Sunday, 4 March 2007

Helideck Dilemmas

Seeing as there really isn’t anything to do on a rig when you’re not working, hobbies previously not top of your list suddenly become elevated. Staring into space, reading 19th century literature, playing Patience on the computer, having conversations about engineering with plebs: all these will figure in my offshore day. But perhaps primary in my list of new-found offshore hobbies is walking on the helideck.

The helideck, for those uninitiated, is the large octagonal or octo-rectangular surface on the rig specifically for the landing of helicopters, which is how the bulk of the personnel get to and from the rig. It is usually jutting out somewhat from the rig itself, so that when you walk to most edges you find yourself precipitously peering down at the ocean about twenty metres below with only the fence-like mesh round the helideck perimeter providing scant security. In this age of manic health and safety on rigs, I am surprised there isn’t more protection here. The first few times I stepped close to the edge of a helideck I was struck with a little vertigo, although I don’t really notice the drop now. Still, at dark and with an enthusiastic wind blowing, I don’t tend to venture too close to that edge.

On a rig, with nothing to do, it’s very easy to just eat and sleep and stay indoors, and become another one of the many wretches I see skulking around the claustrophobic corridors. So an important part of my day is to take a brisk walk on the helideck, usually for about an hour, while listening to music, usually thundering German minimal-techno (what else?). This is good exercise, gets “the juices pumping” and importantly gets me outside into the sunshine. It also is a great time-filler: sometimes I’ll do two or more of these sessions (two hours is 2/16ths = 1/8th of my waking day, i.e. 12.5% of my time filled). And with the food on this rig being terrific, and in terrific portions, it’s perhaps a good idea to counter-strike before my belly overwhelms me.

But the helideck isn’t without its share of problems and dilemmas. Most significant of them is having to share the helideck. Put simply, I do not like sharing my helideck. When I’m pacing around in circles, blue waves on one side, clanking industrialism on the other, in a state of meditation to my German techno, I don’t like some other scrag interrupting my peace. It causes all sorts of problems. First of all you both have to space out appropriately, so that you are on opposite sides of the helideck. Next, you have to pace yourself correctly so that you don’t overtake or are overtaken by the other. I seriously dislike this as I don’t like having to regulate my pace. But I hate overtaking more, because as you close in on the other person you suddenly have to produce a spurt (i.e. quicken your pace: there’s no hanky panky going on here) so that you’re not walking alongside the other person. And I also get paranoid that the other person is gaining on me, and so I like to at least have them in sight so I know how fast to go, which can be difficult if the other person has ignored helideck etiquette and joined in at only a short distance behind – it’s like being chased!

As you can see, helideck etiquette is a minefield, and so I usually try and only walk there at times when no-one else is around. But it’s easier said than done when so many others don’t share my sentiments and, with nary a thought for my feelings on the matter, hop on and start marching away at a stupid pace. What can I do?

It gets even worse when you increase the numbers. I’ve seen five – yes, five grown men – marching around a helideck, spaced out evenly. I, of course, would not participate in something like that.

And the rare case when you get two men walking in opposite directions in the helideck, thus forced to acknowledge or studiously ignore the other person every time they pass, ugh... I will never put myself in that situation.

This has been the situation to date, but on this rig further complications have arisen by the post-lunch brigade of pasty white Scots who are determined to sprawl their fat oil-smeared bodies around the helideck space to enjoy a spot of sunbathing. Initially, they confined these activities to one small corner, but perhaps feeling that it was silly for up to six beefy men to lie in a short line next to each other, they have spread out all over, and thus taken the early afternoon slot, which was one of my favourites. Clearly, I’m not going to enjoy my hour’s walk round the helideck if I’m having to swerve round greased-up bodies with every second step.

A pasty white obstacle.

Fortunately, the pre-lunch and pre-dinner slots are still mine alone, and these are my favourites as they build up a healthy appetite so I can fully gorge myself on the main meals. Because in a job like this, where every day is a new challenge and real physical labour is a worrying possibility, you’ve got to take every opportunity to keep up your strength. Which reminds me, it’s almost time for my coffee break.

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