The Loss of the DB29

This is what I was able to write in my newsletter the other day about this accident:

“On the last day of October this year a crane barge, the DB-1 sank in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico. When I started searching for a bit more information about the accident I came up with stuff about the loss of the DB29, a derrick barge owned by McDermott back in August 1991. The barge had been laying pipe for an offshore oilfield in the South China Sea and at the time of the sinking was on passage being towed by the tug Typhoon. What little information is available is provided by the Bradford Telegraph and Argus which reported on the coroner’s court convened to determine the cause of death of one of the divers who had been in sat during the passage. He and three other divers were lost as well as a further 22 crew members. The evidence provided to the court included some from a man who had travelled from New Zealand. The witness seemed to be suggesting that the barge had been overloaded, and that it was being towed, having no propulsion of its own, to a place of safety where it could wait out the typhoon. But it seems that under deck spaces began to fill up with water, and the deck cargo began to move about. Frustratingly for marine people with an interest, these witnesses are essentially amateurs whose view of the misfortune is conditioned by their lack of technical knowledge. Probably the management of this object would have just seen the loss as bad luck, but as usual it is more likely to have been the result of lack of knowledge of the marine environment.”

I was wondering if anyone on this forum could shed more light on this accident which has not had much media space as far as I can tell, possible because most of the crew were Malayan and the thing was registered in Panama.

I was Marine Advisor on board DB 29 while working off Sarawak a few months before her sinking and followed the news of her capsize and sinking very closely at the time.
As you say there are very little to find about this incident, but I found this on youtube:

Apparently the Incident Report are available on this website, if anybody have an account:

The Sat-dive set on DB29 was of the portable type. It was not “float free”, not attached to any Hyperbaric Lifeboat. or escape chamber and the bell could only hold 2 pers.
IOW; without any escape possibilities for the divers in saturation.

Here is the “float-free” Escape chamber on another Construction barge:


Instructions to anybody finding and recovering this Escape Chamber:

The big question asked at the time was; Why wasn’t the POB reduced to min. require for transit?
Why was operation continuing so late that divers were still in saturation on transit?
Who was in charge at the time and were there any Marine expertise on board.

PS> The reason I was on board for the job in Sarawak was because the Oilco. demanded Marine expertise, even in the benign waters there. (No typhoons possible)

I’ll try to refresh my memory and see if I can find any more info from that time.

It happened again, 11 years later:

From this website (Page 5):
http://www.thediversassociation.com/index.php?/incidents/&page=5

Has anyone compared this casualty to the 1995 loss of the DLB269(?) written about so well by Michael Kreiger in his book “All the Men in the Sea”? At first glance there seems to be several similarities with this loss - especially with regards to the sat divers. As a OSV master I learned a lot about what can be done to provide support before and during a mass casualty marine event from this book.

I only vaguely remember hearing and reading about this accident, happening far away from S.E.Asia.
This was originally Brown & Root’s Lay Barge “Meaders” (BAR 269) but ended up with McDermott as DLB 269.

Here is her history in a Wikipedia page of Dutch origin:
https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.B.Meaders(schip,_1967)

I have not yet read the reports on the 29 in detail, but from what I have, it is possible that there are more similarities than one might expect. The book was done as a journalistic enquirer and there seems to have been many mistakes made. If someone compared the events, he might be able to determine if the lessons learned were lost, resulting in another tragic loss. If memory serves me well, I think the barge had been put under another operator.

New to this site,just read my husband Brian Sheppard had an injured leg which is why he didn’t swim out of diving chamber.He died August 15th 1991 leaving 3 young sons,I was never told about his injuries.Always prayed that they learned by their mistakes and would not happen again and that no one will go through the horrors of the deep that Brian went through, sitting there in a boson chair which he made from piping ,tied himself up head and shoulders ubove water in an air lock waiting hours and hours, what went through his mind waiting to be saved, praying, hoping,we cant imagine what we would think,maybe he prayed he would be saved and see us again.No one came ,until his friend after 2 months went back down and brought his body home to us .R.I.P Brian Sheppard,we will always love and never forget you,Gail Sheppard,Adam,Ryan and Brett and now 3 grandaughters.

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Hi Gail, Since it was me who started the thread I think I can speak for all of us who contribute here and say we are sorry for your loss. We are mostly current or former seafarers, and argue quite a bit on a variety of topics, but we are probably united in our view that life at sea should be made as safe as possible. I personally feel that the sinking of the barge should have been the subject of a formal enquiry by the flag state, which was Panama, but the only investigation seems to have been undertaken by the coroner in Bradford, a task that he was ill equipped to carry out. So we will never know why the barge sank although we can speculate, and we would probably think that any preparation for adverse weather would have been less than adequate. Non marine staff, and that includes any divers, are truly in the hands of the management of the object who, in this case, should have been aware of the loss of the drill ship Glomar Java Sea with all hands in those waters eight years previously. Were any lessons learnt from your husband’s death and that of his fellow divers and 22 crew members? It seems unlikely, but I’d love to be corrected.

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Hi,

I totally agree with everything you have to say. We waited seven years for the inquest and like you said, with a coroner who was ill-equipped. Having read your post it prompted me to read over documentation written around time. I cannot find any information on Brians injured leg, would you mind sharing the source of this information. I can likewise do the same if you are interested and I will send over my email address.

I am no expert in the industry but it seems nothing has changed in 27 years. As we all know we are still seeing divers (and crew) dying at sea and it brakes my heart.

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God bless you ma’am

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Hi Gail, I have been giving your suggestion some thought, and I am sure that it would be really difficult to put anything meaningful together, since most of the decisions that resulted in the barge being moved too late, without the appropriate levels of watertightness, and maybe stability must have been taken by the shore management, and even where formal investigations have taken place the conversations between the ship and the shore are never revealed. But that being said, if you could send me a list of the documents you have I’ll see if I think I could construct a meaningful narrative. You can find my email address at www.shipsandoil.co.uk .

Ok thank you,i will get my son to do this for me,Gail.

You are very right. Too little has changed because of the many accidents that has been in the offshore industry during the last 30-40 years.
A repeated finding has been that decisions are made by shore based personnel with little or no marine knowledge or experience.

This was the case with the Glomar Java Sea that capsized and sunk in a typhoon a few years before and not far from where the DLB 29 sunk:
http://members.home.nl/the_sims/rig/seacrest.htm

Likewise with the Seacrest that went down in a typhoon in the Gulf of Thailand in 1989:
http://members.home.nl/the_sims/rig/seacrest.htm

In all these cases the wrong decisions were made by people ashore and on board who had no formal maritime education or credentials.

As said earlier, I was Marine Adviser on the DLB 29 only a few months before she went down. This was because the Oilco she was working for at the time did not accept that there were no maritime expertise on board while working for them.

I had a similar assignment on McDermott’s LB 200 in the North Sea in 1981. That time because Norwegian Authorities did not allow a barge with 550 persons on board to work in Norwegian waters without a qualified Master Mariner on board to advise the Barge Superintendent.

Luckily, in both cases there were no major incidents to test my authority vs. the Barge Supervisor,

The worst accident in terms of lives lost that has affected floating offshore units was the Alexander Kielland capsizing in the North Sea in 1980, with the loss of 123 lives:
http://members.home.nl/the_sims/rig/alk.htm
In this last case there were a Master Mainer as OIM, but with little experience from this type of units.

This accident resulted in a change in rules for MODUs under Norwegian flag and working on the Norwegian OCS. Changes of rule applied both for the units and the OIM.
I.e. anybody being in charge of a MODU. (whether self-propelled or not) must not only be a Master Mariner, but have 4-month additional schooling and training on things pertain specifically to such units. (This applies regardless of nationality of the unit, or the OIM)

Unfortunately this has not become universally accepted rules.

DB29 was one of three flat-bottomed Gulf of Mexico lay barges that were converted to Derrick/Lay barges. Within J. Ray McDermott they were called the DLB27/DLB28/DLB29. The conversion of these units consisted of installing an elevated 3000t derrick which made them very top heavy.

[The reason that the derricks were elevated was in order to allow center pipe-lay operations through a tunnel in the derrick tub].

The value of the metracentric height was [to my mind] always questionable. I was on the 27 at the top-end of the Persian Gulf in a Shamal when the tug captain got us beam on to the weather. We slow rolled and I was convinced that we weren’t coming back. But I digress. Back to the DLB29.

Five years before the loss of the 29 [1986] it had been working in the Straits of Taiwan with the DLB14. The 14 was a far smaller barge with a side-lay pipe system and a 650t derrick with no elevated tub.

Both the 29 & the 14 ran for port [Taichung] when Typhoon Zeke came through and again for Typhoon Yvonne. When Typhoon Abby appeared the big boys on the 29 decided not to run for port. Abby [also called Norming] hit the 29 full on and they lost all 12 of the anchors. The tug [Jaramac 69 - I think] tried to get a line to the 29 but it fouled the tugs rudder, ripped it off complete with the skeg and holed the hull. The 29 & the tug went walkabout & meanwhile the dive supervisor [Brian B] had already taken the initiative and had decommed the saturation dive team without incident. The sat-system had no hyperbaric evacuation system.

The 29 narrowly missed a series of sea cliffs and ended up high and dry on mud banks in a river estuary. It was towed off and went to Singapore for repair prior to going to Australia for a pipe-lay project.

The Australian client was well aware of what had transpired in Taiwan and refused to accept the 29 as fit for purpose unless McDermott retro fitted a hyperbaric rescue system [which was done with bad grace].

Now let us spool forward to the 15th August 1991.

The 29 was close to where it had been hit by Typhoon Abby 5 years earlier. It was under-tow by the tug “Typhoon” [I kid you not]. It had the same “Captain” known in McDermott as “Typhoon Billy” and several peculiar deficiencies. The main deficiency was that the hyperbaric rescue chamber had been left in Singapore in order to free up deck-space. There was a new and inexperienced dive supervisor who would not argue with Typhoon Billy. He was told not to commence a decom of the 4 divers who were in saturation and by the time that a decom commenced it was too late.

I knew the 4 divers well; John Lyons (NZ), Steve Hardy (Bradford UK), Terry Dennison [Hull UK) & lastly Brian Shepherd. Brian had worked for Nasali Diving Services at one time and I had given him his first mixed gas dive. They were good guys.

As far as I can figure out; the typhoon hit the 29 and it started to roll. The barge anchors were left lying on deck and they started to slide. One or more of them ripped off the raised hatch that gave access to the MEKO room (water-makers). The MEKO room started to fill. The MEKO room was not water-tight (it should have been) and water started to infiltrate the rest of the 29 through pipe penetrations and holes in the bulkheads. There were insufficient pumps and the 29 began to list and eventually slow-rolled for the last time and sank. The dive team went down with the system and 3 of them attempted to escape at equalization depth when the chamber doors popped.

ENDEX

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You have filled in a lot of holes in the narrative, and I’m sure Mrs Shepherd, if she is still visiting the forum would be pleased to read your kind words about her husband and his fellow divers.

Your description of the progress of the accident is depressingly simliar to numerous others. It seems that the American offshore business has always favoured putting bullies in charge with a very limited understanding of the environment in which they are working. This results in a lot getting done as long as things don’t go wrong. “ The hyperbaric rescue chamber had been left in Singapore in order to free up deck space .”!!! Just reading that makes me angry. The divers and a further 22 people died just because there were idiots in charge. I wish I could say that lessons have been learnt, but I don’t think they have (and I’m avoiding going off on a whole new rant).

And incidentally those of us who were out in the North Sea in the 70s and 80s well remember the tugs “Typhoon” and its sister ship “Tempest”. They were terrific ships.

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I’m not sure if anyone still checks here or gets alerted, but I’ve been curious most of my life about this. My grandfather, William Walin was one of the men who died and was never found. I’ve always wanted to know more and it’s really hard to find a lot of anything. If anyone knew him or anything I would love to hear from you. Thank you in advance!

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