Human Guinea Pig

Rigtime Gal

I go drilling for natural gas on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Before I went for a 24-hour vacation on an offshore drilling rig, I looked into the role rigs play in popular culture. Rigs appear surprisingly often, usually ominously, in film. Probably it’s because they stir some archetypal memory of strange, lost Atlantis-like civilizations, rising out of and then falling into the sea. Producers of Bond films like to put their villains on vast rigs—think Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Foreve r. I rented the horror film Ghost Rig but had to turn it off when one character was bludgeoned to death by a colleague who had been possessed by the evil presence that lurked on the rig. Then I saw the dreadful ffolkes, which was made in 1979 and is surely the first thriller to be set on an offshore oil rig. Anthony Perkins stars as a terrorist who hijacks a North Sea rig for ransom. I assert he is the only villain in cinematic history to utter these climactic lines: “I’m going to the bathroom. At least I’m going to try to go to the bathroom!”

For the Human Guinea Pig column, I do things you might consider doing yourself, until you reject the idea as outlandish. Before a friend of mine in the energy business offered to help me spend some time hanging out on an offshore natural-gas drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I had never considered this as a holiday option. (This is why I’m not a billionaire. It turns out Mohamed Al-Fayed, who is one, is planning to build a luxury hotel on an out-of-commission rig in the North Sea, an area known for its gale-force winds.) But now it seemed both salutary and patriotic to combine American energy independence with a vacation.

A rig is like a stationary cruise ship—minus the after-dinner Barry Manilow tribute—that has been turned inside out. All the things usually hidden away inside—the gears, the motors, the noise of machinery, the men in grease-covered overalls—are outside on proud display. And all life’s amenities—the food, the beds, the pingpong table—are tucked deep inside, away from the sunlight.

Getting to the rig required an hour-and-a-half helicopter ride from the New Orleans airport. Looking out the window was like viewing a panorama of drilling history. Almost immediately after takeoff, my corporate chaperone, Bill Chemerinski, an expert in deepwater operations with Mariner Energy, pointed out what used to be offshore drilling: a barge in 10 feet of water. Then we passed production platforms standing in 200 to 300 feet of water—the depth of deepwater drilling a generation ago. Then, after about 50 miles the inner shelf dropped and the seabed gave way to rigs capable of drilling 10,000 feet below the surface. These are called semisubmersibles; that is, they are giant machines resting on pontoons, secured in place by 14-ton anchors. (Read more about them here.)

When we had flown 140 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, a little Lego tower, forlorn and tiny, emerged out of the mist. It was the Ocean America. Within minutes it became gigantic. It’s more than 400 feet in length and 200 feet in width (by comparison, a football field is 360 feet by 160 feet). At the tallest point of the derrick it stands 270 feet above the water. We landed on the heliport, and the first person to greet me was a pretty, dark-haired woman, Amy Stewart, 44, the rig’s safety officer and, she told me, my bunkmate. I didn’t see many more women—of the revolving crew of 105 workers, there are only five. One is a ballast-control officer; the rest work in the kitchen and housekeeping.

Amy immediately took me inside to get outfitted. No one is allowed on the working portions of the deck without a hardhat, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots. I noticed that on the back of Amy’s hardhat were two stickers. One read, “I ain’t yo mama” and the other, “Wicked witch.” She explained she found these on her hat one day and decided to keep them. To avoid getting caught in machinery, I was instructed to remove my earrings and wedding ring. (This could be a rig vacation slogan: “Leave your troubles—and your wedding band—behind!”)

As we walked down the stairs to her room, she passed a worker coming up, holding two cups of soda. “Which hand are you going to put on the handrail?” she said to him, explaining to me that because the rig can shift in the currents, holding onto the railing is a rule.

My hosts, who don’t get a lot of visitors, were confused about the purpose of my trip. Amy later explained they were also confused about me. The rig is equipped with wireless Internet, and before my arrival some of the men Googled my previous Guinea Pig exploits. Their favorite was about my stint as a nude model. Amy told me that in a game of telephone (“Just because they’re men, don’t think they don’t gossip”) the word had gone out that I was a former Playboy Playmate. I realized that when my helicopter landed, they were expecting someone more like Jessica Simpson on a USO tour.

Amy’s room was a cozy capsule: built-in bunk beds (I took the upper), sink, closet, television, and a compartment for a toilet and shower. It was off the four-bed sick bay—Amy is also the rig paramedic. Recent patients included a first-timer who took his first wad of chewing tobacco and got sick to his stomach, and another young man who spent his off-hours suntanning on the heliport. Many people on the crew are given nicknames—his is now “Lobster.” As we walked down the hallways, most rooms had a sign on the door, either “5 a.m. wake-up” or “5 p.m. wake-up.” The rig operates 24 hours a day, with workers assigned to either daytime or nighttime 12-hour shifts. Besides a personal knock on the door (at an ungodly hour), the rig offers other amenities: unlimited meals, and daily laundry and maid service. After a two-week shift, the crew is flown by helicopter back to land—they live everywhere from Louisiana to Washington state—and they get to spend two weeks at home.

Most of the interior of the rig is taken up with rooms filled with gauges and dials and monitors. But there is a galley where food is available virtually 24 hours a day. It has four long Formica tables, and the food—heavy on the meat and canned vegetables—is presented cafeteria-style in big steam trays. Amy said you can tell the day of the week on any rig in the Gulf because they all go by the same food schedule: steak on Tuesday and Saturday, seafood on Friday, fried chicken on Sunday. (On my second day on the rig, a Tuesday, I sat down with crew members for a 10 a.m. steak lunch with sides of baked potatoes, ears of corn, broccoli, cauliflower, and biscuits. I normally don’t make myself a five-pound plate of food at that hour, but I’d discovered by then there is nothing like watching other people work really hard to stimulate the appetite.)

There is also a small gym, a sauna, and a lounge. In the lounge are worn couches, two pingpong tables, a magazine rack containing the March issue of Successful Farming, and a large-screen TV—the rig has satellite reception. When I walked in, The Dukes of Hazzard was on the screen and two furious pingpong games were talking place. This was disillusioning, because I had hoped that in their spare time the crew would be carving scrimshaw and singing sea chanteys. Amy had me watch the mandatory safety film, and I came away with one indelible lesson: “Never stand under a suspended load.”

Rusty Critselous, 53, the rig’s cheerful drilling supervisor, then interrupted his duties to give me a thorough tour of the rig. He did a heroic job trying to explain to me what was going on. Mariner Energy was deeply concerned that in reporting on my vacation, I would expose corporate secrets. But a typical passage in my notes from Rusty reads, “We can get all the tubing picked up, then run our tubing hanger—it sets down in the tree. The next step is to open some valves, blow the well a little, shut them and release the tubing hanger running tool, then run and set the internal tree and our BOP stack.” I had the feeling that if I ended up on the rig of James Bond’s nemesis, the evil Blofeld, I would conclude he was a nice man who loved cats and was doing interesting work in petrochemical research.

Rusty had been onboard nonstop for a month to oversee the completion of the four-month drilling process, which was just weeks away. He is an independent contractor working for Mariner, which is an oil and gas exploration and production company. The Ocean America is owned by Diamond Offshore Drilling, which provides drilling equipment and services. We stopped and watched a crew of five men fashioning together lengths of 100-foot pipe like a series of drinking straws, then sending them down a hole in the deck to the sea. There was a choreographic beauty to their work. When the drilling is done, the Ocean America and its crew will travel to the next potential site, and the gas deposit from this one will flow through a pipe on the seabed.

As with any enclosed institution—jail, the military, a college fraternity—a rig has a clear hierarchy. The most junior people on the rig—some of them look like 19-year-olds—are called “roustabouts.” They do everything from maintenance to unloading supplies to basic drilling, and they can earn about $52,000 a year. If they do well, they get promoted to “roughneck,” with more responsibility and an increase in salary. And there is something wrong with this country if every red-blooded American young man doesn’t want to spend some time in his life being a roustabout or a roughneck.

Onboard, it’s impossible not to get caught up in Brobdingnagian and Lilliputian comparisons. To reach the deposit means getting pipe to the sea floor, 6,700 feet below, then drilling another 7,000 feet into the seabed—in other words, going the depth of the Grand Teton. And from 14,000 feet away, they have to hit their target with a pipe that is 9 inches in diameter—the size of a dinner plate. From there, the gas will flow 60 miles through a seabed pipe to an offshore processing platform. Then it will travel through another pipe 100 more miles to land, where it will be further processed and readied for distribution. That is, if the “rock docs” (the geologists) are right and there is a natural-gas deposit. “You think you know what you’re drilling for, but it’s all a guess,” explained Billy Ledsinger, a subsea engineer. (The docs were right, and Mariner expects the gas will start flowing in 2008.)

As Rusty and I walked around and over the equipment, I looked at the gorgeous aqua ocean, dotted with bobbing yellow seaweed. Rusty said the rig is a haven for migrating birds. A few weeks ago, a flock of hummingbirds took a break onboard, followed by one of purple martins. Amy said the birds are sometimes so exhausted that when they land they fall into such a deep sleep that she has stroked their feathers.

Three hours after our 6 p.m. dinner (I topped off my enormous meal with two bowls of ice cream), Amy escorted me across the rig. There, a group of welders were fishing from 90 feet up. Barracuda and swordfish are common sights, and someone pointed to flashes of brilliant blue—a school of mahi mahi. Within minutes the welders were hauling a 10-pound tuna onto the deck. They unhooked it and threw it back—it landed with a hard thwack that I hoped was not the tuna equivalent of the jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Incongruously, on this part of the deck someone hung a white porch swing facing north—toward land too far away to see. I sat for a few minutes enjoying the darkness while engines hummed and gears turned.

We went back to our room, and Amy turned up the air conditioner to high, to drown out the hospitallike sound of the PA making incomprehensible announcements all night long. I slept wonderfully, the slight swaying of the rig having a womblike effect. I also discovered that being in the middle of the Gulf totally cleared up my allergies.

Recently the Washington Post reported that the Interior Department was looking to expand coastal oil and gas drilling to include a now-forbidden area off Virginia. Of course, environmentalists objected, citing potential damage to the tourist industry. But why should the choice be tourism or rigs? You can have both! Think of the marketing: unlimited food, suntanning on the heliport, fishing from 90 feet—just don’t mention the 5 a.m. wake-up call.

OK, maybe Mohamed Al-Fayed and I are both crazy, and no one will want to vacation on a rig. But anyone who goes on that vacation will have a new respect for what it takes for you to warm your house with a push of a finger on the thermostat, or to get a flame on the stove with a turn of your wrist.