A different kind of the middle of nowhere

Image Source: Wikipedia


Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.

The Diary: Notes From The Northern Isles

 

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What could have been. Image Source

It is in the middle of shovelling rice and chicken down my throat that just how similar to prison these cubby holes I pop into from time to time are. For one, there are a number of hoops to jump through to get here – in my case a 5.30am check-in followed by a fixed wing flight up to Scatsta in the Shetlands and then a further helicopter flight out to the platform – and the overwhelmingly maleness of everything, tattoos and all. There are also the shared rooms, the strict meal times and the restricted choices there tends to be for meals. The one statistic which goes against the prison narrative is perhaps the proportion of ethnic minorities in prison vis-a-vis the general population, but that is neither here nor there. And of course, we’re all out here by choice, getting paid a premium of sorts for the joy of being out here.

On this occasion I am on one of the bigger cubby holes – floated out in the late 70’s – with the claim to fame of being the world’s largest movable man-made object at the time. These days the Polarcus Armani  and Shell’s Floating LNG Plant the Prelude have stronger claims to that crown, a symbol perhaps of the changed fortunes of the UK sector of the North Sea vis-a-vis the rest of the world. To get here, this behemoth of the Northern North sea, we had to brave inclement weather at Scatsta, the clouds so thick and winds so strong that the pilots decided against going through with two landing attempts thirty minutes apart. In the end, we had to wing it to the southern end of the island to Sumburgh for a landing and then a bus back up to our original destination. The glimpses of the road that were visible through the windows in the pouring rain suggested that there would be some mileage in coming back here for leisure, but on this occasion the rough, rugged terrain – roads that wrapped themselves around hills and valleys and small streams fuelled by the torrential rains leaving their marks on the hills that lined our route – seemed more a trigger for memories of the past than anything else; St John’s, Newfoundland which I visited two years ago and the distant corner of Edo State to which I trace my heritage being the two main ones. One wonders where all that time went, not least the years since I last went home. My plan is to spend a total of three days out here – not since in my early years in February of 2014 have I had to spend more than a week at a time offshore – but for the regulars, a three week stint looms, which is why perhaps they seem less perturbed by the detour we have had to take.

The last few years have seen free wi-fi access hit these haunts, one more positive to everything. Back in the day, staying in touch with folk back home depended on finding access to a desk phone with the ability to dial out; access is a lot better out here than I recall from my offshore Nigeria days. Once offshore, I settle into the room I have been assigned, before heading out to the offices, to get stuck into the reasons why I am out here. A detailed chat with the platform manager to set the scene for why I’m out is followed by the first of what will be several meetings with the folk who I work with directly on a daily basis, and then a walk in the plant to eye-ball a number of areas which have piqued my interest.

With time I have come to realise that the routine is what keeps me sane – regular / restricted meal times, periodic review meetings, and the late night trip to the bund to stock up on sweets and bottled water have become things I look forward to on these trips, symbols of the passage of time, and with meetings, things checked off the to-do list.

There is joy and salvation in the mundane and routine after all, that much is not in doubt.

On My Return To the Middle of Nowhere

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Back at the heliport for a trip offshore – the first time since March – it feels like a lifetime ago. The last time there was the pressure of my counterpart from the government regulator looking over my shoulder to deal with, this time the roles are reversed as I am the one asking questions of others. Waiting to be checked in, what strikes me is how empty the terminal looks. Spending one’s days in an office which was only recently re-stacked has somehow shielded me from the reality of just how much more reduced offshore activity has been over the last year.

We go through the usual things – waiting, getting checked in, watching the safety brief and then more waiting – a monotony broken only by the joy of people watching. This time only a few things catch my eye, chief of which is a bit of banter between a group of men and a woman who appear to all be going to the same rig as I am. In sitting amongst them, she almost misses her seat, spilling a bit of her coffee. This leads to her being asked if she is sober. Only later, as I overhear another conversation whilst we’re offshore does that bit of banter make sense; she does have a reputation for being a lively, paint the town red kind of person, one which the latest escapades she regales the group with only cements.

Before all that, there is the small matter of an hour and some of flying time, whilst kitted out in one of these, not exactly the most comfortable of feelings. I do manage to fall asleep during the flight, the rhythmic chugging of the helicopter and having woken up at just past 4.00am all contributing, in my defence. Besides the boiler suit, I get the added ignominy of having to wear a green arm band, this being my first time out to the particular rig since the back end of 2014.

The series of meetings I am offshore for go very well, there being enough time over the course of the three days I am out to catch up with folk I haven’t seen in awhile. These offshore trips can sometimes be an exercise in politicking dealing with people, the overwhelming objectives being to not come across as an onshore boffin who is ramming things down people’s throats without thinking of the impact of the added work. This fine line of balance is never more obvious than when the subject of ongoing pay cuts come up. Word around town is that most of the folk I deal with directly have had to stomach a 22% pay cut over the last eighteen months with a few of the perks being pulled, like the option of an extra bacon roll at morning tea time. Not exactly the stuff morale boosting conversations are made of but I do my best we’re all in this together impression, a truthful one this time because the only reason why I am making slightly more money than this time last year is I have chosen to accept a contribution in lieu of a city centre parking spot.

Running into people I have met on other rigs in the four years and some since I began these trips is a recurring theme on this one. On arrival, I find out that the installation manager is a control room lead operator from a different asset I used to support who has risen through the ranks  – by way of a job elsewhere. The inspection team also includes two people who I have worked with in the past.  As we exchange life jackets ahead of hopping on to the helicopter for the flight out on Thursday, I run into another two folk from a past life. This all leaves me wondering if there is a wider meaning to all of these – have I spent too much time around these parts or is this just an indicator that one has done a good enough job, and stayed long enough to survive the impact of one’s decisions? I suspect it is a little bit of both.

About Town : On (yet another) return to the middle of nowhere

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Wide awake, with not even a lingering hint of sleep to becloud my eyes, I pause to ponder the day that lies ahead of me. Difficult as it may be to wrap my head around them, the facts are what they are. It is very nearly six months since I last made the journey that lies ahead of me. Back then, LK was the developing conundrum, one that those days spent in the middle of nowhere ended up resolving, ultimately to my pain – not that I knew that at the time. My alarm snaps me out of my little reverie – I have a 6.00am check-in at the other end of town to contend with, and a 15 minute walk to catch the bus that will haul me across town – small margins for error given it is already 4.05am.

A bath, shave and a quick swig of water done, I heft my two bags onto my shoulders – two changes of clothes and work boots and covies in one, my laptop in the other – and make my way down King’s Street and then across to Broad Street where it turns out I have a ten minute wait till the 727 chugs along to pick us up. There is one other person in the bitter cold, she hops on to the number 11 after a few minutes, leaving me all along again till ta second co traveller appears at ten minutes past the hour. He doesn’t disappear – into the number 17 when it comes. The quiet wetness is that bit more bearable for company – silent though it is.

On to the 727 we are the only ones who are aboard, the driver’s reply to my muttered greeting is terse – a hint of an Eastern European accent to boot. Ear phones plugged in, I settle in to my chair , Tenth Avenue North my music of choice on this bitter cold morning. Somewhere between the Great Northern Road stop and the Bucksburn Police station, five or so others hop on, and my silent companion from Broad Street morphing into a pilot’s uniform, with as much efficiency as  women who go from hag to wag on the tube.

We arrive at the airport at 5.30am – good time seeing the advertised time of arrival was meant to be 5.35am. My flight is only the second one so check-in for the first flight is still ongoing – it stretches for a further fifteen minutes, due , it turns out to particularly stringent checks today. I have to flash my passport and vantage card, get patted down quite intrusively and have my bag unpacked and repacked by the young lady who is conducting the baggage checks for me. My inner jacket doesn’t fit into my knapsack when she tries to fit it. She is apologetic about it – a small hassle for me – I opt to have it on me for addition to the big bag that gets tacked on to the flight for jackets and other small items.

The flight to Scatsta is quick – Scatsta ends up drier – and feels warmer – than Aberdeen does, even though it is nearly 300 miles closer to the North Pole. The quirks of my wet, cold and windy corner of Ruralshire I guess. The call to suit up comes at about 10.00am. It should take just under an hour but we end up with our feet on fairly stable ground – for what it’s worth – in an hour and thirty minutes. We make a pit stop on the NS platform, where the helicopter gets refuelled – and one of the pilots vanishes for nearly fifteen minutes. It is the first time in my six trips offshore where this has happened. If the motions the other passengers who like me are forced to disembark whilst all this goes on are anything to go by – the pilot has had the need to take a sudden shit.

It is very nearly 11.30m before I get to squirm out of my boiler suit, go through the shortened version of an induction and then dump my bags in the room I’ve been assigned. Long day coming up from the looks of it, given it is still not yet 12.00 noon.


The room I am assigned, it turns out, I will have to share with a chap on the night shift. The slight positive is that it will give us both a measure of privacy – whilst I am sleeping he will be working, and vice versa. It does means too though that my morning ablutions are completed in a tip-toe of sorts. By 6.00 am I am done, and I head out to the galley to grab a cup of tea to kick start my day. On the way I run into G from my last trip. We shake hands, a little too firmly as we exchange pleasantries in the hallway. Six months ago, we had bonded over bad weather and a delayed flight that meant that a two day trip for me – and a three week one for him – ended up stretching an additional five days. This time, he is due off the day before I am to go. ‘Thank goodness’ he says, ‘at least you won’t be a Jonah on my flight this time’. I smile and walk away – his acerbic wit is one that is growing on me.

I run into G again at 9.30am, the small matter of a spread of bacon rolls, cheese toast and cheese cake attracting a small crowd of six for a tea break and a natter. G is sat in the massage chair across from me, one of the guys, a Ross County football fan is the butt of his wit this time. The night before a couple of contentious referring decisions gifted G’s home town club a win over County, and he never one to miss the chance to goad a fellow human obliges. For once I am glad to be out of the eye of the storm.

I dig into a bacon roll – doubled and a lorne sausage for good measure and enjoy the spectacle. M has a bacon roll too, and having downed that, at G’s encouragement digs into half a cheese toast. That, as I find out over the next few days provides plenty fodder for G to rib M about his weight.

Just after lunch B stops by to alert me to the fact that my flight out on Monday is over booked – I’ll thus be spending an additional day. A bit of a nuisance given I have driving lessons booked for Tuesday evening. I toy with cancelling them to avoid losing my fee but decide to hold fire just yet. I guess given my luck, there was always the sneaky suspicion that it might come to this (it’s the fourth time out of six i’ll be delayed an extra day at least

Sunday starts off early for me, the situation with the bloke on the night shift not exactly helping matters. At the mid-morning tea break, a new face shows up – a Canadian drilling engineer with a love for dirt bikes and trucks. He seems a pleasant enough guy, and take no offence to G’s ribbing about his love for cheese cake and the pin-ups splashed across his computer desktop.

Lunch is beef roast. I grab a couple of slices of roast beef with a small portion of curried rice – my nod to my stop start low carb diet, and at the chef’s insistence some haggis. Between mouthfuls of roast beef, I get sucked into a conversation on cars. A number of the guys are eyeing up sports cars – Jaguars, Audis and the like – out of my price range, even if I did not have the small matter of passing the driving test to contend with.  I hum and ahm at the right moment, taking in the brake horse power, the number of cylinders and the acceleration stats with the right amount of (feigned) admiration I hope. For dessert, I have pick up two pieces of cheese cake – #4 and 5 over the last three days.  On my return, I find the seat next to mine has been filled by K. The conversation has taken a slight detour into diet territory. K’s  on a modified Atkins one, where he’s sworn off carbs. Uncomfortable territory given how much cheese cake I have downed so far.

 Sometime after dinner, P stops by with slightly more relevant news – a medevac on Monday means a second flight will be put on, and I just might make it to the beach on the same day I am planned for a change – some consolation. J emails to check up on me – I give her a call and we chat about how the weekend has panned out. Hectic at hers, slightly less so at mine but plenty to look forward to on Monday.

Monday passes in a blur – tense anticipation ruling the day as first I am informed the original flight I should be on has been cancelled. I am promised a later one will arrive at 1.45pm. In the end, it arrives at 4.00pm. Late enough to have had lunch but not dinner. By the time it touches down in Scatsta, it is nearly 6.15pm. We spend another 30 minutes waiting, before we wing our way back to the ‘Deen.

I am far too tired to care at this stage – I must come across as a right grump to the cab driver as after three or so attempts to make small talk, the ride passes in somewhat uncomfortable silence. All that is left by the time I arrive at my door, at very nearly 7.30pm, is to order a large Papa Johns, devour it in short order and fall into my bed fully clothed till the gentle vibration of my phone alarm the next morning jolts me back to life.

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Journeying to the middle of nowhere

The one last, irrevocable act that settles the inevitability of these trips is the phone call, typically sometime between 3.30pm and 5.00pm, confirming a check-in time for the next day. Beyond that, it is a fairly straight forward routine – wake up just past 5.00am, sort out my morning ablutions and then proceed to drag my two pieces of luggage down Park Road, up Kings and up to the bus station just outside Union Square. Thereafter there is a wait – between five and twenty minutes depending on when I arrive – before the 727 to the airport begins its crawl towards Dyce and the airport.

That ride, typically a 30 minute one, is largely spent in silence, punctuated only by bell presses alerting the driver to people’s need to alight as required; their stern, mostly tired faces, hardly inspiring conversation. Outside, there is only a steady stream of early morning commute traffic, and the overwhelming grey of dull, bland buildings to view, until the final stretch of the A96 where some greenery mercifully appears to break the depressingly monotonous view.

Today’s trip lasts just a little over 35 minutes, a snarl getting off Great Northern Road ensuring we spill over the allotted time. Delay notwithstanding, I arrive with plenty of time to grab a coffee before proceeding to the counter to check-in for my flight which is planned to leave by 10.45am.

Check-in is quick. The frazzled woman at the front desk runs me through the routine – passport checked, vantage card eyeballed, bags weighed, quick step on the scale and then the check to confirm my stored details are still correct – and then waves me through to baggage check in.

I join the lengthening queue in front of the full body scanning machine as it inches along. When it is my turn, the man on the other side motions for me to step through. I do not set off any alarms today. My bags get scanned, and then taken apart and searched. I get the all clear after two minutes and some, and then proceed to get my jacket, belt and shoes back on.

9.10 am… My day has just begun.