Yankee Classic: Life on an Oil Rig
From Yankee Magazine April 1981
Working on an offshore drilling rig is a demanding and dangerous profession. Author Scott Cramer signed on as a roustabout on a rig exploring the Baltimore canyon. Here is his report.
The round-trip fare is $50.95. as I board the bus in Providence I try to remember what I accomplished during my 14 days off: two days devoted to travel, three nights of restless sleep, re-adjusting, and one day for obligations — dentist, friendships, bills. That left me ten days to operate my life as I wished: write a couple of poems, play ball, read. This is free time that I earn by working as a roustabout on a drilling rig 106 miles off the New Jersey coast, 12 hours a day, 14 days in a row.
The bus ride takes eight hours. Switching buses in New York City, I arrive in Atlantic City about dinnertime, take public transportation to my company-paid motel room, then walk to a nearby restaurant for a $12 meal. I return to the room and relax, watch T.V., sleep and dream about that 5 A.M. wake-up for the chopper ride out to the rig.
The only difference between tonight and any other night is that there is a new man in my room, just hired and full of questions that I don’t want to answer — it would be a waste of my time and his. If he can just wait another 24 hours, they’ll all be answered. I say to him, friend, it’s another world out th ere, but there’s no need to worry because we’re all in this thing together. He nods, but I know I make him nervous. All that riding on the bus lets one think too much. I know what he’s going through.
About a year and a half ago I was in Houston. Just out of college, looking for work that required no experience, it seemed I knocked on the doors of every oil company in America. I never got past the receptionist at first, then it was the employment office. After some practice I could make it to a soft leather chair in an executive’s office. Even with a beautiful tenth-floor panorama of Houston before me, each interview was a dead end. All the action, all the hiring for offshore work, I found out, took place in southern Louisiana — in Morgan City, Lafayette, Houma. One got a job by going to the bars and not saying the wrong things, buying drinks, making connections. I found work on an oil and gas production platform, seven days on, seven days off. I scrubbed decks and tightened flanges.
After a month I used this experience plus a contact I had made in Houston to get a better job with more responsibility and more money. I scrubbed decks, tightened flanges, and took readings of oil flow rates. For six months, 40 miles offshore, I worked nights, surrounded by blinking lights from drilling rigs, production fields, barges, and work boats. In free moments I called airlines (I had access to a phone), pricing flights to Sydney, Rio, Bombay. I was bored. On one hitch I got so depressed I quit. My poetry stale, and with no exercise, no friends, I vowed never to leave land again. I was hired as a security guard for a large office building in New Orleans. To get back into shape I joined a health club, and as fate would have it, Mr. X, who worked for an offshore drilling company, was also a member. We talked, and the next thing I knew I was heading back home to New England to work on a drill rig in the Baltimore canyon. I heard rumors that work on drill rigs was long, hard, dangerous; pay was good; co-workers were tough. It was all accurate.
On the rig I either eat, sleep, or work. My shift is 12 hours, and the work can be dangerous, often boring. There are accidents of the profession: a carpenter may bang his finger; the roughneck may lose his. Just as people whisper in a library, they shout on the rig. Who yells at whom, and when, depends on a social ordering that relates to your job: galley crew and roustabouts are on the bottom; drilling crew and toolpushers are on the top. You obey the rule: don’t say the wrong thing to the wrong people, or even the right thing to the wrong people. The oil field is not like the army, or like a prison; it is unique — it breeds a special camaraderie. The fact that you are wet and cold, using a water hose with the temperature in the twenties and being yelled at, is not so bad when you see your friend doing the same thing and also being yelled at. Every minute of dangerous work is balanced by a minute of laughter; it releases tension.
One day we are awakened at 10:30 A.M. With the lights on, the room looks small. There are four bunk beds, men’s magazines scattered on a desk, and it’s hot. I get up immediately to beat the rush for floor space, and head to the galley. My breakfast consists of pork chops, milk, collard greens, potatoes, salad, and pumpkin pie. There’s plenty of everything, and good variety. Only when the weather has been bad and we can’t get food does the salad start to wilt and the same meat show up disguised in different dishes. Today it’s supermarket fresh. After eating I stick my head out the door to check the weather. As usual, it’s cold, windy, gray. This means long underwear, specially insulated winter coveralls, hard-toe boots, and of course gloves, hard hat, and safety glasses. My three roommates scramble to get ready and don’t eat. I sit back and wait, letting my mind wander to the life I left behind.
At 11:30 A.M. we start painting. It’s one of the never-ending jobs, along with scrubbing decks and walls, and sweeping. The time goes either slowly or very slowly, depending on what I am painting. Handrails are my favorite, ceilings are not. It’s hard to get up in the morning after painting ceilings 12 hours a day, eight days in a row. Luckily a work boat comes to our rescue. It is a priority to unload boats in the winter months, because rough seas will keep boats waiting for days. We work with the crane for the rest of the day.
The crane is an important, versatile offshore tool. It is also one of the most dangerous. There are mistakes you can make, many that the operator can make, and there are unavoidable mechanical failures; all of these can cause serious injury. If the sea is rough the rig pitches and rolls; inevitably the load swings, and if it happens to pin you against something, you could die. An experienced crew can minimize the dangers and work safely and smoothly. An inexperienced crew plays against the odds. In the oil field the fact that good men are moving up the ladder, plus a high turn over rate of roustabouts, usually keeps the crane crew green. On-the-job education is given by the number of close calls you have, or that others have. Still there are undiscovered ways of getting hurt.
There are no problems with this boat. We off-load bundles of drill pipe, stabilizers, power tongs, and 15 containers of drilling mud. We back-load trash, assorted drill bits, and the U.S. mail. Time goes quickly.
When the shift is over at 11:30 P.M. we go back to the room tired, but happily relaxed. A mountain of dirty, bulky winter clothing rises on the floor. My strategy is to hurry to the showers so that I won’t have to plow through the throng of naked bodies. Everybody is dirty. Roughnecks caked with drilling mud scrub with Ajax and pumice soap. After showering, I eat, return to the room as soon as I can, and try to sleep.
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