Working on an offshore oil rig is a demanding and dangerous profession. Author Scott Cramer signed on as a roustabout on a rig exploring the Baltimore canyon. Here is his report. From Yankee Magazine April 1981 The round-trip fare is $50.95. as I board the bus in Providence I try to remember what I accomplished during […]
By Scott Cramer
Jul 06 2010
From Yankee Magazine April 1981
The round-trip fare is $50.95. as I board the bus in Providence I try to remember what I accomplished during my 14 days off: two days devoted to travel, three nights of restless sleep, re-adjusting, and one day for obligations — dentist, friendships, bills. That left me ten days to operate my life as I wished: write a couple of poems, play ball, read. This is free time that I earn by working as a roustabout on a drilling rig 106 miles off the New Jersey coast, 12 hours a day, 14 days in a row.
The bus ride takes eight hours. Switching buses in New York City, I arrive in Atlantic City about dinnertime, take public transportation to my company-paid motel room, then walk to a nearby restaurant for a $12 meal. I return to the room and relax, watch T.V., sleep and dream about that 5 A.M. wake-up for the chopper ride out to the rig.
The only difference between tonight and any other night is that there is a new man in my room, just hired and full of questions that I don’t want to answer — it would be a waste of my time and his. If he can just wait another 24 hours, they’ll all be answered. I say to him, friend, it’s another world out there, but there’s no need to worry because we’re all in this thing together. He nods, but I know I make him nervous. All that riding on the bus lets one think too much. I know what he’s going through.
About a year and a half ago I was in Houston. Just out of college, looking for work that required no experience, it seemed I knocked on the doors of every oil company in America. I never got past the receptionist at first, then it was the employment office. After some practice I could make it to a soft leather chair in an executive’s office. Even with a beautiful tenth-floor panorama of Houston before me, each interview was a dead end. All the action, all the hiring for offshore work, I found out, took place in southern Louisiana — in Morgan City, Lafayette, Houma. One got a job by going to the bars and not saying the wrong things, buying drinks, making connections. I found work on an oil and gas production platform, seven days on, seven days off. I scrubbed decks and tightened flanges.
After a month I used this experience plus a contact I had made in Houston to get a better job with more responsibility and more money. I scrubbed decks, tightened flanges, and took readings of oil flow rates. For six months, 40 miles offshore, I worked nights, surrounded by blinking lights from drilling rigs, production fields, barges, and work boats. In free moments I called airlines (I had access to a phone), pricing flights to Sydney, Rio, Bombay. I was bored. On one hitch I got so depressed I quit. My poetry stale, and with no exercise, no friends, I vowed never to leave land again. I was hired as a security guard for a large office building in New Orleans. To get back into shape I joined a health club, and as fate would have it, Mr. X, who worked for an offshore drilling company, was also a member. We talked, and the next thing I knew I was heading back home to New England to work on a drill rig in the Baltimore canyon. I heard rumors that work on drill rigs was long, hard, dangerous; pay was good; co-workers were tough. It was all accurate.
On the rig I either eat, sleep, or work. My shift is 12 hours, and the work can be dangerous, often boring. There are accidents of the profession: a carpenter may bang his finger; the roughneck may lose his. Just as people whisper in a library, they shout on the rig. Who yells at whom, and when, depends on a social ordering that relates to your job: galley crew and roustabouts are on the bottom; drilling crew and toolpushers are on the top. You obey the rule: don’t say the wrong thing to the wrong people, or even the right thing to the wrong people. The oil field is not like the army, or like a prison; it is unique — it breeds a special camaraderie. The fact that you are wet and cold, using a water hose with the temperature in the twenties and being yelled at, is not so bad when you see your friend doing the same thing and also being yelled at. Every minute of dangerous work is balanced by a minute of laughter; it releases tension.
One day we are awakened at 10:30 A.M. With the lights on, the room looks small. There are four bunk beds, men’s magazines scattered on a desk, and it’s hot. I get up immediately to beat the rush for floor space, and head to the galley. My breakfast consists of pork chops, milk, collard greens, potatoes, salad, and pumpkin pie. There’s plenty of everything, and good variety. Only when the weather has been bad and we can’t get food does the salad start to wilt and the same meat show up disguised in different dishes. Today it’s supermarket fresh. After eating I stick my head out the door to check the weather. As usual, it’s cold, windy, gray. This means long underwear, specially insulated winter coveralls, hard-toe boots, and of course gloves, hard hat, and safety glasses. My three roommates scramble to get ready and don’t eat. I sit back and wait, letting my mind wander to the life I left behind.
At 11:30 A.M. we start painting. It’s one of the never-ending jobs, along with scrubbing decks and walls, and sweeping. The time goes either slowly or very slowly, depending on what I am painting. Handrails are my favorite, ceilings are not. It’s hard to get up in the morning after painting ceilings 12 hours a day, eight days in a row. Luckily a work boat comes to our rescue. It is a priority to unload boats in the winter months, because rough seas will keep boats waiting for days. We work with the crane for the rest of the day.
The crane is an important, versatile offshore tool. It is also one of the most dangerous. There are mistakes you can make, many that the operator can make, and there are unavoidable mechanical failures; all of these can cause serious injury. If the sea is rough the rig pitches and rolls; inevitably the load swings, and if it happens to pin you against something, you could die. An experienced crew can minimize the dangers and work safely and smoothly. An inexperienced crew plays against the odds. In the oil field the fact that good men are moving up the ladder, plus a high turn over rate of roustabouts, usually keeps the crane crew green. On-the-job education is given by the number of close calls you have, or that others have. Still there are undiscovered ways of getting hurt.
There are no problems with this boat. We off-load bundles of drill pipe, stabilizers, power tongs, and 15 containers of drilling mud. We back-load trash, assorted drill bits, and the U.S. mail. Time goes quickly.
When the shift is over at 11:30 P.M. we go back to the room tired, but happily relaxed. A mountain of dirty, bulky winter clothing rises on the floor. My strategy is to hurry to the showers so that I won’t have to plow through the throng of naked bodies. Everybody is dirty. Roughnecks caked with drilling mud scrub with Ajax and pumice soap. After showering, I eat, return to the room as soon as I can, and try to sleep.
I have nightmares after I work with the crane: I dream that I get squished, and I wake up screaming. My three roommates awaken, confused, scared, a little mad. I tell them I dreamt they got squished, which worries them, subtly. When I work on a high beam I dream that my bunk is that same beam. I work all day, go to bed, then work all night. Once I removed a section from the ceiling and tried to climb in. Or so I was told.
This routine is typical, but every day brings something new. Roustabouts, they say, are paid from the shoulders down: they are general laborers who help whoever needs it. I have worked with the rig mechanic, climbing down inside one of the legs to inspect the ballast system. It feels like being in a strange movie about an underground race of stranded sewer people. A myriad of shadows and ladders descends deep, deeper; we worm through human-size hatches and hear echoes of our hands slapping against rungs. I wonder how they would get me out if I fell? Finally reaching bottom, 49 feet below sea level, I tighten one nut. We rise.
I have worked 50 feet over the water in the personnel basket, looking like a spider at the end of a long one-inch steel cable. (The basket is used to transport men to the boat.) We had to remove a nut from a bolt, the bolt from a hinge. The nut came off pretty easily, but the bolt wouldn’t budge. Heating the bolt with an acetylene torch, we alternated whacking it with an eight-pound sledge. Swinging, swaying, I worked on this thing until I didn’t think I could squeeze the handle anymore — three hours.
Water got into the cement tank, and some cement solidified. A cement tank looks like a farm silo and sits in one of the legs. Our crew had to enter this tube and chip it out. My job was to stay topside, lift up chunks in a bucket, throw them overboard, and lower the bucket back down. Every now and then one of the cement-covered crew surfaced for fresh air. Cement irritates sensitive skin, nostrils, lungs.
Many days I work at the pipe rack, which is the storage area for various types of drill pipe. The roustabout’s job is to insert crane hooks into the ends of a joint of pipe, signal the operator to lift the load, keep it from swinging, guide the pipe over to the catwalk, cut it loose, then wrap one end of it with an air-hoist chain. This allows the pipe to be pulled up the V -door to the drill floor. You have to watch your fingers and your toes. Team work is very important, because everything happens at once: two men work on the catwalk, two with the crane. There’s a lot of iron in the air; we hope it’s not overhead.
Probably the hardest job of all is to stay awake the first night we work. When I get to the rig I work for one week from 11:30 A.M. to 11:30 P.M. Then they swing us, and for the last week I work from 11:30 P.M. to 11 :30 A.M. At 2 A.M. I grow despondent; how much so depends on what I have to do. Six cups of dark-roast coffee during the three o’clock break will carry me until six; it’s downhill from there. Some men take speed; a few crash too early. Near the end of the shift everybody fights a vicious fatigue.
The ability to work hard when you can barely keep your eyes open is what the job is all about. Keep up the pace: hustle, hustle. It’s how to keep your job and move ahead. Someone swings a sledgehammer 15 times, you swing it 16. The toolpusher demands that his rig be run a certain way. He works for the drilling company that leases the rig to an oil company, and he is responsible for the personnel and equipment necessary to explore ‘ for oil and gas. The toolpushers that I know have little formal education, but are experts on the complicated science of drilling for oil. They are pressured to be cost-conscious, to run the rig as productively and cheaply as possible. Safety is sometimes compromised. If there were a common wish among the 60 men on the rig, it would be that we all go home safely.
Money is the key word: do we take risks and tolerate hazards for it? Probably so. The backgrounds of the men I work with are diverse : half from the South, half Yankee, we are together to make a living. No unions, no skills are needed to start. Roustabouts average $15 ,000 a year, roughnecks $19,000, drillers $30,000. It is not uncommon to make roughneck (work on the drill floor) in six months and driller (operate controls for the drill) in under nine years. Overseas, wages are higher, as an incentive for a more demanding schedule: 28 days on, 28 off.
I met Callahan in the Gulf. He was the platform bedmaker. It first struck me as odd that he smelled like an old neighbor of mine in Massachusetts. His sweater, I thought, must have come from the sea chest of a captain dead 20 years — not a bad smell, but peculiar. Oh, my good friend Callahan is an artist, writer, ex-soldier; a 50-year-old Boston Irishman who has read everything from Balzac to Delmore Schwartz. He loves his work, so much so that he jokes how he should pay them for the opportunity! Often staying months at a stretch, he works on his novel about prison experiences. The beds he makes are another matter. He calls them New England straitjackets. It takes a crowbar to pry back the sheets; once inside it tightens up like an enraged octopus. The safest approach is to rip it apart while you still have the strength. Callahan is one of a kind.
Adventure, money, escape? Whatever the reasons for working offshore, nobody will deny that the surroundings are exhilarating. Hanging by a safety belt 100 feet over the water I watch an orange carpet of light from the sunrise unroll to the rig and burn out. The lights of a freighter move across the horizon like the second hand of a watch; thousands of seagulls, white bodies in deep space, bob on water you don’t see at night. In a storm, 30-foot seas turn the standby boat into a bronco. It rears way back to the tip of its tail, then nose-dives into the waves’ trough and disappears.
In the Gulf of Mexico, I woke some days to find the platform had been invaded by a swarm of dragonflies, buzzing around the lights, dying. I swept them into neat piles that attracted purple martins. Several hitches ago on this rig I looked up at 1 A.M. to see a mad snowstorm of small birds fluttering about the derrick. In the next two hours my hard hat was hit four times by falling birds. About 4 A.M. it happened: 99 percent of them rained down, dead. We shoveled them into empty barrels, filling five 55-gallon drums to the brim. Birds barely alive were found the next night in corners, under boards, in pails. We left them alone. If they were covered with oil or accidentally stepped on, they were thrown overboard. It seemed as though a strong, untimely easterly wind must have been responsible for stranding, ultimately killing, a flock of migrating birds.
On this same hitch, large white egrets appeared one night, and circled the rig counterclockwise. With each revolution, about ten would land on the flare boom in line and look in the same direction. Their beauty was a balance of awkwardness and grace: long necks folded like a crushed S, yellow legs dangling in flight, huge wings flapping. Occasionally one called out.
For hours this pattern of circling and landing didn’t change. Some of the men tossed scraps of metal at them. One egret was hit and knocked 100 feet to the water. Then a man crawled out on the boom and grabbed one when it landed, breaking its leg. Walking back, he held it in his raised arm; otherwise the egret’s head would have dragged along the grating. After everybody had seen it, he threw it overboard; it made no effort to fly, simply glided to the water. The other egrets had continued to circle and land, circle and land, which made me wonder if the entire flock could have been destroyed in this fashion, until the last lone egret circled and landed.
The next morning I was up early, excited about going home. I went outside to find it was still dark, but a fan of yellow light was unfolding on the horizon. The egrets were still there, held captive by man-made light. Wouldn’t the sun set them free? Once the flock broke its circling pattern and snaked its way about 200 yards south in wide swooping S’s as though the birds were doing some secret dance, but they returned for more circling. They repeated this maneuver again, heading south following that same crazy map. This time they didn’t come back. Daylight had arrived.
After two weeks on the rig, I have ten days to do as I please.
Read more classic stories from Yankee Magazine.