Cyclone Tauktae Strikes Mumbai High — A Wake-up Call for Offshore Safety

Amidst the deadly second wave of CoViD-19, another disaster — this time a natural one — battered India’s west coast. Cyclone Tauktae made landfall in Gujarat evening of May 17, 2021 after ravaging Goa and Mumbai. Gale force winds, rough to very rough seas, and blinding rain accompany such Tropical Revolving Storms (TRS), known as hurricanes or typhoons in other parts of the world. On an average, about 2-3 such storms make landfall in India each year, mostly forming in the Bay of Bengal. For seafarers and offshore crews, sailing and flying during a TRS or hurricane present extreme challenges.

Grim news poured-in morning of May 17, 2021, that an accommodation barge P-305 has floundered in the Heera oil field off Mumbai. As per a tweet put out by well-known journalist Shiv Aroor at 10AM today, “Barge P305: Has sunk. 146 persons rescued. 127 missing. Barge Gal Constructor: 137 on board, has run aground. Towing/evac shortly. Barge SS-3 & Oil Rig Sagar Bhushan: Both adrift w/ 297. Warship en route.”

Shiv Aroor tweet 18 May 21 at 10AM

As per news reports of 17 May quoting Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) officials, all 273 people onboard AFCONS barge P305 were ‘accounted for’ and the barge had been ‘steadied’ after it ‘de-anchored and drifted away’ from its designated position due to the stormy seas. This morning’s update sounds an ominous note for the safety of over 100 missing and the fate of other offshore workers drifting or grounded. As per latest indicators, the accident may well become the worst offshore tragedy to ever strike Bombay High.

The first mention of this accident appeared on ONGC’s twitter handle at 12:41 PM on May 18, 2021. It said “Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard are extending all help in rescue operations for Afcons barge P-305 capsized in Cyclone Tauktea in Arabian Sea“. No figures of those missing or rescued was notified at the time of publishing this piece.

The oil and gas (O&G) industry works 24/7/365 under a stressful, highly regulated, safety-critical environment. There’s no room for error or complacency if you are sitting on thousands of gallons of hydrocarbons in the middle of the sea. If the wheels of economy have to run, machinery hundreds of miles out at sea has to turn ceaselessly. While we pray for the best outcome, this post is intended to inform the readers about some basics of offshore oil and gas work, a typical oil field disposition, the conditions and challenges offshore workers face and the criticality of safety to all of this.

Location and layout of Heera-Neelam field

The Heera-Neelam oil field, part of the Bombay Offshore Basin, is located about 40-50 nautical miles (70 km) southwest of Mumbai. It holds two main processing platforms, viz. Heera and Neelam, and a number of satellite oil wells around them that are unmanned. At any given time, the field may also have offshore support vessels (OSV), oil rigs (drillers), barges, seismic survey vessels, floaters and accommodation barges. Unmanned oil wells (and process platforms) have a helideck atop them that is used for crew transfers. Unmanned wells do not have boarding facilities; packed food and water is carried along by workers. Living quarters are provided on the main process platform which receives oil from satellite wells.

A civil helicopter on an offshore deck

What is an Accommodation Barge?

AFCONS barge P305 was reportedly moored near satellite well ‘HC’ (‘hotel charlie’), about five miles north of Heera. Such barges are usually contracted for major works by companies like ONGC. They are also known as Accommodation Work Barges (AWB) and they may or may not be self-propelled. They are positioned and moored to offshore sites when there is a need to provide additional accommodation, engineering support or storage capacity for a temporary project. After the work is completed (usually few weeks or months), they are dehired. Some of them have a helipad for crew rotation by choppers. The design of such barges (large sail area, catamaran structure, flat bottom in some cases) renders them vulnerable to heavy seas and gale-force winds, especially if they are ‘dumb’ (immobile). In the run-up to monsoon or during cyclone warning, they are either repositioned to safe location or secured with storm moorings. We do not know yet what was done in the case of three barges in question here.

An accommodation work barge tied up alongside an oil platform (representative image)

Safety of Oil Rigs

Drillers or oil rigs are huge floating installations that actually undertake the drilling, maintenance and sealing of oil wells. Large rigs are capable of drilling deep into the earth’s crust (sea bed) after being towed and lowered into position. They are self-contained for accommodation and power generation but do not have any propulsion of their own. This again renders them vulnerable if they are in the ‘raised’, semi-submerged or moving position. It is standard practice to stop all rig movement during monsoon (early June to mid-Sep for Mumbai High). They take up designated positions as per contract by end-May before monsoon sets in and remain there till end of monsoon (mid-September). The same protocol is followed when early reports of approaching cyclone is received. Rig or ‘dumb’ barge movement during a storm is very dangerous. Pre-emptive action is key.

An offshore oil rig drills for oil (file pic, for representation only)

Drill ships

ONGC’s drillship Sagar Bhushan is a 34-year old ‘floater’ or a self-propelled driller ship. It was in the news in 2018 when a blast during a refit at Cochin Shipyard left five dead. As opposed to oil rigs, drill ships are huge self-propelled ‘floaters’ that can relocate on its own. Sagar Bhushan was reportedly near reporting point ‘Tango’, about 60 Nm northwest of Mumbai when it broke its moorings. Last known, it was adrift, moving in a north-easterly direction. This suggests it has lost engine power due to some reason. At about 11000 tons gross tonnage, it will take time and effort to take her under tow, given the seasonal conditions.

Crew rotation and SAR

Offshore crew rotation, both for inter/intra-field crew transfers or crew rotation is done primarily using contracted helicopters. OSVs are employed when helicopters cannot fly (night, bad weather, etc). Apart from a designated ‘night ambulance’, there is no integral search or rescue capability on any of the contracted civil offshore helicopters in India. This is a sad state of affairs and places complete reliance on navy (IN) and coast guard (ICG) assets. ONGC-contracted offshore helicopters do not require to have rescue hoist or trained winching crew even though the pilots are some of the most experienced in the country, almost all of them ex-military. In spite of major accidents in the past such as the Mesco Mi-172 crash of 2003 and Bombay High North (BHN) fire of 2005, no need was felt to have even a few helicopters configured with rescue winch or basic SAR gear. Consequently, capable helicopters and their experienced crews turn into a helpless air taxi service to ferry survivors or dead bodies when disaster strikes.

BHN fire accident, July 27, 2005 (image from

Would timely evacuation have helped save lives?

As per SOP, offshore flying to Bombay High ex-Juhu is suspended for one of three reasons:

  • Juhu visibility drops below 1000 metres
  • Juhu runway gets flooded (routine affair; 2-3 times every monsoon)
  • Winds offshore exceeds 40 knots

In the present case therefore, no helicopter flying would have been possible on May 17 when Cyclone Tauktae struck Mumbai (winds were reportedly in excess of 50-60 knots offshore). That means only OSVs and small craft would have been available on site when situation turned dire. However, this situation did not develop overnight. There was adequate warning about the build-up and approach of the cyclone, its likely path and ferocity. The intervening time could have been utilised to evacuate those onboard vulnerable vessels to fixed platforms or OSVs; this is standard protocol. It is rather unusual to find such a large number of personnel still onboard ‘dumb’ barges and oil rigs in the path of a cyclone. In my experience, foreign rigs follow such protocols very strictly. Only a thorough investigation will reveal if there were any lapses on this front. As on May 18, 2021, many are still unaccounted and bodies and broken life rafts have been sighted in the water. The sea is a very hostile medium and time will soon run out for those yet to be rescued. As such, capability for night helicopter rescue in Mumbai offshore is extremely limited. That’s another facet that begets an answer from the O&G operators.

Personnel transfer by basket — another way of transferring personnel from ship to offshore platforms

Hopes and Prayers

Families of those affected wait with bated breath. Even going by limited information available at this moment, this may well turn out to be one of the worst offshore disasters in India and one of the deadliest in O&G accidents worldwide. The Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, UK, which killed 167 people in July 1988, is the deadliest offshore O&G accident in history. India’s worst O&G accident (not involving a helicopter) was on July 27, 2005 when multi-purpose support vessel Samudra Suraksha collided with one of the platforms in North Field, setting off a huge fire that burnt down ‘BHN’ to cinders in hours. In the present case, with the number of people still missing from Papa 305 and another couple of offshore vessels drifting or aground, our thoughts and prayers must be with those out at sea fighting unimaginable odds.

(This is an evolving story and will be updated as and when more information is available)


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. Views are personal. I can be reached at or via Twitter @realkaypius


9 thoughts on “Cyclone Tauktae Strikes Mumbai High — A Wake-up Call for Offshore Safety

  1. The disaster,was forthcoming as pointed out. The overall picture of operations in Bombay High will give an exposure to those unaware and dangers involved in off shore operations.
    While the families wait for there near and dear ones,their wait is agonising.
    The article is well written by KPS.

  2. Having worked in Mumbai high on offshore vessels it’s not surprising about such incidents under ONGC.

  3. Excellent article KPS. Pity, there will be No lesson learnt as value of human life in India is very cheap and readily replaceable. It is inexplicable that all the non essential personnel were not evacuated well ahead of the cyclones arrival which is a standard International practice. But unfortunately ONGC is above all this. There should be a criminal prosecution after a through inquiry of the incident of those who did not take timely action and only then will these incidents cease in the future. Prayers for the families and personnel who are still missing.

  4. For a layman your writeup gives me a clear view of Bombay offshore & risks involved. It is also clear that the importance of human lives were not considered in deciding the pre-Cyclone course of action by the authorities concerned. Such a sad saga; hope that this is not the biggest tragedy of Bombay offshore! Thankyou

  5. KPS, thank you for your article. There is no greater loss than that of a life. It is painful when the powers to be, just shrug off responsibility once tragedy strikes . When there is no accountability, there is no reparation, no change.
    I feel so deeply for each of the bereaved. If only, as a collective, we understand the value of life human and all other!!!

  6. Though in the marine sector, offshore is somewhat strange for me. Very well explained article surely will be an eye opening one. But it is still unknown that wheteher it will open the eyes of those authorities who should have taken basic safety precautions like reducing the manpower to the bear minimum required. All those responsible must be made accountable.
    Salutes Indian Navy and those held in rescue operations. Looking forward forvgood news about those still missing. Condolences to the bereaved.

  7. Well written sir, you have operated and observed the safety with a seaman eye in BH, I fail to comprehend why they didn’t deploy their liferafts, whether they had the adequate nos and serviceability is a point to ponder, are the personnel given survival briefings. One of the darkest days in safety at sea in the recent times. So many pre-emptive measures are taken by the maritime authorities are not heeded.

  8. Very informative article KPS. Opens you up to the risky life onboard oil rigs n their support vessels. Very sad event for ONGC. Hope the real culprits r punished. Already the people responsible r pointing fingers at the Captain of the Barge who is not there to answer the allegations against him

  9. Hi kaypius,

    It’s sad that we need to keep relearning the well documented experiences on the dangers of a severe cyclonic storm to vessels at Sea.

    Remember the super cyclone of East Coast in May 1990 in which INS Sandhayak was lost at Sea.

    I was the Flight Cdr onboard . Since I was due for watch keeping I had also taken approval to progress the same.

    We were in Chennai harbour when the initial warnings came. Chennai being an open harbour the ship was directed to move to Anchorage for better safety. As the storm closed in the Ships anchor couldn’t hold and started dragging. We weighed anchor and set course . The captain was a seasoned surveyor and seemed familiar with the storm patterns on East coast. The Nav Vol 2 suggested a SE course to remain in the navigable semi circle. However the Captain in discussions with his team suggested an easterly course siting the fact that several ships had run aground between Chennai and Cuddalore.

    We had blundered and got sucked into the storm. Once in the ship continuously heeled more than 30 degree leeward. The windward engine packed up as the lubricants were gravity fed. Visibility dropped to Zero. We couldn’t make out the difference between day and night.

    The waves were all over. All the mushrooms on the upper deck started shipping water. Both DAs had to be shut due fire as cable insulation had been compromised. The bilges rose and there was a mix of oil and water of a couple of feet in the entire lower decks. We were without power, food , and communication. Drifted close to 72 hours. The storm crossed coast at Machilipatnam. Sea states had then come down to about 6. As the ship closed in we let go the anchor on its own weight and fortunately it held.

    The IL 38 found us . We had lost the boats on the leeward side. The ones on the windward side had been completely smashed.

    Rest for another day as this is just the beginning of another story. The ship took two years before it could sail again.

    I got my watch keeping ticket in 05 months . Those five months were loaded culminating in the super cyclone.

    Please pardon the literary mistakes as I do not have the patience to edit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.