On a cool, windy couple of days in Galveston earlier this year I discovered that going offshore is a little more involved than just hopping a helicopter and flying out to the rig, platform or vessel of your choice.
In a constant and ever evolving effort to enhance safety, oil companies and service contractors now require everyone going to facilities offshore to pass a Basic Offshore Survival and Emergency Training course -- that goes for geologists, and especially for journalists going out for a one-day trip to get a story.
I have been on offshore platforms before -- once, even in the forbidding North Sea -- but that's been more years ago than I want to admit. So, when my editor called with the opportunity to get a first hand look at a 3-D seismic vessel at work I was excited.
It was only after I discovered I had to take a two-day survival course that I suspected he might have had ulterior motives for magnanimously giving me the trip.
Before leaving the comfort of my home in land locked Tulsa I wasn't too worried about a little survival course. After all, I'm a strong swimmer, I don't get seasick and I've been known to take the ski boat for a spin on the lake. Plus, I happen to think helicopters are very cool.
How bad could it be?
I was excited about the whole experience when I took my seat at the Texas A&M Center for Marine Training and Safety in Galveston.
There were about eight people taking the course, and my company representative and I were the only two women in the room. The group included geophysicists, engineers and technicians from various companies -- all preparing to work offshore.
Peter Medick, a long-time seaman, welcomed us to the class and promptly squashed much of my excitement by showing a video titled "The Ocean Ranger Story." Yes, that's right, we got to hear and see all the details about the worse drillship disaster in the history of the petroleum industry.
However, keeping a positive spin on the experience, I reminded myself that the Ocean Ranger sank in the forbidding and hostile seas of the North Atlantic. I, after all, was going to be flying over and floating on the relatively hospitable waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Plus, it wasn't hurricane season, so I still wasn't too worried.
Medick got things started with a bang when he herded us all outside to learn the finer points of using a crane basket to transfer personnel from one vessel to another. With our life jackets cinched in place we gamely climbed aboard the crane basket, using the proper footholds and clutching the ropes in the correct manner. We all did a fine job of dangling out over the Galveston Bay and landing safely on a small barge placed in the bay for these exercises.
Most of the first day was spent going over various emergencies that can occur at sea and the correct response to each of those emergencies, as well as all the standard emergency equipment -- everything from life jackets and survival suits to lifeboats and emergency positioning indicating radio beacons.
Things got more interesting when Medick moved on to survival training.
I was about to learn a great deal about frostbite, hypothermia, heat exhaustion and heat stroke -- and what to do for all these perils of at sea emergencies.
We spent much time discussing the launching and boarding of lifeboats and what to do once you're adrift at sea in a lifeboat.
We got to examine the contents of a lifeboat supply kit -- replete with flares, potable water in plastic bags, food I am sure the astronauts and sailors would recognize, and various other items essential to surviving at sea for days. Actually, I was amazed at just how much stuff was crammed in that supply kit.
The first day concluded with fire training. We learned that fire is one of the most dangerous emergencies at sea, and we learned about the best way to fight all different kinds of fires. Medick discussed the behavior of fire, the appropriate actions to take when a fire is discovered on board a ship and the equipment typically available to fight a fire.
He finished the first day on a fun note by requiring each of us to don a gas mask and oxygen tank and take a stroll around the building grounds to get a sense of what it's like to wear the gear and find your way around.
(Piece of cake -- I'm a scuba diver so all that equipment was actually fairly similar to my tank, regulator and mask.)
I was feeling pretty good about the whole experience when Medick sent us back to our hotels -- but first burst my bubble just a little when he teased us with tidbits of what was to come the next day.
He suggested we get a good night's rest and bring a towel the next day.
In the morning we returned, not sure what the day would hold.
First, a new instructor went over "helicopter safety and egress," which meant we discussed:
- Safety concerns.
- Various kinds of seat belts.
- Proper in-flight procedures.
- The jettison doors and panels.
- Where the life rafts and emergency equipment is typically stored.
- The importance of egress procedures.
My personal favorite part of this two-hour session was the slide showing a man's head after a helicopter propeller took off much of his skull.
Actually, the instructor did warn us about the slide and, frankly, seeing that graphic gave me a whole new respect for boarding a helicopter. I can promise you I will be doubled over at the waist when climbing aboard any helicopter anywhere. So, I guess it was an effective teaching tool.
After the helicopter session we headed to the fire training grounds, where each of us donned fire coats and hats and hefted a fire extinguisher in preparation to fight a fire.
The coats were made for much taller people than me and I couldn't help wondering just how much I looked like a hobbit -- plus, that coat weighed at least 10 pounds.
After a brief discussion on the proper way to tackle a fire, the instructors lit a petroleum-based fire in a specially designed container that looked like an extra large horse trough. We each took our turn at extinguishing the fire and we did a fine job if I do say so myself. We all left the training ground with our eyebrows -- a good sign don't you think?
When we returned to the center Medick greeted us and told us to meet at the Galveston Athletic Club after lunch for the hands on part of the course. We would get to practice what he had preached.
The 10-foot platform that had been wheeled into the pool area was my first clue this could get interesting. Then I looked down in the water and saw two helicopter simulators. That's when I got a little uneasy. Medick handed each of us a lifejacket and one by one we climbed the platform and demonstrated the proper technique for jumping off a ship in an emergency.
A valiant effort had been made to heat the pool, but believe me climbing out of that water into the mid-January air even in Galveston was invigorating -- to put a positive spin on it.
Once everyone had jumped off the platform we had to show Medick, who by the way was wearing a wet suit, that we could sufficiently perform the standard procedure for collecting as a group and swimming in unison to the lifeboat and boarding the boat.
We sounded like a rowing crew without the canoe.
Once at the lifeboat each of us had to hoist ourselves in with no help from anyone. This is not as easy as it sounds. That sucker is a good three feet out of the water and my weak wrists (the result of recent carpal tunnel surgery) were my biggest enemy. After more tries than I want to remember I finally did haul myself into the raft and as it turns out this was probably the most difficult exercise for me.
After the lifeboat episode we came shivering out of the pool and Medick told us to climb into the survival suits provided. Like the fire coat this orange rubber suit was designed for someone at least a foot taller than me, but I'm a gamer and managed to get myself cinched into the thing. We all looked like shabby Gumby's standing there on the pool deck.
The diehard swimmers who were doing laps even in the dead of winter were watching us with what I'm sure were barely concealed grins.
Once ensconced in the survival suit, back up the platform we went. I was more nervous I would fall off the steps than anything else.
Again, we had to demonstrate the proper way to leap from a foundering ship wearing the survival suit. I have to admit it was much warmer in the Gumby suit, so I was disappointed when Medick told us to take the thing off -- in the water.
After struggling out of the survival suit he promptly told us to put it back on -- in the water.
I was a little tired after this exercise, but the fun was only beginning. We moved to the shallower part of the pool -- and the helicopter simulators.
As I mentioned, I am a good swimmer and even scuba dive -- but when Medick explained we would be buckled into the mock helicopter seat, blindfolded, turned upside down under water and then required to wait eight seconds before disengaging ourselves and swimming to the surface I was a little nervous.
First, we all took our turn in the one-seater simulator. That was actually fairly simple. There were no sides on the contraption, so after I popped the buckle it was an easy swim to the surface.
However, once we had all mastered the one-seater we moved on to the three-seat simulator and this one did indeed have sides with openings designed to emulate doors on a helicopter.
Again, we would be strapped in (this time with two other people), blindfolded and turned upside down under water -- but in this exercise we had to unbuckle the seat belt and find our way hand over hand to one of the "doors" on either side of the simulator.
Oh, we also had to do the exercise three times, from every seat location.
I did fine when I was in the two outside seats, but I admit that middle seat gave me some problems. Why? Because you had to wait for somebody else to get out of your way to make it to the door! Not a comfortable feeling for me.
Finally, we all mastered the helicopter simulator to Medick's satisfaction and we climbed exhausted and freezing from the pool. At this point I was wondering if we would get to try some of the first aid we had learned for frostbite and hypothermia. But, Medick quickly congratulated us on a job well done and gave us our certificates and we hurried to the dressing rooms to get into dry clothes.
All in all it had been an interesting and actually enjoyable two days. I had learned a lot and was feeling pretty good about my accomplishments -- until over dinner that evening I met with the seismic crew manager I would be flying out with the following day.
He regaled us with stories from the survival class his entire crew was required to take in Canada. They were actually taken to sea -- in the North Atlantic, mind you -- and required to jump overboard and survive as a group in the sea while the boat motored away and left them for hours. I was humbled.
But the next day when I boarded the chopper with the rest of the crew I did feel more prepared. You can bet I bent double when I walked under the rotor and the first thing I did when I got buckled in the helicopter was to find the emergency exits and read how they worked.
It was obvious the other crewmembers had done this a few times. They slept or read. Not me. I was on my toes for any sign of trouble -- the price of being a rookie, I suppose.
I'm happy to report that I didn't have to put out any fires or abandon any ship. The helicopter didn't crash.
It was a fascinating day learning about the inner workings of a seismic vessel and later, on my way back to Tulsa, I knew the whole trip had been a terrific adventure. I had a new appreciation for the stringent safety measures oil companies and service contractors require for any offshore operations, and all that offshore- working geologists must go through.
Back in the office, I was quick to point out to my editor that I was now offshore certified. So, when that "business trip" to the French Rivera or the Caribbean comes up I'm good to go.
He said he'd get back to me on that.