BJ Stingers: who really wants a BJ Stinger? Not this drillship, it seems, as upon pulling out of hole the BJ Stinger was crushed and bent, with half of it lost deep down hole. Enough to bring tears to a man’s eye.
I arrived here, on the NS-16, a battered old Russian vessel now doing service in the south Atlantic off Rio, a handful of days ago – a Saturday. It took me and my colleague – who I’ll refer to as “The Smiler” – our second attempt to get here, as our first attempt early on Friday morning was rebuffed. Our names were only pencilled in for the chopper, and pencil is not enough, so we were bumped to the following morning. If only it was that simple. Brazil being Brazil and Halliburton being Halliburton meant that schedules are a loose, almost foreign concept, and the Friday involved three hours of hanging around, waiting futilely, and the Saturday had six hours of glorious waiting in a shabby heliport. Both mornings were 5am starts, so neither me nor The Smiler were exuding much joy.
First impressions upon arriving were not good. As blades whirred above our heads, yellow fireproofed figures ushered us along the rim of the helideck and down the usual steep, metal steps. Earplugs muted the racket; nobody spoke. Being a drillship, our position was still lofty, and only the derrick towered above us like an industrial Eiffel Tower, with the rig floor even, along a narrow bridge cluttered with small containers. As ever, length of tubing were being chucked in or yanked out ad infinitum. Our attention was quickly diverted from this thundering machination as a lone figure across the way motioned for us to follow him. With caution, for I was laden with a heavy backpack, a large blue offshore bag slung over a shoulder and a metal case containing equipment clasped in one hand, I ventured down another steep, narrow set of steps. A dirty red hardhat was given to each of us, and we were led on a merry chase.
Most rigs and ships have their accommodation quarters immediately below the helideck: not the NS-16. Down various steps, round tight corners, along claustophobically narrow corridors, having to backpedal sometimes because our passage was blocked, our route to our home for the next month was a winding maze of clanks and screeches. My 5am start and six hour wait did not welcome this trek, which eventually led to a room cast in total blackness. Lights on revealed two Brazilians playing a Playstation game, and a man using the internet. All were turfed out. The shadowy figure who had led us here asked us to be seated, and then said, more or less, “We take pathogens very seriously here.” Forms were quickly signed saying we agreed. The Captain then appeared, sternly searched our bags (I’ve not seen my dildo since) and we were led to our room.
Things then got better. Then they got worse.
The good news was – and still is – that this drillship is pretty damn decent. My only other experience of drillships was of the “Songa Saturn” back in Equatorial Guinea. A groaning hulk of debris, rusting piles of pipe and ancient grease coating every surface, this cramped vessel was barely fit for service, instead only fit for the lizards and cockroaches that scampered the decks. But the NS-16 is much better. The chief point in its favour is the two-man rooms. Not only that, but spacious two-man rooms, with windows to outside, and a TV. While obviously not new, the rooms are clean and well-kept. Likewise, all the accommodation, which is spacious and open. The helideck, being on the aft, is not within commuting distance and thus out of bounds for dedicated circlers such as myself, but on top of the accommodation, above the bridge, is an open space with a great vantage point, and with a few chairs scattered too. The food is unexceptional but edible, though the 3pm and 9pm snacks are delicious. The gym appears excellent, and I’ve considered actually using it. For third party personnel there are three computers with decent internet. And on channel 42 is a 24-hour porn channel.
I’ll repeat that last part – a 24-hour, no holds barred, porn channel. I’ve still not quite come to terms with this.
And so Saturday ended up being spent quite pleasantly. Taking some of our electronics into our cabin, the evening was spent leisurely as we programmed gauges and transmitters, stuck batteries on the ends, O-ringed and greased them up and slid them snugly into housings. Everything seemed to be in order, except for a crappy test coil, which was but a minor inconvenience. Information about run in hole time was vague, but appeared to be the following night, though sometime mid-Monday was also discussed. Therefore we knew we’d have to up early and fresh for a big day.
A big day it was, a gruelling 16 hours of relentless battles, problem solving, and physical exertion. What should have been straightforward, wasn’t. Really, all we had to do was build our carrier and test it with our wireline tool. How difficult can that be? Very – when your container is constantly being craned away to different locations, there is no external power source, your most simple piece of equipment and the backup breaks, and the trek from cabin to carrier involves heavy doors, stairways and repeated use of the claustrophobic corridor used on our ship introduction. The constant shunting around of our container was such a hassle. We’d pop into our quarters to do something, and when we came back out we’d find our container wedged in a corner, unable to be opened. Therefore it was easier to keep everything of importance in our cabin, meaning very soon our room was rammed full of pipes, tools and slabs of electronics alien to anyone outside of my company.
The crisis came with the tool links. Can you believe that? How simple a tool link is, so simple I’ve never before even considered them failing. They just slide into the housing and, as the name suggests, create a physical link between the coils of two other tools. All a tool link is is a hollow metal cylinder with tightly wound copper-plated silver coil round each end with two wires attaching the ends. No electronics, just metal and wire. But our first tool link wouldn’t fit into the housing. And the second one too. We tried both housings, just in case. It was clear both were slightly bent, and the more we forced them the more the wires and the tape holding the wires on the link got scraped. The worst then happened – the coil on one link was nicked. This is irreparable, and the link was now useless. Down to just one, which already had a wire looking very bent and fragile. It still tested ok, so we tried again to wedge it into the housing, involving much force and bending. Finally, it went in – so we screwed in our acoustic transmitter plus our extended coil, rigged it all up to the laptop and pressed go. Failure. The SRO box registered as normal, and the extended coil dumbed fine, but there was no communication with our transmitter. Very evidently our tool link was broken. Bad news.
Fortunately, this one was repairable, though not by us. Seeking out the rig electrician, hiding in an obscure corner far on the other side of the boat under the helideck, we pleaded our case. He spoke no English, but fortunately his room was packed with many other swarthy men, one of whom did. He’d try his best. All our hopes were now resting on this man.
In the meantime, there was the matter of everything else. The carrier was built without problems, though not without effort, as housings were lugged along the now very familiar network of steps up and down, and narrow corridors, due to the carrier skid being nowhere near our container. The worst was the R Nipple – a brute of thick metal – that took all my strength under the Brazilian sun to heave along this passage. Two O-rings onto each housing, plus some incredibly fiddly peek backups, as well as oil traps for the gauges. You don’t need me to tell you that after this effort we were black with grease and soaked with sweat.
Back to the tool link, as it was collected from the electrician and taken to our quarters for insertion into housing and testing. As delicately as possible, we rammed it in. Transmitter and extended coil were then gingerly screwed in. All rigged up to the laptop. SRO box – ok. Dumbed coil – ok. Then the moment of truth, would the acoustic transmitter communicate? There was silence as The Smiler and I exchanged nervous, desperate glances. “Do it,” he urged me, as my finger hovered over the “identify” icon on our specialised software. I wiped my damp brow with a hand dark with the filth of hard graft. “May God have mercy on us,” I said, barely a whisper.
I pressed “identify”...
And it worked. The pressures of a day lifted from our shoulders as our last ditch attempt to save our job was successful. Whooping and cheering, both of us lifted into the air in an ecstasy never before experienced, hugging and pressing our bodies together, until we took a sudden check of ourselves, and vowed to stop watching channel 42 so much.
The day certainly wasn’t over though. We still had to test our carrier with our newly built wireline tool, and the rig’s drastic shortage of external power supplies almost scuppered this. The situation was ridiculous. All we needed was a power supply within 40m of our carrier, and we could conduct a quick twenty minute test. Usually we can borrow someone’s unit, but the only unit around was the wireline unit, ages away and without power. A plug outside would do then, but there were only two. One simply didn’t work, and the other had a socket requiring a plug unlike I’ve ever seen, and couldn’t see in the electrician’s workshop. Finally, after considerable searching, a socket near the rig floor was borrowed, but then the toolpusher – a Brazilian with an unnerving Aberdonian twang – became nervous about our equipment. Was it rated? Was it explosion proof? A spark from a laptop might send this entire gas well to kingdom come. The electrician was fetched, a different guy from before, who spoke English but made me deeply uneasy with his dirty beard and lecherous stare. I was taken to his office, and slowly made to fill in forms, as I smelt the digesting food from his stomach as he breathed over me. A Permit To Work was required, basically a Health and Safety waste of everyone’s time, requiring loads of forms to be filled in by loads of people. involving a chase around the rig to find them. The whole process took near two hours. Our whole test, when finally enough pink and yellow papers had been filled in and filed, never to be seen again, took twenty minutes.
Then there was some rest.
Not for long, as I hauled myself up at 8am to immediately be plunged into another frantic day of set-up and tool failures, this time against the clock. Our carrier had to be pressure tested to 7000 PSI, then function tested again to make sure our gauges were still ticking away. A simple process, in theory, but again the terrible power situation on the rig shot us in the foot.
The pressure test went like a dream. There was a fair amount of hauling of stuff, but the test itself was perfect. I was worried that slippage of the peek backups may have resulted in a less-than-perfect seal, but this didn’t transpire. It was now midday, hot under the cloudless sky, and the time was drawing near for our carrier to be run in hole. But a function test was still required, to make sure the tools still worked after having had pressure applied. Here we ran into our next problem.
This problem was a hangover from the previous day’s. Because this job is a MiniFrac, the first time I’ve run such a job, SRO from the wireline will only be focussed on a short space of time, rather than the days and days of data often required from the shut-in period of a DST. Thus, instead of the usual acoustic means of data acquisition used for STO, inductive comms are required. This means that we use the coils of the wireline tools to line up with the beta talkers of the gauges, and an ARL on the end of the wireline tool latches into the R Nipple immediately below the gauge carrier. Needless to say, that the coils must be exactly aligned so that data can be transferred, and alignment of coils is notoriously tricky. But if we were to run our carrier into hole, we would need to have our ARL set for precise alignment prior to this.
But we couldn’t do it. Painstakingly, we adjusted the ARL bolts, but when running the software the gauges simply wouldn’t be found. I’d correctly dumbed the extended coil as a gauge (rather than as a transmitter, as per usual) and run it all as a direct (rather than APS) system, but nothing. What was I doing wrong? It was that question that I’d fired off back to base via email the night before, and had received a number of detailed replies. The heart of which seemed to be: software bug.
Hours of effort, in filthy coveralls, knackered, sweating, all spent for nothing because of faulty software. I phoned back to base (itself a mission, as making foreign phonecalls from this ship is far from straightforward) and explained that if I couldn’t get this inductive system working in just a few hours, then I’d have to go fully acoustic and dump the ARL, as our carrier would be going in hole shortly. I spoke directly to the tech-expert, who assured me a patch would be winging its way via email very soon, though might be in quite a large file, and also explained how I might be able to access an older, working version of the software if mine or The Smiler’s laptop still had an old installer. Time was ticking, and none of this looked to be a quick process.
Then some good, miraculous even, news: inductive comms would not be required. A valve in the Halliburton carrier immediately above ours would be closed for the Frac, making it impossible for our ARL to run through and latch with the R Nipple. Instead, the bullnose of our wireline tool could simply rest on the valve and conduct a standard STO. Suddenly, a massive weight was relieved from us – now all we had to do was conduct a surface SRO test the usual way.
The power situation was again a complicating factor, but we got round it this time by borrowing a Halliburton boy’s cabin and setting up the laptop there, and running a co-ax from there to the tool. A very improvised set-up, certainly not textbook stuff, but the easiest way under the circumstances.
Now, what followed I’m a little embarrassed about. Because there was then a couple of hours – time for running in hole growing ever closer (and ever shifting) – of tool glitches and mysterious lack of communications. I tried everything – via coils, via extended coils, via different acoustic transmitters, changing cables and SRO boxes. What on earth was wrong? I knew our gauges were sound, but why couldn’t my wireline tool get a good signal? I did eventually get enough data to prove everything was operational, but it was only later that I discovered what the glitch was – me. The settings of a program had been accidently and very subtly changed, meaning that things almost worked, but not quite fully. It was as simple as a mouse-click to remedy hours worth of stress.
By this time, the carrier was safely in hole, and suddenly both myself and The Smiler could sit back with a sigh of relief. A lot of hard work, a lot of running around, a lot of frantic problem solving, and it had all come good in the end; now gentle days and days were ahead of us, sitting in the sun, using the internet, religiously attending 3pm and 9pm snack-time, and watching porn on the sly when the other was out of the room. And so, on the most part, it has been.
Some rigs, the time stretches endlessly and painlessly. But not here. In fact, it’s almost a pleasure. I’ve rigged up my iPod speakers in the room, and so can subject The Smiler to repeated assaults of my music (he has no iPod thus no comeback). The rooms are a pleasure to be in, especially with the window to outside, with the lovely view of a calm blue sea, semi-sub rig a couple of miles away, and the occasional passing fishing boat. If I want a change of scenery, I head upstairs to the roof of the bridge, with its open space and chairs, and views over the ocean, including yet another rig, and numerous boats. The sunset the other day caught one rig in silhouette and against the dramatic orange backdrop made this chunk of barbarian steel seem rather pretty. By the looks of it, I may be here for some time, and I can think of many worse rigs I could be staying. In fact, though not technically the best, this may be my favourite rig to date. It’s just open, and I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a hole.
And it does look like I could be here some time. Yesterday, the string should have passed through the packer, but repeated attempts failed. It was theorised that the Stinger, a BJ tool, must be bent, so a replacement would be in order. So, yesterday evening I watched as kilometres of pipe were pulled out, culminating with our carrier and then the Stinger. Or part of the Stinger.
What came out was this thin, twisted piece of metal. I’m not, mercifully, familiar with BJ Stingers, but it transpired that what I was seeing was only half the tool. The rest was somewhere “down there”, i.e. kilometres underground, down a hole. Maybe on the packer, maybe not. It’s too small to be fished out, so instead the packer has to be pulled. Even if this goes perfectly from now, it’ll be a week before I’m running a wireline. Already, the job is two weeks delayed. I would almost bet upon further delays too.
Then – and only then – will the DST part of the run. And as we all know, the DST can be fraught with difficulty. The MiniFrac is supposed to be the easy part!
Here’s to Christmas, then, on the good ship NS-16.