Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Nomad

Merry Christmas... from the North Sea.

Yes, alas, this year instead of spending the festive period surrounded by the laughter and joy of loved ones, with a roaring log fire and the mess of shiny wrapping paper torn open with excitement, I am adrift in the bitter North Sea, covered in sticky tar-like oil like the excrement flung by a debased Santa’s elf.

I am aboard the Oc. Nomad, a couple of hours helicopter journey from Aberdeen (although due to snow I intended up taking the scenic route: flight to Bergen then chopper from there), somewhere between the Shetland Islands and Norway. I arrived a mere four days ago, just to wrap up a two-month long job that was in its very final stages, replacing my old childhood friend and neighbour and current work colleague but now SWORN ENEMY Burness, who has been able to escape home to his family’s embrace, and joining my long suffering colleague, The Mountie, a very familiar face this year after months of our souls fading together into the ennui of twilight that was the Novotel in Nigeria.

In almost five years as a burly oil-giver, this is my first actual Christmas Day offshore. I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Days offshore before, but always had luckier breaks for Christmas itself. As you might imagine, a rig in the North Sea in the winter isn’t the traditional image associated with a season that otherwise surrounds itself with reindeers, pine trees and baby saviours of mankind. However, despite being a mechanical hell devoid of the qualities that normal human beings would regard as desirable, the 25th December still exists out here, and Christmas is still, in its own way, celebrated. So I’ll quickly take you through a Christmas Day offshore.

I woke around 8.30am, a splendid lie-in after a tough day previous (more on that later). The Mountie appeared and wished me Merry Christmas, and I rose and showered. Then it was present time. I’d taken three presents with me from normal life, and opened them in front of the Mountie, who had none. I received a “Return of the Jedi” DVD and 50ml of “Allure Homme Sport Chanel” from my girlfriend, and a £30 cheque from my grandfather; I think I’ll spend it on a prostitute, or drugs. I went through to check my email – I received no Christmas wishes or, in fact, any emails whatsoever – then watched Soccer AM with the Mounty until lunch at 11.20am.

Lunch was a special treat. Laid with tablecloths, and with crackers, Shloer and a paper menu. Unlike the buffet style service that exists on rigs, for the first ever time in my years eating on rigs, there was table service by kitchen staff – ladies, no less. There was a good selection of three different courses, and I opted for vension with raspberry sauces, turkey with all the other stuff, and Christmas pudding. From my cracker I got a small yellow comb; a history of Tom Smith, the apparent inventor of the Christmas cracker, and a paper crown. I didn’t wear the crown, it didn’t seem right.

After lunch, I wrote an email – to my boss – and spent £20 playing Deal or No Deal online. I thought I had a system. I didn’t. I phoned home to listen to the sounds of family enjoying themselves, and phoned my girlfriend who was very full of the cold and so wasn’t enjoying herself quite as much. Then myself and the Mountie settled in for an afternoon watching “Return of the Jedi” on my laptop. Observation made: Princess Leia murders quite frequently; as well as shooting dead a number of faceless Empire troops without flinching or moral reflection, she sets a bomb that kills hundreds – bad guys, slaves, musicians, employees, AI robots – in Jabba the Hutt’s palace (and that’s after murdering Jabba by hand, effectively). Her body count is second only to Lando Carlrissian, who by blowing up the Death Star kills several millions surely.

Dinner – chilli con carne – was fine and normal, and it was back to the internet after. My boss had replied, wishing me Merry Christmas. Myself and the Mounty then went through the football fixtures and placed two £10 accumulator bets on the Boxing Day games. Tomorrow has the football, which is very exciting as it means the day passes quickly. I bought some Irn Bru and a Yorkie from the rig bond and enjoyed this daily treat when Top Gear started. It’s now finished and I expect the rest of the evening to pass by smoothly with some internet and mindless Christmas TV.

You may have noticed that at no point during my offshore Christmas extravaganza did I do any work. That’s not because I decided to specially take it easy today, but because there isn’t any work to do – I finished everything yesterday and my container is on the boat. It’s a slight source of frustration: both myself and the Mountie are spending Christmas offshore precisely because it’s Christmas. No helicopters today or tomorrow. There were two yesterday, which our names were on, but we simply couldn’t get everything finished. Christmas Eve was not a fun day. Our equipment appeared at 7am, many hours later than scheduled hence we’d been up all night waiting. It was delayed due to the thick, gloopy, tar-like oil that this oil well has been testing, that clogged everything up. Our tools very much included.

I have never seen anything like this before. Usually when stuff comes out from the deep recesses of the earth, it will be a bit muddy, a bit dirty, a bit oily. This time it was virtually glued together with this evil black tar that immediately transferred itself to my entire body and everything else around me. When handling equipment and moving away, my glove would remain stuck in place as my hand pulled out. New gloves would immediately turn black and sticky. Everything stuck to everything as though dipped in tar, which it kind of had, and made work impossibly slow. Our main piece of equipment is a 30ft length of pipe, inside of which a 20ft pair of tools are placed inside. Usually they slide out with a bit of manpower, this time they were jammed solid. In the end we had to use the rig mechanical tugger in an improvised set up to yank the tools out in bursts. And we had three separate sections of this 30ft pipe to work with.

All this was time consuming. If we’d started at midnight, as scheduled, then we’d have finished on time and made the helicopter, and have been home for Christmas. Or if the oil had just been normal instead of crazy glue from hell we’d have made the chopper. But a 7am start with evil tar was too much, and in the minus temperatures in the North Sea, during bursts of hail, we watched as one, then two, helicopters landed, filled with people destined for home, and then took off again, without us. We then crouched back down, and futilely went back to attempting to scrub tar off metal using diesel and detergent.

So Christmas Eve was very disappointing and not the greatest fun I’ve had, but today was calm, work-free and tinged with a smattering of festivity, as well as the first booze-free Christmas I’ve had in over a decade. And as I’m booked on the Monday chopper, I’m guaranteed a New Year onshore, something I suspect will not be entirely booze free.

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