits that this distress signal could only have been transmitted manually from a lifeboat.
  • On 29 October, a U.S. Navy aircraft spotted 'fresh sea dye marker' and what appeared to be a person in the water.

In November 1983, a Global Marine official announced that some of the crew did manage to evacuate the drillship. Prevailing sea currents from the site of the sinking headed west towards Vietnam. Reports of surviving crew members from the Glomar Java Sea were circulated in 1984, with sightings reported of the crew in Vietnamese jails. These reports have never been substantiated. The bodies of fewer than half of the missing members of the ship were recovered and no further trace of the crew of the Glomar Java Sea has been found.

Sources:

U.S. Coastguard: Marine Board of Investigation report PDF document
Advocacy and Intelligence Index for Prisoners of War - Missing in Action: Glomar Java Sea
NY Times: Hope Is Revived For Drilling Ship's Crew

Images:
1. All At Sea
2 & 3. U.S. Coastguard: Marine Board of Investigation report PDF document