Aboard this clanking, grinding, whirring piece of heavy industrial menace, floating off the coast of Brazil in the south Atlantic, it's easy – indeed even normal – to feel oneself becoming less human and more mechanised, adapting to the hydraulic metalism that is one's living environment. The only green here is the slimy broccoli lumped into a heated tin for lunch servings – there is no nature, no growth, no life. Nothing, but for the few confused flies that have travelled from a supplies vessel, and the ubiquitous cockroach which knows no limits. Existence is automated – those on board this noisy, sleepless platform are cogs in a greater machine, and are here to function only. Enjoyment or happiness are alien concepts to the dead eyes that pass in the corridor. We are stranded, cut off from those we know and love, from the places we grew up, from everything familiar; cast off in an unholy roar of savage mechanics that becomes our temporary home. We adapt, but most adapt by mechanisation.
Still I resist, however, for the time being. As yet still fresh, I cling to those memories of home and friendly faces, knowing that I will re-unite and in the meantine must maintain my humanity against the near-overpowering onslaught of brute steel around me. To do this I must snatch whatever remnant of reality and freedom I still can, and herein lies the wonder of the helideck.
I have espoused the virtues of the helideck in the past, during my ten day stint offshore Mauritania, which was notable for its grand total of two hours' work. The helideck is a lifeline. Not just because that is where our winged eagle will one day swoop down to save us and carry us back to tearful family, but because in this claustrophobic engine that one hundred men are crammed into, the helideck represents the only open space available. Ten metres by ten metres, or more, this octagon is without walls, and is open out to the endless ocean and epic sky. It's even green.
Helidecks range in size, shape, position and quality. The ideal helideck is elevated from the rest of the rig, or at least jutting seriously out, and will remain relatively undisturbed by crane operations. It shouldn't be part of a thoroughfare, and should maintain a degree of privacy. Importantly, the surface should not become too slippy after a little rain. Pasty white sunbathers littering the area is a definite no. I am not a social helideck patroller, and hence prefer the crew of the rig not to crowd me during my daily or twice-daily stroll.
The helideck on this rig, by most of the above standards, is not a great one. It's somewhat inset into the rig, so not private, and I garner stares from anyone descending from the rig floor. Rope to form a gridlike pattern is strung across it, thus hindering my walk. Crane operations are infrequent but can interfere. On the plus side, I have not had to share my helideck space yet, and there are no pasty white sunbathers.
The main plus of this helideck, though, and a big selling point of any helideck, is the view. For all the space and freedom a helideck grants, to avoid being swallowed whole by the rig and reformed into some unthinking scrap of metal, an interesting view of the outside world is vital. Not all rigs have such a view. My very first job in Egypt found me surrounded only by an expanse of sea, the Mediterranean. In my five weeks there, despite immaculately clear conditions, the only thing of note I saw was a distant ship sailing by. Still, that compares well to any stories I hear from the North Sea, which I pray nightly I never have to go. Cold, overcast and unspeakably miserable, there is nothing to see and no way to see it, and life eventually becomes a silent shell huddled in the smoking shack, avoiding the bitter stares of the aging, fingerless, dour Scots, condemned to their graves in this vile existence.
Usually, in my experience, each helideck has offered something in the way of a view. Even Nigeria, too far offshore to see the coast, offered fish. Fairly regularly, the calm surface of the water would be broken by a fish jumping out, and then another, and another. Fish could always be seen swimming just under the surface. In the distance too was a rig. Mauritania didn't have much to offer either, but a nearby drillship flaring looked quite pretty, and I was visited by a bird, photographed in an earlier entry, that kitchen Mark (expert birdwatcher) idenitifed, to everyone's joy, as a "brown booby". And there can be fewer better views than a brown booby.
I photographed also the view from the drillship off Equatorial Guinea. Usually the haze obscured it, but at sunset the sun would dip behind the volcanic island, giving a quite spectacular end to the daylight. Sunsets in general are quite good from rigs.
For views, the best rig to date was the one offshore Oman. The rig itself was a total dump, a festering pile of metal decaying into the sea. But when H2S operations weren't going (thus confining everyone indoors for days), and the air was clear, the view was terrific. From one side, the craggy mountains of Oman were clearly visible, almost pink in the sunlight, with a settlement lighting up a sparkling line of orange streetlights at night. It looked close enough to swim to. And to the other, just a little more distant, faint pink mountains belonging to Iran could be seen. We were in the Arabian Gulf, at a bottleneck, and thus ships sailing by were a constant occurrence, ships of vastly different shapes, sizes and purposes. Quite often, we would see small speedboats – smugglers – in groups, dashing from one country to another. Once, a military gunboat sailed by, Omani I believe, with a giant gun on a turret. Just in front of this gun, on an open space on the deck, was about fifteen soldiers, on mats, crouched and bowing for one of their five daily prayers.
This rig and helideck now can't hope to match that offshore Oman, but it's pretty good. The first couple of days I arrived were wet and windy, with any view obscured. But it's since cleared, and to the north-west a long line of mountains can be seen. Most are smooth and rolling, but a few are alone and sudden, and one particular is impressively large. It is below this large one that the orange glow of civilisation appears at night. All this is definitely too far to swim, should the need arise, but for closer signs of life we need look no further than the many fishing vessels that meander by. This is a common occurrence in Brazil, I gather, and at any given time I can expect to see at least one fishing boat in close proximity, with the five or so fisherman close enough to communicate in sign language, should I ever happen to learn the Brazilian signs for "Take me home, I beg you." I've seen them catch individual fish from lines. The fisherman tie their boats to the rig legs, and during the rough spell over the weekend, three boats tied together, with one tied to the rig, bobbed vigorously up and down while they waited for the storm to abate.
Further afield than the fishing boats, distant ships sail by, and three rigs are clearly seen. Two are very close together, twinned for some reason, and at night light up like Christmas. Rigs, in fact, look quite pretty from a distance. But then, most things look like pretty from a distance, or a few beers.
Finally, and from a distance of about two hundred metres, while on a stroll in the sun round the helideck yesterday, I saw some unexpected movement in the light ocean waves. My previous experience from a holiday in Iceland kicked in, and I waited a little, and sure enough it returned: a whale. Gently surfacing for air, then going under, then resurfacing. I think they – or at least the ones in Iceland – surface three times before heading back down. It wasn't a big whale – we're not talking epic Blue Whale proportions here – but it was certainly bigger than a dolphin, or a porpoise. I will endeavour to bring my harpoon gun for future Brazilian adventures.
It's these small glimpses of an outside world that help retain a degree of humanity and sanity while onboard an ugly vessel of function, sucking up ancient dead life from kilometres below so that the select millions can do bigger and better shopping. I would offer you some photos, but cameras are forbidden on this rig, and the camera smuggled in I accidently put through the wash, and now it doesn't work. I'm a little upset about this.