Oil Rigs, Service Vessels and Tankers

The Energy Room showcases oil rigs, service vessels, and tankers associated with the energy business. Two whaling ships also give a historical perspective to the use of ships and the sea to provide “energy” in the form of whale oil rather than crude oil. The remaining models represent the international oil business of today in all its many aspects: exploration, drilling, production, and transport of hydrocarbons.

In the 1800s, whaling was an essential industry, producing oil for lighting and for lubrication of machinery, spermaceti for candles, and flexible baleen from the mouths of toothless whales that was used in ways we would use plastic today. The search for an alternative to whale oil for lighting led to the first successful oil well in Titusville, PA in 1859, and the start of the modern energy industry.

Three semisubmersible drilling rigs anchor the room’s collection, both in terms of size and to mark the beginning of oil’s journey to end consumers. These rigs are used to explore for and prove offshore oil and gas reservoirs. Once a reservoir is considered viable for production, both economically and technically, other means, typically a fixed or floating production platform, are used to extract and export the oil and/or gas. By the time the production platform is installed, the drilling rig is working somewhere else, looking for the next commercial find.

The tankers, of all sizes and services, are used to transport oil to market. Crude oil tankers such as Pioneer, carry stabilized crude oil to refineries, while other, smaller product tankers transport refined products between markets. Methane Progress, a specialized Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) tanker, transports gas from remote production locations to industrialized consumer centers. Little Ohio, while not an impressive model, represents a ship that had an enormous impact on World War II. And Polar Endeavour is the first of a new class of American-flagged vessels built especially for the Alaska oil trade.

Mobil Oil Company’s Mobil Search is a specialized survey vessel used to perform seismic exploration of the earth’s crust to locate and define oil or gas reservoirs. Once drilling rigs are deployed to drill an oil or gas well, vessels such as Biehl Traveler, bring them supplies including fuel, drilling consumables, and provisions, thereby allowing them to remain on location for extensive periods—up to six months—without the need to return to port for supplies.

FONG represents a concept for a turret-moored floating production, storage, and offloading unit, probably intended for service in a remote location. The turret allows the hull to ‘weather-vane’ to the environment; she is not equipped to drill for hydrocarbons, only to produce them.

Nineteenth Century American Whaling Industry

Though whaling has existed around the world for centuries, the American whaling industry reached its height in the mid-nineteenth century. New Bedford, Massachusetts was the leading port for whalers and was known as “The City that Lit the World,” because it exported so many candles and oil-based products. The most prized products were made from spermaceti, a more pure oil found in the head of sperm whales and prized for its clean, bright, and long-lasting flame.

The sperm whale was responsible for the advancement of the whaling industry and was also the inspiration for the main protagonist in the classic American novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Based on the real-life story of the whaleship Essex, which was sunk by an attack from a sperm whale, Moby Dick depicts the obsessive whale-hunt of a wounded captain and his whaling crew. Though whaling provided a large part of New England’s economy in past centuries, it is now on the decline as whale populations are threatened and conservationists worldwide have worked to enforce a 1987 moratorium on commercial whaling.

Nineteenth Century Whaling Practices

  • Whale ships left New England ports with supplies enough to last up to four years at sea.
  • When a scout spotted a whale, a shout of “Thar she blows,” alerted the crew to dispatch the three to five whaleboats onboard every whaler.
  • The boatheader directed the whaleboat, while the crew rowed and steered, and the harpooner attempted to spear the whale behind the head.
  • The whaleboat crew began the “Nantucket sleigh ride” as the whale dragged the boat through the water until it tired.
  • Once still, the boatheader stabbed the whale multiple times with a lance then maneuvered the ship back as the whale often died violently.
  • The whale, normally weighing over 50 tons was dragged back to the ship and attached to the starboard side with chains.
  • The blubber was tried, or boiled in the tryworks, large iron pots that could hold hundreds of gallons of oil.
  • The oil was cooled and stored onboard in barrels of 30-35 gallons.
  • A plank “cutting stage” was lowered to flense, or cut the blubber from the carcass into “blanket strips” weighing roughly one ton
  • The blubber was tried, or boiled in the tryworks, large iron pots that could hold hundreds of gallons of oil.
  • The oil was cooled and stored onboard in barrels of 30-35 gallons.


Many sailors found scrimshaw, or the carving of whale bones, teeth, and walrus tusks to be a way to relieve boredom and make money through trade. Originally etched with sail needles and blackened with soot, candle black, or tobacco juice, the images traditionally depicted nautical themes.


A harpoon, or barbed spear, has been used to catch large marine animals for thousands of years. Designs have changed little since their creation, altering only the tip from a two-sided point to a one-sided and toggled, or movable, barb that was less likely to tear through blubber and detach from the whale.

Dutch Whaler

The first Europeans who thought to hunt whales were the Basques. When Basque whaling ships appeared off the coast of Scandinavia, the Dutch recognized the lucrative possibilities of this trade and quickly took over. At its height in the 1600s, the Dutch whaling fleet comprised over 300 ships and 18,000 men. The Dutch whalers were derived from a type of vessel called a flute. They had a flat bottom and broadly curved sides, giving them a cargo capacity 150% greater than earlier ships. The downside to this design was that flutes where rather poor sailing vessels. The decks of a flute were made as small as possible because taxes were levied on their surface area. The masts stood upright instead of inclining aft and the sails were stained from the boiling of whale fat. Together with the broad curves this gave the flute a characteristic appearance.

Charles W. Morgan - Whaling Ship

Built at a cost of $48,849.85, the Charles W. Morgan was launched on July 21, 1841 at the peak of whaling industry prosperity and was named for her owner. She was 105.6 feet long, with a beam of 27.7 feet, a depth of 17.6 feet, and a gross tonnage of 313.75. Today, a century and a half after her launch, the Charles W. Morgan is on display at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut as the last survivor of a fleet that in 1846 numbered 736 vessels.

The Morgan is typical of the vessels used in the American whaling industry. The tryworks, located aft of the foremast, is the most distinguishing feature of a whaler. In two cast-iron trypots set into a furnace of brick, iron, and wood, oil was rendered from the blubber of whales, much as grease is rendered from frying bacon. When a whale was killed, it was lashed alongside, tail forward. On a platform called the cutting stage, suspended outboard of an opening in the bulwarks, the whale’s blubber was cut away in one continuous strip called the “blanket piece.” Using the power of the windlass, the crew peeled the blanket piece from the whale, brought it aboard, and lowered it into the blubber room to be rendered in the trypots. Once heated, the oil was separated from the blubber and stored in barrels holding 30-35 gallons each.

Marlin No. 7 - Semisubmersible Drilling Rig

Marlin No. 7 is an early, second generation drilling semisubmersible rig, designed and built by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in their now-closed Beaumont, Texas shipyard. Her original owners were the Marlin Drilling Company of Houston, Texas. She features six stability columns and is moored by an all chain, eight-point anchor system. While a first class rig at the time of her building in 1975, she would now be considered obsolete and of limited capacity.

Sonat George Richardson - Semisubmersible Drilling Rig

Semisubmersible drilling rigs are the workhorses of deepwater offshore oil exploration. This rig exemplifies the international nature of this business: she was designed in Sweden, built in Korea, owned by an American company, and drills anywhere offshore world-wide. Typically she is moored on location and can use her thrusters for position control as well as to assist on transits. She carries a crew of 100 and can drill to 25,000 feet in water depths of up to 5,500 feet. Her GVA 4500 design is an especially clean and elegant structural solution compared to the other semisubmersibles in this room.

SEDCO 710 - Semisubmersible Drilling Rig

SECDO 710 was originally built for and owned by the iconic SEDCO company of Dallas, Texas, founded by former Texas governor Bill Clements. She was designed by Earl & Wright of San Francisco, California and built in 1983 by Mitsui Engineering of Japan. This rig maintains her location over a well by means of ‘dynamic positioning,’ the heart of which is a computer-controlled system utilizing eight 3,000 hp thrusters, which can react to environmental forces of wind, waves, and current to maintain position. She carries a crew of 118 and can operate in water depths of up to 6,000 feet—over a mile deep!

Pioneer - Crude Oil Tanker

Pioneer is a good example of large crude oil carriers employed to transport stabilized crude oil from production locations, such as the Persian Gulf, to refining locations closer to the consumer, such as the United States or Europe. She was built in Korea by Samsung Heavy Industries and can carry 95,000 tons of crude oil. With an overall length of 797 feet, a beam of 137 feet, and a design draft of 40 feet she is too large to enter many ports other than specialized oil terminals, yet Pioneer is now small by 21st century standards! While her home port is given as Monrovia, Liberia, it’s a safe bet that she’s never seen that port; the Liberian registry offers a popular ‘flag of convenience’ for shippers seeking to hold down vessel costs.

FONG - Floating Production System

FONG is a Shell Oil Company concept model for a turret-moored floating production, storage and offloading system. Her turret mooring allows the hull to ‘weather-vane’ according to the wind and wave forces, and permits disconnection if required in the face of a hurricane or other disturbance. Her production equipment is mounted on her Main Deck; a tanker offloading station is located on her starboard side. She is equipped with three deck cranes, and has her accommodations aft, supporting a helicopter deck. The old saying of being ‘built for comfort rather than speed’ comes to mind when viewing FONG.

Polar Endeavour - Crude Oil Tanker

Launched in 2001, Polar Endeavour represents the first of the Millennium class U. S. flagged tankers, built especially for the Alaskan oil trade. She is designed in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90), which was passed in response to the Exxon Valdez accident. She has a double hull, twin independent engine rooms, and twin rudders - all features to enhance the safely of the vessel in the treacherous Alaskan environment.

Ohio - Oil Tanker

This model depicts a Texas Oil Company (Texaco) Tanker that was the largest in the world at the time of her completion in 1940. Unfortunately, her time in the lead was short-lived and bittersweet as she gained fame for her heroic relief of the embattled Mediterranean island of Malta in 1942 during the calamitous Operation Pedestal, but her heroism ultimately resulted in her sinking. An American-built and owned ship, she was chosen as the centerpiece of the Pedestal convoy because of her speed; with a steam turbine power plant she was faster than any tanker in the British merchant marine. Most of the merchant ships in the Pedestal convoy were lost, as were an aircraft carrier and two cruisers, while numerous other ships were damaged. Ohio was reduced to a battered hulk, being towed the final miles by two Royal Navy destroyers. She was so badly damaged that she settled on the bottom of the harbor as her cargo was offloaded and was sunk offshore after the war. But her cargo of fuel oil allowed the British to resume flying combat air patrols and to continue their submarine offensive, thus turning the tide against Axis forces in North Africa.

Mobil Search - Seismic Exploration Vessel

M/V Mobil Search was a purpose-built seismic exploration vessel operated by the Mobil Oil Company (now part of Exxon-Mobil). Built by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1982, she was a state-of-the-art geophysical exploration vessel when completed, equipped with seismic survey and recording equipment, air gun arrays, magnetometers, sub-bottom profilers and an integrated SatNav system. A twin screw vessel of 9,600 hp, she could make a maximum speed of 18 knots, but crept along at much slower speeds when surveying. She is 323 feet long, 50 feet in breadth, and draws 17 feet of water. Her crew of 61 was proportioned 50/50 between marine crew and scientists.

Biehl Traveler - Offshore Supply Vessel

Biehl Traveler represents the ubiquitous fleet of supply vessels, which are so vital to support offshore drilling rigs and production platforms. She is a twin screw vessel powered for speeds of up to 15 knots. Except for liquids such as fuel oil, drill water, or bulk material, she carries all her cargo on her aft open Main Deck. When being offloaded by a rig or platform, Biehl Traveler backs up to the rig or platform’s weather side, with an anchor deployed for safety, and holds her position just feet away from the rig or platform until her cargo is transferred. This is very exacting work and is carried out in weather conditions that would keep the average yachtsman at dock. Built in 1977, Biehl Traveler is still working under the name of Motorman.

Methane Progress - LNG Carrier

This lovely diorama shows the British Shell Oil Company tanker, Methane Progress, loading her cargo at Arzew, Algeria for delivery to Canvey Island, United Kingdom. Methane Progress is an example of an increasingly specialized tanker centered on the transport of natural gas. She utilizes a specially built terminal to transship methane, and has hull tankage and systems configured to carry this cargo in liquid form at extremely low temperatures. One of the very first LNG tankers, Methane Progress entered service in 1964 and was scrapped in Spain in 1986. LNG terminals are now located in Freeport and Beaumont, Texas.