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Where oil rigs go to die

Feb 08, 2024Feb 08, 2024

When a drilling platform is scheduled for destruction, it must go on a thousand-mile final journey to the breaker’s yard. As one rig proved when it crashed on to the rocks of a remote Scottish island, this is always a risky business

It was night, stormy, and the oil rig Transocean Winner was somewhere in the North Atlantic on 7 August 2016 when her tow-line broke. No crew members were on board. The rig was being dragged by a tugboat called Forward, the tethered vessels charting a course out of Norway that was meant to take them on a month-long journey to Malta. Within the offices of Transocean Ltd, the oil-exploration company that owned the rig, such a journey might have been described with corporate seemliness as an “end-of-life voyage”; but in the saltier language heard offshore, the rig was “going for fucking razorblades” – for scrap, to be dismantled in a shipbreaking yard east of Malta. In that Atlantic storm, several thousand miles from her intended destination, Winner floated free.

The 33-year-old rig had never moved with so little constraint. Winner was huge – 17,000 tonnes, like an elevated Trafalgar Square, complete with a middle derrick as tall as Nelson’s Column, her four legs the shape of castle keeps; all this was borne up in the water on a pair of barge-sized pontoons – and its positioning had always been precisely controlled. While moored, she was held in place by eight heavy anchors. At other times, she was sailed with a pilot at the helm as if she were any other ship. When contracted to drill in the North Sea, as she had been since the 1980s, boring into the bedrock for hidden reservoirs of oil, Winner’s anchors and underwater propellers worked together with her on-board computers to “dynamically position” her – that is, keep her very still. The men and women who formed Winner’s crew – drillers and engineers and geologists and divers and cleaners and cooks, most of them Norwegian – imagined this rig to have a character that would resist such checks. They nicknamed her Svanen, or Swan, because to them she was both elegant and unyielding. Scheduled as she was for destruction, Winner could not have chosen a better moment to bolt.

The master on the tugboat Forward radioed for help. Through a series of exchanges with Transocean, as well as with the British coastguard and Forward’s owners, the Rotterdam-based ALP Maritime, the master explained his situation. Both tugboat and rig had been caught in heavy weather while circumnavigating the Hebrides, sailing a mile and a half off the Scottish islands. It turned into the worst summer storm in the region for years, with winds of 40 knots and waves 10 metres high. Throughout the afternoon of 7 August, Forward and Winner were tossed on a course running parallel with the coast of Lewis, one of the outermost Hebridean islands. For a time it seemed they would be sent on by, still fettered to each other, still Mediterranean-bound. But in the early evening the wind changed direction, and Forward and Winner – or more accurately, Winner and Forward, given that the rig was now acting as a huge metal sail and comfortably tugging her own tugboat – were forced landward. It was around 4am when the master radioed to confirm that the tow-line had snapped.

Winner had, for all of her life, been painted bright orange. The colour had become chipped and rust-stained over time, but was still vivid in daylight, visible for miles. In the storm, the rig disappeared completely. Radar data from those early-morning hours showed Forward moving back and forth in the water off Lewis, as if retracing steps for something misplaced. It was agreed between Transocean, ALP, the coastguard and other emergency authorities that Winner was irretrievable. Everybody would wait until sunrise, and see.

The world has a problem with its oil rigs. There are too many of them, and for the first time since the earliest manufacture of seaborne drilling platforms 50 or 60 years ago, decisions are being made about how and where to get rid of them in number. That there should be a sudden surplus is vexing for those invested in undersea drilling: as recently as 2010 the rigs were thought too few. Back then, had an oil company such as Shell or BP or Marathon wanted to dig down and discover what was lying beneath a particular patch of sea, it wasn’t unusual for them to wait as long as a year until an exploration company such as Transocean or Diamond or Ensco had a rig available to lease to them. It was a time of undersupply. Dozens of new rigs were commissioned, and worldwide orders tripled between 2010 and 2011. But oil rigs take two or three years to build, and by the time these were ready for use, the price of oil had declined sharply, and with it the industry’s hunger to prospect – thus the oversupply. Rigs without contracts to drill were either “cold-stacked” (anchored without crew) to wait for a market recovery, or sold for demolition. More than 40 oil rigs were waved off on end-of-life voyages in 2015, according to data gathered by a Brussels-based maritime NGO called Shipbreaking Platform; up from a single dispensed-with rig, so far as the NGO knew, in 2014.

It was a hasty and disordered rebalancing of the global fleet, and not all the decisions made were sensible. In the spring of 2016, for instance, at about the time Transocean was considering whether or not to decommission Winner, its drilling rival Ensco sent away two rigs that were relatively new: built in 2004, and meant to bear 30 or 40 years of graft, but hurriedly euthanised after 12. Winner, by comparison, had lived long and busily. She was launched in 1983, and in the decades since had bobbed through market downturns and upturns, through winter hurricanes and underwater blowouts, and at least two on-board deaths. For the most part, Winner’s 33 years at sea had been characterised by day after day of patient, repetitive work – the stuff that gives offshore life its rhythm and, for many, its special comfort. Drill supervisor André Arctander, a tanned greybeard from Stavanger in Norway, calculated that he had spent a third of his life on this rig. The colour of his boilersuit had changed, Arctander said, in accordance with the branding requirements of drilling clients, but he retained throughout a deeper loyalty to Winner and her regular crew “that went beyond corporate logos”. He spoke of getting so in tune with the rig during his fortnight-long stints on board that he could fall asleep in his cabin and wake up knowing half of what had happened while he was under, just from having felt the changes in Winner’s vibrations and having heard her machine-purrs.

In spring 2016, as Winner was nearing the end of an 11-month contract with Marathon to drill in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea, rumours of her possible scrapping spread around the crew. In the rig’s “smoko” rooms and coffee shops, they discussed the contradiction that underpinned their industry: while the price of oil might move up and down, shareholders in drilling companies tended to prefer numbers that moved in only one direction. It was difficult and expensive to maintain a cold-stacked rig. Winner had herself been cold-stacked once, and the crew’s first task after reboarding was to snap away the icicles in their cabins. Meanwhile, there were immediate returns to be made by selling for scrap. “It would be better to have long-term plans and a buffer of funds to use during hard times,” Arctander thought. “But this is not how it works.” In July, Winner’s scrapping was confirmed. A Norwegian crane operator posted a message on the rig’s Facebook page: “Malta og spiker next.” Loosely translated, he meant: “Malta next, then a furnace – somewhere.”

It is common for rigs on end-of-life voyages to be towed with their tracking systems switched off. On 3 August, Winner sent out a final blip from a fjord in southern Norway, near Stavanger, and then stopped sending a signal. The tugboat Forward then took her out into the North Sea. On 6 August, Winner entered the Atlantic, and the next day she was lost in the storm off the Hebrides. On 8 August, shortly before sunrise on the Isle of Lewis, the oil rig washed in with the tide.

Her 17,000 tonnes came in on Dalmore Bay, one of the island’s prettiest beaches, a quarter-mile crescent of bone-coloured sand and muscular swell that, on a normal Monday morning, could expect to be visited by dog-walkers, surfers, kayakers, seabirds, even dolphins. Back behind the sand, where the beach narrowed and formed an uneven track up to the coastal road, lay the gravestones of a hundred or so islanders. A fractional difference in the gusts and tides overnight, and the runaway Winner might have brought her great weight down on the resting place of one Malcolm MacCauley, whose grave was set closest to the water. As it was, the rig collided with the headland that defined Dalmore Bay’s southern edge – a slope of marram grass busy with snails that rose to a boggy cliff and then fell away to rocks on the foreshore. Winner’s pontoons scraped into the shallows and a strut of her crosswise steel snagged on a tall, tooth-shaped crag. The rig pitched to the south, away from the beach, her derrick cutting obliquely across the sky and her helipad inclining at an angle that to the human eye read as almost apologetic. However terrific a noise this made nobody was around to hear it, bar the seabirds and snails. The police started to arrive around 7am, as did the first stunned residents.

Lewis is made of old, old rock. There is presumed to be Viking DNA coursing through the islanders, and it is a general trait of the community that its members be stoic and unhysterical, whatever difficulties – generally weather-borne – come this far north to trouble them. Perhaps there were some on Lewis that week who heard that an oil rig had struck and shrugged. But most who were mobile and even mildly curious put aside their habitual stoicism to make a trip to the beach and stare. “On Lewis?” said Don MacKay, a fisherman. “This was seismic.”

When MacKay journeyed to Dalmore to see Winner, he was put in mind of a steel spider, poised on the shore as if plotting some sinister next move. Laura Carse, a surfer, felt it was like the time she returned home to find her house had been burgled. Not because Winner’s presence struck her as violent, or a violation, “but because my brain could not quite manage the image”. This was as if a church or a rollercoaster had suddenly manifested on the sand. Don MacKay said: “Yes. It took a wee bit of time to absorb the info.”

Winner’s name was painted on her forward side, the black-on-yellow letters so large as to be crisply distinguishable from the shore – a scale that would only start to make sense to onlookers when emergency salvage workers boarded the rig, and it could be seen that each letter was about three humans tall. The first salvage mission to Winner was made by coastguard helicopter. A team of six were lowered one by one by winch to the deck of the rig, and were removed again by helicopter that evening. By Winner’s second day in Dalmore, the weather made any more such airborne trips impossible. For a week the rig simply stayed where she was, unoccupied, her weight against the rocks. When the salvors got back on board, they did so by boat, sailing close enough to hop on to a pontoon and scale one of the rig’s legs using ropes. It was not easy to go back and forth from rig to shore this way, so the team sequestered cabins and stayed aboard. One of them reported that, because of Winner’s tilt, her bunks were uncomfortable to sleep in, at least until they removed the cabin doors and propped them horizontally beneath the mattresses.

Tugboats and other support vessels now filled Dalmore Bay, waiting for the go-ahead to tow Winner off the rocks. Robotic diving units were sent underwater to collect images of the rig’s pontoons. Both were badly damaged, one with a narrow triangular hole that was at least 10 metres from end to end, the metal drawn and furled at the base so that it resembled a heaved-open theatre curtain. Early visitors to Dalmore had reported a smell of fuel coming over the sands. Nobody in this part of the country could forget what had happened in the Shetlands in the early 1990s when a tanker, Braer, foundered in a storm off the islands’ southern edge and disgorged many thousands of tonnes of crude oil into the water. There were fears of a similar spill from Winner, but the truth was that, although she was often referred to as an oil rig, Winner’s real business was mud. During her decades at sea, Winner was generally a tunneller, commissioned to bore through layers of undersea rock and sludge, after which a purpose-built tanker would float in and slurp up any finds. It was estimated at the time of her grounding that Winner carried a few hundred tonnes of diesel fuel, kept in tanks in her pontoons. Some of this fuel had escaped through the tears in the pontoons. Salvors drained what remained into tanks on the surrounding support boats, and meanwhile concocted a plan to pump compressed air into the newly emptied pontoons. This would set Winner afloat again. She could then be towed off the headland on a high or rising tide, and dragged to a bay on the other side of Lewis, where it could be figured out how to make her properly seaworthy.

What had begun as the quiet removal of Winner from Norway – a journey scarcely noticed by anyone outside the oil business – was now a richly public event. Nothing quite like it had happened in the Hebrides since the 1940s, when the cargo ship Politician, abundantly loaded with bottled spirits, ran aground on the nearby island of Eriskay. The local response on that occasion – an outrageous carrying-away of the booze – inspired a novel and a film, Whisky Galore. In the case of Winner, her plunder value existed in her bones – her predominantly steel frame – and it was residual value that would not be easily released; something to which Transocean could by now attest. It had in its fleet more rigs than any other drilling company – more than 70 in 2016 – and the earlier pruning of about a dozen of these vessels had been conducted with discretion. Now the sun was up on a fiasco.

Dave Walls was one of the Transocean directors who flew to Lewis from the company’s headquarters in Aberdeen. At a press conference on the island 11 days after the accident, Walls pledged that Winner would be recovered from the rocks and put her back on her journey east. “We will make right any damage,” Walls said. Transocean later gave the Dalmore community £120,000 in reparations. A financial statement released by the oil company in November 2016 made clear the larger cost of the accident: at least $21m (£16m). That month, on 21 November, Walls was asked at a parliamentary hearing about the circumstances leading up to Winner’s nighttime escape. Why had the rig been pulled into a storm that was long forecast? Walls seemed to suggest that the master on the tugboat Forward had tried, in error, to outrun or outmuscle the Hebridean seas. (The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has been looking into the incident since the summer of 2016, and its report is expected later this year. In response to my request for comment, Transocean cited this ongoing investigation and declined to answer my questions about Winner. In a statement, Transocean added: “We will continue to meet our responsibilities arising out of this incident.”)

On Lewis, in the aftermath of the grounding, there were historically unprecedented traffic jams on the single-track road to the beach. Access was now forbidden, and a policeman guarded the junction. Arriving on the island, I made enquiries about getting aboard Winner and was told, roughly speaking, that I had about as much chance of getting on the whisky-carrying Politician, which had been on the bottom of the sea for 70 years. A restriction zone around Winner took in land, sea and air, so that hikers were forbidden to walk the fringing coastal paths and fishermen were told to putter their boats at a distance. On the evening of 22 August, allowances were made for a seismic local event, and islanders were permitted back to their beach to watch Winner be towed away. Around a hundred people came to watch, a shuttle bus running them down the beach road in shifts. A tea station was set up by volunteers. Midges hummed about. At 9pm the sun went down behind the rig, quite spectacularly, and after that the tow-lines between Winner and her tugs visibly tautened. The underwater pontoons were filled with compressed air. A shout went up on the shore: “She’s on the move!” There was a ripple of applause.

As she came off the rocks, “seemingly inch by inch”, said Don MacKay, Winner continued to list very badly. She was towed north across the bay until hidden by a distant headland. There was another round of applause on the beach, then a polite rush for the first shuttle bus. MacKay was not sorry to see Winner go, he said, but like many of the islanders, he had become curious about the rig’s fate and intended to follow her progress. Authorities had said they expected Winner to arrive on the eastern side of Lewis the next day, a Tuesday. But when MacKay checked that day, she had not yet appeared. He checked again early on Wednesday. Still no sign. The runaway rig had once more disappeared from public view.

That Winner floated at all when she came off the rocks was the consequence of an old tragedy, half-forgotten by the summer of 2016, but rawly felt at the time of this rig’s invention. In 1980, a North Sea rig called Alexander Kielland had been struck by savage winds that weakened one of its legs and, with lethal suddenness, caused it to list and capsize. Of 212 crew, only 89 survived. North Sea rigs, it was ruled by British and Scandinavian authorities, must be fit to withstand such winds, and worse. That year, at the Götaverken Arendal shipyard in Gothenburg, Sweden, an engineer called Hadar Liden sketched Winner’s shape on paper with these instructions in mind. “If she lost a leg on the water,” recalled Liden, who in the 1970s and 80s was Götaverken’s chief of structural design, “even then she should be able to float.” At his drawing board, Liden conceived a rig that would remain buoyant in 100-knot winds, in 100-metre-high waves, even after being hit by, say, a fuel tanker. For improved stability, the new rig would be squatter, squarer and more symmetrical than the clumsily shaped, five-legged Kielland. Four-legged rigs had been built before, but were not then common. Inside Götaverken, which had built rigs to order but never before designed its own, Liden’s creation was nicknamed “the Little Chair”.

Götaverken wanted $65m to build the rig for a client (about $180m today), and a first order was placed in 1981 by a maritime firm in Oslo. Liden watched through his ninth-floor window at Götaverken headquarters, peering deep into the bed of the shipyard as a pair of 80m pontoons were constructed, each in a dry dock. Four circular stumps were built, each the size of pitched-over ferris wheels, added to in pie‑quarter portions, to make the rig’s legs. In 1982, the half-made rig was set afloat, and a multi-layered box of steel was craned into place to form the deck. Jutting struts, front and back, were strung with lifeboats. A 49m derrick was erected. By now the rig reached higher than Liden’s ninth-floor window. By 1983 it was ready for delivery, and its owners in Oslo promptly chartered the rig for several years to Saga Petroleum, a Norwegian firm that assumed naming rights. In her early years, the rig was known as Treasure Saga. A picture of her, freshly orange and resplendent, made the cover of one industry magazine.

Here was a rig, wrote the trade press, “for the 90s”. Liden and his colleagues expected their creation would last longer than that. In fact, the rig outlasted both the shipyard in which she was built (Götaverken closed in 1990) and the oil company she was first leased to (Saga was absorbed by a rival in 1999). Treasure Saga was bought by Transocean in 1998 and rechristened Transocean Winner. She was leased for months and years at a time on contracts to drill in North Sea oil fields, many of which had been given mythological names such as Asgard and Midgard, but which held in their depths somewhat more earthly riches. In 1969, a rig called Ocean Viking had been idly and unhopefully prospecting in this region, when a worker named Stale Salvensen, down on the drill floor enjoying a sly cigarette, smelled the distinctive, sour scent of unprocessed crude. By the time a superior was summoned from his cabin, there was so much oil sloshing around Viking’s lower deck that Salvensen’s boss slipped and fell in his pyjamas. And thus, ingloriously, a continent got its oil industry. The North Sea has been profitably drilled ever since, with exploration rights shared between its bordering countries, Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Winner achieved some fame, in 2010, for striking the year’s biggest find, a reservoir in the Norwegian sector that yielded many hundreds of millions of barrels.

Hadar Liden had retired by then. He was living in Gothenburg when I called him at his home, in the autumn, not long after Winner’s grounding. I asked the 88-year-old if he had thought about his rig at all, since seeing it off out of Götaverken, and he said: “Oh, always.” Liden could recall in detail the proportion of high-tension steel that made up Winner’s overall weight (48%), and the mill in Sweden this steel had come from (Oxelösund, on the Baltic Sea). He found it harder to grasp just how much life had been lived aboard his Little Chair over three decades – the birthday cakes and Christmases, the bingo games and barbecues. Every evening she spent on board in the 1980s and 90s, a geologist named Brit Riise Fredheim would take a walk around the rim of the upper deck, and afterwards climb the derrick, for the exercise and the view. Of watching North Sea sunsets from Winner’s pinnacle, Fredheim said: “I felt like I owned the world.” The oil rig had a gym, and one year they brought on board a running machine. The crew got a slow satellite internet service. “We watched movies and farted and laughed together,” André Arctander said. He had been the rig’s unofficial counsellor, reassuring colleagues when the isolation of offshore life got overwhelming. “Many times,” said Arctander, “grown men came into my office and started to cry. My wife cannot believe this.”

Liden was unaware of Winner’s trials in Scotland: the storm, the grounding, and how, after lengthy relief work to tow the rig out of Dalmore Bay, Winner had seemed to vanish again, her reappearance after a 50-mile circumnavigation of Lewis dramatically delayed because of fears she would capsize. The rig eventually arrived in Broad Bay on the east of Lewis two days behind schedule, crewed by exhausted salvors who had hardly slept. While I told Liden about this, he listened patiently, with sympathy. Then the retired chief of structural design asked if I thought the rig had got into difficulties because of her structure. I said I thought not – that, if anything, her essential strength had prevented a worse disaster. “Good,” said Liden, “good.”

The rig had been in Broad Bay for five weeks. Before dawn one morning in September, a salvage master called Sylvia Tervoort stood next to the boot of her car, putting on her work clothes in the dark. Half a mile over her shoulder, illuminated by onboard lights, Winner bobbed at anchor. Tervoort, a slight 38-year-old Dutchwoman from Castricum near Amsterdam, was quickly encased in bulky safety wear. Her padded orange coat was streaked all over with crusted oil. These streaks, she explained, were traceable back to some wild maritime calamity. There was the sunken rig she had helped raise in Alaska. The scuppered bulk carrier refloated in India. A pair of collided cargo ships (one carrying explosives) that had to be separated off Greece. For months in 2012 and 2013, Tervoort had hiked over the exposed hull of Costa Concordia, the Italian cruiseship that ran aground off the coast of Tuscany. Tervoort had for many years worked for the Dutch salvage firm SMIT, the only female salvage master at the company – and perhaps, she thought, in the world. She had never encountered another woman in such a position, and she had been all over: to South America, to Africa, deep out in the Atlantic – wherever a stricken vessel came to occupy the uncertain middle ground between serviceable craft and sea junk, she had been called to attend. Whether she was there to bring a craft back to life, or to siphon off its environment-threatening pollutants before a spill, or simply to strip a ship of its tangible riches before it sank, depended on the situation and the wants of her contractor in each case.

Tervoort put on a helmet and moved towards a motorboat that would take her and her team out to Winner in the bay. For this job, SMIT had been contracted by Transocean to oversee the curious work of fixing up a maimed and ailing rig, in order that that it might resume its voyage to be destroyed absolutely. Tervoort was “not interested in the politics” – as with the grounded fuel carrier she had dragged off a beach in Morocco, and the flaming cargo ship her team had boarded at sea, “a job’s a job. If people are happy making the signature on my salary, it’s OK.” As a salvage master, she tended to think about troubled vessels in binary terms. If not “assets” still afloat, then “wrecks”. She knew the transition from asset to wreck could be lethally quick, and a consequence of either impatience or overcaution by salvors.

With Winner, Tervoot had prescribed caution rather than haste – much to the frustration, I was told, of authorities, who would have preferred to see the rig leave Scotland as quickly as possible. Tervoort would not be hurried. She had once spent a month in the hold of a stranded bulk carrier off Cuba, without the means to wash, except when a rainstorm gathered, at which point she trotted up on to deck in her bikini. Her life as a salvor seemed to require that she be in possession of a crazy array of skills: seamanship, engineering, calculus, rope climbing, parkour, mild piracy, among others. More than anything, though, the work demanded composure and courage, plus a total lack of awe about outsized seacraft. Civilians crane their necks and coo at large ships. Tervoort saw only assets – and moreover, assets that itched to become wrecks.

It was in my capacity as a neck-craner that I had followed Winner to the Hebrides, getting as close to the rig as I could, which was never that close. Tervoort’s team arrived in the car park, bussed in from the north of the island where they had been billeted at Transocean’s expense in a holiday lodge. While they boarded the motorboat, I asked Tervoort if I could sail out with them. Get up close, see the rig. Tervoort replied, levelly, “No.” As the boat sped away, I could hear her tease her team about the cold. The sun had started to rise, turning Winner a striking crimson.

On a hillside to the east of the bay, I met a pair of hikers who were admiring the rig and counting the support vessels that floated near her. The most impressive of these vessels, a heavy-lifting ship called Hawk, was one of the largest in her class – really preposterously large, with an awesome rectangular deck that was something like the size of a Pall Mall or a Piccadilly to Winner’s Trafalgar Square. Hawk had been ordered to the Hebrides from Singapore. Most of the smaller boats around her were chartered from Lewis. James Morrison, one of the hikers, itemised the mini economic boom that had bobbed in to Lewis with the rig: day rates for sailors, hotels booked out, all those minicab minutes ferrying oil execs back and forth from the airport. As sun and drizzle conspired to form a rainbow over Broad Bay, Morrison pointed out that, for a moment, Winner seemed to float at the end of it.

During the weeks of the rig’s stay on Lewis, there had been an unbargained-for turn in public opinion. Though initially seen as a poised steel spider, and a possible environmental threat, residents had by and large become fond of Winner. In pubs and on coastal paths, they discussed the progress of Tervoort’s salvage with an easy familiarity, as they did weather or tides. “Every day you look at it,” said Norman Macdonald, a taxi driver. “Wherever you drive round this part of the island, you look for the rig, to see how it’s doing.” When I called to book a room at a B&B, the proprietor asked if I’d like “a room with a rig view”. In a Lewis primary school, pupils made cardboard models of Winner, and Tervoort was invited to visit and judge them. If islanders had developed a coy affection for the oil rig, they had become openly adoring of the salvage master, and Tervoort rapidly advanced to local celebrity status. She was invited to take part in the island’s fun-run. She gave a hit lecture at a local university, about a salvor’s life.

It was Tervoort’s opinion that Winner would never survive being towed any serious distance, certainly not to the Mediterranean as planned, and so efforts were directed to get the rig on to the back of the heavy-lifting ship, Hawk. In a complicated process that would involve Hawk sinking herself into the water, drifting beneath the rig and then rising again, Winner would have to be lifted up and carried out of Scotland. They call this dry-towing. It happened in early October, after several false starts. Conditions had to be just right for Hawk to submerge and re-emerge, and islanders had several times gathered at vantage points to wave the rig away, only for the departure to be called off because of bad weather.

In the end, on 6 October, Winner left Lewis unobserved, stealing away in the dark, her departure as abrupt and even as dashing as her arrival. “I miss her,” said Laura Carse, the Dalmore surfer.

Strapped to Hawk, Winner moved south. She passed the outstretched fingers of mainland Scotland and patiently negotiated the busy shipping lanes of the Irish Sea. On 9 October the crafts passed the mouth of the Channel and then picked up speed, ripping through the Bay of Biscay in the better part of a day.

After a fortnight at sea, both vessels had passed by Spain and Portugal and were in horn-hailing distance of Africa. They sailed between Tangier and Gibraltar and into the Alboran Sea, then pressed on past Sardinia and into the Mediterranean. Standing tall on the deck of her carrier ship, Winner looked as cool and improbable as a heron crossing water on the back of a paddling hippo. Hawk and Winner made Maltese waters on 25 October, dropping anchor off the capital, Valletta. High in the water as she was, Winner was easily visible over the square, stone rooftops of this ancient city, and she drew many Maltese to the seafront. A sightseers’ boat, known as a luzzu, freighted with tourists, was piloted closer for a look.

At anchor in Malta, repair work was carried out on the rig’s damaged pontoons, while her owners exchanged export permissions with various authorities. Otherwise, Winner basked. It was bright and hot in the Mediterranean, and this old rig, once so profoundly chilled by North Sea winters that her steel would be painful to touch, at last warmed through. The Times of Malta sent a photographer to snap a northern celebrity come south to sunbathe. Carmel Pule, a retired professor of engineering, and also a keen sailor and ship-spotter, trained binoculars on Winner from the roof of his home. The 77-year-old had seen countless vessels come and go, Malta being a popular stopping point for shipping enterprise of every sort, and brisk handling of maritime paperwork a key part of the island economy. Pule could not recall seeing an oil rig come in piggy-back before. He got on his motorbike and rode to the coast. “Not beautiful to look at as individual craft,” he told his wife that evening, describing the trussed-together Winner and Hawk. But an appealing couple, “together for the sake of convenience, or a temporary love affair”.

Pule did it, I did it – we do this, as humans, we humanise seacraft. Vessels are christened under bottles of fizz. They’re given nicknames and ascribed character. Months after disembarking Winner for the last time, her crew could describe for me with precision, as if they were established personality traits, the rig’s distinctive pitch and roll, the chatter of her anchor chains in wind, the subtle but thrilling smell of helicopter fuel that came through the ventilation system to let them know a batch of letters and newspapers had arrived.

Meanwhile, in Malta, Pule kept a vigil on Winner from his roof, and sent me long emails in which he ruminated on the rig’s visible old age, on her retirement, on an end to the obvious usefulness of things; he did not always register a distinction between the vessel’s state and his own. Seacraft engender affinity, and perhaps only those who are obliged to take a wider perspective can remain entirely unromantic about them. The master salvor Sylvia Tervoort, who tended to meet vessels when something had gone dreadfully wrong with them, considered my question about whether she felt any affection towards the craft she had worked on and said: “Maybe if this was a movie.” When I spoke with Patrizia Heidegger of Shipbreaking Platform, she stressed that her organisation was concerned with the humanitarian and environmental burden of shipbreaking. As such, she was politely unenthusiastic about too much sentiment being spent on the boats.

On 24 October, a day before Winner’s arrival in Malta, Transocean had put out a statement to investors, confirming her sale as scrap. The company added that the rig would now be dismantled; “recycled” was their word. In describing a great, curling route out of Scandinavia, west and then south and then east (east, east) to the Med, Winner had passed 18 EU-approved facilities for shipbreaking, including those in Fosen in Norway, Grenaa in Denmark, Lowestoft in England, Bordeaux in France, Ghent in Belgium and Vinaroz in Spain. Unwanted sea junk does not often find its way to Europe, or stay long there. Had Winner been a fixed-drill platform, built into northern bedrock, exacting regulations and conventions would have insisted that this structure be dismantled and recycled in place. When an oil rig has an engine and a propeller, however – when she is classed as a vessel; a mobile she, not a stationary it – regulations can be outdistanced. Berths can be sought where conventions are not quite so stringent.

And to sail a condemned vessel east from Europe is to adjust the financials of a demolition substantially. A secondhand vessel is currently worth about $190 per tonne to a shipbreaking yard in Turkey, a price established by the local market in reclaimed steel. Sail on to China and a different market, and the same metal is worth $210 per tonne. At breakers’ yards in Alang in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gadani in Pakistan, they will pay around $280 per tonne. Meanwhile, at the EU-approved shipbreaking sites, which are bound to conform to continental waste laws, and where vessels are dismantled in closed-off quays or dry docks, rates are less competitive: European yards offer zero dollars per tonne, and, in fact, tend to ask a fee to take a shipowners’ junk. Of the 864 vessels that were dismantled around the world last year, nine were dismantled in Europe. Give or take a dozen (sent to Mexico, the Philippines, Russia and South Korea), the remainder went to breaking yards in Turkey, China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform has for some years tracked the movements of surplus ships to these sites, finding it necessary, over time, to start documenting human as well as vessel expiry. They add to their records the blunt, dire summaries of a tragedy every time a shipbreaker is killed in an accident anywhere in the world. Chaudhry Baliram Indrajit, crushed by a crane in Alang in January 2016. Muhammad Asif, killed by fire in Gadani in March 2016. Shibbir Ahmed and Jalal Uddin, both of whom fell to their deaths in Chittagong in July 2016. There are dozens of such deaths every year, the majority of them in yards in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where men and boys pick apart vessels without appropriate tools or safety equipment, assuming terrific risks. As Winner underwent repairs in Malta, that October, the tally of acknowledged deaths in 2016 stood at 30, all in yards in south Asia.

Of those 864 vessels sent for demolition that year, 668 went to yards in that region. “The incentive is to go to south Asia,” said Patrizia Heidegger of Shipbreaking Platform, “because the highest price paid per tonne is there.” Whether individual shipowners took up that incentive depended, in her view, on a moral-financial reckoning. How much they cared about profits, as against how much they cared. “The reason you have owners going to beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is money,” said Petter Heier, head of Grieg Green, a subsidiary of the Norwegian maritime group Grieg established to promote and advise on responsible shipbreaking. Since 2010, Heier has sought to persuade divesting owners to send their excess to one of a group of vetted breaking yards in Turkey and China, rather than the higher-paying, less-audited yards in south Asia. Heier continued: “There are major accidents in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh every week. No company wants to be associated with that. So they sell through middlemen. They change the name of their vessels. They try to hide their [radar] tracking.”

These evasions infuriate the watchdog groups in their efforts to hold a shadowy industry to account, but do not always scuttle them. For instance, Shipbreaking Platform had laboriously tracked through its final movements a German-owned cargo ship called HS Colon, which happened to arrive in Malta at the same time as Winner. While at anchor in the Mediterranean, HS Colon disappeared. When the NGO caught up with her, she had undergone a brisk identity change, shedding the initials that linked her to her former owners, Hansa Treuhand, and was heading for Alang under the name of Colo. That month, a tanker called Gaz Fountain was bought for scrap by a yard in Gadani. Before she sailed, Gaz Fountain became Rain. On 9 January this year, Rain caught fire during demolition on a Pakistani beach, killing five workers. A few weeks earlier, in November, another ship had exploded at Gadani, killing at least 27 workers.

Still astride Hawk, Winner left Maltese waters on 27 October. She moved east towards Crete and wove between a scattering of Aegean islands. She was bound for Turkey, and a place on its west coast called Aliaga, where the Turkish shipbreaking industry is based.

This was an expensive choice of destination by Transocean. Around $80 or $90 per tonne in value had been foregone, more than $1m in total, compared with what might have been wrangled for Winner from a yard in south Asia. Petter Heier at Grieg Green said he believed that – slowly, gradually – owners such as Transocean were coming to acknowledge the longer-term, intangible gains of careful disposal, even if this meant shorter-term, tangible loss. “Insurance companies are putting pressure on shipowners to recycle responsibly. Their employees are putting pressure. Society is putting pressure.” In the case of Transocean, Heier offered an opinion (“a personal opinion”) that the company was further influenced in its thinking by its involvement in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. When it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Deepwater Horizon was contracted, notoriously, to BP. But it was Transocean’s rig.

“I would guess Deepwater Horizon triggered something,” Heier said. “They are very careful [now], that if something happens with them on the beach in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, that might ruin their name in the market.” When I expressed surprise that Winner should have departed Malta still a Winner, without a change of identity in the manner of Colon or Gaz Fountain, Heier said: “They didn’t change the name because they didn’t need to hide anything. They chose a good yard.”

They lit up the shore with flares on the day the rig came in at Aliaga. This was to acknowledge the end of a three-week journey that had ended up taking three months, and to show a pack of tugboats – now that Winner was off the submerged Hawk and being pulled and pushed towards the beach – just where to put her. The float-off took place at lunchtime on 5 November. Winner had a token crew again: representatives from Transocean and SMIT back aboard for the final tow. Guiding flares on the shore, at least from Winner’s deck, appeared only as spots of fire among hundreds. Aliaga beach was aflame – in the shallows, where carcasses of ships and rigs were disassembled by spark-showering blowtorches, and in the narrow yards beyond, where amputated pieces were further torched. Dense smoke filled the air above the yards.

From the water, it must have appeared to the uninitiated that Aliaga had been freshly, plentifully bombed; perhaps doused and jumbled by tidal waves, too. In fact, this was a normal working day on the beach. At its western edge, a Del Monte fruit boat had been perfectly halved. To the east was a cargo carrier, Modern Express, that had some months earlier been abandoned by her crew while stricken and drifting in the Bay of Biscay. Nearby were two demobbed frigates, recently owned by the Spanish navy. Winner was put in next to the halved Del Monte boat, on a part of the beach owned by a local shipbreaking company called Isiksan.

Isiksan’s foreman, a muscular 30-year-old Istanbulite named Hüsseyin Essen, sailed out to meet the rig. Essen had been the foreman here when Isiksan accepted its first oil rig for demolition, in early 2015. Ocean Concord had shown up 200 metres from the shore, and when Essen and his colleagues sailed out to meet her, they had no idea what to do next. Ever since they started shipbreaking in Aliaga in the 1970s, vessels had been brought ashore using a method known as “beaching”; that is, they were piloted inland and made to mount the beach at speed. (Trembling phone footage from 2013 of a ferry being beached in an explosion of smoke and water has been viewed more than 3m times on YouTube.) With the sterns half-ashore, breakers could then cut in and dismantle the ships laterally, as a snacker might eat through a baguette. But oil rigs were not fast enough or strong enough for beaching. “We didn’t know what the hell we were going to do,” Essen said. There was an idea to work on Concord at sea. In the end, heavy chains were tied around her legs and connected via winches to powerful vehicles on the shore. Concord was hauled through the shallows like a struggling fish. Through many oil rig landings since, this method had proved fine. Winner, towed and carried and storm-propelled on this fantastically harried trip east, would be dragged the last metres by straining bulldozers.

Unlike the colossal breakers’ beaches of south Asia, or the disparate yards scattered around coastal China, Turkish shipbreaking is packed close in one place, concentrated entirely on this government-allotted mile of coast on the outskirts of Aliaga. The beach here has been divided into as many slim, neighbouring yards as will fit – 25 of them. Considering its comparative scale, Aliaga should be a minor consumer of the world’s excess sea-tonnage. But since Ocean Concord arrived 18 months ago, it has established itself, improbably, as the world’s foremost consumer of oil rigs. Something like 300,000 tonnes of unwanted rig had been brought here – Hunter and Yatzy and JW McLean and John Shaw and Southern Cross and Aleutian Key and Amirante and Scarabeo 4 and Arctic I and Arctic III – as well as that pair of young Enscos, the two rigs that were barely a decade old when they were sent by their owners for disposal. The Isiksan yard, its opening on to the Aegean no wider than an average-sized rig, had undertaken most of the demolitions. Petter Heier of Grieg Green, which advised Transocean on these latter stages of the disposal, said Isiksan had been chosen because of this expertise.

It was expertise hard-won. Essen and his colleagues learned over the months that the best way to scrap a rig was to deposit a group of blowtorchers on the upper deck (carrying them there in a crane-hoisted cage) and then to let them burn their way downwards. The process took months, but because more men could get at more vessel on a rig than on a beached ship, and because rigs tended to have cranes that could be co-opted into the effort of self-destruction, Essen’s scrappers were getting faster and faster at their work. With Winner, they targeted the helipad first, weakening it with blowtorches before a crane came in to pick it clean away. Winner’s galley went next, then half her accommodation block. A fortnight into the demolition, the horizontal decks were still in place, but the walls between had been so gnawed at that Winner looked liked one of the cut-away diagrams sketched by Hader Liden at his drawing board decades earlier.

The rig’s sale to Isiksan was formalised and finalised the moment she came off the back of Hawk. In the words of Isiksan’s young chief, a 26-year-old Aliagan named Soner Sari, Winner was a “cooked meal”, in that she had been brought to the yard whole and the workers there only had to digest her. They did this by cutting 50-tonne pieces off her, lifting these pieces into the yard, where the steel could be separated from everything else, then trucking off this valuable metal in one-metre-squared pieces that would be sold to a foundry nearby. Not all vessels in Aliaga were “cooked meals”. Other deals struck by Sari specified that Isiksan must fetch unwanted craft from wherever they had outlasted their use. These agreements, known in the industry as “cash-buyer” deals, could be profitable – but they were also risky. Early in 2016, an old ship called Bannock had been cash-bought by Sari from her owners in Italy. Sailed into the Matapan Sea, bound for Aliaga, Bannock had quickly listed and capsized, ceasing to exist in the old-fashioned way, by sinking to the bottom. “That was a shitty feeling,” Sari said.

We were sitting in his office on the yard, watching the slow destruction of Winner through a picture window. Boyish, dark, smartly dressed, Sari sometimes threw out his hands when he spoke, showing a bracelet on each wrist, one of them decorated with pictures of turtles. He had a Range Rover parked outside, in which we had driven together from central Aliaga, passing various chemical factories, oil refineries and foundries. Closer to the breakers’ beach, an informal flea market of maritime bric-a-brac had been established, where traders sold recovered items from the dismantled ships. Sari continued: “When we buy in a faraway port it’s cheaper, because we’re taking certain risks, and if it works out, we’ll we make money for taking those risks.” On his phone he had photographs of Bannock sinking. “At that point, your company’s $20m – or whatever you’ve paid – is gone. Poof. It hurts.”

Sari did not want to say exactly how much Isiksan had paid Transocean for the right to scrap Winner. Estimating based on local market rates, it could have been as much as $3.5m, though Sari only allowed that it was a seven-figure sum, and that Isiksan expected to turn a profit on the recovered steel. Parts other than a rig’s steel could also be valuable to a breaking firm – for instance, any deck cranes that were in resellable condition. The lifeboats that came stitched to vessels could also be sold on to the bric-a-brac guys beyond the yard. Hundreds waited to be sold there, bordering the road like giant orange crash barriers.

Through Sari’s office window, we looked at a newly removed piece of Winner’s accommodation block, which had just been brought up into the yard. It might once have been a section of corridor, and electric cabling and insulation foam still clung to its steel walls. A hydraulic excavator started tossing and rolling it in the dirt – cartwheeling it over and over to shake away the wire and the foam. By the end of the day, Sari judged, that steel would be on a foundry floor. About $3,000 worth, he said, pricing it by eye.

While we drank strong, tarry coffee, we discussed the environmental consequences of shipbreaking. It was no coincidence, Sari said, that Aliaga’s yards were huddled up beside refineries and foundries. Heavy industry had been moved to Aliaga en masse in the 1970s, “because the government wanted to wrap it up in one area, keep everything else nice”. Sari acknowledged that the local yards had not always upheld the strictest standards when it came to minimising environmental damage, but he was working to change that. Beneath the Isiskan yard he had installed a drainage system to catch and pump off pollutants. Down in the water there were brightly coloured booms, bobbing in a circle around Winner’s legs, there in theory to stop any floating waste from getting out into the Aegean. A confidential 2015 report by the shipping consultancy Litehauz, obtained by journalists from the investigative agency Danwatch last year, detailed the potential impact of ships that were torch-cut on tidal water. The report estimated that for every 10,000 tonnes of vessel torched, about 120 tonnes of molten steel and two tonnes of chipped-away paint escaped into the sea. Sari insisted that the water off Isiksan’s yard was regularly tested for pollutants. When I asked if he would swim out there, he thought for a moment and answered: “Why not?” Petter Heier of Grieg Green said his company had audited the Isiksan yard and found its environmental procedures acceptable. Look, Sari said, it might be distasteful, but somebody had to get rid of shipowners’ garbage. He gestured at the yard through the window. In his view, it was better that it happened out there than on the deadly beaches of Alang or Chittagong. He had applied for European recognition for the Isiksan yard, hoping to see it added to a list of EU-approved shipbreaking sites.

We took a walk together through the yard, where the immediate noise was at first so much to contend with – the guttural, football-crowd “Ooooh!” of ignited blowtorches, the grating complaint of metal on metal, bulldozer rumbles, generator whines – that I put off the matter of sights until a second lap. In the reddish-brown dust, fine as powder in places, a combination of soil and dirt and tiny coloured chips of paint, I found a Norwegian chocolate bar called a Stratos, still in its packaging. Nearby was a plastic shoehorn, apparently flung from the cartwheeling corridor, and a takeaway menu from a Chinese restaurant in Lewis. The discoveries increased in size – a gas mask, a boot, a barrel on fire, a pile of fire extinguishers, a larger mountain of green and white foam – until we were standing beside great, upright sections of mud pipe, tall enough for a person to walk through, cut into giant, swiss-roll slices and now being lifted into the bed of a truck.

Early in Winner’s demolition, a big, square piece of her decking, like the mat of a boxing ring, had been retained because it was flat and smooth and would skim briskly through the dusty yard when dragged behind a bulldozer. It now served as a carrying palette for the rig’s disparate amputations, and brought sliding up from the shore an entire utility closet, placed upside down. An equipment rack on the closet’s outer wall was slung with vices, chains and thick bolts the size of milk bottles. A sign above the inverted door warned that it might close violently at sea. When I tried to step inside, Sari said: “Uh, don’t go in there yet.” He indicated that parts of the room were so freshly torched that they were still smouldering.

Airhorns sounded: lunch. I walked among yellow-helmeted breakers – about 70 of them were rostered to work today – as they streamed off Winner. The men I met lived locally. They said they earned wages of about $1,300 a month. According to investigations by Asli Odman, a member of Labour Watch Turkey, there had been at least 10 fatal accidents in the various yards of Aliaga since 2010. On the oil-refining ship Kuito, being dismantled at a neighbouring yard in 2015, a worker fell into the hold and died. On the cruise ship Pacific, dismantled by Izmir Ship Recycling Co in 2013, two workers were poisoned by carbon monoxide. I asked a 31-year-old Isiksan employee named Zafer Erdem, who operated a crane, whether he felt any fear whenever the next new rig arrived for demolition. No, said Erdem, when a rig came in he thought: work, two or three months of it. Erdem and his colleague Kamil Conge, a 45-year-old field manager, had a combined 30 years of experience on the beach. An inch beneath the dirt, Conge said, there was a layer of concrete that extended most of the way to the shore – a recent addition, before which the yard became a muddy horror whenever it rained. In those days, Conge said, a ship “could take a year to dismantle”. I was told there had been injuries to workers in the Isiksan yard; accidental scorchings was the example given. Everyone remembered the recent death on Kuito, along the beach. Work stopped for a day in a show of respect.

Not far from the mess hall, in the mud, I came across something colourful – a Norwegian consumer magazine, six years out of date and splayed open at an article about red wines. A 26-year-old yard worker called Omer Dogan, about to skip lunch and go to prayers at a nearby mosque, said they had sometimes found “funnier stuff” on incoming oil rigs. Omer reddened, not wanting to say pornography. Hüsseyin Essen told me he had many times come across collections of family photographs. Sari was once inspecting a brought-in trawler when he found a full outfit of ski gear in a cupboard. The Spanish frigates had come to Aliaga, he said, stripped of computers, but still with several missile launchers intact. Sari liked it best when they found a certain type of brass valve on ships. Isiksan owned a small foundry that processed non-ferrous metals, mostly salvaged bronze, which would be melted down and fashioned into storm valves, for resale to the shipbuilding industry. Sometimes, Isiksan’s valves found their way back to Isiksan, got removed and were melted down again. I mentioned to Sari that I had met a man on the Isle of Lewis, an eccentric local professor called Arne Vögler, who had led a volunteer mission to scour the waters of Dalmore Bay after Winner had gone. Vögler, searching for debris that might harm the environment, had ended up fishing out Winner’s enormous propeller. He joked to me about installing it as garden furniture. Hearing this, Sari raised an eyebrow. “I wondered where that propeller had gone,” he said, and sniffed. “Brass alloy. Tell the guy he owes me $50,000.”

At the water’s edge, the big steel carrying palette waited in the dirt. Sari stood on one of its upturned corners, hands in his pockets, bouncing on the flexible metal. The Aegean lapped at Winner’s ruptured pontoons. From here I could see the intricate patterning of rust up the oil rig’s legs – grades of peach, grey, green, black and bleach-white stains, recording, as if they were a sailor’s tattoos, Winner’s many tours in the North Sea. I knew from studying Hadar Liden’s sketches that the thick legs were actually hollow, with ladders inside them to provide a route between the decks and the pontoons in case of emergency. In Aliaga, a doorway had been torched in one of these forward legs, and square windows cut at intervals up to the deck, so that when his workers climbed, Sari said, they didn’t have to do so in the dark.

I suggested that I try climbing up the inside of Winner myself. “No,” said Sari. By this point I was accustomed to being refused requests to get aboard the rig. “No,” he continued, “I’ve tried going up by the ladder and it’s like scaling a 10-storey building. Better take the cage.”

He signalled to an operator in a nearby crane, who answered by rotating and depositing on the shore a carry-cage about the size of a couple of telephone boxes, painted blood-red. I stepped inside and held on to the cage’s central pole, like a commuter on a bus, as it was hoisted fast into the air, spinning through several terrible rotations before settling into a queasy, side-to-side sway. Before landing the cage on the rig, the crane swung me high and wide above the beach, so that for the first time I could see the full, fiery chaos of Aliaga. The fruit boats and frigates and oil rigs were not going quietly, but inchingly, they were going; and soon their berths on the shore would be filled by the next redundant or repented-of thing.

Back in his office, I had asked Sari what would happen when the world’s fleet had been adequately thinned, when there were no more superfluous rigs for him to buy and dismantle. He said he expected this to happen soon. “Next year? The year after?” As rigs disappeared, rates to hire the remaining ones would rise and, eventually, an incautious oil industry would find an economic (if not glowingly ethical) equilibrium. “And we’ll go looking for the next thing.” Sari had in mind a smaller type of oil platform known as a jack-up, of which there were many hundreds filling the seas. “Cold-stacked all over, no jobs, no prospects of jobs …”

I asked him if it ever seemed a pity to break up such monumental and characterful structures. Did he look at Winner in the way that I had come to look at her, in the way her former crew looked at her, as something dignified? Sari said the only emotion he could feel about Winner was relief, when she was gone, on schedule. But not long ago, he acknowledged, he had had a wobble. It was over those two young Ensco rigs – Ensco 6003 and 6004 – that had come out of Brazilian waters. When Sari won the right to scrap them, he took the unusual decision to sail the rigs under their own power from South America to Turkey. “I piloted one myself, for the last mile to Aliaga. I wanted to try it out.” Sari mimed adjusting thrusters, striking buttons. “Everything was like new, all the controls.” They demolished Ensco 6003 and 6004 over the course of about 10 weeks. “Beautiful machines. Beautiful machines,” Sari said.

The cage was lowered on to Winner’s deck, where it smelled of propane and singed steel, of grease and hydraulic fuel. Disorientatingly, here, the rig’s insides were outside, so that a payphone that had once stood in the accommodation block was now upright and exposed in the open air. Two ping-pong balls, mysterious survivors of the long voyage, juddered on the payphone’s coin shelf. Nearby, blowtorchers cut their way out from inside a cabin, and above them a deputation of breakers directed liquid from a hose into a vat marked “Chemical Spill”. Thinking of the geologist Brit Fredheim, and her evening constitutionals around the rig, I set off to walk Winner’s circumference.

All along the perimeter fence were signs that ordered “Respect this barrier”, signs that continued until the barrier fell away completely, mangled, torn and disrespected by the storm back in the Hebrides. I moved towards the interior, passing pools of standing water on the corrugated floor, and crater-bursts of rust where it was dry. Someone had left a dozen eggs on the floor by a ladder. There were stacks of dusty computer towers in a cupboard, and orange lifejackets that filled two bath-sized tubs to the brim. In a windowless office, where there were two leather-effect chairs and a tacked-up poster of a motorbike, I found a whiteboard on which somebody had written “Crew 6 says goodbye”. Below, on a shelf, there was a leather-bound logbook, neatly filled with the signatures of men and women who had seen through a particular watch on Winner. There were pages and pages of names, going back to the early 1990s. I considered stealing the book, or adding my own signature. In the end, I put it back on the shelf, to be destroyed with the rest. Outside, I passed Zafer Erdem in his crane, merrily terrorising a piece of racking at the base of the derrick. We waved.

By the end of November, Winner had been stripped of everything above the midriff, bar her derrick. This was pulled down on 3 December, then chained to bulldozers, which laboured until the tower toppled forward; instead of landing on an outstretched jetty that was meant to catch the pieces, it twisted and crashed pinnacle-first into the shallows. Once the pieces had been fished out, work resumed to reduce the rig’s legs. By mid-December, Winner amounted to little more than a pair of pontoons under blackened stumps, the dwindling structure kept stable by thin strips of horizontal decking, so that it resembled a pair of ice skates strung together by the laces. By Christmas Day, only the pontoons were left. These were dragged out of the water and into the dirt so that another unwanted rig, Transocean Driller, could be parked on the slipway behind. Winner’s port-side pontoon was sliced up and trucked away in the first days of January. Very likely, by this point, there were swirls of the rig’s old steel in the refashioned blocks and beams that were leaving the local foundries, to be sold on for use in construction projects around the Turkish interior.

On 5 January, something curious happened on Aliaga beach. Winner’s final piece, her starboard pontoon, was half gone. Snow began to fall, rare in this part of Turkey, carrying on for four days and keeping the breakers from their work. A reprieve – days in which Winner was left out and unmolested, in weather she knew well. By the following week, the snow had gone and the cutting resumed. The last of the pontoon was lifted on to a truck on 13 January, and smelted that afternoon.

Photographs by Andrew Milligan/PA; Heather Skull; Deniz Haber Ajansi; Osman Orsal/Reuters

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This article was amended on 3 May 2017. An earlier version described the Alexander Kielland rig as “six-legged”; it had five legs.