The best part about working offshore for me is the travel and exploring new parts of the world - for some that may be the worst part of the job! I like to think of my travel days as a mini break…a break from home…a break from work… a break from electronic connectivity. A time to slow down and read for the fun of it or catch up on writing projects (like I am now!) or just to meditate, daydream, fantasize…anything you never make the time for in your busy life at home or at work. The transition from “break time” at home to “work time” on the rig can be brutal so it’s nice to have a day of disconnect between the two.
With my job as a wellsite geologist, I may not even have the option to study up on wellsite operations that I’ll be walking into because working mainly in exploration means we quite often don’t even get briefed on the status of the operations due to strict “tight hole” status. This means that any news on the drilling operations can be market sensitive and therefore the dissemination of all operational information is strictly controlled. Sort of like being involved in a big expensive secret mission in the middle of some exotic sea that only specially trained people can fly to…ok, now I’m fantasising :-)
The travel day to the rig at the start of your hitch has a totally different vibe to the travel day on your way home, after spending up to 28 days on the rig. When I’m travelling to work, I feel a mixture of excitement and also dread, knowing that I could be working for up to 28 days on the rig, 12+ hours every day and this is my last day of “freedom” for a while. But there’s also the fun part of catching up with work mates again…and of course not having to do any cooking or cleaning for the next few weeks!
It’s always a bonus if you get to overnight at a nice hotel the night before you fly out to the rig. One last taste of comfort – and beer - before the hard work begins.
It’s generally an early start on fly-in day and this hitch was to be no exception. A 4:30 am pick-up at the hotel for a 5:00 am check-in at the airport is a sure sign the holiday is over. Despite the early check-in, our helicopter wasn’t due to depart until 7:30 am so we had a long boring wait in the terminal without any electronic devices to keep us entertained. By this stage all of our belongings are checked in for the flight and the only thing you’re allowed to keep with you in the cabin of the chopper is a soft-covered book or magazine. It pays to remember to take one with you because delays can happen and you can find yourself with hours to kill in a boring departure lounge.
With all the waiting over, the eight incoming crew members were led out to the tarmac and boarded a bus that took us to the helicopter. We geared up in our life vests and hearing protection and boarded the chopper for the 2.5 hour trip to the rig. The life vests contain emergency breathing apparatus so are very heavy on one side which makes them lopsided and awkward to wear. The straps are always hard to adjust so I fumbled trying to get it tight enough to feel snug around my waist, although I doubted they were made to fit a waist my size! I was reassured by the addition of a crotch strap that meant even if the waist strap was loose then the crotch strap would ensure the life vest wouldn’t float off me once inflated.
Being wet season, the payloads of the aircraft are kept to a minimum so we were warned to have only one bag of maximum 12 kg. Even with the restricted payloads the chopper still made a fuel stop at Kcaow Pyuy (pronounced Chow Pew) airport to ensure it had enough fuel in case of delays or diversions during the remaining flight to the rig.
Kcaow Pyuy is on the western coast of Myanmar and is the closest airport to where the rig was drilling offshore. We were directed into a waiting room just off the tarmac where we waited for about 15 minutes while they re-fuelled the helicopter. It had taken about 1 hr 50 min to get to Kcaow Pyuy and it would be another 30 minutes flying time to get to the rig, finally arriving at 10:00 am.
It was my first time on this particular rig and it was by far the biggest I have been on. Being a dual derrick 6th generation drillship meant it was heavily staffed by not only drilling crew but also a dedicated marine crew who were responsible for the running and maintenance of the ship. I was to be one of only 4 women on board out of a total POB (persons on board) of 198.
While the layout of the rig was very similar to the previous drillship I had worked on, it was probably about 15% bigger, which equated to a lot more stairs to climb. From the lowest deck (where the gym was located) to the top of the helideck there were 10 levels within the accommodation block. After a brief spiel on the status of the current operations by the OIM (Offshore Installation Manager) and the WSM (Wellsite Manager) it was time for a quick Cook’s Tour and induction of the rig. The important things like where your cabin is, where your office is and the location of your emergency lifeboat are all covered in this quick walk-around. Being the first of the wellsite geologists on the rig for this current phase of the operations meant I had no-one to greet me so all I had for a guide was a copy of some handover notes that had been emailed to me by the last WSG who was on-board for the previous well.
I was happy to learn there was a dedicated room for the wellsite geologists so for now I would have the 2-man room to myself. Being the first geologist on board meant I got to secure the bottom bunk for myself…always a great start to your hitch.
The cabin was spacious although as is typical of all offshore accommodation, they provide a locker for your gear that has no shelves in it so 80% of the space is wasted. Obviously the people who design the rigs have never worked and lived on one of them so have no idea how ridiculously frustrating it is to live out of a locker that has 80% unusable space in it. Added to this design fault is usually a small square mirror on the inside of the door that is positioned at least a foot above my head height, but I was happy to see the mirror in this locker was not only bigger than usual, but also at a height where I could actually see myself. Although this was a good thing, it was soon offset by the fact that the door had no way of securing the hinge in an open position so the door was free to swing closed with every roll of the ship. You just have to get used to tying your hair up with both hands and balancing on one foot while you use the other foot to hold the locker door open. It’s a life skill most women never have the need, or opportunity, to acquire so I considered myself lucky to be given this opportunity. Where else can you get an ab workout while doing your hair?
The ensuite bathroom also proved to be a bit annoying with no shower curtain in it to prevent the water from covering the rest of the small room when you had a shower. I tried to explain to a passing cleaner that I had no shower curtain but he didn’t speak English so I couldn’t get the message across to him. I thought maybe all the rooms were like this so put up with it for the first day. Feeling very exposed while having a shower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an incident I had read about a year earlier where a rig was found to have hidden cameras in one of the women’s rooms, positioned covertly in hanging hooks on the wall. I suspiciously scrutinised the towel hooks on the back of the door for any signs of camera lenses but was satisfied I probably wasn’t being spied on.
The bunk bed was very comfortable and I had no problems falling to sleep at the end of the day. Unfortunately though the sleep was short-lived when I was awoken by a fire alarm. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a drill so waited for the announcement to be made on what course of action we were to follow before getting out of my comfy bed. I was praying it was a false alarm so I could go straight back to sleep. The first announcement to follow said the alarm was being investigated and everyone was to standby for further instructions so I was hoping that meant we wouldn’t have to muster straight away, if at all. After a few minutes the announcement was made that it was a false alarm and no action was required…yay, I could go back to sleep!
Getting into a routine quickly is important to me so I set my alarm for an early start so I could get a workout done in the gym before starting my shift the next day. I hadn’t actually been shown the gym on my induction tour so I was hoping to be able to find it OK. Like on many rigs, the gym was on the lower most deck which meant it was below the water line. To make it even more interesting you had to access it through an hydraulically-driven water-tight door that was alarmed and had a red flashing light while it slowly opened and closed. Before entering the area you had to call the bridge to let them know you would be going through the water-tight door. These doors can be operated remotely from the bridge and in the event of an emergency they could be opened or closed automatically without warning. The blaring alarm and flashing light was almost enough to put me off entering but not training in the mornings isn’t an option so I persevered.
The gym was well equipped, despite only being a fairly small room. There were three TV screens mounted on the walls and a table with a supply of bottled water and paper towels. Two doors at the back of the room led to a toilet and a sauna room. For the next hour I was in my happy place and my daily routine of train-work-eat-sleep had begun.
Due to it being monsoon season, the rig was moving quite a bit so training in the gym was extra challenging. My run on the treadmill turned into a hill interval session whether I wanted it to be or not. Managing the free weights also posed an extra degree of difficulty as the heaving motion of the ship either increased or decreased the effective weight you were pressing/pulling with unpredictable timing. It all added to the weirdness that comes with doing a workout in the bowels of a ship at 3 am in the morning before starting work at 4:30 am.
For the next few days I would be the only wellsite geologist on board so I wanted to touch base with people to find out what had been happening overnight before I had to deliver my morning reports. The first of the meetings is at 5:30 am with a pre-work meeting for everyone starting shift at 6:00 am. That usually goes for about 20 minutes and then at 6:30 am there’s another 20-30 minute meeting for the third-party supervisors to discuss operations for the shift ahead. Then at 08:00 am there is a phone conference with the drilling operations people in the Perth and Yangon offices. In-between all these meetings I had to send reports to the operations geologist who I report to in town. Normally when I’m on day shift and there is another geologist doing the night shift I wouldn’t need to attend any further meetings but because there was no night shift geo I wanted to attend the 6:30 pm third party meeting also, just in case any operations anyone was doing overnight impacted me. By the time that meeting was over at about 7:00 pm I was ready for bed so I could get enough sleep before starting it all over again the next day.
Another priority when you get to a rig for the first time is to check out the availability of Wi-Fi. While it is prohibited to take your mobile phones outside of the accommodation block, there is generally a Wi-Fi network within the accommodation area so you can stay in touch with the outside world while on the rig. The network is always very slow and many sites have access banned, such as gaming and pornography websites. You always want to make sure you have any apps you want downloaded at home before you leave because large data downloads are virtually impossible. Be prepared to only see the text on your Facebook feed as the photos take several minutes to load.
The rig is offshore from Myanmar with a lot of the drilling and marine crew coming from India, where the rig had previously been working for a few years. Many of the third party personnel are from Myanmar, as are the catering and cleaning crews. There’s also quite a few Scottish and English crew members as well as Australians who work either directly for the operating oil and gas company or are contracted to it (as I am). Although that covers the larger number of personnel, there are also many other nationalities represented from all around the world. You couldn’t find a more culturally diverse workforce at any other worksite in the world, I’m sure. Many of the lower skilled workers speak no, or little, English so there is a Myanmarese interpreter on board at all times.
Returning back to the long days of work on the rig after being out of work for 15 months was surprisingly easy to adjust to and within a couple of days I felt like I’d never been away. Once you get that long, first day on the rig done and your first decent night’s sleep it’s back to business as usual.
This particular rig had been working almost continually since the boom so most people working on it had not been impacted to the degree I had in the current downturn. Although most would inevitably had a reduction in their pay rate, they were still to experience the threat of a possible long-term unemployment situation. Despite this, it is still a possibility that it could happen after this contract finishes so everyone is very aware of the precariousness of their jobs. It’s a very uncertain future for all of us and it’s virtually all everyone talks about. I have no way of knowing how long this hitch will be or if I’ll be lucky enough to secure more after this one…I’m hoping I will be.
Amanda Barlow is a wellsite geologist in the offshore oil and gas industry and also a published author of "Offshore Oil and Gas PEOPLE - Overview of Offshore Drilling Operations" and “An Inconvenient Life – My Unconventional Career as a Wellsite Geologist”. She is also a recreational marathoner who has run over 40 marathons in 16 different countries and is the author of “Call of the Jungle – How a Camping-Hating City-Slicker Mum Survived an Ultra Endurance Marathon through the Amazon Jungle”, an account of her participation in one of the worlds most extreme multi-stage endurance events. You can connect with Amanda through the Pink Petro community, LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/amanda-barlow-wsg or through her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnInconvenientLife