My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore.
I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny.
I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time.
My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off.
The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh.
During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls.
“You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit”
I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else.
There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh.
By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight.
As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck?
So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything.
The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space.