A Story in Three Parts – A Memorable Day
Part Three – My Memorable Day Unfolds
I thought I had adequately prepared myself to walk through the metal detector and deal dispassionately with the pat down procedure. I had watched at least five groups go through the same routine. My own moment of reckoning has come. I was sure I was prepared and nothing would be amiss so as to draw attention to myself – the new guy.
I was directed to the red suit room. As I walked through the door, an agent quickly looked me over and yelled “LARGE.” I was directed to stand in line in front of a sign marked LARGE. I was handed a suit. It had a number on it – a number that was quickly added to my photo id and death contact form. Perhaps in another post, I will more fully describe the suit. Right now, let me just highlight my orientation to the SURVIVAL SUIT.
The SURVIVAL SUIT was, in fact, a heavy-duty wet suit. The first thing I noticed was how much it weighed. I was in reasonably good shape but heaving around that suit was strenuous physical labor. I had no idea what I was to do with my SURVIVAL SUIT. Obviously, I looked lost.
I remember very vividly that I was quite anxious about all that was happening to me. My adventure was turning out to be something more challenging than a fun-filled way to spend a few months on summer break. I kept thinking of the paperwork I had just completed – who should be contacted in the event of my death or if I was lost at sea? That thought did not fit in well with what I imagined when I agreed to spend some time on an oil rig.
Another official looking fellow walked over to me, “First time?” I didn’t even have time to nod my answer when he continued, “Listen to what I have to say and follow my instructions.” He proceeded to direct me in the proper use of the SURVIVAL SUIT. For those who have ever squeezed into a wetsuit, imagine that effort on steroids. Kicking feet went into attached boots, flailing arms went next. There were attached gloves for my hands to wiggle in to. The hood of the suit fit over my head so that just a bit of my forehead, eyes, nose and mouth remained uncovered. Every other part of my body was encased in hot, rubber-like skin. I was asked to stand up and walk around to check the feel of the suit. I am certain I looked like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz – straight legs that didn’t seem to bend, arms that absolutely didn’t bend. I looked around. I was not alone in how I moved in my SURVIVAL SUIT. Everyone seemed equally handicapped in our movement while encased in our second skin.
How could I get out of here?
That same fellow directed me to sit down against the wall. He explained the rest of what I needed to know before I got on the helicopter. If for any reason I fell into the water, I was to pull the yellow cord hanging down from my left shoulder. That would cause the flotation vest to inflate so that I would not sink and drown. If I wasn’t quick enough with this procedure the weight of the suit would cause me to sink beneath the waves and I would drown. Why did he have to repeat that? “So, don’t forget to pull the cord. Oh, sometimes the cord doesn’t work. In that case, very quickly blow into the tube on you right side to manually inflate the vest. Do it fast!”
“There is a beacon that will automatically turn on when you hit the water. A strobe light will start to blink. A radio signal will be transmitted so that you might be located by a rescue team. Both the strobe light and the radio signal will work for a couple of hours. You’ll need to be found by the time they stop working.” And if I were not found by that time well, they did have all the information they needed with what to do in case I was lost at sea didn’t they?
I was further instructed to float on my back while trying to stay together with other crew members in the water with me. My instructor finished his instruction with this, “there is a whistle by your left hand so that you can locate other survivors in the water.” Other survivors? What had I, what had we survived from? I stopped thinking.
Our group of twenty got up and started toward the next door – the mystery door.
Outside I found myself on the tarmac, following striped yellow lines leading to a gigantic red helicopter. Bags and other carry-on items were collected. I was pulled and pushed through the door of the aircraft directly in front of me. I imagined myself as a snack being offered to a hungry red dragon.
There were two rows of sling seats on either side of the helicopter cabin. My row of ten fellow travelers faced ten others sitting in a row across the cabin from me. No one was talking and no one was smiling – a bad omen. There were small windows that might afford a view of what was outside. Did I really want to know?
The pilot came on the intercom and directed us to put on the headphones provided for us. He said our trip would be very noisy. Just then, the jet engine above my head started up. The pilot did not exaggerate. It was very loud. The helicopter started to lurch side to side due to the torque produced by the turning rotor blades slowly cranking and gathering speed. I noticed the helicopter’s two doors were still open. I assumed the doors would close before we took off. However, we started to taxi out away from the hangar with doors wide open.
“Did they forget to close the doors?” I yelled to the guy next to me. “No laddie, they leave them open so we can get out quicker when we ditch into the sea.” Someone outside the helicopter must have hear my silent prayers. The doors closed. The guy next to me was laughing.
The helicopter taxied briefly.
Without warning, the helicopter ride began. The aircraft rose up and started to fly away from the Aberdeen Airport. Looking out the small window closest to me I could see we were flying over fields and country roads. Then, without warning, we weren’t. We were now over water. I looked around. Everyone but me seemed to settle back in their seats. Just another day commuting to work. At some point I settled down. This was not the 7:44 from Morristown to NYC commute that had been my habit just a few years prior to this new ride to work.
I had no idea how long the ride was going to be. Asking any of my fellow crew members about the length of the helicopter ride seemed like a waste of time based on the previous response I has received about the open helicopter doors. I thought I’d be in the helicopter for maybe 30 minutes. Several hours later, the helicopter made some turns and lowered its nose. I could look out through the cockpit window and there, on the horizon, was an oil rig much like the one in the photo below. Soon, forward motion stopped and the helicopter started to descend.
We landed quickly. The doors opened and everyone jumped onto the deck of the oil rig. Not exactly terra firma but close enough, especially after the ride out. The crew walked rapidly toward an open door. Everyone but me seemed to know where they were going, so I followed. Once inside I was greeted by a guy who said he would be the foreman of my work party. “Let me get you settled and then get you some lunch. Have a good ride out? At least you made it. Yesterday a helicopter went down. No survivors, thirteen lost at sea, so the mood today is pretty bad.” Welcome to the nightmare.
I was shown my room while I was aboard. It reminded me of a college dorm room. The room was furnished with two wooden bunk beds, four painted metal lockers and two desks and chairs straight out of an Ikea catalog. I really didn’t know what I was expecting vis-a-vis, my accommodations, but what I now saw was a pleasant surprise.
“You get the top bunk. At lunch I will introduce you to the others guys. Get out of that suit and hang it in your locker. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Oh, there is a bathroom down the hall to the left. Remember your room number.”
I took off the survival suit, put it in my locker and decided to go wash my hands and see what was what. In every hallway and in every room, there were handrails on the walls. I thought it strange that the rig was handicapped accessible. Even in each stall of the bathroom, handrails had been installed. I looked in the shower room and sure enough, handrails there too. I would soon discover the practical reason for the handrails.
Back at my room, my foreman came to take me to lunch. “My name is Ernie,” he offered by way of introduction. Second surprise, also reminiscent of college – great smelling and great looking food and plenty of it. There was a choice of meat, fish, vegetables, bread or muffins and a table full of enticing desserts.
It was time to meet my other three roommates. They seemed agreeable. They were from Scotland. I was soon to learn how fiercely loyal Scots are to their hometowns. There was a cost to bad-mouthing someone’s hometown.
We all sat down together. My first meal consisted of Playboy Stew (rabbit stew), mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh steamed vegetables, Mr. Pibb soda and Boston Cream Pie. The incredible anxiety that had built up since 7:00 am that morning in Aberdeen was beginning to subside. For the first time I thought to myself, “I can do this.”
I had survived so far. My day had begun waking up in Aberdeen Scotland, beginning a trip of several hours arriving at my new temporary home, a semi-submersible oil rig somewhere in the middle of the North Sea. I now found myself having a very pleasant lunchtime meal and conversation with a whole new group of fellow workers.
“OK, back to work,” someone shouted. The truly memorable part of my day was just about to begin.
End of Part Three
I have enjoyed remembering some of this memorable day with you. This was a first day at a new job on steroids. Let me know if you’d like to read more. I have lots of stories to tell about time on and off the rig.
For instance – being awakened at 2:20 am from a very sound sleep by the sound of an alarm signaling everyone to immediately evacuate the rig.
Or, what it feels like to spend an evening in the rig’s fitness center located 100 feet below the water in one of the flotation pontoons. By the way, the fitness center is only accessible by an elevator holding no more than three persons at a time. Usually there are 10-12 persons exercising in the fitness center at any given time. Planning one’s ride back up to the sleeping quarters sometimes involved “vying” for the available spots in the elevator.
Or, what went through my head when I stumbled into an “off limits restricted work zone” and discovered a fully equipped hospital operating facility?
These and other stories describe some of the experiences I encountered during my two week shifts on the rig. There are also stories to be told about my time off the rig, travelling throughout Europe, sailing, skiing on glaciers in the Alps, visiting museums and taking calculated risks with people I would meet along the way. Let me know if you are interested in reading some of the adventures I’d be happy to share.