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This Is Not a Drill
Just Another Glorious Day in the Oilfield
By Paul Carter
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Paul Carter
All rights reserved.
'Just another glorious day in the oilfield,' said Erwin.
I could only look at him. I had stopped feeling my feet ten minutes ago; my hands were so cold that I wasn't sure they would stay whole if I tried to move them.
In front of me was an assortment of 120 men in various stages of undress, all moving in super-fast time, all with the same strained, panic- stricken expression on their face. The sort of face you pull when the hotel door slams shut just as you are putting the room service tray out in the hall and you realise you're locked out and naked. Except this was no hotel corridor, this was a semi-submersible drilling rig ... in imminent danger of becoming a submersible-we're-all-fucked-and-half-of-us-can't-swim rig.
It's 2 a.m., minus thirty-six degrees celcius, we're miles from land and the rig is capsizing. In the middle of the insanity and chaos stood Erwin, that familiar lazy grin seesawing across his face.
The abandon-rig alarm went off some ten minutes ago. 'THIS IS NOT A DRILL' is all I remember hearing. As soon as I got out of bed I knew it was serious. The rig was listing five degrees to port. We've got fifteen minutes to get to our lifeboat. The fluorescent lights blinked on 'This is not a drill'. Again the recorded voice. The continous ringing of the alarm made a fist in my gut. As I scrambled to rip my survival suit out of its bag I could feel the rig slowly continue to tip. This is really happening, I thought, this is not a drill.
The abandon-rig alarm is the one sound you never ever want to hear on an offshore drilling rig, especially when the water temperature kills after just three minutes. Its sound bores right through you, getting through to your brain faster than anything you could imagine. It's all the motive you need to get to a lifeboat no matter what gets in your way. It's a licence to survive with an international adaptor on it, everyone instantly knows the score and it sorts out the men from the boys quicker than anything I've seen. Adrenaline burned in my joints. In fifteen years, this was my first abandon-rig alarm.
My survival immersion suit, I must have it ready, get out, get out now.
Dave, my room-mate, tore open his locker and started throwing stuff all over the place. I opened the door and shot a glance down the corridor; rubbish was scattered everywhere, in every room gear was flying out the door. What is it about abandoning a rig and the threat of dying through the most excruciating freezing process imaginable that brings out the litterbug in people? Men ran in all directions. Some, ripped from their sleep, stood dumbfounded in their jocks, unable to focus. No-one yelled or tried to communicate, everyone was concentrating on getting to their lifeboat in time with the right gear.
Slow down, get it right, I screamed silently and forced myself to check. Survival suit on, seals intact, life jacket on, passport, wallet. I went for the door.
'Smokes!' yelled Dave. 'You'll need them.' He was shoving a whole carton of Camels down the front of his survival suit.
We exploded out of our room and sprinted down the corridor. Red lights flashed, the alarm had turned into a hum ... I had blanked it out, wasn't listening now. How much time have I wasted? Are we at eight or nine degrees now?
Both of us were only too aware that if the listing got to ten degrees then they couldn't launch the lifeboats. We passed the galley, unwittingly smashing plates and glasses that littered the floor. A young kitchenhand stood in the middle of the debris, wearing only the bottom half of his thermal underwear, his bare feet bleeding onto the floor and a yellow streak running down his right leg. Dave went straight through him. If this guy couldn't get himself to his lifeboat, we weren't going to stop and give him directions.
We took the stairs three at a time. Lifeboat number 1 was on the starboard side, right under the heli-deck, but it may as well have been in Cleveland. Something inside the room we needed to cross had slid across the floor and blocked our escape; the door was stuck.
'OUTER STAIRWELL, GO GO!' I turned around and ran back the way we had come, precious minutes wasted. There was real fear in Dave's voice, it made me move faster.
We went back through the galley, the kitchenhand had disappeared. At the far end of the corridor was a hatch to the outer stairwell; I hit it so hard I felt my shoulder crack as it flew open. We descended the stairs without really touching them. The freezing air bit into the sweat on my face, and everything lay at a bizarre angle as the rig slowly continued to tip. Dave lost his footing at the bottom of the stairs and went down hard into a container that lay across the walkway. We were fifty yards from our secondary lifeboat. I pulled him up and turned to run. The crew were mustering and preparing to launch what looked more like an orange submarine than a boat. Someone was there in the flashing light. It was Erwin, standing on the ramp in front of the open hatch. 'COME ON, RUN AS FAST AS YOU FUCKING CAN!' He was pulling us forward with his mind and giant hand gestures.
Dave passed me like an orange Carl Lewis and boarded in standard 'I'm not going to die out here' fashion, diving into the open hatch head first, having just ran a quarter mile of corridors in record time wearing a survival suit. I was happy he went through the hatch first as he cushioned my fall. My shoulder, his badly sprained ankle and our respective head injuries didn't stop the wonderful sense of elation that swept over us as Erwin slammed the hatch door and locked it down.
Andy the skipper was, as he liked to put it, 'well hard', and took every opportunity to give me his opinion on my new work boots. My feet were sticking straight up in front of him as I had landed upside down between two seats. 'They're so gay,' he said and grinned, pointing at my boots, on his way to the pilot's seat.
His left hand started the deluge pump then opened the air system, pressurising the vessel, while his right primed and started the motor in well-rehearsed synchronicity. We all sat there strapped into four-point harnesses, collectively focused on Andy's left hand hovering over the launch handle.
Dave pulled out the carton of Camels and passed it around. One by one each man nervously did that self pat-down thing you do when you need a light. Dave looked around at forty guys, each with a cigarette hanging from their bottom lip, looking blankly back. 'Not one of you dickheads brought a lighter, did you?'
Andy had an emergency radio pressed to his ear, waiting for the word. 'Stand by' was all we heard. Another ten minutes, a lifetime. 'Okay guys, it's a ballast control fuck-up. We have to wait,' he said. I strapped myself into a seat.
An hour went slowly by, my bum was going numb. Finally Andy put down the radio. 'It's under control. They lost a valve and the port-side pontoon started filling up with sea water, and then the emergency pump failed to start,' he explained. 'So now they have re-ballasted down on the starboard side to level out the rig while they try to fix the valve and pump. We have to wait in case they can't do it and we sink.'
'I'm glad I'm not the poor bastard trying to fix that pump,' said Dave.
Another hour and the situation was under control.
It took just fifteen minutes to get 120 men into the right gear and in a lifeboat. Not bad. The door that Dave and I couldn't open was blocked by a desk that slid across the room at just the right angle to stop us from getting it open. My shoulder was okay, but it was going to hurt for a couple of weeks. Dave got a nail gun from the warehouse and the desk was soon permanently fastened to the floor.
* * *
My first encounter with the oil world was early on in my life.
I was around ten when my mother started working at Tri-State Oil Tools; it was during the boom years in the early eighties when increasingly more offshore activity was turning Aberdeen, where we lived at the time, into the new centre of the oil industry in Europe. It had the largest heliport in Britain, ferrying men from all over the world offshore. The workshop next to my mother's office pulled at me like a giant magnet. There was a perpetual stream of oil men passing through and every last one of them had a story or a dirty joke to tell. I started skipping school to hang around and listen to them on crew change, swapping stories and talking shop. They gave me the odd glass of beer, shoved American money in my pockets, gave me knives, ball caps and dirty magazines. I loved them.
It didn't take long really. As soon as I was old enough I started roughnecking on a land rig and that was it.
The oilfield is a strange beast. It can quite unexpectedly creep under your skin and become as compulsive as your favourite legal addictive stimulant. I was hooked, and I still am. Although now the characters I wanted to be as a boy are getting harder to find. You have to really look for them as our brave new oilfield embraces shiny new Health, Safety and Environmental policies, Preventative Maintenance is of course paramount, and don't even think about stepping out on deck unless you can identify at least half a dozen hazards to correct. All this does help save lives and avoid accidents. Whole fleets of brand new sixth generation, fly by wire cyber rigs are getting spat out of shipyards all over the world at the moment, with new improved crews.
The guys at the top — the big players and the politicians they grease — will go on exploiting natural resources for generations. The rigs will still be drilling long after our current power brokers are gone and the next wave of bureaucrats have grown up ripping off a few Third World nations, backslapped their way into a massive retirement package and wobbled their massive bottoms up and down some Iberian beach playing crazy golf until they drop dead, unloved, in their mock Tudor retirement McMansions.
The guys at the coalface I looked up to are still around, mind you, but not for much longer. They're all hitting their sixties, leaving the rigs and taking with them that wonderful old-school oilfield headspace. The one I listened to so carefully as a boy. But still, I find myself in the oilfield ...
* * *
The Russian rig was always going to be fun. It was real frontier bullshit, with genuine old-school oilfield bad boys and guys who are so far gone all they know is drilling and that's it. They don't give a shit about anything but the rig and God help anyone who can't fit in.
I was thankful Erwin was there. He's our most senior offshore operator, a big man with broad shoulders and a hard, level gaze. Now in his mid-fifties, he is the most experienced and easily the best operator I have seen. Erwin has done it all; run every kind of pipe, on every kind of rig, on three continents, in more than a dozen countries. The first time I went offshore, wet behind the ears and totally ignorant of rig life, I met Erwin and instantly liked him. A few years later, after rig-hopping around South-east Asia, I landed a spot on his crew. I was lucky — his reputation is well-deserved, though he never brags about it. He taught me with a combination of patience and good humour, and guided me through my first five years in the oilfield.
Without trying, Erwin always retains a presence of authority and calm even when the worst is happening all around him. He's the guy with the light around him, the one that looks like he's got a weapons-grade temper but in fact doesn't.
Erwin's presence instantly lifted my mood, and within a few days of his arrival we were all joking and laughing about the operation. You know, 'Gee whiz, we all nearly drowned yesterday', that kind of thing.
My crew on this gig were all from Azerbaijan and finished every sentence with 'fargin'. They'd walk up to me and say, 'Paul, when we go to town drink vodka fargin?', 'I don't like Russia rig ... food no good fargin'. And so on.
On the rig, I was sharing a room with three blokes: 'Sick Boy', who didn't talk much and snored like a pit bull being hot-waxed; a very nice Canadian named Dave Nordli who everyone called 'The Seal Basher'; and a habitual alcoholic called 'Vodka Bob', who had the DTs — the shakes — so bad he couldn't fill out his daily report.
Vodka Bob drinks Guinness for breakfast when he's not on the rig. Sometimes he chases it with Smirnoff neat. His prefabricated concrete flat is cheaply furnished and sits in a run-down housing estate in Moscow, but it's better stocked with liquor than your average supermarket. He's been working offshore for fifteen years — the same as me, only Bob has not been as lucky.
Bob got up around six. I watched his ritual every morning. As he took long drags on a Texas Five, he'd put on his gear, slipping his fingers into leather gloves creased and moulded from the cast of his hard, thick hands. He's thirty-six, the same age as me, his body strong — not toned like you see reflected in overpriced gym mirrors in Sydney, but powerful from years of heavy work. It's work that's kept Bob alive, because if it were not for his regular abstinence enforced by the no-alcohol rule offshore, Bob would have drank himself to death years ago. Vodka Bob performed this routine each morning in meditative silence, under the watchful eyes of 1998's Playmate of the Month, who was taped to the wall by the shelf above his bunk. She was vaguely reflected in the tattoo descending Vodka Bob's back. He'd pull a comb through his long hair and have a last drag on his smoke. He was ready for work.
I think Bob had a better sense of himself by the end of his hitch offshore, his body winning a war of attrition against his will to drink. If only he could find the strength to avoid the bottles lining his flat.
Sick Boy was one of the assistant drillers. He's big, covered in tattoos, lives in Thailand and roars around the rig with a broad Scottish accent and a never-ending ability to make you laugh. He was fun to be around, and the drill floor was always organised when Sick Boy and the other AD, Scott, were around. Sick Boy got his name for all sorts of reasons. Besides knowing how to bleed and butcher a human, he is a skilled storyteller and exponent of the cling-wrapped toilet bowl. If it's done right, you just don't see the plastic stretched across the bowl until you stand up and wonder why your poo is levitating.
Kamran was one of my guys. He's a monster really, six foot eight inches tall, three hundred pounds, with a neck the same circumference as my thigh. His hands are so big I can't shake them properly. And he's a true walking penis; all he talks about is chasing women. I think he's been on the rig for far too long; he should be sent home next week.
The Americans on board got on very well with the Russians, there was a sense of mutual respect that hovered around their interactions. And modern Russia was alive and well, you could tell from all the vodka that somehow found its way on board one day. Its presence instantly lifted our comrades' moods, smoothed out any dramas and turned them into toilet humour, in a Boris Yeltsin kind of way.
Most of the American guys on the rig were from Louisiana; they're all Coonasses (Cajuns), you know. Considering they had just lost twenty- two rigs in one hit and most of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina, they were in relatively good spirits. It was us guys out there manning dodgy rigs in the Russian sea who were taking a chance. The seas there are notoriously wild. The choppers were older than me and could only fly by line of sight; they regularly had to turn back because of the weather. That got interesting when they were past their PNR (point of no return). With half their fuel gone, they were committed to finding the rig in fog thicker than a 'Big Brother' housemate. So if anyone was going to get hurt, it was meant to be us. Not the boys drilling a couple of miles offshore from Bourbon Street.
Only a few days after the abandon-rig alarm, the weather turned nasty. We had a fire and H2S drill on the same morning, with wild seas, a listing rig and the wind blowing at sixty-five knots. Hard-hats were flying all over the place and the drill was a complete shambles. The tool pusher — the rig name for the drilling manager — was so angry he wanted to keep doing the drill until we got it right, but the weather was too bad to do it safely. He wouldn't give the muster list and radio to the company man so he could shut it down, and I eventually had to talk the radio out of his hand; he was like a retired greyhound with a stuffed rabbit. There was a massive hurricane tracking up towards us and all reports suggested it was bad. We were thinking we might have to evacuate to the 'Asylum', a former Soviet mental institution that now houses offshore personnel en route to the rig and the closest thing to a hotel for hundreds of miles. I'd stayed there before. It was creepy and still a dump, but with vodka now ... super.
The H2S is a bastard drill to do in bad weather, but you've got to do it. It's called a 'sour well' when we encounter H2S, or hydrogen sulphide gas. H2S can hide in the formation and slowly migrate to the surface; it's heavier than air, completely odourless and deadly. Just one hundred parts per million will kill a man in a few seconds. It's very similar to potassium sulphide, the gas once used to put criminals to death in America's judicial gas chambers.
Excerpted from This Is Not a Drill by Paul Carter. Copyright © 2007 Paul Carter. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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