Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Size Isn't Everything: The Wonder Of Offshore

They are huge; monsters that rise from the sea, anyone who has witnessed one close up can testify to their dominance for miles around. They are heavy-duty feats of engineering; effectively one colossal metal machine, these things are capable of incredible precision and brute raw power. And they are everywhere; dotted around the globe, sometimes in swarms, sometimes in isolation, sometimes fixed in position, sometimes on the move. Ubiquitous but out of sight, these behemoths pretty much keep the modern world running - without them, well, you'd better hope it's windy and you've got a giant windmill on your house if you want to watch Jeremy Kyle and put a cuppa tea on before taking a drive to the shops to buy some milk and a bunch of other rubbish.

I am, of course, talking about oil rigs, not just on a whim but because I'm effectively living on one right now, and have been so for several weeks. Although it would be lovely to make a living from being a professional reviewer of World Wonders, my total earnings to date have been $25. This is my promised fee from MSN Photos for a picture of the Spring Temple Buddha, but it's been promised since June without any direct prospect of receiving it. Even with that money, my accumulative Wonder-related expenses are a little greater. Hence, I have to find other ways to earn money, and that happens to be by working offshore.

My old blog detailed, in a manner, how it was to work offshore, which pre-travelling I had done for five years. I was fortunate enough that I've been able to return on a freelance basis to my job, and make some money to both pay off travelling debts and save for future travels (not to mention a wedding in a year's time). Thus, for the last four weeks (barring a one-day gap) I've been on the Rowan Gorilla 7, and before that I had a week on the Caledonian Victory, both in the North Sea.

Working offshore, for me, varies quite a bit, and can sometimes be extremely busy and very hard work. This current job I'm on does not fall into that category. Instead, after getting all my equipment rigged up, it has been a case of nightshift for almost three weeks, twelve hours a night, monitoring what is so far a virtually straight line meandering across a screen. Twelve hours daily with little in the way of anything like work to distract me, in an contained unit, by myself. It's a very isolated existence, although one that has allowed me to do quite a phenomenal amount of reading: I have managed to process information on the likes of Cairo Citadel, the Sacre Coeur, Palmyra, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and more. I drink four cups of coffee a night, three biscuits, and eat meals at 5pm and 11.30pm. From 7am to 3.30pm I sleep, watching 15 minutes of Countdown and the BBC News before I go to bed, and Sky News and 15 minutes of Pointless after I get up. The rest of the time, well, I'll show you.

This is my unit, and pretty much my life at the moment. It's a far cry from clambering up 1000 year old temples in Bagan, walking miles along mountain ridges on improbable sections of the Great Wall, or getting engaged at the Taj Mahal. Life on a rig can be pretty mundane. But it's a means to a end, and one I happen to quite like, to an extent. (It also happens to be great detox - no booze for a month.)

The thing is, as my opening paragraph implies, there is something quite wondrous about oil rigs. Years of exposure to them has lessened their impact somewhat, and the majority of offshore workers - in the North Sea at least - will only ever moan about the rig, but take a step back from the stifling atmosphere and look on impartially and they are quite incredible things. They are massive, for a start. The typical rig I'd be on will be something like 100 metres by 70 metres, with a central derrick in the region of 60 metres high. That's kind of football field dimensions, but covered with machines and constructions plus a big metal tower in the middle, and the entire thing standing on stilt-like legs in the sea. Some of the rigs float, but some, in shallow water, simply have long legs that stand on the sea bed. Want to see how long these legs can be? Here's the rig I'm on now, the Gorilla 7, docked in Dundee some time ago.

And the Gorilla 7 is far from exceptional. Rigs come a lot bigger than this. The world record is held by an oil platform called the Petronius, which for a while also had a claim for the tallest construction on earth. Top to bottom, it stretches for 610 metres. At the time of construction, 2000, the tallest building in the world was a mere 452 metres (Petronas Towers), and tallest freestanding structure 553 metres (CN Tower). As the Petronius was mostly underwater, however, it didn't qualify.

I couldn't easily find any good pictures of the Petronius platform, but instead, here's one of the still-pretty-tall 472-metre Troll A platform, in the North Sea west of Norway.


That last one was taken during the controversial oil drill in the centre of Paris last year.

In my own experience, the largest oil-related vessels I've ever seen have been FPSOs. These are basically massive vessels that sit in position and store oil, before oil tankers come along to take some away. They are like floating cities. A couple of years ago, I had to transfer to one from another rig, by use of a small "taxi" speedboat. It felt like a scene in Star Wars, approaching a Star Destroyer.

Here's a good picture of a regular oil rig next to an FPSO.

Bigger ones are ahead too. Shell have planned a floating platform to store liquified natural gas. When complete it will be about 488 metres long, 74 metres wide, and weigh twice as much as the Empire State Building. And, I repeat, it will be floating.

Unlike many massive constructions around the world, and the majority of my Wonders, these things are not built for show. They are not designed to impress. Rigs are utilitarian - everything on the rig has a function. Petronius was not built to be 610 metres tall for fun, it was because it's in 500-metre deep water. The derrick isn't 60 metres high so the derrickman can have a nice view, it's because the lengths of pipe that are put into the hole being drilled are over 30 metres in length. Everything on a rig has its place, and it's usually a noisy, clanking, and irredeemably unattractive one.

Because although oil rigs are awesomely large, and an astonishingly powerful and intricate conglomeration of mechanics, they're no Wonders. They are, in the end, just a machine, and deftly highlight that there is more to being a Wonder than simply being huge. I've said before, in my Criteria of a Wonder entry that size is an essential component of any World Wonder - no matter how unique and beautiful, a Wonder could never be the size of, say, a stoat or even a camel - but a Wonder isn't judged on just size. Factors such as aesthetics, technical achievement, sheer improbability, longevity, back story, uniqueness, and iconicity all play a part. And though large and powerful feats on engineering, even the biggest rig lacks much else to qualifiy it.

Being utilitarian is no obstacle to being a Wonder; indeed, some of my best Wonders so far were built primarily for function - the Great Wall, the Millau Viaduct, and the Banaue Rice Terraces are good examples. But being merely utilitarian isn't enough - the Three Gorges Dam is an epic feat of construction but is wholly uninspiring to look at, and hence is bottom of my list at the time of writing. Oil rigs are ugly things, built to a rough template, and exist only as long as they are needed - even a 20-year-old rig will be run down and in need of serious refurbishment or scrapping altogether. They are remarkable places to visit, especially when flaring, but are not special, are not treasures. UNESCO will never preserve one, and nations don't use them to attract tourists. During my search to find candidate Wonders for my list, I've come across or had suggested to me certain massive oil platforms that impress with their statistics, but a Wonder needs more than just statistics.

So instead of rating them, I'll just live on them instead. I'm scared to think of how much time I've spent in my five-plus years in the oil industry actually offshore - surely over two whole years so far. But although sometimes claustrophobic, often uninspiring, occasionally depressing, and always noisy place, as I said earlier there is something quite wondrous about rigs.

Especially when seeing them from a distance, in a helicopter, on your way back home. (Which I hope to be doing next week.)

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