Friday, 25 April 2008

Mistakes Past As Drinks Await

So I find myself in Glasgow, in my cousin's flat, with a pleasant sense of nothing to do. A different kind of nothing-to-do than the listlessness of a hotel's, or clanking claustrophobia of a rig's. Here is quiet, with space, although my first time here the surroundings are still familiar. My cousin bought her flat just six months ago, and it's a terrific place. Not in the best part of town, therefore fairly cheap especially as all the furniture came with it, it has three good double bedrooms, improbably cluttered kitchen and debris-strewn living room including three large and slowly-dying plants. It needs all kinds of work done to it but is currently fully functional, and full of charm. It's precisely the sort of property that attracts me, and so I cannot help but cast my critical eye and imagine the happy weeks I could spend here dismantling everything, accidently electrocuting myself, but finally and in the space of a couple of days the finished article appearing, as if my magic.

An appraisal of my cousin's flat, however, is not what brings me to Glasgow. A thorough catch-up with old faces is. Despite Glasgow being less than three hours train journey away, I've not been here for over 18 months. A lot of my friends live here, possibly more even than in Aberdeen, and so this is a long time to have gone without seeing them. I've simply been too busy. Last year I effectively only had about three months at home, with the other nine being abroad for work and (a little) holidays. And in my three months at home I was even busier. Looking back now, it seems quite amazing. This time last year I had only two flats, neither of them leased out and both them in a state of disrepair and needing some heavy work. In my few months at home, I managed to get them both finished, buy another two flats - both needing a lot of work - and to my immense relief, three of four are now happily rented out, one is my home, and like an impatient mother, a fifth is on the way.

Yes, that was the good news story of my return. I arrived in Aberdeen at 2.30pm on Monday afternoon, looked round one flat only, and less than 24 hours later my offer had been accepted. No hassles, negotiations or delays. The survey came in yesterday and was almost perfect. The only criticism was weeds in the gutter, mere unshaved legs on a beautiful girl.

So that's been good. Also good was my weekend home in Dingwall, and Inverness. I saw my first Ross County game in two years, with them comfortably beating the might of Cowdenbeath 3-0 and being awarded the Division 2 trophy at the end. Various people there I'd not seen in years, and fresh back from Brazil it was a perfectly formed afternoon of homely familiarity, even down to the crisp, fresh weather. Plenty of whisky was then drunk that evening, with Varwell and my brother, and Sunday was spent in gleeful indolence at my mother's, as she made food for me and her fancyman slaved away in the garden (I'm convinced she only has this fancyman for gardening and occasional dinners).

So, all very nice. But, alas, the echoes of Brazil came back to haunt me. On Wednesday I went into the office. It wasn't my finest moment.

A job screwed up, for us and other companies. Tens, even hundreds, of thousands of pounds lost. A complete overhaul in procedures required. A likely written warning for me next week.

And I'm now banned from Brazil.


No, I'm not really taking this too lightly. I admit, the thought of not returning to Brazil does make me want to sing and dance and enter into a musical, leaping and twirling round lamp posts. It's kind of like a reward for being an idiot. But it's a terrible black mark against my name that, for work, I effectively cannot go back. NRBed, not required back; as a friend and collerague of mine (who has been NRBed from Equatorial Guinea) put it, "Welcome to the Papa non Grata club".

Reflecting on my error, which I've done much of, and the more I learn about it, I realise quite how unfortunate it was. Careless by me, yes, very, but also very unlucky, and in any normal situation the mistake wouldn't have been so costly. The error was, simply, I screwed stuff in wrong. For some reason, the carrier I was using was upside-down, something I have never encountered before or knew existed. A thorough pre-check should have highlighted this, but I made an assumption based on all my previous jobs that I thought safe, but I now know wasn't. My mistake, in a nutshell, was assuming too much.

And missing a helicopter flight. But I don't even want to go into that.

But it's all behind me, well, except for meeting the big boss next week and having another "discussion" (my error is his pet-hate, so I just have to hope he's mellow from his holiday this week). That nightmare of an eight weeks in Brazil is over, and isn't to be repeated imminently. Next stop - Equatorial Guinea, perhaps next week. Not by desire, but out of necessity. I volunteered for it because it gives me a better chance of being home for early June, for which I couldn't get holidays for, and have a wedding, a 30th, a music festival and a Leonard Cohen concert in Dublin all in the space of a week. Plus, of course, the keys to my fifth flat.

All that is ahead. For now I'm only thinking of tonight and tomorrow, where I'll be re-united with old friends and their stories, and can wash my mind away in a torrent of beer and nonsense.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008


Oh well, looks like I won't be going back to Brazil...

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Five Alive

Oh, it's nice to be back. The Air France flight from Brazil was without joy, crammed in the middle seat despite asking for the aisle, but setting foot on the cold, grey soil of Aberdeen was a happy occasion. Since that time, I've enjoyed drinks with my sister, visited Inverness and Dingwall, seen my brother, my mother and her fancyman, watched Ross County be awarded the Second Division trophy after a season of panache, drank lots of whisky with Varwell and my brother, bought lots of nice wooden furniture, flooded my kitchen by turning on my washing machine for the first time since I moved in, failed to start my dead van and... oh, other stuff too, I'm sure.

Oh yes. And I bought another flat, my fifth. I popped by yesterday afternoon, phoned this morning, and it was mine before dinner. This one's in a nice area of town too - the West End (!). It doesn't have hookers at the front door or junkies meandering the streets, but then you can't have everything. It does however have Green's flat just 30 second walk away, so daily raids can be made on his fridge. It's good to be home.

Thursday, 17 April 2008


And exhale...

Arriving on a rig is like sucking in a deep breath of air. For the duration of the stay, you hold your breath; indeed, sometimes it becomes so second nature it's easy to forget there's another way. The rig becomes the all, your entire existence. Usually, I'm ok for the first three weeks, only after that does the lack of oxygen begin to affect me and I start grasping for escape. This time has been a little different.

Despite the rig, the Petrobras-V, being awful, a grudging affection actually began to grow. The bathrooms were filthy, and the bedrooms noisy and congested, but the overall rig had a laid-back and friendly atmosphere, and in the evening the helideck became a social gathering point, which I've never seen before. With terrible music blasting from the nearby gym, groups gathered and watched the sunset, some meandered, some sat on the edge and chatted. Circles of guys sat and laughed and joked.

And the job went really, really well. It looked, initially, to be pretty awkward - some bulky tools I'd never used before, and no back-ups, all a recipe for potential problems. But every step of the way went well. The job was a big success.

So the rig and job, per se, weren't the reason that after just one week I was getting agitated and wound-up, and needing to sit back and breathe deeply. Rather it was the situation. I've been away eight weeks now, with weeks 2 to 6 having been spent alone, doing nothing. This became a little numbing. Two and a half weeks ago, I requested being swapped out, and the boss agreed it was a good idea, but then for two and a half weeks I kept getting assurances that it was about to happen - but it never did. When you're desperate for something to happen, for the conditions of that something to continually change and remain just out of reach is very frustrating.

But usually I wouldn't mind so much. If I spend a week longer away, at least that's a week of extra money. It doesn't matter if I'm hope later rather than sooner. But this time it did. My good friend Matt, whom some may know, was visiting from Australia, in Europe for a month. I've not seen him in almost three years, and so was obviously quite keen to catch up, even if for just a few days. And so for the first time since starting my job, and despite some very lengthy stints away in the past (I have the company record, at 16 weeks), I was requesting to get home. After five weeks away, this is a reasonable request anyway.

But it's too late. Matt's gone home and I've missed him by a matter of days. For weeks, I'd been emailing him, assuring him I'd be getting back soon, but eventually he couldn't wait any longer.

So for these reasons, it's been a frustrating few weeks. Not to mention the news last week that my first job here was, frankly, a disaster. The full analysis is still pending, and I may get off the hook, but even so it was a poor job by me. I made some mistakes and they were heavily punished. I was unfortunate rather than grossly negligent, but a mistake is a mistake, and in this business can be costly.

So after a helicopter flight out of the rig, a hairy taxi ride to get my bag at the hotel, a packed flight to Rio, and discovering my debit card isn't functioning upon arriving at the hotel and so having to change all my remaining dollars and euros to pay for the night, it was with great relief for my hotel door to close, open a cheap can of beer, and sit back in peace and privacy. And exhale. When I arrive back in Aberdeen tomorrow morning, I imagine it'll be some very deep breaths of relief.

Because this stint hasn't been any fun. Personally or professionally. I've had lots of good times with my job - Trinidad, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Malaysia and even, perversely, Nigeria have all been good experiences - but Brazil doesn't seem to work for me.

But home soon. To my beloved flat, a mountain of mail, good beer, familiar faces, pies, Van Nev (which'll need some serious jumpstarting), refreshing weather, and most importantly, real life. In which I can relax and breath, back to normal.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Big Fat Prick

As I've said, every morning I am woken at 5am by the TV and some noisy people. I just stuff earplugs deep into my ears, put my pillow on my head, and by 6am it mostly abates. This was the case this morning, and I found myself in a state of semi-consciousness - but there was an alarm clock ringing. But it wasn't too annoying, so I just let it continue, wondering why nobody was turning it off.

And suddenly I was woken by Nik, exclaiming, "Get up! There's a fire! A real fire!" It was a rig alert that I was wilfully sleeping through. No drill, but a proper oil rig fire.

Of course, it turned out a little less dramatic. I shoved on my coveralls and stumbled up to the helideck, where a bunch of men were meandering about, seeming confused, with absolutely no kind of organisation. This rig seems to have sidelined safety so there are no weekly fire drills, which is kind of good because they're a pain, but kind of bad because in the event of a real emergency nobody has a clue what to do. In this case, the majority seemed to have opted for watching the fire.

I got there too late for the excitement, and indeed would surely have perished if it had been a real emergency, but it seems the flare (a big jet of flame burning off the fuel during the current stage of operations) had gone a bit astray, and the water sprinklers hadn't been enough, and part of the rig had started to burn. But easily remedied, it seems.

That was the highlight. I tried to get some sleep after that but was thwarted by one of my roommates. I don't know his name, so let's call him "Big Fat Prick" for now. Big Fat Prick is an ugly fat man in his 60s. I'd lain down and the room was quiet, when suddenly Big Fat Prick came in, and started speaking very loudly, to the guy in the bed above me, who barely said a word. On and on he went. My earplugs were successfully blocking the pish on TV, but his voice could conquer any ear defenders. I don't know what he was saying, but it was obviously rubbish. I was in a really comfortable position, so withheld from moving and telling him to shut up because I was convinced he wouldn't be around for long. But he seemed determined to stay as long as possible and make as much noise as he could.

So eventually, I decided to sacrifice my comfortable position, so I turned around, and what did I see? Big Fat Prick had opened the curtains on my bunk, and was resting his feet on my bed as he sat back in a chair! You fat prick! He noted my obvious look of astonishment at this, and I told him to stop talking. Which, to his credit, he did, and he even later turned off the light. That doesn't redeem him though. He makes the room an absolute no-go area anytime after 6pm, as he sits back naked except for pants watching excruciating TV over his swollen belly. Sweaty, naked, old man skin.

My day otherwise has been drab and disappointing. I was expecting some kind of news about getting off this rusting tin can, but today I have received not an email. I sent out a few, all unreplied to. Therefore my hopes of getting off tomorrow are pretty much dashed. On the bright side, the lack of emails means there has been no further heart-sinking news about the previous job's failures.

On a different note, someone was sick in the sink of the only good bathroom. Evidently, they'd decided it was ok to leave it there.

Ok, have to go and do some work.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Simple Errors

Something you don’t want to read at 6.50am on a Sunday morning, while checking an email from the boss, in reference to your earlier one-man job.

The sh*t is going to hit the fan over this one...

[asterix his, for some reason]

The rest of the email was as stern in tone, if with fewer asterices. And indeed, it made for grim reading, and my fan looks to be left far from sparkling.

It’s a sunny morning in Brazil, and the sea shimmers under the radiant blue of the sky. On this filthy rig, which I’m growing worryingly accustomed to, by rights it should be a good morning. Not just because of the gorgeous weather or the promise of another leisurely day, but because the job I’m on is going swimmingly. Though being extremely reluctant to go in the first place, and despite still being decidedly keen to go home, what looked to be quite a tricky little affair has been astonishingly glitch free. Last night we ran a wireline in hole, effectively a data-gathering tool literally held by a wire and slowly lowered down kilometres of tubing. This way we can speak to our gauges and get all their data. Very unusually, and very bad form, I have been given no back-up on this job. These tools are notorious for failure, and in the past a back-up has been a lifesaver. So I was a little nervous about this operation, as failure would mean failure, and would expose us for the cardinal sin of having no spares.

But it worked, and worked extremely well. I left Nik for the overnight stint, intending to take over this morning, but when I got there, he’d finished! Hours ahead of schedule, and everyone was happy. Not least me, because I now had my whole day to sit back, and didn’t have to hole myself up in a box watching numbers on my computer.

Alas then that the past caught up with me.

The last month, you may recall, I’ve been doing nothing. Nothing. Two weeks on a rig alone, then two weeks in a hotel, alone. Doing nothing. Well, except, briefly program some tools on a rig and shove them down a hole. Very easy stuff – how could I go wrong? Well, wrong I went.

A different operator finished off my job, which was just to retrieve my tools and download them. What did he find? Only one of three worked. Worse, the two that didn’t work appear to be because I didn’t screw them in correctly. Rather carelessly, I screwed them in the wrong slots. Even worse, this mistake meant it possible that I’d screwed in other companies’ tools in the wrong slots – so not only did I cause our tools’ failures, but I caused the failure of two other companies’. This is, let it not be understated, bad news.

But maybe not. The verdict hasn’t yet come in and the jury is out. No doubt I was a little careless, but it’s very possible the fault lay with our tools, in which case I’m off the hook. Oh, how I pray for the slight possibility of mechanical failure. It’s not a sackable offence fortunately – though writing about it on a blog probably is – but it will earn a deservedly stern rebuke, and probably half a pinkie chopped off (my company have a firm disciplinary line).

In the meantime, life on my little tin can in the sea goes on. My six-man room only has two men now, but they’re the ones who like to wake with the TV at 5am, and one of them seems dedicated to watching TV loudly all day in nothing but his underpants. As he has a large belly and is over 60, this does not make my room an attractive spot. But the food is surprisingly good, and the 3pm snacks are lovely, and my colleague Nik is proving to be good banter.

And best of all, an end is in sight. This week I think I might escape homewards, to face the music on base and then bury myself into the alcoholic retreats of life. And, with an exciting guest appearance! (watch this space)

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Good And Bad

Good News: I have discovered three new toilets.

Bad News: I saw a cockroach saunter across the mess room floor.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Without Space To Live

At 5am, the TV comes on...

And so I find myself in the midst of grim and noise. From promises early last week that my return home would imminent, instead I find myself again stranded offshore, this time on a candidate for the worst rig yet. The Petrobras-owned P5 represents its owner well - shoddy, scabby, inefficient and an ugly fuming brute of uselessness. Whoever built this rig, decades ago as it surely was, cannot have conceived that humans would have to live here. There really is nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. No space to live or work, and nothing to do.

My six-man room exemplifies the worst of it. A cramped space smaller than my kitchen at home, there is no bathroom. Like some evil all-pervasive Goblin of Petulance, a TV hangs above the single desk and chair, shouting and screaming and flashing out bright lights. The other five in my room appear to work a 6am to 6pm shift, which apparently necessitates the TV being switched on at 5am to rouse them. After 6am, fortunately, there is a chance for peace, though by some magical force each time I wake I find the TV is back on, yet mysteriously no-one else in the room.

The toilets... oh God, the toilets. Downstairs, in the stuffy, stinking, claustrophobic locker room, three grimy swing-door toilets dwell. Their bins overflow. I see cleaners in the locker room sometimes, but some things cannot be scrubbed, and an air of abject filth hangs heavily. I avoid this room as much as possible, and try to grab the third-level toilet whenever possible; although still gloomy and with a broken seat, this does at least offer privacy, and is also my refuge for a shower too. But availability of this toilet is restricted, as heavy competition for its use exists.

Everything else is crowded and cramped. The mess room is tiny and always full, the gym consists of three runnings machine crammed into a shack, the TV room doubles as the check-in room and the meeting room, and only the third party offices suggest any generosity of space, being two shacks placed aloft the helideck; but then, being as there is nothing else to do, these shacks are always stuffed full of bored Brazilians, yelling at each other. Yes, it's so bad this rig that even the Brazilians, who in the past have seemed impervious to poor living conditions as long as there's a TV, find it claustrophobic. I've never seen the helideck in as much demand - last night, five guys were in a circle and chatting happily for hours. There was simply nowhere else for them to go.

So I'm none too enamoured with my living conditions right now, especially as I'm damn well wanting home. However, there is a few small mercies. The food is bearable, and sometimes ok. My room can be quiet for a few hours at a time. And best of all, I'm able to get internet on my laptop, which is the single saving mercy that perhaps rescues my situation from dire to survivable, and also elevates this rig to mere second-worst ever, just ahead on the rankings of the metal hell that was the Rani Woro in Oman.

I got here on Saturday (in somewhat controversial circumstances that I alas decline to go into here) and spent all of Sunday and Monday working. It's been clear since then, and the next few days will be likewise. The job is the standard two-man job we do in Brazil, and my second man is Nik, a very reliable and pleasant recruit from our Dubai office, from India. The carrier (i.e. the big piece of pipe that holds the electronics we send underground) we're using is a big beast, and the first time I've used the type, and although hard work physically, the whole process of programming the electronics, assembling the carrier, getting it torqued on the drillfloor and testing it all, went very smoothly indeed. Worryingly smoothly, you could argue, as usually you expect a few problems. Still, I got sent an angry email from base because I'd followed the "wrong" procedures. There were no right procedures! We never have procedures in my job, we always have to just hope for the best. I sent a strongly worded email back to this effect, and have been pursuing my right to go home and enjoy my life, the issue of which is continually being obfuscated.

Despite all of the above, I'm not quite as angry as I may seem. I'm in pretty good form. The Brazilian guys here are pretty friendly, and I'm also pleased that despite "wrong procedures", a tricky job has so far gone well. After a month of isolation, it's nice to be in company again and with stuff to do. The rig is awful, but manageable. But it's been seven weeks away now, in unusual circumstances, and home would definitely be welcome. Sooner rather than later.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Behind Closed Doors

What's in Room 703...?






Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Two Weeks Stranded In Vitoria

It's been two weeks now, stranded alone and helpless in Vitoria. There are better places to be left in, and worse places. It's pleasant here - it's bright and sunny with long stretches of beach, the mountains and sea are very attractive to the eye, and the place seems relaxed and friendly. But gosh, there's not much to do. For the residents, it's fine, but for the solo visitor it's a little limited. Tanning myself on a beach for hours doesn't appeal, and there's less in the way of bars and more in the way of bar-restaurants: the latter makes the lone traveller somewhat conspicuous as they sit alone at a four-seater table.

But my time hasn't been spent entirely in quiet retiral in my hotel room. I've taken plenty of walks, and there have been a few things to visit. Also, through this "couchsurfing" website Varwell is a proponent of, I met with a lovely girl who has provided me with a bit of human contact and some interesting conversations. So ennui has been kept at bay.

It looks like my spell of nothingness is to come to an end anyway. In an email to my boss I explained I'd been away six weeks doing very little, and quite fancied going home - so he's put me on another job. So Friday or Saturday I'll be going offshore to kickstart some new search for oil. Fortunately, I've been assured I'll be replaced as soon as personnel are available, which looks like next week.

Which would be good timing actually, as it would coincide well with... well, let's just say "Handsome Matt" and watch the girls squeal...

Anyway, here's a few photos of Vitoria, and its attraction. Sorry, plural, attractions.

This is a steep walk, leading up to Vitoria's premier attraction, the Convento Da Penha, a 450-year-old and still functioning convent, situated on top of a hill and overlooking Vitoria and its conjoined twin Vila Velha, plus the bays, beaches and hills.

It was Easter Tuesday ... blah blah blah, sorry can't be bothered writing. Just look at the photos.

Oh look, a cathedral.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Photo Archive Volume 4

Welcome to the final installment my photo archive, where all yesterday’s tomorrows becomes tomorrow’s yesterday – today!

Yachting in Croatia

In late August last year, I went yachting with some upper class people and foreigners. For a week we only wore our underwear, and cruised around the Adriatic, sipping gin and tonic. Unfortunately I neglected to bring my camera battery charger, so my battery ran out after a couple of days, so I missed such events as “Pirate Day”, which was very entertaining. So you’ll have to do with some photos of boats and people you don’t recognise.

Here’s a yacht with some people on it.

Here’s pretty much the same thing. In the background you can see Split.

This is one of the bays we stopped in overnight. This was also the bay the naked Germans showed up, which I took care not to photograph.

Here’s a Croatian village. Which one, I can’t remember.

Here’s two people on a yacht.

And look, here’s me. On a yacht.

Beach in Brazil

I’ve already written lots about Brazil, but here’s one more photo for the record, as it’s quite nice. It’s of a beach in Barra, an area of Rio.

Finally, by popular demand (i.e. Eileen), here's my classic from last year: "Goats at Night". The observant among you may notice that these are, in fact, donkeys.