By Tony Munoz 2015-06-17 21:56:17
Read Part 1 here.
The story of the Glomar Explorer spans four decades and involves a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, the CIA and an eccentric billionaire. The tale is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the real-life story of the Glomar Explorer eclipses any fiction Tinsel Town could concoct.
The vessel’s history is steeped in international intrigue. The $350-million drillship – an engineering marvel that was far ahead of its time – was built for Global Marine, a company owned by Howard Hughes, the eccentric American businessman. It was supposedly to be used to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor and was constructed at Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock (remember Sun Oil Company – Sunoco?) in Chester, Pennsylvania. Its maiden voyage took place on June 21, 1974.
Over the years, Global Marine executives and others have testified in federal court that the Glomar Explorer wasn’t really built to mine manganese but was designed and constructed specifically to get something much most precious to the U.S. off the seabed.
Project Azorian was the code name for the covert CIA project whose real goal was the recovery of a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, which was lost in 1968 about 1,500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. The U.S. Air Force had captured sonic recordings of an explosion that took place on March 8, 1968. Subsequently, it was able to localize the latitude and longitude of the Soviet submarine, and the U.S. Navy conducted a deep-sea reconnaissance mission that took over 20,000 photographs of the sunken Soviet K-129 submarine.
President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger approved the mission, which created significant engineering challenges as the 2,000-ton submarine lay at 17,000 feet on the ocean floor. At the time, the deepest-ever salvage operation had taken place at a mere 245 feet and recovered a satellite bucket weighing only a couple of hundred pounds.
In order to carry out the mission, a massive claw-like apparatus was built by Lockheed to fit the sub’s exact specifications. It was affectionately called “Clementine” and weighed 2,170 tons and consisted of two steel beams that were 179 feet long and 31 feet wide.
The Glomar Explorer itself was 618 feet long with a 115-foot beam, which was too large to transit the Panama Canal. So after sea trials it began its long voyage on June 21, 1974 around South America to Long Beach, which included a stop at Valparaiso, Chile to collect a few more Global Marine employees.
The evening before the ship was scheduled to arrive in Chile, a military coup overthrew the government. There were 178 people onboard the vessel including the crew and members of the CIA. It sailed out of port without incident, but it was a close call just the same.
The U.S. Navy had used a large network of hydrophones, which can distinguish military ships and submarines from ordinary maritime traffic, to locate the K-129 on the ocean floor. The camera onboard a Navy ship showed a 10-foot hole had been blown through the right side of the sub below the conning tower. It was assumed the explosion took place as the sub was recharging its batteries, which give off hydrogen gas, and was most likely ignited by a spark from the engines.
The Glomar Explorer finally reached its destination on July 4, 1974, but inclement weather delayed the salvage operation for several days. Around the same time as the recovery cage was being lowered into the ocean, the Soviet warship Chazhma arrived on the scene carrying a Kamov Ka-25 helicopter. A Soviet naval tug arrived as well to help in monitoring the U.S. ship’s operations.
The Glomar team had to carry on its operations with the Soviet Navy watching. To prevent the Soviet helicopter from landing onboard, boxes were stacked on deck, but what caused the most anxiety during the operation was debris that might float to the surface once the sub was lifted off the ocean floor.
Such a disaster almost took place on August 4 as the sub was being raised. At about 6,700 feet, the crew noticed that two-thirds of the vessel had broken off and only about 38 feet were left in the claw. On August 9, the same day that Richard Nixon resigned as President, the CIA and Glomar team lifted the remains of the sub into the ship’s gigantic moon pool.
As the CIA inspected the wreckage, several important documents and manuals were recovered. But the most pressing issue was the discovery of several bodies of the 98 crewmen who died in the sub’s explosion. While three of the crew members were identified, the rest were not. By September, all of the bodies were recovered and were buried at sea with full honors.
The Glomar Explorer returned to Long Beach in September 1974 with a number of crates recovered from the sub. The sub itself was transported to the naval submarine base in Bangor, Washington. But the CIA wanted the rest of the vessel that remained on the ocean floor.
Operation Matador was now in play, but the media found out about the secret mission and the story became front-page news. The Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. demanded an explanation from the Ford Administration. While Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not admit what the operation was about, the plan to recover the rest of the sub was scrapped.
In 1976, the U.S. General Services Administration considered leasing the Glomar Explorer, but the deal never came about. In September of that year, the U.S. Navy acquired the vessel, which was added to its auxiliary operations. The ship was laid up in Suisun Bay in the San Francisco Bay area but was kept a safe distance from other laid-up ships due to concerns about residual radiation.
GSF Explorer: A Drilling Pioneer
When the Glomar Explorer ended its military career in 1997 it headed to drydock for conversion into a dynamically positioned deepwater drillship. In this reincarnation, the vessel was capable of drilling in depths up to 11,500 feet (3,500 meters). At the time, this was 2,000 feet (610 meters) deeper than any existing rig.
The conversion was completed in two phases. The first, in Cascade General Shipyard in Portland, Oregon, saw the inclusion of 4.5 million pounds (2,040 tons) of steel to fill the moon pool and an overhaul of the vessel’s electrical, piping, ventilation and steering systems.
The primary challenge was to replace the retractable 200-foot (61 meters) gates under the moon pool with prefabricated double-bottomed sections, which were 770,000 pounds or 350 tons each and left a 74-foot by 42-foot (23 by 13 meters) drilling well.
It was the largest, most complex project the yard had ever undertaken. The ship was lifted in drydock and the gate fittings cut away and the gates lowered. The dock was then partially submerged so the gates could be pulled free, using winches and tugs. The new double-bottomed modules were then maneuvered under the ship and attached to temporary suspension brackets. The ship was then lifted to allow the modules to be welded on.
Don Wiles of Global Marine was in charge of converting the vessel to commercial use for the company. “The ship had been laid up in San Francisco Bay for 15 years, but all of the electrical equipment and cabling looked brand new when we went through it,” he said. “It was quite unique. There was one floor in the forward accommodation area that was a secret location where the CIA stored its equipment. There was also a blackboard with a sketch of the grappling hook with the sub in it. That sketch told the big story of the operation, and there it was still on the blackboard. Pretty amazing stuff.”
Electronic Power Design (EPD), the largest electrical systems integrator in the U.S. today, was brought in to preserve as much of the existing equipment onboard the ship as possible. “The most expensive part of diesel electric ships, aside from the hull itself, is the electrical system,” Wiles stated. “Global Marine needed the specialized talents of EPD and its Chairman and CEO, John Janik, to mitigate costs enough to make the venture fruitful.”
“While the Glomar job was a pivotal point in our history,” said Janik, “Doing a poor job on the retrofit could have been the end of us as well.”
The ship had been sitting for almost 20 years. When the Global and EPD teams first came onboard, it appeared that everything had been frozen in time. The interior of the ship had been pumped with nitrogen for two decades. As a result, the electrical equipment and cables were in pristine condition.
“Everything was just as the CIA had left it,” explained Janik, “down to the bowls on the counter and the knives hanging in the kitchen. Even though all the systems were intact, this was by no means an ordinary ship, and the retrofit was going to be a tough job because the ship’s wiring was unlike anything we had ever seen before.”
The EPD team searched the electrical system, which did not go where it was supposed to go. Soon they discovered that it only went to the CIA’s covert control room. All of the wires had to be removed and all of the controls systems replaced. Eventually, the ship was totally retrofitted with new propulsion and drive systems including a new dynamic positioning system, new thrusters and motors – all the while making every effort to maintain the original switchboard system.
“The Glomar Explorer was decades ahead of its time and the pioneer of all modern drill ships,” Janik added. “It broke all the records for working at unimaginable depths and should be remembered as a technological phenomenon.”
The second phase of the conversion, which included a voyage around South America through the Straits of Magellan, took place at Atlantic Marine’s Mobile, Alabama shipyard. Here the completion work involved the fitting of drilling equipment including the derrick and the vessel’s azimuthing thrusters (11 thrusters capable of a combined 35,200 horsepower).
The conversion, completed in 1998, marked the beginning of a 30-year lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for a fee of $1 million per year. But after a series of mergers, the vessel became part of the Transocean fleet and was renamed GSF Explorer. It was then reflagged from Houston to Port Vila in Vanuatu in 2013.
The drillship spudded its first well in the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon. The well was drilled for Chevron in about 7,800 feet (2,375 meters) of water – a world record at the time. In 1999, it left the Gulf of Mexico and set off for Nigeria, working there for a year for Texaco. It drilled the first well in the Agbami field, the second major deepwater oil field discovered off the Niger Delta, the first being Shell’s Bonga Field.
GSF Explorer then returned to the Gulf of Mexico until 2005. After that it was off to Malta for drydocking at Malta Shipyards and then on to the Black Sea, where it was the first deepwater offshore vessel in those waters. The top of the derrick had to be taken down in order for the ship to go under the two bridges leading to the Bosporus Strait.
The ship spent a few more years in the Gulf of Mexico before again leaving the U.S. It did another stint in Angola and then was deployed to Indonesia to drill in the deepwater Makassar Strait for a consortium led by Marathon Oil. There it used managed-pressure drilling technology to drill fractured carbonates, a system that enhances drilling capabilities and improves safety and efficiency through early kick detection.
It spent some time in Singapore, which was followed by a contract in India with ONGC. It finally ended up idled in Labuan, Malaysia. In April, 2015, Transocean made the decision to scrap the vessel. Very few vessels have had such a remarkable history as the Hughes Glomar Explorer. – MarEx
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.