Friday, 3 June 2011

It's All Over

Dear reader,

I arrived onshore yesterday, after a brain-melting 49 days offshore on my final job in the oilfield, and tomorrow will be back in the UK, freshly unemployed.

With my job ending, this blog - which has always been intrinsically linked to my employment - will also now conclude.

However, like a phoenix from the ashes, a new blog has already begun, which will detail my travels over the next few years. It may be found here:

Thank-you for reading this blog over the years. It has been an interesting few years and I hope that has come across in my writing. It has been a pleasure having you.



Sunday, 22 May 2011

Pie On A Mountain

As already mentioned, it's my final job.

I've been in Ghana since March 31st, a total of 52 days now - that's longer than some people have been alive. Two people specifically: a baby called Ella and a baby called Isaac. Ella - named, perhaps, after Ella Fitzgerald - is a mere three days old (meaning I have been in Ghana over 17 times longer than she has existed) is the daughter of my brother and his wife, thus making her my niece; Isaac - named, perhaps, after Isaac Asimov - is now thirty days old (meaning I have been in Ghana a mere 1.7 times his existence) is the son of my cousin and her husband, thus making him my... second-nephew? Cousinson? Sub-nephew? I bet the Koreans have a proper word for this.

So it's been more than a lifetime here in Ghana, and it's not over yet. The last five weeks have been spent offshore, aboard a 10-year-old drillship that already acts like an unsteady pensioner. Really, I've never been on a rig or drillship that seems so uncertain in the water. Aboard a floating vessel a bit of movement is to be expected, even on one of oil rig proportions, but on here the rocking motion is taken to distracting levels. Crane lifts are the most disturbing - 10,000kg objects turn into giant wrecking balls as the crane desperately fights to control the movement, sending personnel sometimes literally diving for cover as they flail around, slamming into anything in its path. Even without a load the crane is hazardous; standing, supposedly safely, in a bay yesterday, the large lifting hook swung quite violently into the bay and would have smashed my head way beyond concussion had I been standing a few steps differently.

Likely, I have another week or two here, before I go home, finally and once-and-for-all. Job over and, well, the whole actual job over. No more oil rigs, nightshifts, helicopter rides, helideck strolling, or misanthropic 50-year-olds who view all women as prostitutes but whom I have to appear friendly towards because they are the client and pay our wages. Five years of this alternative world will be over. For better and for worse, in many sincere and different ways.

In many ways I'll be very sad to go: this job has been quite, quite different from a 9-5 office job (I presume - I've never held a 9-5 office job, but have seen them depicted on TV). I've been to a total of fifteen countries, excluding the North Sea, with them, and although perhaps not all holidays destinations, even the more challenging were interesting experiences. I would be in no hurry to go back to Nigeria or, especially, the grim Angola, but places like Mauritania and Ghana have had an unexpected charm. And then, of course, some of the places I've been to were like holiday destinations. I stayed at a beach resort hotel for a week in Malaysia before the job was cancelled. Brazil may have seen ups and downs, but I got weeks on the beach there, most notably sight-seeing in Rio de Janeiro and visiting the holiday town of Buzios. Trinidad saw days of sitting by the outside pool, drinking gin. On my first ever job, in Egypt, I stayed in a two-storey multi-roomed apartment hotel, alone, and watched the sun set over the pyramids. Baku, in Azerbaijan, was an onshore bombardment of pub crawl alcoholism.

Then there's the work. Despite all the above, not all my working day is filled with leisure activities or damaging my long-term health. The work might sometimes have been relentless, or stressful, or filled with bawling Americans or bitter Scots, or seen me soaked in brine during a North Sea winter or just soaked in sweat during another of Africa's everlasting summers, but above all that it has been interesting work. Not the sort of work that makes for entertaining reading for anyone outside my precise profession - unless you want me to regale tales of splicing cable on the rig floor, forcing APDM to get beyond the seabed, or that time I welded an AH-38 to an MDL to achieve wireline SRO - no, not always for its specialist anecdotal qualities, but because once inside this alternative world of tool assembly and data acquisition, all improbably set kilometres underground, there was something deeply satisfying when it all came together, when data appeared onscreen like magic, and I could sit back with a coffee and tweak data messages and make nice charts. Like a mountain, it was a challenge, and while not always "fun" at the exact time, there was a satisfaction at the summit, not just of the clear view but of the struggle that had gone into getting there.

Rig life too was not always so bad, and could even be quite refreshing, like a retreat away from normal life. A good rig with a gym, a decent helideck, good internet and TV, and perhaps even "bippy-bap", i.e. table tennis, could be quite enjoyable on a quiet job, for a couple of weeks at least. No booze allowed, so there was a vague healthiness to the whole thing too.

Of course, my job wasn't always sunset strolls on the helideck or smooth data acquisition and smiling, helpful drillers sitting side-by-side with company men who became like brothers. Like all jobs, there was a dark side. Yes, I know you might be surprised - "the oil industry has a dark side?" - but even this noble profession has moments that aren't always butterfluff and candy.

The worst aspect, to get it out of the way, is the one I fully embraced when I first joined the company, and that is the absolutely uncertain schedule. Unlike many offshore personnel who work set rotations, I have always been on-call. It's a mixed deal, because in many aspects I rather like it. Rather than the feeling of being in a loop that I imagine a set rotation would bring, I always felt a sense of progression, of going on individual "missions", of having an uncertain future in which a phone call could come at any moment and the next day I could be in any country in the world. It was quite exciting, at first anyway. In the last couple of years I realised how much my life was affected by never being able to reliably plan anything. Sure, I might be home for months at a time (which was obviously very nice) but hardly ever during that time would I be able to plan a week or two ahead. Arranging to visit anyone not living nearby would have to be last minute - unless I booked one of my four weeks of holiday off to do so.

(I have cheekily visited both Germany and Ireland while technically available for work, but please don't tell anyone.)

Maintaining relationships, of any ilk, are pretty difficult when living at such a random schedule, and I suppose eventually this overtook the excitement the randomness would bring. Because it's the only real negative of the job in the end. I can handle the sweat, blood and tears, the angry middle-aged men, the long shifts, the cakeless rigs and the sometimes numbing stretches of boredom offshore, because when all bundled together and baked in to a gigantic omnifarious pie comprising the many ingredients of my job, it was a juicy pie worth eating, albeit with some gritty bits. But pour on the sauce of randomness, and taste is spoiled a little. Oh, I do like pie metaphors.

Of course, none of the above is the reason I am leaving, it is just the musings on a job I am poised to leave. Because short of being in a job that involved watching football at my leisure, assessing new brands of pie around the world, or getting girls drunk, my desire to travel matched up with my ability to travel means that I am ready to travel.

I'll miss the job, no doubt. Right now, sitting into my sixth week offshore Ghana, on what has been a job of very hard graft at times, I am only thinking of being onshore, in Edinburgh, with a pint of Theakston Old Peculiar in the Barony, enjoying it alongside a massive sense of relief, and looking forward to a summer free, a guaranteed summer of leisure, where I can make plans and not fear the phone. But once the pint is down me, and a few weeks or perhaps a bit longer pass by, and the novelty of being home without responsibilities has faded, I'll start to miss the job, or certain elements of it. Because there was a definite strong camaraderie with those I worked with, a general job satisfaction in a small company that was great to work for, and of course the money wasn't bad either.

Like eating that multifarious pie up a mountain, it might have been messy and tough work, the sauce might have soured and the ground underfoot slippy, and the pie may have been baked inconsistently making for the pastry being burnt a little much on one side, but after you've eaten a pie on a mountain, despite the wind and rain and cloud cover, how can pie in the suburbs ever compare? How good can a crushed biscuit or flat sandwich or flaky Cadbury's Flake ever taste on a mountaintop again? The answer is... probably not as good. Do you understand what I'm saying? Pie On A Mountain.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Uncle Nev

I am now a very proud uncle. My brother Ian and his wife Katherine had a baby just the other day. If it had been a boy I am assured it would have been called Baby Nev, but perhaps it was better for everyone it turned out to be a girl, which they have named Ella Audrey.

I'm still in Ghana, working like a dirty sweating hound, but hope to be back in a couple of weeks, when I will be introduced to the first of a new generation of Christies. I will also then be a free man, without obligation to the brash world that is oil-seeking.

As for Baby Nev, have no fear - my friend Handsome Matt (who some of you may recall from my adventures in Korea) is having a baby in August, and he promises me he will call it Baby Nev. He lives in Sydney now, so he'll be my first stop on my travels when I visit him to make sure he's named the baby correctly.

Monday, 9 May 2011


One of the predominant features of life on the open seas, aboard a rig or drillship in the enduring quest for oil, is the safety culture. Rigs are inherently dangerous places, with all manners of alternative ways to kill a man, and so an awareness of safety is important. Common sense counts for much, but fastidiousness in the correct upkeep of equipment is also paramount as was tragically demonstrated last year, when a crane on a Transocean rig I was on catastrophically failed, catapulting three guys into the water, with the body of one never recovered.

So a safety culture offshore is a good thing, but of course to keep tabs on the ongoing safe practice of a rig means a trail of paperwork will be generated. Naturally, maintenance of equipment should be backed up by evidence it's fit for use, but what about making sure personnel are acting safely? Can we really trust that common sense will prevail?

The answer to that is a resounding "no". Offshore life combines a range of nationalities and a range of imbeciles, and common sense can take a backseat to brash arrogance, pig ignorance, the desire for quick results, and sheer exhaustion. Thus to the oil industry's credit, a safety culture has been drummed into the workforce for many years now, to urge the need for efficiency rather than urgency, to highlight the importance of stopping a task if you are unsure of what is involved, and to empower any individual on the rig to stop any task they feel is unsafe.

High-minded principles indeed, though in practice for the third parties, such as I, you're going to get bawled at by an American if you suggest he pause for a while in his duties so as to optimise his own safety. Nonetheless, the theory that every individual can stop any other to ensure good safe working practice is a good one, just let down by the actual type of individual that tends to be involved in offshore operations.

The problem further breaks down in the area of common sense when the paperwork issue comes into play. Bureaucracy infamously has never been bedfellows with common sense, and in offshore safety culture actually works against it in some cases. The desire to tick all the boxes overrides the desire for practical safety, and the desire for "100% safety participation" doesn't mean all workers being careful and efficient in their duties and rather involves everyone filling in a nonsense bit of paper every day whether it's of any value or not.

This bit of paper is the STOP card system, or rather on this Transocean rig the START card system, because they want to be more positive about safety no doubt. (The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year was, incidentally, a Transocean rig - the Deepwater Horizon. I'm on the Deepwater Millennium.) This is a slip of paper to note down any safety observations, positive or negative, made throughout the day. It's a good idea, but with one special failing on this rig - 100% participation is demanded, so that everyone can pat themselves on the back and say what a good safe job they've done. (Incidentally too, on the year of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed eleven people,destroyed an entire rig, and caused the worst oil spill in history, Transocean awarded its executives millions of dollars in bonuses for a record year in safety, saying,“Notwithstanding the tragic loss of life in the Gulf of Mexico, we achieved an exemplary statistical safety record as measured by our total recordable incident rate and total potential severity rate. As measured by these standards, we recorded the best year in safety performance in our Company’s history, which is a reflection on our commitment to achieving an incident free environment, all the time, everywhere.”)

The problem with enforced 100% START card participation is that is takes no account of common sense. In my first week here, before our equipment was on board, I spent a day or two going no further than from my room to the galley. There were few high risk encounters en route during this ten metre stroll, so I had to simply compliment the cleaner on doing a good "safe" job. Currently, during an eye-of-the-storm calm spell, I'm only going from my room to my working unit outside - not much danger. The counter-argument to those who say they've not done anything to warrant START card observations is that they should get out there and find something, but this is plainly stupid as a bunch of guys poking around in corners looking for dangers is obviously more dangerous than them simply staying in bed. I've heard of people, in the past, of just making stuff up too, just to fill their quota.

Non-compliance, on this rig, means being run off the rig, i.e. sent home, possibly losing your job. It happened to one guy just a few days ago, and possibly someone else today. Never mind that by sending people home without replacement means their colleagues being overworked and operations jeopardised, Transocean want to maintain their 100% record and ensure their executives continued bonuses.

Dutifully, I've been filling in my daily cards, using it as a means to complain about the lack of basic facilities, especially in the changing room which now lacks soap and handtowels, and the weekly drill at 1pm which interrupts me and all other nightshift right in the middle of our sleep. Of course, I don't expect these to be acted on - after all, soap and handtowels is a bit of a stretch for the world's largest offshore drilling company - but at least it will annoy the Health and Safety guy on board who has to put up with my petty complaints daily.

Recently, in order to inject a little creativity and thinking into my cards, I've started to play with the prose structure of my START cards too. Rather than the ramble of a complaint about soap, I've turned to haiku, which as my learned reader will know is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, which uses three lines in a 5-7-5 syllable format. This has had the unexpected impact of making my START cards actually quite enjoyable to write, as well as having giving them a pleasing rhythm. It's also massively increased my productivity (in writing START cards, at least, not in actual useful work) as I've written five in the last two days.

Here, for your reading, are my most recent five. They focus on my current peeves of the boat drill and the lack of soap (called Gojo - it's a special and very effective version).

One o'clock boat drills
Interrupt sleep of nightshift
Tiredness means mistakes

Lifeboat-2 T-cards
In disarray, disorder
Finding mine is slow

Fixed weekly boat drills
Lack element of surprise
Too predictable

Cable on walkway
Came free of safety cover
I tucked it back in

Changing room Gojo
Has been empty for a week
I can't clean my hands

As you can see, they embrace they very best of what both START card and Japanese poetry have to offer, and I just hope the Health and Safety guy has the education to appreciate them (he doesn't). I may embrace other poetical forms (limerick? iambic pentameter?) as the job wears on.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Some Changes

Excuse me for not being so attentive to this blog recently, but big changes are afoot and this blog will soon be getting a gritty reboot, Batman style. All the news now follows (warning: one is a lie):

Leaving work

After five years working for a terrific small(ish) oil service company, in a job with all manners of ups and downs, I have handed in my notice, taking effect from the start of June. Perhaps I will write a little more in the near future about what I will miss and not miss about this work, but needless to say it's been a remarkable five years that was entirely unanticipated upon my return from Korea in early 2006.


As of September this year, I will head off travelling for the next two-to-three years. I have decided to create a new Seven World Wonder lists, as six of the original seven no longer exist and a recent worldwide poll was conducted by a Swissman, therefore fraudulent. I have selected ninety-three man-made monuments that I'll visit on the travels, and that I've researching for the last few years, so to hopefully come up with a definitive list. More details will follow on this blog.

Weddings and Babies

My brother, after an awe-inspiring decade-long engagement, got married at the beginning of the year, and any time now will produce a baby via his new wife, Katherine. This means that some time in this month of May I will become an uncle for the first time. I'm not terribly sure what this entails. What do uncles do?

I also became a semi-uncle just a week ago when my cousin gave birth to a child. Yes, a child. I think a semi-uncle has less responsibilities that a full-uncle, so I can probably get away with just patting it on the head when I see it.

And for those of you who have heard of the delectable Handsome Matt you will be delighted too to know he will be producing a child. The timing of its arrival is excellent, as it arrives in August, and I will begin my travels in Sydney - Matt's home - in September. He has promised to call it "Baby Nev".

Aside from my brother's January wedding, I've got a couple more weddings lined up, both for friends of my girlfriend. My friends never seem to get married but hers seem much more keen. One wedding is in mid-August, and I haven't told anyone yet but I intend to dress up like a clown to make the day so much more memorable. The other wedding is next January in India, where my girlfriend - whose name I keep meaning to remember so I can share it with you here - will fly in and join me, in Goa. That is, if she's still talking to me for, ahem, leaving the country for many, many months.

Finally, due to work commitments I had to miss the recent Royal Wedding between and Jane Middlemass - or something like that - which I was quite sorry about, as I was well up for a day of Union Jack waving and gin disasters. Instead, I slept through the entire thing. I hope they gave someone my seat.


Right now, I'm offshore Ghana. I arrived here a month ago, spent two weeks onshore and have been offshore since. It's a pretty full-on job, with probably the most equipment I've seen in one location before, and as such the last ten days have been spent in near-continuous action. It's really been quite tiring. Gone are the days of leisurely coffee breaks, and Football Manager extravaganzas (it is the year 2031 and Thurrock are in League 1 - but I haven't played in ages) and they have been replaced by set shifts of sweat, grease and stifling heat. Why, it's enough to make a man quit.

My colleagues are Bigboy, the Rabbit and SHAKATTACK, making up what is quite a strong team, and probably what will be my last ever team. I'm keeping my emotions in check right now, as there's obviously some time to go, but I fully expect to be a weeping, sobbing, shaking wreck of a man by the end of the month.


I came fifth in the annual Dancemaster UK finals, beating the likes of Chris "Swan Manoeuvre" Thomson and "Dynamo Kid" Aaron Mulberry, but couldn't overcome The Rhombus Triplets or, of course, Tricky Masterton. I totally nailed the Swoophoof round and my Human Beatbox wowed the crowd, but I was lacklustre in the Slidestep and the Charleston. But overall, it was a truly wonderful experience that words could never do justice, so I won't even attempt to.


Despite not having been to the cinema in almost five years, I wrote a film. It was under some duress, from ex-castlemate and last year's Edinburgh flatmake Mike. Early this year the documentary he shot in 2009 and edited in my flat last year was shown on the BBC, and he's set to another documentary in the summer about Faroese whaling, with consent from the Faroese government and with, I believe, interest from Channel 4. For the last year he's been interested in making a proper feature film, and had discussed at length an idea with me. We'd made a very rough start last year, but just a couple of months ago were able to sit down and talk about it properly, leading to the very rapid processing of a full script.

It still needs plenty of editing and adjustment, which we'll do over the summer, but has potential. For the curious, here's the "logline": A tale of two worlds colliding in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. Gordon, 80, an eccentric cantankerous crofter finds himself rescuing a Chinese illegal worker on the run, Grace, 20. The unlikely couple stumble into adventure as they discover they share a mutual enemy, which leads them to a dark realisation.


I'd love a beer right now.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Today, for the first time ever, I managed to complete the Press & Journal crossword, without using any references or external assistance.

Monday, 31 January 2011

2011 Update

My blog... is dying...

(Here's a picture nothing to do with anything, but I need to host it somewhere)