The Story of North Sea Oil and Gas

Oil Barge Sea Gem 1964

< On the left  The 5600 ton Drilling Barge Sea Gem 42 miles off the Mouth of the River Humber in 1965 and was the first rig ever to find hydrocarbons in the British North Sea sector. 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 See Sea Gem Tragedy
Running casing, Sea Quest1970
> On the right Running Casing on the Sea Quest in the Forties  Field early 1970.  A purpose built semi-submersible rig, Sea Quest  made the first UK offshore Oil find in the Forties Field and was manned by drill crew from Eakring. It was built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast
  • Why the North Sea?

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.

Sea Gem makes the first Hydrocarbon Discovery in the UK sector.

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. 

North Sea Operations in 1964-66 (British Sector)

Drilling Rig





Mr Cap Amoseas 38/29 December 1964 March 1965
Mr Cap Shell/Esso 44/2 April 1965 June 1965
Glomar IV Gulf 53/10 April 1965 June 1965
Sea Gem BP 48/6 June 1965 December 1965
Neptune I Total 44/21 July 1965 September1965
Glomar IV Gulf 49/13 July 1965 October 1965
Conoco No 1 Continental 49/17 August 1965 November 1965
Endeavour Signal 41/19 September 1965 December 1965
Neptune 1 Shell/Esso 49/19 September 1965 December 1965
Petrofina/Agip 49/6 October 1965 April 1966
Neptune 1 Shell/Esso 49/26 December 1965 April 1966


Shell Gas Platforms off Bacton, Norfolk at Block 49/26.



On 19th October 1970 the BBC reported:

 Large oil field found in North Sea
The oil company British Petroleum has announced it has struck oil in the North Sea. The find will eventually make a huge difference to Britain's balance of payments since almost all of the country's oil is imported.

Last year the cost of importing crude and partly refined petroleum was 670m. This discovery follows other finds in the last five years of natural gas as well as oil and suggests the North Sea could become one of the world's major sources of crude oil.

The North Sea is divided into UK, German, Norwegian, Danish, and Dutch sectors. The UK has the largest of these sectors. In June BP discovered another major field in the Norwegian section, Ekofisk, that is expected to supply 10% of Britain's oil needs.

The new field situated in block 21/10 of the British sector, some 110 miles (177km) east of Aberdeen in Scotland. BP said its exploration well was dug 350ft (106 metres) into the sea bed and produced good quality oil at the rate of about 4,700 barrels a day.

Currently oil consumption in Britain is nearly two million barrels a day. This month's find is welcome news for BP which has been hard hit by high costs of transporting oil from its huge oil reserves in the Middle East. The company's shares have risen by 14% in the last two weeks in anticipation of the announcement.

But it will take some time - some say up to seven years - to develop the field into a viable oil producer. A pipeline will have to be built on the sea bed from the oil field all the way to the Scottish coast near Aberdeen.

Conditions in the North Sea during winter are particularly harsh. Shell-Esso has a drilling rig, Staflo, and sometimes has to evacuate it when winds reach gale force 10 in the region.


The semi-submersible rig Sea Quest which made the first UK offshore Oil find in the Forties Field. It was purpose built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast

BP had made the announcement to the press on Oct. 7, 1970, oil had been struck 110 miles east-northeast of Aberdeen in 350 feet of water. BPs semi-submersible drilling rig Sea Quest hit crude at 11,000 feet in the upper tertiary sandstone.

Four appraisal wells drilled during 1970-71 revealed a large reservoir at a depth of about 7,000 feet. So marked the first and largest major oil field discovery in the United Kingdom sector of the North Sea. Oil had previously been discovered at the Ekofisk field.

Named Forties after the sea area in which it lies, the field began producing oil in September 1975 and was officially inaugurated by Her Majesty on Nov. 3, 1975. The field peaked in 1979 at 500,000 barrels per day production well above early predictions.

BP began pumping oil from Block 21/10, known as Forties, (after the Argyll platform) to the mainland in 1975. At its peak, Forties produced half a million barrels a day, equivalent to 25% of the UK's daily oil needs. Britain's North Sea oil was no rival to that produced by nations in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

 Britain ended its dependence on oil exports which improved the balance of payments while life for the people of north-east Scotland was transformed. The dangers of extracting oil at sea was underlined with the tragic accident of the Piper Alpha platform on the 6th July 1988.

In April 2003 BP sold Forties to independent oil producer Apache.

Tetney Lock Heliport

Early days of flying crews offshore. Above is the helipad at Tetney Lock