Thursday, May 26, 2005

Snakker Du Norsk? (Part 2)

So, what was it like working abroad? I cannot speak for today but back in 1981, Norway was a pleasant country with a small population (ISTR 4m Norwegians), well educated, with a high standard of living but somewhat socialist. There was practically no unemployment (the people who didn’t have jobs didn’t want one) but the State ruled supreme. There was one TV channel, one monopoly phone company (Televerket), a State Bank (DNC, Det Norske Creditt), a State Oil Company (StatOil) & a State Off License (The Vinmonopol). There were other Companies in most of these markets as well, apart from the Booze. It didn’t have a State airline but it was a partner in SAS, the Scandinavian Airlines System (with Denmark and Sweden).

Norway was traditionally a sea-faring nation and was the home of the Vikings. It was interesting to find that several Norwegian words had made it (corrupted) into the Geordie dialect, the north East coast being handy for the marauding longboats. Some good examples of this were:- children: Barn in Norsk, Bairn in Geordie, as well as Jumper: Genser in Norsk, Ganzie in Geordie and House: Hus in Norsk, Hoose in Geordie (All pronounced similarly regardless of spelling).

I quickly realised that the TV was pretty awful- the highlights of my week being screenings of “Mash” and “Soap”. Most Norwegians spoke English so films were sub-titled rather than dubbed. The flicks provided a welcome distraction, although they tended to ride the faders so that the music was thumping but the dialogue was restrained.

Although somewhat puritanical about the demon drink (having a strong Lutheran Christian tradition) they were much less hung up about sex, but not quite as broad minded as I found the Danes and Swedish to be in later years. I can remember being picked up a handful of times by real lookers during the year (but generally dumped again just as quickly!)

Stavanger was both a port and a boom town due to the north sea oil. Mobil had three platforms planned for the Statfjord field, Alpha being in production from 1979, Bravo being built and Charlie on the drawing boards. My role was for the onshore network, although I did have a fascinating opportunity to go offshore.

When I arrived in Norway, Statfjord Bravo actually sat in the mouth of Stavanger harbour on four concrete caissons undergoing construction. Meanwhile, the legs of the rig were being constructed in the fjord at the bottom of my road. The legs were hollow concrete tubes nearly 1000’ high and at the base of them were a number of large concrete tanks forming a pedestal. (The tanks were used for storing the oil between tanker dockings).

During the Spring, the rig was essentially complete structurally and it was time to take it out. The tanks at the base of the legs were partially flooded so that they sunk down to the desired level & the structure was towed out to another really deep fjord further north, complete with cranes. Meanwhile, the platform itself was floated clear of the caissons on two massive barges and towed off to be mated with the legs. Once successfully joined together, the whole assembly was towed out to sea and sunk down so that the pedestal rested on the sea bed. Some idea of the scale of this beast can be found here, courtesy of Statoil.

It was very strange seeing it gone, as well as the giant toilet roll tubes from the flat window. The twinkle of lights around both structures were surprisingly satisfying & they were certainly missed until "C" construction started a couple of years later.

A few months later, I was asked if I’d like to do a software upgrade to the phone system on Statfjord B and I jumped at the chance. I had to go on some basic safety training first but because I was only going for 24 hours I didn’t have to undertake the survival course (which involved being dumped in the fjord in a survival suit). Armed with my upgrade tapes, I flew up to Bergen and reported to the Helicopter desk. Here, I was suited up (in a bright orange garment not unlike a made-to-measure duvet with hoodie), weighed (complete with baggage for an overnight stay), briefed and then myself and fellow passengers waddled off to the Chopper like a procession of fluorescent Michelin men. The Helicopter was a russian Sikorski which seated about 16 people, apparently the Sikorskis had a slightly better (but still dodgy) safety record than the Bell rangers also used.

The helicopter took off like a regular plane, hovering slightly above the taxiway, then after being cleared for takeoff, it adopted a glide path that a prop plane would follow, climbing gently as it cleared the runway. Once over the sea, it then took two hours of tedium before reaching the oil fields. Helicopters that size are incredibly noisy, even with ear defenders, the drone rattles you to your bones.

Eventually, we started to see rigs and the familiar sight of “B” came into view. We landed on the “flotel”, the floating hotel tethered to the rig and joined by an iron staircase & a sort of jetty arrangement. The flotel was only intended for the commissioning phase, it would be removed once the platform went into full production. “A” still had a Flotel, despite already producing oil. The reason for this was that it had been designed with four bunks to a room but the Government decreed that workers should only have to sleep two to a room, so it didn’t have enough legal beds otherwise. The accommodation block on “B” was considerably larger to cope with this.

Externally, the platform had the look and feel of an oil refinery (which it is, having facilities for gas/oil separation) but in the accommodation it felt like a smart hotel, other than a larger than usual number of exit & safety signs. It had lifts serving all the floors, although they were slightly unusual in having facilities for easy exit through the roof and up the shaft in the event of an emergency. Statfjord was unusual in having women staff on board, which the seasoned pros tell me gives a calming influence to a rig, otherwise it can be a bit macho.

Norwegian oil workers had the best conditions in the North sea, their shift patterns (for 10 hour days) were 10 days on, 10 off, 10 on then 20 days off. (The Brits generally worked 10 on/10 off0.

I asked if 10 hour days were over long, but the consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t too much to do otherwise besides eating & watching movies and the work stretched to fill the time available.

The phone system was on the top floor next to the main radio room (just under the helideck) and other than a slight sense of movement when it was choppy, it could have been on dry land. Apparently the three legged “A” twisted somewhat in storms, so B & C went for the extra leg to minimise it. The upgrade went OK after some minor hitches and I eventually retired to bed on the Flotel.

In the morning, after a traditional Norsk breakfast (open sandwiches & fish) I returned to the main platform to ensure all was well. As I went, I watched a crew precariously unloading supplies from one of the supply vessels (like oversize tugboats, one of which circled the rig all day every day) and noticed that it was getting extremely choppy, the boat bouncing around like a bucking bronco at a fairground. Getting to deck level, the stairs were moving considerably with the yaw of the flotel and shortly afterwards the PA announced that they would be lifting the drawbridge.

All being well, I checked in with the despatcher, who advised that I could get on the next chopper (leaving shortly) or stay another day, (as the rest were grounded due to forthcoming bad weather) so I elected for the former. This time, I left from the helideck right at the top of the rig, which is a long way up, was rather breezy and with just a rope net round the edges. I would have liked to have had a proper look round but couldn’t go on the production floor without advanced training so it was not to be.

I do have a vivid recollection of standing by the rail looking out to sea at dusk, seeing the twinkling lights and gas burn-off flares of other rigs in all directions for miles around. The other thing that you don’t expect is the smell, despite “A” being half a mile away there was still a pungent smell of oil & gas.

Whilst man taming the sea through technology is hugely impressive, sometimes the sea wins. Every day when I went to and from work, I passed a fjord with what looked like four round orange pontoons in it. This was actually an unintended monument to a terrible calamity, being the upside-down legs of a flotel called the Alexander L Kielland. It actually had five legs arranged in a pentagon and was used in the Ekofisk field until one of the legs sheared off on March 27th 1980 in a storm and it capsized, killing 123 people in Norway’s worst offshore disaster. It was towed to the Fjord in order to provide shelter before deciding what to do next but even during my time in Stavanger, the relatives were still pressing the authorities to take action to recover any remaining bodies but it was mired in counter-accusation and indecision. The sea is as forgiving as electricity, a reluctant slave, a vengeful master.

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