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.

A brief visit to Colombia

As the ship approached the coast, it was clear that an immense thunderstorm sat over this part of coastal Colombia, towering forty thousand feet into the sky over Santa Marta. The gloom grew as evening wore on, partly from the failing light, partly as we slid underneath this colossal storm. Lightning flickered, and the storm took all our attention as the supply ship lumbered along, rolling gently in the swell.

We made landfall at Santa Marta as rain started in earnest, lightning almost constant at this point. We waited patiently for the shore agents to arrive, listening to the warm rain lashing down. When three vehicles swung into the dockyard, we gladly ran out into the downpour to climb in and ready ourselves for the journey to the airport. The route to the airport lay along switchback mountain roads, during which the rain increased for a time to an absolute tropical frenzy.

At the airport, we all checked in, and it became apparent that some form of unforeseen local airport tax was payable. We have agents to deal with this kind of thing; we ourselves retreated to the café and drank beer. Outside in the darkness the rain came down.

Later, around 9.30p.m or such, the aircraft arrived, and we paid for our beer, which was a vanishingly small amount for the thirty or forty beers we had sunk, perhaps US$30. As we boarded the plane the rain was still falling, lightning was still lighting up the storm clouds, thunder booming away even above the noise of the engines.

At Bogota, we collected our bags, and almost immediately made the acquaintance of the security teams, the “Men in black”. These were smartly dressed, unfailingly polite, fit looking young men in dark business suits, all clearly but discreetly armed. Part of the experience of visiting a country like Colombia at our employer’s expense. James Bond eat your heart out! Swiftly then in MPVs to the hotel, where, after a swift check-in (so much quicker than the sluggish desk at the Mexico City Airport Marriott) we went to the bar for more beer. It was after 11p.m when we arrived. I called it a night at 1.20a.m; some of my colleagues were still going strong at 5a.m.

After a troubled night’s sleep I didn’t go down for breakfast until 9.30a.m, and breakfast was superb. Freshly prepared omelettes with all the trimmings, fresh orange juice and black coffee. Can one ask for much more for breakfast? Together with a colleague I took a stroll around the enclave surrounding the hotel, buying a few trinkets in the process. Cash was easily available at the ATM, and it was conspicuous that the cost of living was low, in that the amounts of cash available in the machine corresponded to low dollar amounts. Also very conspicuous were the private security guards, everywhere, in various uniforms, all heavily armed, all polite and well mannered, and many with dogs. Restricted as we were to the immediate environs of the hotel, further exploring seemed pointless, and we returned to the hotel. For a couple of hours I read a book.

Around noon I had a couple of beers with some of the guys, and discovered that the British Airways flight had been cancelled. The airline had contacted some but by no means all of us. This put the cat amongst the pigeons…I took myself to reception and worked the phone for a while, but, frustratingly, took nothing away from those calls. I resolved to go the airport anyway, a few hours early at around 2p.m, and see what could be done there.

As we arrived at the airport the depth of security was revealed – unknown to us there was a point car behind us as we’d motored to the airport, and as the five of us moved across the road into the terminal, it was clear to see four of the immaculately suited and suave security guards forming a box around us, and all very alert and attentive to his surroundings.

After another wait of half an hour or so we were all safely checked onto an Iberia flight to Madrid, and off we went. As we passed onto the airside, the security guards asked me if I’d thought their service was good. I thought it was and I said so. But as we passed through Customs and Immigration – and this is no lie – I knew it was going to be alright. The guy on the customs desk was a long haired youth in his twenties, and he was listening to Nirvana.

A toolbox talk

As part of my last job I was a coxswain of small boats. Not an instinctive driver of such boats, nor even a particularly brilliant one, but nevertheless a perfectly competent one. Small boat driving was the one area of my job that has given me the most satisfaction, though it wear me out from a purely physical viewpoint. This story is not really about driving small boats as such, but is the tale of an incident in a small boat that involved me. It has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons, not the least the gorgeous weather at the time.

On a time four of us were out in our Norpower 25’, a sturdy dory or work boat with a big diesel engine and huge propeller; it was a calm and sunny day in Tropical waters, in late afternoon. Our task was nearly done – I shall not attempt to describe that task in detail, save to say it involved the boat being physically attached front and back to a long cable towed through the sea. Our task was to replace a section of that cable, a piece some 100m long. We brought with us a new section, wound on a reel, and we would take home the damaged one we would be removing.

The time came to free ourselves from the cable, which being many kilometres long and towed from a large ship – our primary work place and home away from home – was under perhaps a ton of tension. Hydraulic pumps and winches were to be used for this task. We went to do this task, and nothing happened when we moved the control levers. This was a worrying moment, but we gathered our wits about us, as we had been trained to do, and soon enough after a brief search, we found a leak in the hydraulic control equipment. This meant that it was no longer possible to free ourselves from the long cable using machinery. The time was around 4.45p.m, and we found ourselves in a potentially quite hazardous situation. We were in a small boat on the open sea, attached to a cable without the obvious means to free ourselves, unable to navigate or control our boat, and to make matters worse, about an hour’s journey from the mother vessel, with perhaps ninety minutes of daylight remaining.

It so happened that on that occasion I was a workman – I was not the Coxswain. It also happened that I was far and away the most experienced and senior person in the boat. What did we do? It is instructive. We paused to discuss the problem. This is a technique we use regularly in our industry, a technique proven to reduce accidents and injuries in the work place – the concept of the “toolbox meeting”. Then, the coxswain, a young woman, call her K, yielded the helm to me as the more experienced person. We had to get the cable free of the back of the boat. Since we were towed from a rope attached much further forwards, we contrived to let out that rope manually, by letting the brake on the winch slip. This enabled us to free ourselves from the cable at the back of the boat, though not without some difficulty, and the task took fifteen minutes. As the sun sank to the horizon we were conscious of impending darkness, ever aware that the run back to our mother ship, would take most of an hour.

Nextly, as Coxswain I caused the boat to move forward, such that the rope on which we were towing became slack, and the boat was under way independently. This was a delicate task involving some concentration. Slowly then I ran the boat forwards up this winch rope, and my colleagues looped the slack into the bows of the work boat, since the winch, being hydraulic, would not work. It was a 200m long rope and by the time the task was done, there was a blazing sunset, a picture of glory, the sky painted red and gold and pink and orange. The final task was to remove the clamp that held the rope to the cable. This, though a delicate manouvre, is one we were all well familiar with, and in moments we were free of the cable and clear to go home. A potentially disastrous situation had been averted, through teamwork, clear communications, strong leadership, and familiarity with emergency procedures.

It remained only for us to motor the 4 miles back to our home away from home, this task taking getting on for a full hour since the ship herself was making 4 knots away from us, and the work boat could only make 10 knots. It was nearly dark when we arrived back, and we were well ready for our dinner after such an exciting adventure and – truth be known – such a narrow escape.