Seismic survey in the North Sea, 1989

Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.

We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.

We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.

After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.

We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.

Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.

I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…

But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.

All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.

Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

Thirty days of lockdown

Have I traded the muse of the poet, the heart of a prophet, the freedom of a writer, for the mess of pottage we call a regular income? Maybe not: everyday things like a regular income have a higher value than we imagine, at any time, and particularly in these times. Others have been and are being blessed, in many ways, because I keep on keeping on.

Thirty years ago a band called The Lilac Time released a song called “Return to yesterday”. It is a delightful song, but the words have told a story ever since and are apposite for today, more than ever before. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s no going back to yesterday – though we none of us, not one of us, have quite realized it yet. They sang We’ll face this new England like we always have / In a fury of denial / We’ll go out dancing on the tiles

There follows some personal reflections from the first month of living in this new England.

16/3: “The road ahead gleams in the rain like a silver ribbon. It holds endless possibilities”… I’m sure this date will live for a long time – the day when the closed-in living began. I dislike the expression “lockdown”. Today an old man fell over and I helped him home. I missed the PM’s broadcast when he told us all to stay indoors.

18/3: Each day, writing for ten minutes on one single subject. Today – weariness. The variety of weariness is not thin: it falls from the sky in many forms. I have known it in many ways, some good, some bad. Waves of sleepiness. An alert, diamond-like wakefulness. The unwillingness to talk; the irascibility. The pleasant weariness of a job well done.

20/3: “Revolution, slow time coming” – Buck 65 – Blood of a Young Wolf. Today it feels like defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory. We need to find a way, in this time of sameness, when many of us are living AND working at home, to mark the beginning of the weekend – which otherwise seems to be just the same as the week.

22/3: Listened to a heart-warming Youtube address from our friend Bishop Andrew Rumsey, in which we’re encouraged to “plant seeds and stay grounded”. In the garden, fantastic, delicate patterns of filigree, in the skeletons of last year’s leaves. Friendly robins come close – and when I find a piece of flint, I am drawn to reflect on wealth. What is wealth?

25/3: Today is my wife’s birthday. We had tea together in the morning and she opened her presents. Dinner out will have to wait, perhaps. A good day at the office, although I found it literally, not metaphorically, somewhat tiresome. At 4pm, tired and I’m not going to go for a run. It seems inappropriate. In my object writing I reflect on visiting my grandma by omnibus, in the mid 1970’s.

27/3: Another sunny morn: the light remains beautiful at sunrise, grazing the stalks in a nearby field, highlighting the folds of the land. I am daunted and awed by the compassion and the creativity of others. I feel borne down by endless lecturing on social media – STAY INDOORS they say, and then I block them or hide them. I will be run over yet by the grinding wheels of collectivism. Though I do mostly stay indoors.

28/3: But what do I know of isolation? I fear for those in tower blocks with north-facing windows in a sea of grey tarmac; for those in damp and dingy bedsits. For those crammed in one or two rooms with squalling kids and sullen or angry partners. We have become, perhaps (as a Dutchman I know once said) “a nation of wuss”. We ought not become a people who are perfectly capable of controlling negative thoughts – but don’t…

29/3: Today I built a desk and shelves in the garden shed. It looked just like the image my wife printed – make it like this picture, she suggested. I am no joiner but it looks well enough. Building it did wear me out though – a long physical day in the cold actually made me dizzy. But that was low blood sugar. We dealt with that with some hummus and a very strong Gin and Tonic.

30/3: Today I broke a tooth, upper left molar, Oddly enough I am not the only person who has done so amongst my social media circle. There is no discomfort. Yet. Just as well.

31/3: I do love the early mornings. Never thought I’d be a lark rather than an owl. Heartened to read of pushback against the way the police have interpreted Boris’s Coronavirus Act 2020. I long for the day when it is repealed completely, but I confess I do not find that likely. What really depresses me is that there are people who fully approve of these new restrictions on our civil liberties.

1/4: Though I took a good day “at the office” I am depressed. I read an article in “Wired” about the future, and this has cast me down. I ought not have read it. Lord, fit me to serve You faithfully and set my face like flint to the task ahead.

2/4: I ran 10km in 58 minutes. I read about metaphor – a collision between ideas that don’t belong together. In metaphor, conflict is essential. Later, I read a senior lawyer who reminded us that it is the job of the police to uphold the law, not ministerial preference. The Prime Minister’s word is not law. This seems important to me, though perhaps not to others.

4/4: Weary with my own sense of individualism, my own ostensible lack of interest in what the community thinks. Make a better team player, O Lord! Teach me how to care. And yet, like “Blurry Face” from the American band 21 Pilots? I DO care what you think.

5/4: My birthday and Palm Sunday. Liberty – “it’s my birthday, and I wants it”. Now is not the time to release your inner Gollum, Nick. But what a lovely day; some gifts of railway books and a case for one of my guitars – though this lovely gift will only come into its own later. Technology provides a chance for my wife and I to meet and chat in a virtual space with all three of our kids.

7/4: Milder weather. I feel a tangible sense of guilt that I am less disciplined in the afternoon than in the morning. I’ve done my best work by 10a.m. In the late afternoon, my heart and brain are mush.

8/4: Sat for the first time this year in a little bower we have created at the end of the garden. A neighbours’ daughters are playing. One can hear the inherent bossiness of little girls, and perhaps of the first-born, as the older bosses the younger around. The sound of children playing is one of the greatest sounds. What is your favourite sound?

9/4: I ran 10km in one hour before 0700 and collected a birthday beer from outside the house of a friend. Thanks Paul!

10/4: I come into the kitchen and hear some politician on the radio droning away about how many items of PPE have been made – 325 million items of this or that – and for a weird and unpleasant moment I actually become Winston Smith. This feeling I have to shake off: Dylan writes “if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d stick my head in a guillotine” and it were true of me on occasion.

12/4: Easter Day: So many others have more positive attitudes than mine. What with the endless bad news, with the police overstepping their powers, with social distancing and the twitching of social media curtains, my heart remains heavy for Merrie England. On the plus side, my daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s “Oryx and Crake” which I started reading immediately.

13/4: It is now a month since I was at the offices in London SW1! The weather breaks to grey, flat skies and gusting wind. Today I ran 10240m in 56 minutes which is fighting fit.

16/4: We’re all finding ourselves, from time to time, in difficult places. I remember again – or at least try to – those who are less fortunate. I finish work and find I cannot face looking at computer screens anymore. ’twas ever thus perhaps. I want something physical, tangible. I shall practice guitar.

18/4: I’ve finished Anthony Lambert’s “50 great train journeys” and Andrew Martin’s “Night Trains”, and I’m reading Tristram Hunt on the English Civil War. Along with “1984” it is possible that this last may lead me in directions that are not entirely constructive – but I can do no other.

It is fully spring now. Flowers are coming out; seedlings are sprouting. We may hope that such growth is not only horticultural but cultural as well, in the months and years to come.