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24 June 2005

Cormorant Alpha –THE UNTOLD STORY
A group of Norwegian divers are working with a freelance journalist to reveal what they contend is a major inter-governmental cover-up over a narrowly-averted disaster on a huge oil platform built at Ardyne Point, near Toward, in the 1970s.
Three of the group, divers Otto Johannsen and Tom Engh, came to the Observer office on Tuesday with Jan Fustad, a journalist who is planning to produce a television documentary on the incident.
The Cormorant ‘A’ platform was the last of three concrete oil platforms to be built at Sir Robert McAlpine’s yard at Ardyne Point, at the south end of the Cowal peninsula.
When it was built it was the largest floating structure in the world, although a platform completed later at the Howard Doris yard in Loch Kishorn was to be even larger.
The three Norwegians came to Cowal this week to try to fit together a jigsaw which they contend involves a conspiracy of silence between the British and Norwegian governments and the oil industry to cover up safety failings in the North Sea.
They were looking for anyone who worked at Ardyne during the oil rig era, as part of a wider investigation into the diving industry centred in the Norwegian sector of the North sea, where they claim 40 percent of divers have died – 20 of whom committed suicide, and 98 percent of those who survive have suffered reduced quality of life, Said Otto: “A whole profession has been wiped out.”
Jan explained their interest in the Ardyne yard: “We have done a lot of research and our understanding is that the yard was so plagued by labour problems that the decision was taken to move Cormorant A to Norway for completion. It was towed out of the Clyde in the summer of 1977 and by November that year was docked at Aker Stord Shipyards, near Bergen, where it was made ready for submersible testing. This was to be the final step before the fitting of the superstructure of the rig.”
Otto explained what happened next: “I was part of a four-man diving team working 40 metres (130 feet) down, opening and closing safety valves under the skirt of the huge structure in preparation for pressure testing.
“Suddenly all hell broke loose; a valve in one of the legs was opened for testing, but its backup was already in service and opened, and a huge water spout blasted out of the top of the platform. The production tanks began to fill with water and the rig quickly began to list.”
Forty metres below the platform Otto was screaming at the top of his voice over his communication set telling the diving team’s controller what was happening around him, as everything loose was sucked into the open valves and blasted under high pressure over the top of the platform,
“There was chaos,” said Otto, and orders were given to abandon the rig. Workers leapt from the deck 100 feet into the sea, tugs cut their lines, and the tug holding the diving barge also cut its lines, abandoning the men to their fate.
“Oil company representatives arrived at the barge in a fast boat and ordered immediate evacuation of the rig, which had taken on an alarming list and was within two degrees of capsizing. I was 40 metres below the platform and my mate was in the decompression chamber – if the order was carried out we were both dead.
“The dive supervisor wasn’t about to let that happen and instead set about trying to save the doomed rig.”
He asked if Tom Engh would be willing to try to block the valves, and Tom agreed. He was lowered into the maelstrom, passing his mate who was clinging desperately to his lifeline.
Amazingly, he managed to slide the 16-inch blocking plate into the first hole and secure it, and equally incredibly, he managed to secure the second plate, thus stopping the flow of water and saving the rig and the two trapped divers.
“It’s a really hair-raising story,” said Jan, “but according to the British and Norwegian governments, the builders and Shell, it never happened.
“All of them deny point-blank that the incident took place, yet there are two men here who lived through it!”
The three have come to Dunoon in the hope that someone who worked in the yard during the construction of Cormorant Alpha can help them to piece together the jigsaw.
Jan explained: “Our information is that the rig should have been finished at Ardyne, but was towed away to Norway for completion because the yard was plagued with labour problems.”
This was confirmed to the Observer by a local man who said: “Most of the welders came from shipyards on the other side of the river, and they were walking off the job at the slightest excuse.”
“However,” says Jan, “McAlpine have always denied that labour problems were the reason for the mznerated by a combination of political and economic pressures. “North Sea oil was in its infancy,” he said. “Britain in particular was in a bad way economically and the prospect of making a great deal of money from oil must have been manna from heaven.
“Cormorant Alpha was the key to the field, it was the hub to which all the production rigs fed, and without it the field couldn’t become operational. There were a lot of people and a lot of vested interests, in both government and industry, who were banking on its success, and it made sense to keep things quiet.
“I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories, but the fact that both governments, builders and the oil company all deny that the near-disaster at Aker Stord actually happened is really quite bizarre.”
Concrete oil platforms were conceived in the heady days when Tony Benn was energy minister. Early expectations were that 65 of them would be built, and yards were established at Ardyne, Hunterston and Loch Kishorn. The most famous – or imfamous – was at Portavadie where the world’s largest man-made hole was dug at a cost of £14m for rig orders which never materialised.
In less than ten years the concrete oil platform industry in Britain had ceased to exist because, according to official sources, the concept had become obsolete.
“This is strange in itself,” said Jan, “ for if they were indeed obsolete in the 1970s why were they still being built in Norway in the 1990s, and they have only just begun to build them in Russia?”
The three returned to Norway on Wednesday, but are keen to hear from anyone who worked at Ardyne during the period when Cormorant Alpha was being built.
They can be contacted by e-mail on

Cowal may benefit from road charging
AMID the controversial plans to replace vehicle excise duty and fuel tax with a system of road charging there may be a silver lining for motorists in Cowal.
A national newspaper claims that levels of rural traffic in Scotland are so small that they will attract no charges at all.
The proposals will hit hardest in the south east of England; congestion charges are already in place in London, and traffic on the M25 orbital motorway is gridlocked to such an extent that it has been described by cynics as ‘the biggest car park in the world’.
If the scheme as it is currently proposed comes into being, then the chances are that most motorists in the area will end up well in pocket, for few roads in the area are sufficiently busy to attract any charge at all.
To ease the congestion, Alastair Darling, who is Secretary for State for Transport – and for Scotland, a much-diminished post following devolution – has proposed a sliding scale of charges based on road usage, with the highest being set at £1.34 a mile, and the lowest at 2p.
Only six roads in Scotland are busy enough to attract the top rate of charge, and many rural routes are so quiet that - claims the newspaper - they will attract no charges whatsoever.
This will come as good news to local motorists, who for years have complained about the high cost of motoring on Cowal, caused principally by the relatively expensive fuel in the area.
While there are fears elsewhere that rural roads will become ‘rat runs’ for motorists attempting to escape higher charges on main roads, this won’t arise in Cowal, since there are no ‘rat runs’ or even dual carriageways in the area
However, a spokeswoman from the Department of Transport was unable to comment on the scheme, which is in its very early stages. “It’s impossible to give figures or information of that sort at this point,” she said.
However, even at 2p a mile motorists in Cowal should benefit – assuming, of course, that the promise to remove both fuel duty and road tax charges is kept.

New Open Learning Centre at Hospital
ON June 6 Sally Munro, Locality Manager for Cowal and Bute, opened the new Open Learning Centre at Dunoon General Hospital. This new staff resource has been created for the staff of Cowal locality with the support and partnership working of Learn Direct Scotland.
Four computers plus a printer are now available for staff to access the Internet, e-mail and intranet and there is also a wide range of educational material loaded on the computers that staff can access at any time.
The centre will form the hub of ongoing education and professional development for all clinical and non-clinical staff in the area. CD Rom, DVD and on line courses will be available, as well as tutor-led sessions on subjects that have been identified by staff locally as learning needs – a librarian will also be available for support.
Lynn Garrett, Practice Development Nurse, who was involved in the development of the project said: “It has always been vitally important and still remains so, to invest in the development of all the health staff who work in the Cowal locality.
“Ongoing development, skills and knowledge acquisition as well as the increase in the clinicians scope of practice can only be of benefit to all patients who are requiring either inpatient or outpatient care in the area.
“We aim to offer the optimum standard of care for our patients, and look at all ways of striving towards this. We feel sure that this local facility will help and support our staff in working towards this aim”.
Included in the picture are Sally Munro (first from left), Fiona Woodcock, Learning and Development Advisor, who has also helped to drive the project forward (second from left) and Lynn Garrett (third from right).

Majestic – if Dougie was here he would tell you . . .
IF the weather was an omen, then the renaming of the Glen Massan at Holy Loch Marina was indeed propitious.
A gentle breeze dappled the surface of the loch, and the newly-refurbished ship’s gleaming hull and varnished superstructure set the stage for a naming ceremony performed by Mrs Thoms, mother of partner Andy Thoms, while a large crowd watched from the quayside. A specially-composed tune, The MV Glen Massan, was played by piper Kenny MacDonald.
The Glen Massan is indeed an impressive craft, and will no doubt prove a welcome addition to a river which nowadays sadly lacks the presence of ships of quality.
For quality she has in abundance. Her lines betray her fishing boat origins; she is a wooden ship built of iroko - a tropical hardwood tree - and oak with high bows and a cruiser stern, a good seaworthy hull. She was built in Baltimore, Ireland, and in 2004 came to the Holy Loch Marina where the conversion work was undertaken.
The conversion has been carried out as far as possible using the range of skills which were once commonplace on the lochside when boatbuilding was in full swing. The work on the hull and the replacement of the interior and superstructure of the vessel has been carried out locally and the owners managed to coax Jim McCormack, who worked in Morrison and Lorimer’s yard, out of retirement to scrim-paint the upper superstructure to look like wood planking.
But to understand the logic behind the Glen Massan it’s necessary to go to the Aegean, where Andy Thomss and Ken Grant, partners in the Majestic Line, were cruising aboard a traditional Turkish fishing boat, a Gulet. Ken explained: “We looked at the concept of using a traditional fishing boat in Scotland and giving it a new lease of life by offering luxury cruising in a laid-back fashion for small groups.”
The name of the company might make readers think that the Majestic Line sounds a touch pretentious, but it’s exactly the opposite.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek title inspired by a 1970s Para Handy episode when McPhail (played by the late John Grieve) claims to have signed on a ship of the ‘Majestic Line’ sailing to Rome and can’t buy his erstwhile shipmates a drink because he’s changed all his money into pesetas.
Internally the beamy hull has been optimised to provide the maximum amount of space. The ship carries twelve passengers in en-suite cabins which are, in fact, bedrooms in terms of size. There are three decks, the lower deck containing cabins, the main deck with cabins and a large saloon which doubles as recreation space and features a large plasma screen television. The upper deck features an open deck aft, and a wheelhouse with a range of ultra modern navigation aids, but, with a bow to the traditional, a spoked wooden wheel.
The engine is equally traditional, a 500hp Kelvin, lovingly restored to as-new condition by two former Kelvin engineers.
The ship’s size means that it can easily access islands and coastal areas which would normally be denied to larger cruise vessels, and much of the vessel’s itinerary can be customised to suit passengers’ wishes.
The Glen Massan’s season begins next month and runs through to October. She will be offering a series of cruises of three, four, and six days’ duration, and her voyages will take her as far north as Arrochar and south to the Mull of Kintyre. Her design means that she can operate both leisure cruises or corporate charters, as well as specialist activities like whale watching, painting or bird-watching.