The Setup

You've just finished your four year honours degree in Computer Science at a prestigious Western Australian University, 'Where to now?' You think, a Masters or PhD? Possibly, but the lure of a paycheque is a strong motivation to hit the private sector. So where? Telecoms? eCommerce? Game development? So many options, but some how you end up sitting in a 10 foot metal cube floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

This was not in the brochure. Sure you chose the Oil and Gas Industry, but when you started it was as 'the lynch pin of their new technical department'. Sick of relying on external resources for their software, they had hired you to write it for them. Sounds like a good solid desk job. There was even the possibility of overseas travel -- after all, the company managed projects all over the world. Of course what they neglected to mention was that all the projects where offshore, on boats, and the longest you'd ever be in another country would be about how long it took to get from the airport to the local docks (or heliport).

So, long story short -- a sole developer of untested, mission-critical software, should expect to be going wherever the aforementioned software goes. Which brings us to the Indian Ocean.

The Three P's -- Preparation, Preparation, Panic

Once you've accepted you're going, the first thing you want to know when they're sending you to work offshore is how much coin is it going to be worth. Which is pretty much the only carrot they have to offer in terms of incentive (unless you're the sort to be bought by claims of life experience and broadened horizons). Buoyed by news of an expanded bank balance (or reduced credit card debt...), you begin to prepare.

How does one prepare for 3 weeks away from home, with no TV, no radio, no internet (just once daily text only email over a 1200 baud satphone link), no shore leave -- so no shops, and no, under any circumstances, alcohol? All of this with a luggage allowance of only 10kg. Well start with:

  • 3 pair overalls (pre-washed and worn of course)? Check
  • Hard hat? Check
  • Steel tipped safety boots? Check Then the important things:
  • Notebook computer? Check
  • Three weeks supply of lollies? Check
  • Large collection of TV episodes and movies from questionable internet sources? Check
  • 40Gb portable hard drive filled with porn^h^h^h^h mp3s? Check Now add some toiletries, and some T-shirts and you're set to go.

    The morning of truth arrives, you grab your bag and head to the airport. Despite the claims of overseas travel this time you're heading to the domestic terminal for a jaunt to the North West Shelf of Western Australia. As Karratha is a resources town, you find yourself checking in with gentlemen of less scholarly intent. Miners, offshore workers, seamen -- all of them are about 15 years, ah 'more experienced' than you. Of course they aren't less intelligent, or even less educated -- they're simply more inclined to do work that involves using their hands. You don't know it yet but there's a large number of Engineering and Geology degrees checking in with you.

    You arrive in Karratha a couple of hours later and head for the heliport, finally - an opportunity to put your HUET to the test -- on perhaps hopefully not -- but you do get to ride a helicopter for the first time, which is pretty cool. For a while you pretend that the music piped in through your headset is the Flight of the Valkyries, but the flight is 4 hours long so in the end you focus on getting marginally more comfortable.

    A Programmer All At Sea

    At last, you're on the ship! And you're f**ked. Your flight was at 6.30am, you've been up since 4, and it's now 5.00pm. You're in a part of the world where there are two seasons, wet and dry. Today it is definitely hot, and the humidity must be 150%. Which would be fine if you were going swimming, but you're not. You're changing in to your coveralls, boots, and hardhat to do your vessel induction.

    You've done your research so when you're told to meet up on the bridge you know where that's likely to be (I've heard newbies ask where it is -- not a good first impression). You do your induction, learn where your muster station is and what the different alarms mean. You also get assigned a room, which can determine just how much this trip will suck. Generally the options are as follows:

  • Small room, (6' x 12') room with one bunk bed, shared with one other person on the opposite shift.
  • Slightly larger room (12'x12') with 4 bunk beds, shared with 3 others on the same shift.
  • Larger room (20'x20')with 15 bunk beds, shared with 14 other people on the same shift, and 15 on the opposite shift.

    The first two options often have their own shower and toilet, often you're sharing the 4 showers and 6 toilets on board with everyone else. This is not the desired outcome.

    Your induction introduces you the mess and the galley, the smoking room, and the rec room. The rec room has the TV and DVD player and the ship's library, which has all the classics -- Playboy, FHM, Barely Legal, People -- they're all there. The DVD selection is slightly more mundane, but they all seem to have that made in Hong Kong feel.

    The next few hours are a blur entitled 'mobilisation'. You're setting up computers, installing software and fixing last minute bugs. Others are stringing CatV and 440V mains leads around the back deck. Telemetry from the ROV has to be fed to survey then back down to you at inspection, so you've got the RS232 breakout box in full effect. Four live video feeds need to be recorded onto four digital video recorder PCs, a frame grabber on the online inspection PC, the bridge, and also backup VCRs. There're cables everywhere. Access to everything is awkward, and there're always three people trying to occupy the same piece of space, and work with the same piece of hardware. All the while the ship ploughs out to the field in 2m seas with 24knot winds. Thankfully you're far too busy to worry about seasickness, and by the time you hit your bunk (at 5am) you're far too exhausted to care.

    One thing no one lied about was the quality of food offshore. Defying all expectations the food is good. Better than good, the food makes life worthwhile. I can personally assure you that the thought of missing dinner was the only thing that stopped me stealing the Fast Rescue Craft and heading for shore. You're on nights, so you're officially offshift until 6pm. You use that 12 hours to eat, sleep and eat. At 5pm you get up and head to the mess for, well, breakfast. You have a healthy breakfast of pork spare ribs and mashed potato with gravy (clearly the body clock will require some adjustments). That done you head out to your first shift.

    So What Do You Do, Anyway?

    You're a programmer, you know this and so does your employer. Of course the client thinks you're an inspection engineer, as that's what he's paying for. Which would be less of a problem if only your employer didn't insist on you do that job as well. Apparently it's been decided that the best way to test and debug is to use the software online. Now, rather than being perceived as a brilliant programmer on the front lines -- you're a barely adequate inspection engineer who seems more interested in the software he's using than the job at hand.

    If you are interested in what it's like to work offshore, you can simulate the experience as follows:

  • Hang 4 flat screen monitors on the inside wall of your bedroom wardrobe.
  • Put an uncomfortable chair in front of the monitors.
  • Setup video cameras pointing at the bottom of an aquarium, each at a slightly different angle but looking at the same thing.
  • Get into the wardrobe, ensuring the light is off and sit down facing the screens.
  • Turn on the humidifier, ensuring the humidity is at least 100%. Then alternate a heater with an airconditioner set at 15 degrees Celcius every 30mins.
  • Invite five strangers off the street into your wardrobe.
  • Have someone lock the door for at least 12 hours.
  • And finally, and this is important, have your friends rock the wardrobe by about 30 degrees side-to-side continuously, occassionaly giving it a good shake as well.

    So this is what you do from 6pm until 6am. You get time off for good behaviour around midnight, just enough time to wolf down another cholesterol loaded, deep fried, heart attack inducing lunch time meal, before they stick you back in the box.

    At 6am the sun's coming up and you should be heading to bed. But you aren't. You're now writing the code to fix the bugs you found during your shift, and implementing the features that you didn't have time to finish before the job started. This lasts until around midday, when you finally call it a day, write a daily email to the ones you love and head for bed. At 6pm you're back up and it starts again.

    After about three weeks two things happen. Firstly the bugs are becoming less critical -- so you've got more time to think, and then you realise that this three week job is not likely to finish in the next two days. So you ask around, and email your loved ones, explaining that rather than being home by the weekend as planned, you'll be out here for another month. You've been around sailors for three weeks, but when you get the reply you blush and you're pretty thankful that you can't get phone calls.

    At around 5 weeks the homesickness has completely replaced the seasickness. You're swearing like a sailor and you've not shaved since day three. It's been a month since you've seen your girlfriend (or any three dimensional woman). You've watched so much porn that you're starting to be surprised you've never met any of these women in real life. You've fixed everyone's notebook at least once, and the backup computer is effectively a 2.3 terabyte mp3 and porn server. It's time to go home.

    Homecoming

    The day has arrived. The choppers are en route, the flights have been booked. If we don't go home today there will be a mutiny. Last night everyone worked 24 hours to get the demobilisation finished, those on night shift (like you) are heading for 36. None of that matters though, everyone has shaved and has put on their 'good' clothes. It's the first time you've seen most of them clean shaven and not in their coveralls -- if you didn't know better you'd think they were all respectable.

    The second time on the helo is less exciting and the flight back to Perth is a blur of sleep and post job G&Ts. You meet your loved one at the airport and completely disregard the people who have grown to be good friends in the last month. Within a week you'll have forgotten most of their names, though some will remain close friends.

    You'll take the next few days off as accrued leave under threat of death and spend the time reacquainting yourself with your home and family. The first few days will involve walking with a sea-swagger as you get used to standing on a stationary surface, and letting your eyes adjust to sunlight -- and a horizon. You still lean forward and support yourself with one hand (for balance) when you're using the toilet and you're not going to be allowed in public before your language is a little more acceptable.

    At the end of the day though, your bank account is looking healthy, you've got some great stories, and you know your code better than you know yourself. But you're never going offshore again. Ever.

    ...Until the next time.

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