Thump-thump-thump-thump … A huge shadow crossed above us and a gale of wind tore at my clothes and hair.

For me it was the thrill of a lifetime – boarding a giant Sikorsky helicopter. I was in Broome, Western Australia, about to board the chopper for the 500 kilometer (2 hour) journey to a drilling platform way out in the Indian Ocean.

Safety precautions prohibit iPads and MP3 players. Most of the crew simply don their earmuffs and try to sleep But I was entranced by the endless blue ocean and white caps far below me – always changing, always the same.

In two hours we arrive at what looks an impossibly small rig. Even as the chopper descends I have the sinking feeling the helicopter runners will overhang the sides.

The ConocoPhillips' Browse Basin Drilling Rig Image: www.offshoreenergytoday.com

The ConocoPhillips’ Browse Basin Drilling Rig Image: www.offshoreenergytoday.com

Every square centimetre of an oil rig is accounted for. There is no space just left over. And when you consider the stakes they are playing for its no surprise: Oil rigs cost about 40 million a month to hire. The seams and reserves they are looking for, then, have to offer incredible returns.

Hundreds of thousands of man-hours have gone into taking and examining geophysical data. This data will suggest the chance of finding resources beneath the ocean bed (in this case natural gas). But the latest technology and finest engineering can’t guarantee a thing when it comes to nature.

This rig is in the Browse Basin – a deep-ocean area twice the size of Tasmania. Data suggests there may be deposits of natural gas here. And that’s what these men are here to discover.

Work aboard the rig is hard, dangerous and continuous. Accidents do happen, people do get killed. Even with the almost maniacal focus on safety things can and do go wrong. In 2013 A National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority report cited 28 injuries across 12 rigs. In 2012 two men were killed when they were struck by the heavy metal tongs they were using to unscrew a pipe. The machines aboard a rig are big, heavy, and powerful – with lots of moving parts. When things go wrong, they can go really wrong.

The crew work 12-hour shifts for four weeks. During this time they have nothing but the ocean, sky and machines to look at. Apart from a small gym, a recreation room, sleeping quarters and a galley every spare centimetre is bristling with machinery, charts, technology, oil, and grime.

The hum of drill is constant reminder that the job never sleeps.

The crew are made up of diverse nationalities. Everyone knows their job and works together. Any animosity here is quickly dealt with.

Image: www.theoildrum.com

Image: www.theoildrum.com

Surprisingly there are a few women dotted amongst this male dominated world. Life aboard an oil rig is ‘blokey’. And while the laws of the land do extend even out here, there’s more to be gained by putting up with a bit of ‘banter than by creating a fuss and demanding your rights.

‘There’s never anything serious,’ one of the women says. ‘It’s just how things are out here. You’re not going to change it; so if you don’t like it – leave.’ But there is an upside to the grinding, almost soul-sapping work: Unskilled entry-level employees earn between $120,000 and $150,000 a year. And the salaries only go up from there!

But know this: You’ll work for it.

Oil rigs are blokey for a reason. The work requires muscle, endurance, patience and the power to live and work on your own for extended periods. As on man put it, ‘You’re trading time for money.’ Time with your family, time with other people, time simply living is being sacrificed for a fabulous pay packet. It’s not a choice everyone is comfortable with, but it is work that needs doing.

This article has been brought to you by Neptune Marine Services – Specialist solutions providers to  the oil and gas, marine and renewable energy industries.

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