Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Common Sense Part 2 of 4: Oggy Meets Oil

I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I was not prepared for the work of an offshore Merchant Marine. I’m not ashamed to admit that since it’s the seafaring equivalent of being a utility linesman, which is one of the most taxing and dynamic jobs imaginable. To get an idea of what my job was like take the weight lifting regime of a professional body builder, add the most intolerable and confined conditions of a coal miner and put the entire thing in 15 ft. seas in a boat that’s too small for four other experienced sailors who resent your presence. Then cut wages by 25% and see exactly how short a man’s emotional fuse will get.
The actual events that led up to my being allowed to crew an Offshore Supply vessel only revealed themselves to me over time. First of all, it had nothing to do with my interview or my doctored resume. It had far more to do with the pay cut that had sent the industry into a tailspin in late 1991. Wages for deckhands fell from $60 to $40 a day and a Captain was lucky to make $100 a day. Those who set the wage must’ve done their homework because it was the absolute minimum amount of money anyone would take for their work. And the only people who stayed in the Gulf were the most resigned to their fate or had the fewest opportunities on land. The first to go were the deckhands who knew the wages were cruelly disproportionate to their labor. I routinely hauled 80 pound hoses for 18 hours in the pouring rain on a deck awash with violent waves. That was my day and I got paid $40, less than a fry cook at Burger King. Advanced math degrees were rare among Merchant Marines but it didn’t take a genius to realize this was lunacy. So many of these deckhands sought work elsewhere and left the company to dramatically loosen its qualifications. Furthermore, the crew was once 7 or 8 people with an additional Oiler and Deckhand. These extra men had been sacrificed so now the Engineer had to do all the work and the Deckhand had to do twice as much for less pay. The crew reminisced about days when a chef did the cooking like a bygone era.
Oggy's New Office
Secondly, the specific ship I was assigned to and the specific captain I had been assigned to were the absolute bottom of the barrel. Little did I know but this was the assignment from hell. Oh, sure, the tall dispatcher had warned me, “The capt’n, he’s a little, you know. Set in his ways.”
I’d laughed off this warning. I’m a man of the people. I can get along with anyone…except a 70 year old white supremacist whose only conflict resolution tool was a machete! I wasn’t alone. No one could get along with our captain. No one including his wife (he referred to her as 'my squaw'), his children ('my squaw's litter'), the other crew members, other captains, bartenders, everyone. He would challenge other captains to try to sink him and then mock them as they turned to avoid a collision. After a day or two of non-stop abuse I realized that every other deckhand in the company had found a way to avoid getting this assignment. In fact, the only person on earth who would accept this assignment for this amount of money was some greenhorn asshole who showed up in Texas dreaming of going to Egypt or Hong Kong. I was like a custom-made idiot who is probably still the butt of office jokes in Galveston. I learned all this over time but my main concern in the first few days of work was survival.
Overcome by seasickness for the first 50 hours on duty, I had to learn everything instantly that most deckhands go to an academy for ten months to learn. Needless to say, my ignorance was impossible to hide and the lack of sympathy directed at me was naked and unapologetic.
“Yew are a worthless shit. Oh, my great Jesus! Get the fuck out of my sight.”
The captain said this when I asked him where the broom was.
“You don’t got a lick of common sense, do you?”

Common Sense. There was that term again. Common Sense was the highest compliment, the most sought after quality but I was realizing that I did not possess it. A life of trading baseball cards and watching HBO television had deprived me of Common Sense and the crew of the H.M.S. Deathtrap were determined to teach it to me or kill me in the process.
The deckhand is the work shirt of the crew’s clothes closet. Wear it often, wear it out, and get a new one when that one falls apart. The theory is that if you die during a procedure such as snatching a 200 ft long rubber hose out of the air while standing on top of a pile of pipe in the pouring rain, then you deserved to die. If you get your hand caught between a line and a steel davit then a helicopter will soon arrive with a replacement for your worthless ass. If you succumb to seasickness and hunger and wallow in misery in your cabin then you will be thrown overboard and reported as lost at sea and never spoken of again. It’s not personal; when a rag is useless you throw it away. I was that rag and my main goal was to prove myself useful so the captain would not throw me overboard. Sadly, for several days I was hopelessly in the way trying to anticipate the next operation but always being too early or too late. My responsibilities included the hoses and the lines and the keeping mud and cement reservoirs clean. Inside, I was responsible for cleaning the heads and the galley and the wheelhouse.
The Able Seaman was my closest associate and normally had the most specific commentary.
“Oggy, you walked underneath a hanging piece of machinery that weighs 8000 pounds! What if that cable breaks?”
“I’d get hurt?”
“You’d be crushed as flat as a slice of fucking ham. It happens every day out here. Have some Common Sense.”
It wasn’t like I was playing around under the machinery but I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time and the only way to get to the right place was to pass through the worst place.
“You’re going to get us both killed.”
I’d apologize and vow to get it right next time.
“Act like you know what you’re doing.”
Ok, but, exactly what were we doing?

Well, I’m no petroleum engineer but I’ll tell you what I witnessed. Basically, there is crude oil and natural gas in the earth under the Gulf of Mexico. How they found it I’ll never know. To get these resources they have to drill holes and connect the holes to pipes that run to refineries on the shore. But to drill the holes they have to construct these steel platforms 80 miles off shore. Now, these platforms are so small and so remotely located that everything from men to drinking water to diamond drill bits and specialized 8000 pound machinery must be brought to them on demand. If it is something small like an engineer then a helicopter will be used, but if it is 100 lengths of steel pipe or 10,000 gallons of refined mud then they hire an OSV to go to Galveston or Port Fourchon or one of dozens of service ports and get what they have ordered and deliver it to the platform. The crew boats are often employed as more than just taxis for crew. Crew boats have hauling limits but they can carry drinking water and machinery and pipe when needed. Unloading hundreds of lengths of pipe from the back of a bobbing OSV takes the coordination of the captain, the crane operator and the Almighty Lord. I did not have the advantage of receiving any training or seeing someone do my job but I did get to witness the ultimate modern petroleum grunts known as the Roustabout. These were the deckhands of the platform I could learn everything I wanted to know about Common Sense from them.
Roustabouts were dropped by crane from the platform to our deck to assist in hooking up the pipe and machinery. These guys had Common Sense. They knew their job, knew the possible problems and the solutions. The worked together and they worked neither too hard nor too casually. They worked 12 hour shifts that would leave anyone completely spent so the trick was to do exactly as much work as the job required. Moving pipe requires expert handling of the boat, expert operation of the crane, fast and accurate handy work on the deck and the platform and if everything goes right then the boat will not collide with a platform leg, a cable will not snap and decapitate a roustabout and a hook will not slip and drop an 800 pound steel pipe onto the exhaust stack. If everything goes right then the platform will have the materials to drill the hole, connect the hole to a pipe and get the gas or oil safely to the shore. As a totally ignorant bystander it was immediately clear that we were all on the brink of catastrophe. The chain smoking captain, the sleep deprived Able Seaman, the exhausted roustabouts, the novice deckhand: this multi-billion dollar operation was in the hands of a $40 a day kid who was trying to get to Europe. On paper, the operation is flawless. One need only witness the awesome engineering behind the super platforms in the gulf, their shining indifference to the weather, their incredible interlocking decks and suspended rigging to know that Men are the top builders of the world. Hell, most of the important business is taking place a mile underwater. If the Grand Canyon is the hand of nature sculpting a timeless work of art, then the oil platform is man’s contribution to the unnatural gallery and they are equally amazing accomplishments. It is not by accident that oil powers the world. Considering the demand for oil and the intelligent design behind the engineering, the offshore oil platform must exist. It must exist in principle.

As days turned into weeks and I found myself in the right place at the right time.
“Oggy, you almost look like a deckhand. You might just have some Common Sense after all.”
Common Sense. True, I was learning my job the hard way and anticipating problems before they presented themselves, but as my dream of crossing the ocean was supplanted by the reality of the mammoth offshore industry I found myself conflicted. When I applied Common Sense to the job of rust busting or securing machinery on deck I always took the Able Seaman’s advice, “The worst thing that can happen will happen.” This Able Seaman was making $15 more dollars a day than I was and had logged several hundred days at sea and passed a Seamanship test. Still, it came down to Common Sense. What can happen will happen so be prepared. This is not a canoe trip down a placid stream. We are performing integral operations within the biggest industry in the world and we are doing it under extreme conditions with only nominal compensation. I was a mere deckhand but if I fell asleep during my night watch and the anchor line happened to snap and the current happened to take us into the leg of a platform and an emergency shut off valve didn’t shut off then…I would wish I were dead. So, I reasoned, if it came down to me then that meant there were hundreds of other deckhands out there who also bore the responsibility of the industry. And as I realized the number of platforms in the Gulf I started multiplying the number of ways things could go wrong. Was that a Common Sense thing to do? I don’t know.
The reason you back away from a line as it goes taut is not because that one might break, but because eventually one will break; it’s a guarantee. And the force of a snapped line will, in the words of the Able Seaman, “Take a man’s head off and fling it over the wheelhouse.” It’s not a question of if a line will snap, but when. You can inspect them all you want but eventually the conditions will be perfect and it will snap. Your location when it snaps is the difference between going home alive and going overboard. And that is a single rope. When you examine the Gordian Knot intricacies of an oil platform you will conclude that no matter how smart the engineers are (and they are very smart) it is just a matter of time until everything goes wrong. Common Sense does not only apply to the deckhand.

Coming Soon: Part 3 Oggy Learns Some Common Sense

Common Sense: Part 1 of 4
Common Sense: Part 2 of 4
Common Sense: Part 3 of 4
Common Sense: Part 4 of 4
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.