Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Eye Of The Storm

This trip looks to be one of extremes...

I sit here, in an air-conditioned unit on a decent rig within spitting distance of Bioko island, monitoring some meandering lines of data, contemplating whether or not it's time for another coffee. With my earlier coffee, I'd taken just two bites of a rather tasty slice of cake before an unfortunate momentary lack of concentration saw the cake slip from its napkin onto the filthy floor. The icing had smeared across my chair leg and so continuing to eat the cake was not an option. You may well imagine this upset me somewhat, especially as the galley was now all out of cakes. But despite this hardship, all is calm and all is ticking along smoothly and gently. This was not always the case.

It is without exaggeration or lobbing around of superlatives that I state that the last few days have been among the most brutal, the most unrelenting, the most comprehensively exhausting of my career. In the torrential rain, with massive bursts of thunder engulfing the rig, and stifling humidity, we have been working up to 24 hours at a time to rig our equipment up. We have had less than a third of the usual time to do so, due to lack of planning by the oil company in charge. Thus four of us have been working around the clock, sorting out heavy equipment and sometimes intricate electronics, fighting exhaustion as we scale a vast wall of work. The effort has been immense, not least due to conditions we're working in. Caked in mud or brine or grease, and soaked through with sweat, the bursts of furious, swirling rain have been momentarily refreshing, though soon becoming yet another sensory battering. The concept of shifts have been thrown aside - we've just worked till we've dropped more-or-less, grabbing a few hours of rest before hauling ourselves up to continue the battle. Our initial schedule - 24 hours to rig up six carriers and twenty electronics to be run in hole - seemed preposterous and impossible, but somehow was managed. The pressure eased ever so slightly then, as slight delays gave us much-needed time to rig up a whole new batch of electronics, but there was still not much breathing space allowed. We became zombies, automated creatures working on pure instinct and habit, as we heaved our knackered, wrecked bodies around from task to task, our humanity and personality sacrificed in the name of unadulterated, neverending, ball-busting labour. On and on and on, I lost all track of time, and by Saturday morning could have been told it was Tuesday and accepted without blinking. When finally the prospect of a decent sleep came, it was rudely interrupted by a fire drill, for which I had to shake my colleague, "The Smiler", awake for, in his deep, exhausted sleep not hearing the alarm blare or sensing the lights come on.

But when that final piece of tubing disappeared from sight under the rotary table (the hole where things vanish) suddenly all became calm. The weather abated, and we have now entered the eye of the storm. It's time to monitor the data, a gentle process involving coffee and cake. I've had a full night (or day, technically, as I'm on nightshift) of sleep and feel healthy and rested, and with my senses back in place.

But not for long. Usually this data monitoring process is a leisurely stroll over a week or more: not so this time. This one is only for a day or two, extremely short by well-test standards as the guys in charge are scared the residue we're testing, kilometres underground, is so thick and waxy that it'll solidify and wedge all the equipment - millions of pounds worth - in hole. So pretty soon, the chaos will again ensue as a mass of filthy, waxy, clogged-up equipment is yanked out of hole for us to try and clean, break up and download. No doubt the rains will start again, and the sun will burn us up. A frenzy of activity, but rewarded with a boat trip back to Malabo, where out come the beers and wine, and drunken insanity will ensue. If I survive this, then I can go home.

So for now, I'll enjoy this momentary peace in the eye of the storm. The data keeps coming in, and sometimes I even take a look at it. And most crucially, the kettle is to hand to brew me coffee at any given moment - and I sense another cake quest coming up.

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