This is dedicated to the memory of the 13 men who lost their lives on the 28th December 1965, when the Barge Sea Gem collapsed whilst preparing to move the rig to drill a 'step out' well.


P. Belgiral

The Story of the Sea Gem, the first rig to discover North Sea Gas in the UK sector

The 5600 ton Drilling Barge Sea Gem started the North Sea Offshore Oil and Gas Industry for the United Kingdom on the 30th September 1965 when it discovered gas in the southern North sea 42 miles off the Mouth of the River Humber.

 It was the first rig ever to find hydrocarbons in the British North Sea sector in what is now the West Sole Field. The members of the crew were employed by BP at Eakring. The barge was manned by "Fifers" and the "Mansfield Mafia". Sea Gem was a former work barge built at Le Havre under contract to George Wimpey. The legs were fitted at a later date. The drill derrick was pre-fabricated at Eakring.


It had been suspected for some time that Oil and Gas were probably to be found under the North Sea. But there were three reasons why the International Oil companies held back from the search. The first reason was that until the 1960s there was no international agreement as to who owned mineral rights in the shallow seas outside the three mile limit. The second reason was the technology to successfully produce oil from ocean depths of a few hundred feet.

However the main reason for delayed exploration of the North Sea was that geologically, it was not a prospect that was held very high. For although oil had been discovered in Britain, Holland and Germany apart from Eakring the fields were generally small and would not be economic propositions for the very expensive operating conditions of the North Sea.

What changed was the wealth of geological information built up during oil exploration on the British mainland in places like Eakring for showing the first real offshore oil prospects.

What was clear from this information was that the sedimentary basin extending to the east of the Pennines tilted through Nottinghamshire and through Lincolnshire in the direction of the North Sea. 

The  experiences of finding Oil in the Eakring and Dukes Wood and subsequently significant finds in Gainsborough and other areas in the Lincolnshire area had given BP the confidence to extend their search into the shallow waters off the Lincolnshire coast. Also many experienced drill crews had returned to Eakring from the BP operations in Iran after a change of government there had caused British operations there to be scaled down.



Pictured at Eakring, the Sea Gem's Drill derrick is dismantled for transportation to the Barge in 1964.

The figure at the top of the rig bottom left is Kevin Topham. The current curator of the Dukes Wood OIl Museum

So it was that on the morning of Friday 17th September 1965 men began working on the 5600 ton Drilling Barge Sea Gem. Operations had commenced 104 days earlier on 5th June and had continued non-stop twenty four hours a day.


The first offshore hole in the North sea had been sunk by the drilling platform Mr Louie in May 1964 thirty miles north of the island of Juist, in the German sector and a pocket of very high pressure nitrogen had been struck causing a well blow out. The strike was considered too dangerous for commercial exploitation.

Sea Gem's well was the fourth well to have been spudded in British Waters, the first had been for Amoseas for the American Caltex Group with the Drill rig Mr Cap that had began drilling in December 1964. Mr Cap had then been sub-leased to the Shell/Esso Group and it drilled the second well. The third well had been started on April 24th 1965 with Glomar IV which had come over the Atlantic from Texas. By 17th September all had been completed and were dry wells. A further four rigs were drilling at this time for Gulf, Total, Continental and Signal, these too showed no success.

Sea Gem's drill had reached a depth of 8500 feet and it was starting to look as though this was yet another dry hole. To begin with dials began to flicker showing the presence of some gas. It was commonplace to find small pockets of gas as the drill went deeper and nobody was getting too excited. But then it was noticed that the drilling fluid returning from the bottom of the well was tending to froth and bubble. What was causing this froth? Natural Gas.

Cautious signals were sent to the Cleethorpes base in code reporting that something was happening. By Sunday 19th September it was becoming obvious that this was more than a slight show of gas. The weather changed and there was now a raging gale and rain beat against the derrickmen as they worked high up on the 136ft drilling rig. 

A lot of speculation was being made since 1964 about the North Sea in the press and in Parliament at this time and expectations were high and a lot of attention was put on the drill rigs currently working in the North Sea. Security had to be tight as a leaked story could discredit the Oil men if the find turned out to be wrong. On 20th September the Sea Gem crew decided to stop drilling and run a drill-stem test to make a preliminary assessment of the flow and pressure of gas.  The results of this test were sent by teleprinter to Cleethorpes and then onto the BP Headquarters at Eakring.

Core sample in the Dukes Wood Oil museum from Britain's first North Sea discovery at BPs West Sole drilled by the Sea Gem in September 1965.

The historic announcement of the first Hydrocarbon find in the British sector of the North Sea operations was made, it said:

"A test in BP's North Sea well now being drilled by the Sea Gem forty-two miles east of Humber has produced gas, but not in sufficient volume to be commercially significant. The well is being drilled deeper in the hope that commercial production may yet be encountered."

This was a guarded announcement but the press went into a frenzy with the headlines:

'BP Strikes Gas....North Sea Klondike

 From that time onwards North Sea Gas was no longer conjecture but a reality.

The Sea Gem crew continued drilling until the well was finally completed at a depth of 10000ft and on Wednesday 9th December 1965 further dramatic headlines appeared in the press when a forty foot flame was ignited at the top of the rig (the first to appear in the North Sea) signalling the start of tests to measure the quality and quantity of the find. Normally several wells have to be drilled in a field before a company can be sure of a commercial strike. But by mid-December, BP was so confident of its discovery that the Minister of Power could announce in the House of Commons that BP's first well was yielding ten million cubic feet of natural gas a day and was satisfied that sufficient quantities could be produced to justify the building of pipelines to the shore.

The full extent of the discovery was not realised until further wells were drilled and that the field would eventually yield fifty million cubic feet of natural gas a day. This is the equivalent of 500000tons of coal a year and enough to supply a city the size of Sheffield or Leeds. Not only was the gas in large quantities but it was found to be almost pure methane. This well now forms part of the West Sole Field.



The Sea Gem and oilmen of BP, some of whom had come from the Eakring area, had made the first breakthrough in what was to be Britain's principle energy resource into the 21st century.  But alas this was not the end of their story.

On the 27th December, only two days after the crew had been celebrating Christmas on the rig, the crew began making preparations to move the rig to a new position two miles away in order to drill another step-out well. Whilst the legs were being lowered two of the eight legs suddenly crumpled. The rig began to tilt sideways and men were thrown out of their bunks whilst others on the upper deck were thrown straight into the icy waters of the North Sea. No distress message had been made as the radio cabin was washed into the sea.

Mr Kevin Topham (the current curator of the Dukes Wood Oil Museum) was one of the drilling team, he said he was reading in his cabin when a shelf fell down and hit him on the head. He went up on deck and helped other men trying to release a life raft, but the waves prevented them. They managed to free another raft and he and thirteen others clambered on board. "It took about half-an-hour for the rig to go down and it seemed like a year" he said.

Luckily for the crew the British Cargo ship Baltrover was a mile or so away when the rig collapsed. The Chief Engineer Leonard Woodhouse had watched the whole disaster from the bridge and couldn't believe his eyes.  At 14:09 the Baltrover made the first distress call on 2182khz it said:

"Oil Rig Sea Gem has just collapsed and sinking. Am sending a boat across to her. Require further assistance"

Some of the crew who hadn't taken to the liferaft or had been thrown into the sea, scrambled to the end of the platform which was floating highest out of the water. But they were taken under when the whole platform, after floating at a crazy angle for a while, suddenly turned right over without warning.

There had been no panic when the crew took to the liferafts but this was the North Sea in December and the sea was ice cold. A excellent swimmer had dived into the sea and been overcome by exposure. Most of the crew were rescued by the Baltrover or by helicopters that had been called out in the emergency. By the time these helicopters had arrived there was nothing to been seen of the rig except for one of the legs sticking above the water and a mass of wreckage.

 However thirteen men were lost as a result of this disaster their names and those of the survivors can be found on the Tragedies page. Five were injured.

 Many new rules for operations within the British sector were made as a result of this tragedy. The inclusion of a Stand-by Boat and the legal requirement of a Offshore Installation Manager for every offshore Oil rig and Platform to name two. The board of enquiry had recommended the inclusion of the standby boat after this tragedy and the near loss of the Mr Louie after the high pressure nitrogen strike had nearly caused its loss in the German sector. So not only had the Sea Gem started off the North Sea bonanza but it and the crews who mostly had come from the Eakring and Dukes Wood area had made an influence on all North Sea Operations that are still being used today.

Inquiry reference


Kevin Topham , Sea Gem survivor and curator of the Dukes Wood Oil Museum (top right, front), returns to the West Sole Field.