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Alden J. "Doc" LaBorde

The Man Behind the Rig

Alden J. "Doc" LaBorde was born in Marksville, Louisiana December 18, 1915, the second son of Cliffe and Hilda LaBorde. His family was considered quite"modern," because they had electric lights, running water, a phone, and an automobile. They even had bug screens installed in their house and the LaBorde's were the first family to own a radio in the city of Marksville. The family listened to Amos'n Andy, followed by Lowell Thomas each night. For big events like the World Series, dozens of towns' people came to listen on their radio, with one person constantly at the dial to keep them "tuned" in and to serve as announcer and interpreter of words buried in static.

Mr. LabordeLaBorde graduated from high school and in 1932, under the somber shadow of the Depression, headed for Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, traveling in the back of an open-bed furniture truck with six of his classmates. Huey P. Long was Governor and Franklin D. Roosevelt had just abolished Prohibition. He attended LSU for two years, became active in ROTC, and was nominated to the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

He entered the Academy in 1934,graduated in 1938 in a class of fifty-five, was commissioned an Ensign, but was released from service after two years -- despite the growing Japanese and German threat -- because of slightly-less-than-perfect vision. Disappointed, but philosophical, he returned home and started a business in Lafayette where he met his future wife, Margaret. Mr. Laborde at LSU

Then, December 7, 1941, while LaBorde was sitting at the dinner table with Margaret when someone called to tell them to turn on their radio. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

In The NavyLaBorde was quickly returned to active duty in the Navy and asked to report to Sub Chaser Training Center in Miami, Florida. After some patchy training he was given command of the "U.S.S. PC560" at the Naval Station in New Orleans. He served on the PC560 until early 1943, then returned to Miami to help train reserve officers. He also found time to marry Margaret., before being assigned to the U.S.S. Blair (DE 147)escorting convoys as a naval engineer. After a stint aboard the U.S.S. Kleinsmith, he was released from active duty on Christmas Eve of 1945.

LaBorde's naval experience seemed suited to the growing offshore oil industry starting to boom off the Gulf Coast following the war and he eventually found work with Kerr-McGee Oil Industries in Morgan City, Louisiana as a marine superintendent. In this capacity he had a front row seat for observing the problems of offshore oil drilling under the varying conditions of water depth and wind and wave action. His practical experience was embodied in the many unique features of "Mr. Charlie."

When Kerr McGee declined to build his barge, LaBorde resigned and went into business with John Hayward, builder of the Barnsdall rig, and holder of the patent on his submersible barge methodology. When they connected with Charles Murphy, Jr. of Murphy Oil Company in El Dorado, Arkansas, who was looking for an innovative technology that would let his small company compete with the big companies drilling offshore. LaBorde's design for a submersible, transportable drilling rig seemed to fill the bill and he committed $500,000 to the deal and assisted LaBorde in finding additional investors.

They named their company "ODECO," Ocean Drilling & Exploration Company and quickly signed a construction contract with Alexander Shipyard in New Orleans. The name selected for the unit was "Mr.Charlie," what Charles Murphy's father was commonly called.

As the rig neared completion under considerable attention from industry media, ODECO needed a company willing to put Mr. Charlie to work. Roger Wilson, head of J. Ray McDermott Company came by the yard and suggested they weld some large padeyes on each side so he'd have something to hook on to when his crane was called upon to come out and salvage it. It would never, Wilson said, submerge upright. Wilson wasn't the only skeptic around. LaBorde was relieved when Shell Oil signed a contract to hire the rig to drill a series of small wells at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

On June 15, 1954, "Mr. Charlie" was turned over to ODECO by the shipyard in the Industrial Canal, New Orleans. After provisioning and set up, they set sail for the trip to "Mr.Charlie's" first job. Numerous boats followed, some within industry "scouts" or competitors anxious to see if the rig would work. A camera crew from Life Magazine, a leading publication of the time, had planned a feature article about the rig -- if it worked. There was no privacy for mishaps or problems. To LaBorde's relief -- and the surprise of onlookers-- the submergence tests passed with only a few glitches. When they reversed the process and raised the barge from bottom, it remained upright and under control.

After successfully drilling the first well for Shell, "Mr. Charlie" went on to drill almost continuously for thirty-odd years. With the obvious success of "Mr.Charlie" rival rigs were built, creating a certain amount of rivalry, particularly when Shell contracted a certain "Mr.Gus." The rivalry ended when "Mr. Gus" was lost in a storm, leaving "Mr. Charlie" a clear winner.

The Ocean DrillerODECO went onto design and build several variations on "Mr. Charlie's" design. After a time LaBorde turned his attention onto designing support vessels particularly for the oil industry. Eventually a new company, Tidewater, was formed and eventually became the world's largest offshore vessel operator. LaBorde was also involved in the development of the first semi-submersible oil rig, the "Ocean Driller."

LaBorde retired January 1, 1977 at age 61, but he kept busy. On April 1, 1985 he selected by Fortune Magazine for induction into the National Business Hall of Fame with such business luminaries as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockerfeller, Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Eli Whitney.

From My Life and Times by Alden J. LaBorde.
Available for purchase from the Rig Museum Gift Shop.

 

 

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