Friday, April 17, 2015

The Island Made of Steel

‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. Before I find my job a run of the mill to be written about, I would very much like to document it for future amusement.
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 I casted my vision across the waters. The ocean is so vast that she fused herself to the sky. Wind was omnipresent. Some stroking my hair. Turquoise waves were camouflaging local beings that I somehow managed to make out as a school of fish swarming. The evening was getting chilly as I let some hot chocolate warm my lips. I took a lungful of sea breeze again. Fresh scent of the salty sea streamed into my nostrils. At last, I am away from the city- a place where we appreciate aquatic geology as monsoon drains and man made lakes. It takes quite some conviction to down the fact that I am now water-borne, away from traffic jams and mobile phones. A good absence from land, which even the nearest from us lies hundreds of meters below our feet. I stand on a façade so artificial, consolidated in the innocence of nature.

I am on a small island made of steel. I finally embarked on my first real job as an offshore field engineer on an oil rig. Before I signed the letter of acceptance nine months ago, I heard of caveats about the price of making a living with this profession. It did not matter to me. Nothing could come in the way of a fresh graduate, surging with veberating energy, who is underpaid in a monotonous desk-bound job. Though I worked in the heart of lacer-paced Kuala Lumpur, I felt everything else was moving except me. Hence, it wasn’t difficult to decide to high-tail to this company. I shall be prepared for the challenges! - I announced to myself. But no matter how much I prepared, I realized I can never be too ready for the actual thing.

This is what a rig looks like
Night shifts
I remember my first cell manager greeted me with working hours that installed a completely different meaning to Goodnight. The first challenge of my job was to work from midnight to noon. You have no idea how much retaliation of the mind I have to put up with every night. Pixies would sprinkle gold on my eyelids and the silent symphony of the yawn punctually starts come dawn. The feeling of my energy being munched down as I worked was so tangible that I had to resort to slapping myself to keep awake. When my cheeks were starting to wear a natural blush, I was visited by the idea of tricking the biological system. Before my shift started, I would indulge on the sweetest food I could find in the galley. But again, the sugar rush was short-lived. I was still sleepy and worse still, my poor confused body was steadily gaining some layers of body insulation. So with that stratagem fall through I decided to declare war with night shift with raw will power! There is a will, there is a way indeed. As nights passed, I find myself pretty chuffed to avert the scorching heat and take pleasure in my daily doses of cool sea breeze. I befriended the moon and greeted the sun arising from the sea. The hours do not seem so unearthly anymore when friends halfway around the globe punctuate my monitor with MSN messages. They are glad that a modicum of Malaysia is awake and I, of course, am delighted to find company. Night shifts have slowly but undoubtedly converted me into a nocturnal animal- a smiling one.
Happy nocturnal animal on T10 rig
Weekends? What weekends?
Working on the oil rig tantamounts to having no weekends. The rig operates 24 hours a day (So that you can still buy that bowl of noodles below RM5 for a longer time) Well, how can I be more grateful? It saves the trouble of cooking up weekend plans! How can you not learn the real meaning of letting-go and moving-on when there is a trip, wedding or gathering that involves the whole world except you. We can only chuckle to cushion the solitude. If you complain you are robbed of a good weekend because that public holiday just won’t fall on a Friday or Monday, I advise you that you just don’t talk to us. But don’t pity us yet. I wont forget to mention how compensated we are working on weekends and public holidays compared to obligatory overtime some people are required to do. It is not all that bad when we don’t have to feel sorry for ourselves for walking into the office on weekends or cancelling plans because the boss just called. Because to us, its workday anyway!

Birthday celebration on Ensco52 rig
Merdeka celebration on Naga 4 rig
Of brawn and sinew
It didn’t take me long to soak up the fact that my work requires physical strength. I am pleased to land myself on a job that kills two birds with one stone. It saves extra trips to the park after working hours. My term in KLCC taught me how to be disgusted with my flabs from a job that requires nothing more than the movement of the eyeballs over the monitor. Ask any of my family and friends and they will tell you how much an advocate of exercise I am. Even so, my unique vocation did not fail to surprise me again. To begin with, we are plastered to our thick coverall uniforms everyday. We carry a pair of metal in our safety boots and balance a bulking helmet on our heads. On our noses, rests a pair of safety glasses. When I first cladded my full set of safety gears, my joints were stiff as if cemented. Armoured with the stated, we have to work at a rate of knots. Talk about burning calories! Up steep ladders and down low pits, engineers around me work as if they are weightless. I had to crack up my stiff body to be agile like them. Like commonly joked among ourselves during university, engineers are, a matter of fact, labourers with a high paycheck. Although most of the time, we cannot seem to detach ourselves from artificial intelligence, there are times we cannot differentiate ourselves from blue-collared workers as well (literally too as our uniform colour is blue) Lifting loads, flexing muscles and sweating buckets are all part of the job. Some of my girl friends would cringe at the sound of that. But in the end, my dears, don’t ask us how we get fit without Power Yoga or Combat Aerobics.

For ultimate fitness, be an offshore engineer! On the helipad of Ensco52 rig
Foodie’s haven
Many wonder what keeps us alive and kicking in a place marooned from the rest of the world. Well, food of course! The best way to a man’s heart is through the stomach. I can assure you, it works for ladies too. What makes you think we could survive so gallantly at sea without Starbucks, GSC and The Curve? Our magic kitchen! Well, the food there is not majestic, really. The menu merely alternates between steak, lamb shank, roasted chicken, braised duck, baked salmon, prawns and crabs (talk about calories!) Add lobsters and turkeys during festive season. For dessert we are almost never short of cheesecakes, pies and chocolate mud cakes. At some rigs they say, a buffet spread of Haagen Daaz ice-cream is not surprising. So don’t stare in disbelief when a round bloke tells you about his herculean career at the sea. In the self-serve corner, we can always quench with juices from apples to tomatoes and a variety of whole fruits too. To spice things up, we have condiments from mustards to Tabasco sauce to my favourite amber coloured maple syrup. Bragging you say? Change your mind because all of these do not even measure up to a cup of instant noodles with loved ones at home. When things become a bear of a job, it is always good to remember that we work for a purpose- to bring food to the mouth for survival. As a matter of fact, we always pull through the day because of meal time. Imagine if there was no breakfast, lunch and dinner- the sun will never set. May the people who prepare the food be blessed.     

Food galore! Galley of Naga3 rig
Being a girl
If you think that I am excused from filth on the rig because I am a female, you are definitely wrong. My manager frequently reminds me that no princess-ing around is allowed. My fingers not only have to be nimble across the keyboard, I have to work deftly with spanners, ratchets, screwdrivers (not bad for a person who couldn’t differentiate a spanner from a piece of metal). Buffed and polished nails like the ones worn by office ladies are a joke on the rig. For one, they will always be hidden under gloves. And more importantly, they are never grease-free at the end of the day. No matter how much I try to avert drilling mud, it will always find its way to my hands. Make up? Forget it. You won’t want to end up like a melted doll. And a little note to hair enthusiasts, your crowning glory could take some steam treatment from the helmet.

At times, the only ones that share the same gender with me are the mermaids from the ocean (if they even exist). With a job description that do not tell me apart from the guys, a girl has her own challenges when out at sea. Having males as her colleagues most of the time, the girl has to learn how to mollify a man’s temper. I could take this opportunity to speak for my sisters who suffer from the bigotry of men thinking only we have mood swings. Men, as emotionally stable as they claim they are, have especially low tolerance of hunger and sleep depreciation. It is crucial to identify what provokes a man and what pleases them because being in the middle of the deep sea, it can be very convenient for him to get rid of you. Perhaps you could already guess the latter for a typical guy. Which then brings me to learn how to be discreet about these androgenic creatures- when to laugh at their pride-bearing jokes and when to frown at suggestive ones.

While being labeled the weaker sex authorizes us to outsource physical work to helpful gentlemen, it can be undermining because in some ways we are not. How unstrong can we be if we are actually able to be away from loved ones, insensitively brace men’s tongue-lashings, forced to do heroic stunts like staying awake 24 hours, leave our heels and dresses untouched and abandon shopping for a month?

When paper work and physical work demand just as much . See the filth on my gloves?
Being a female on the rig has its challenges
Pleasures of being an engineer offshore
On one of my not-so-fantastic moments, a colleague reminded me that I am only young once. What better time to make some statement in the bank than now. I have friends (or not) who repeatedly comment that I have no life. I hope they were not referring to the time I catch the sun born from the waters every morning or when the sea bathed me with so much wind that the invigoration lasted a few days.

Some friends are constantly caring about my safety offshore. I thank them very much. I am at my primetime- an instruction to unleash the daredevil in me. But even so, what for? Oil rigs are now operated with safety rules so thorough that it could be safer than working at home. I find myself worrying more for those on land who are exposed to H1N1, reckless driving and snatch thefts.

I may have thrown in some rantings when I penned this experience of mine but I am truly grateful to be on this island of steel to start my career with. How many people are privileged to land their hinds on a helicopter? Or watch the dolphins migrate when working?

When choppers become regular transports for us

My few habits at sea
  1. I wear socks to sleep
  2. I make sure I have my herbs for vitality
  3. I always bring 4 hangers
  4. I make sure I have oranges in my room
  5. I bring either Bubbles (my teddy) or Candy (my soft toy mouse) to the rig
My companion Candy

12th May 2009