Yankee Classic: Life on an Oil Rig
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.
I have nightmares after I work with the crane: I dream that I get squished, and I wake up screaming. My three roommates awaken, confused, scared, a little mad. I tell them I dreamt they got squished, which worries them, subtly. When I work on a high beam I dream that my bunk is that same beam. I work all day, go to bed, then work all night. Once I removed a section from the ceiling and tried to climb in. Or so I was told.
This routine is typical, but every day brings something new. Roustabouts, they say, are paid from the shoulders down: they are general laborers who help whoever needs it. I have worked with the rig mechanic, climbing down inside one of the legs to inspect the ballast system. It feels like being in a strange movie about an underground race of stranded sewer people. A myriad of shadows and ladders descends deep, deeper; we worm through human-size hatches and hear echoes of our hands slapping against rungs. I wonder how they would get me out if I fell? Finally reaching bottom, 49 feet below sea level, I tighten one nut. We rise.
I have worked 50 feet over the water in the personnel basket, looking like a spider at the end of a long one-inch steel cable. (The basket is used to transport men to the boat.) We had to remove a nut from a bolt, the bolt from a hinge. The nut came off pretty easily, but the bolt wouldn’t budge. Heating the bolt with an acetylene torch, we alternated whacking it with an eight-pound sledge. Swinging, swaying, I worked on this thing until I didn’t think I could squeeze the handle anymore — three hours.
Water got into the cement tank, and some cement solidified. A cement tank looks like a farm silo and sits in one of the legs. Our crew had to enter this tube and chip it out. My job was to stay topside, lift up chunks in a bucket, throw them overboard, and lower the bucket back down. Every now and then one of the cement-covered crew surfaced for fresh air. Cement irritates sensitive skin, nostrils, lungs.
Many days I work at the pipe rack, which is the storage area for various types of drill pipe. The roustabout’s job is to insert crane hooks into the ends of a joint of pipe, signal the operator to lift the load, keep it from swinging, guide the pipe over to the catwalk, cut it loose, then wrap one end of it with an air-hoist chain. This allows the pipe to be pulled up the V -door to the drill floor. You have to watch your fingers and your toes. Team work is very important, because everything happens at once: two men work on the catwalk, two with the crane. There’s a lot of iron in the air; we hope it’s not overhead.
Probably the hardest job of all is to stay awake the first night we work. When I get to the rig I work for one week from 11:30 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Then they swing us, and for the last week I work from 11:30 P.M. to 11 :30 A.M. At 2 A.M. I grow despondent; how much so depends on what I have to do. Six cups of dark-roast coffee during the three o’clock break will carry me until six; it’s downhill from there. Some men take speed; a few crash too early. Near the end of the shift everybody fights a vicious fatigue.