I came to work at 11:30 last night and was met by the steady thrum of a wheelhouse engaged in routine operations. The ship was steady on location about 70 nautical miles south of the Mississippi Delta; there was a workboat alongside, and the crane operator was loading equipment aboard its long aft deck. I ran through my checklists and tested my alarms. Mine are similar to what I imagine an airline pilot’s checklist to be, and I sometimes catch myself doing it by rote and have to force myself to actually look at each sensor, setting, and instrument level. By now I am working through my second, and usually final, blast of caffeine. Mountain-grown or not, Folger’s does not impress me.
I run the navigation bridge of a 762-foot-long deepwater drill ship. The mission of this vessel is to drill ultra-deepwater, wildcat (or exploratory) oil wells. Ultra-deepwater, for now, means drilling in water depths that range from 5,000 to 10,000 feet. This will no doubt increase in the future, commensurate with both technology and demand. Working at such depths renders anchoring impossible, so the newest, biggest, baddest ships are fitted with giant propellers at each end. These are connected to multiple position-locating devices, eight massive diesel engines, a handful of other sensors that keep track of wind, waves, and the ship’s heading, and one powerful central computer. The purpose of all this equipment is to automatically keep the ship on location—usually within 6 feet of a position 6,700 feet directly above the well—for three months while the drilling crew bores a hole 25,000 feet deep into the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s called dynamic positioning, and I am the dynamic positioning operator—the man behind the curtain.
While it sounds like every kid’s dream to maneuver a 47,000-ton ship by pushing buttons, in reality it’s more like this: When all is going well with the satellites, seabed positioning beacons, computers, engines, and thrusters, the DPO gets little credit for keeping the ship over the hole. It is, after all, a fully automatic system, and people forget that automation is only as reliable and accurate as whoever is overseeing it. Let one crucial component crash, however, and I find that even the finest automation has a hard time thinking for itself. When it comes down to maintaining the ship’s position by controlling all six, 18-foot-diameter propellers with the diminutive joystick on my panel, something’s gone horribly wrong and I am no longer the Great and Powerful Oz; I am there either to save the day or be blamed.
System failures of any great magnitude, of course, rarely occur, so therefore few people aboard know the true challenges of what I do. I mean, what I really do. They see me reading the newspaper and looking at the horizon with binoculars and doing other ship’s-officer-type things when they come up to the bridge wings—the horizontal extensions of the pilothouse—to have a smoke. They don’t know that the less busy I look, the better I’m doing my job, and this is difficult to explain without sounding holier-than-thou. I am quite conscious of the fact that many of the “working” people out here consider me a prima donna because rarely do I leave the air-conditioned, spacious, coffee-maker-and-Internet-equipped bridge, and I am never, ever dirty. The oil drilling industry is a world in which filth is point of pride and a fresh-scrubbed face is viewed with suspicion. Worse, when you factor in my college education and home state (Maine), it is a foregone conclusion that I am Not One of Them.
This is an industry dominated by Southerners, although damned Yankees, as we’re (of course) referred to, have made considerable inroads due to the increase in high-tech instrumentation and technology in general. Ships are also getting bigger as the quest for oil moves into deeper and deeper water. Licensed personnel are therefore required to fill certain positions—specifically, in the engine room and on the bridge. Since the South isn’t exactly renowned for its seagoing heritage, drilling contractors in the last 10 years have begun recruiting from maritime academies, the majority of which are in the Northeast. There is bound to be some resentment by the good ol’ boys to us Yankee college kids coming down to take the cream jobs, and I hear about it sometimes at the dinner table. A year ago I introduced myself to the crane operator, and when I told him my position aboard the ship he said, “Oh, you’re one of those kids making rock-star wages.” The money’s really not huge, considering I spend more than half my life away from my wife and home, but what do I say to someone who’s making the same sacrifices for only a third of what I’m paid? Best to feign deafness and hope someone across the galley begins choking on their pot roast, thus creating a welcome diversion.