Drilling For Arctic Oil in Canada’s Beaufort Sea – Hurry Up and Wait!

by Captain Alec Provan 2012

Canada’s Beaufort Sea contains major gas and petroleum reserves beneath the seabed, a continuation of proven reserves in the nearby Mackenzie River. Offshore drilling began in 1972 carried out by companies as Panarctic Oils Ltd., Petro Canada and Dome Petroleum and 176 wells were drilled. The discoveries were insufficient to justify development, and all the wells which were drilled were plugged and abandoned. Drilling in the Canadian Arctic turned out to be very expensive and very dangerous. There is renewed interest in petroleum exploration in the region and it will be in the public spotlight in the coming years.

When the Arctic oil boom started there were opportunities to go back to sea. During the Beaufort Sea oil exploration boom Transport Canada thought it would be a good idea to find out what conditions were like and what was going on in the Arctic during the frantic search for oil that occurred in the late 1970s. No one in Transport Canada really showed much interest in going north, but I saw adventure and challenge. I took a leave of absence to work with Dome Petroleum's Canmar Shipping. I worked as a Second Mate in a large drill ship (the Canmar Explorer III). Later I was appointed as Mate. It was exciting work, but it was at the peak of activity and the work only lasted for two drilling seasons before the boom was over.

Canmar Kigoriak

The Canmar Kigoriak (91.06m x 17.25m x 10.0m) breaks Arctic ice powered by her 17,400bhp engines to create a shipping passage. The icebreaker Canmar Kigoriak was designed for Canmar, the operations arm of Dome Petroleum, and pioneered the introduction of flat plate simplified hull construction, geared diesel for propulsion, CP Propeller in nozzle and a forward ice reamer. The vessel was constructed in only nine months in 1978. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Canmar Drill Ships

With a channel cleared through the landfast ice in McKinley Bay, the four Canmar drill ships accompanying fleet of support vessels sedately follow the Canmar Kigoriak towards the Beaufort Sea and the ever-shifting Arctic Ocean pack ice. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Drill Ship

When clear of the landfast ice the drill ships disperse to the areas where they will be working, and await the melting of the ice until it is safe enough to anchor at the drill-site. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Floating Ice

In open water there are still areas of floating ice, each piece being a hazard to the hulls of ships without reinforced hulls. The drilling season is very short in the Arctic Ocean. Once in place everyone has to wait until conditions are safe enough to begin the operations - so its "Hurry up and wait!"(Photo from Provan collection.)

Drill Ship

This may be a new well or a re-entry into a previously drilled bore-hole. The Canmar Explorer 3 is equipped for dynamic positioning, but in the relatively shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea, it is more efficient to rely on the massive Bruce anchors, four forward and four aft, to hold the vessel in position over the bore-hole. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Bruce Anchors

Here two Bruce anchors and several acoustic release devices on the deck of one of the supply ships. The acoustic releases are actuated remotely to release the mooring wire from the anchor in an emergency requiring immediate evacuation of the drill-site. (Photo from Provan collection.)


When in position, the vessels are aligned in the direction of the prevailing tides and currents, and the anchors deployed from one or more of the anchor service and supply ships. The final positioning of the drill ship is achieved by adjusting some, or all, of the mooring wires attached to the anchors. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Billy Pugh Transfer

The Billy Pugh Co. Inc. manufactures an Offshore Personnel Transfer Basket Transfer device used to quickly and effectively transport personnel on and off of platforms. They are constructed of a sturdy and very durable aluminum skeleton that encompasses the riders to protect them from falling objects and any side impact that may occur.

Billy Pugh Transfer

Offshore Personnel Transfer Basket operation. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Billy Pugh Transfer

In the early days of the offshore industry, people were transported to and from offshore rigs and platforms with the use of a cargo net. The personnel would hang on to the outside of the net and be moved from boat to rig. Billy Pugh saw that this was a formula for serious accidents. He developed a new device as a safe transfer system that allowed personnel to embark and disembark quickly and safely allowing them to have the sensation of being inside the device but be free enough to get off and away from danger when in rough sea conditions.

Billy Pugh Transfer

At sea, the majority of personnel transfers to and from the drill ships were carried out by helicopter, but occasionally the Billy Pugh Transfer Net was employed, a straight forward operation on calm days but exciting when the wind blows and the seas get up. (Photo from Provan collection.)

Billy Pugh transfer

This is when you want to be sure you are on good terms with the crane operator! (Photo from Provan collection.)

Inuit children

Meanwhile, back in Tuktoyaktuk, with the drilling season in full swing, "kids will be kids!" (Photo from Provan collection.)


Editor’s note: Captain Alec Provan spent two drilling seasons working with Canmar Petroleum as a Mate in drill ships in the Beaufort Sea. (All photographs in this article copyright to Captain Alec Provan.)


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