I began working for Schlumberger of Canada in September of 1979, after finishing up a couple of university courses to complete my electrical engineering degree at the University of Calgary during the summer session. I was hired as a well logger, and I spent nearly two years logging oil and gas wells in Alberta and British Columbia in western Canada. In June of 1981 I was transferred to St. John's, Newfoundland to do the same job on offshore exploration wells.
Here is a map showing some of the offshore exploration wells I worked on.
Well logging refers to running electrical and radioactive surveys on oil and gas wells just after they've been drilled. Here's a link that describes the operation of open hole well logging. Here's what a typical well logging unit looked like on the inside during the time I was working for Schlumberger. This particular unit is cleaner than most, and the camera was cleverly set up to give the impression there's a LOT more room inside the logging unit than there actually is!
I spent most of my working life from 1979 through 1982 in one of these logging units. Most of that time I was in a semi-awake stupor due to chronic sleep deprivation. It was a known and accepted part of the job - you NEVER got enough sleep.
A typical job would start with a phone call from a dispatcher, telling me and my crew to hit the road for the next well location. Most jobs started at night (10 pm to 4 am) for some reason that was probably just natural perversity. The drive to the wellsite would vary from one hour to as many as four hours, longer if the road conditions were bad. Once we got to wellsite, setup would take from half an hour to an hour, and then the logging job itself would start. Most of the time I worked in relatively deep hole country where the wells were from 5000 to 20,000 feet deep. A typical logging job would run from 8 to 20 hours, depending on the well depth, conditions, and how many surveys the client wanted.
If we were lucky, we'd head back to town after the job, or crash on the floor of the logging unit for a few hours sleep before heading back, depending how busy things were. If we were unlucky, we'd hit the road heading for the next well site, with no sleep other than a couple of hours you might be able to grab if there was a hold-up in the logging job for some reason.
That much driving with too little sleep took it's toll. Official company policy was that you must pull off the road and sleep if you knew you were too tired to drive safely. However, since your paycheck was proportional to the number of wells you logged, there was always a strong incentive to keep going. I heard of at least a dozen accidents due to drivers falling asleep at the wheel during the two years I was working in western Canada.
Another side effect of the job was that it left me with a longtime fear of ringing phones. 9 times out of 10 when my phone rang in those days, it meant I was heading out for a job, usually with a lot less sleep than I wanted. It took about three years after I quit before I stopped visibly flinching whenever a phone rang near me. To this day, I'm still reluctant to answer the phone, and I also treat sleep as a luxury!
I was transferred from Red Deer, Alberta, to St. John's Newfoundland in July of 1981. Newfoundland is a rocky island on the east coast of Canada, and is affectionately referred to by locals as "The Rock". I was very quickly sent to my first offshore well just off the Labrador coast in a location known as "Iceberg Alley". The first rig I was assigned to was the dynamically positioned drillship "Pelerin" which had been contracted to Petro Canada for the summer drilling season.
The Petro Canada contract was enveloped in political controversy. The Canadian government was trying to collect as much tax revenue from the oil industry as possible, and one of the means to doing that was legislation. Specifically it meant hiring Canadian workers to work on Canadian offshore wells, regardless of whether they had the necessary experience. Here's a newspaper article describing some of the controversy.
The "dynamically positioned" part of the ship designation sounded cool and high tech and in fact, it was for the time. It meant the drillship had four 10 megawatt thruster motors, one mounted on each side of the ship at the bow and stern, to keep the drillship positioned over the well.
The thrusters could maintain the drill ship in position even with fair seas and currents trying to move the ship. In addition, the actual drilling rig itself was supported on huge hydraulic cylinders that would move the rig independent of the ship itself, so that the drilling rig stayed level, and at a constant distance from the sea floor, while the ship itself moved up and down in response to the waves.
The system worked amazingly well, and worked in seas of up to about 20 feet. After that point, the rig would have to pull out of the well and hold off drilling until the waves subsided. The other main reason to pull out of the well was if an iceberg was bearing down on the rig.
Icebergs move at a very slow rate, usually less than half a mile an hour, so they aren't too hard to dodge. The drillship kept a 24 hour radar watch on all the nearby bergs.
The operating companies tried various schemes to divert the icebergs, including towing them with cables dragged around the iceberg, but they met with little success. Basically, an iceberg floated wherever it damned well pleased. I only recall a couple of lost days drilling due to the icebergs during the summer of 1981.
The ugly part of the "Dynamic Positioning" system made itself known once the fall storms began. In a moderate sea, the cabin we slept in would be heaving up and down about 20 feet at a time, and those 10 Megawatt thruster motors would be engaging about once every ten to twenty seconds to try to keep the ship in position. The cabin we slept in was about one floor up from the forward starboard thruster motor room. Just for a quick comparison, one thruster motor was rated at about 50 times the power output of a "typical" 250 horsepower auto engine.
The bottom line was that in heavy seas, virtually no one managed to sleep and I found myself once again suffering from sleep deprivation!
Here's a couple of pictures on board the Pelerin during the summer of 1981.
Here's a cartoon about the big seven major companies that still seems particularly relevant.
This is a Safety Poster that was often found posted on many of the rigs during those days.
When I worked in western Canada, there was no concept of unionization in the oil patch. I'd heard it existed in some locations, but I've no idea where. This left me poorly prepared to deal with the whole concept of a dock worker's union when I arrived in St. John's.
One day, my manager asked me and my crew to load up a set of perforating charges to ship out on a supply boat to one of the rigs. The supply boat was due to leave on a Saturday evening to make the 24 hour trip to the rig. Since perforating charges are high explosives, they couldn't be shipped by helicopter.
My operator was running late, and wasn't able to get the charges packaged and loaded and down to the dock before quitting time on Friday. He called the dock master and made arrangements to bring the package down Saturday morning.
Once again, for some reason we didn't get the package down to the dock until about 10:30 on Saturday morning. Since this was in St. John's, it's quite possible we were dealing with severe hangovers, or helping other friends with severe hangovers find their cars that they'd left downtown the night before.
We were told that the dock workers had been there, reportedly at 9 am, and that since no one had showed up by 10 that they'd sent the workers home. We'd been told the day before they'd be there until 12 noon.
We drove the supply truck up alongside the supply boat where it was tied up. There was a short gangway between the supply boat and the dock, we had two boxes on our truck that could easily be carried onto the supply boat by one person. However, we were now in union territory, and the dock master warned us that while he couldn't stop us from carrying the boxes on board, that there would likely be an incident that would lead to a dock strike if we tried.
We got into a yelling match for a few minutes with the dock master. It seemed fairly evident to us that he'd sent the guys home so they could get an early start on their weekend drinking. That wasn't uncommon, since some of them lived in the out ports a couple hours drive away. After a few minutes of the yelling match, I decided it might not be a good idea to do the obvious thing, which was to pick the boxes up ourselves and walk them onto the boat - a short journey of no more than 20 feet.
It turned out it was a good idea I didn't do that. I was called into my manager's office the following Monday morning, and given my task for the day. I was to go back down to the dock, find the head union steward, and apologize profusely to him, and do a damn good job of it. I didn't need to be told my future employment probably depended on doing a good job of it!
That brief but memorable incident helped shape some of my opinions about unions...
By late November of 1981 I had been transferred once again and I was working offshore Nova Scotia, on Sable Island. Sable Island has long been known to Nova Scotians as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic", due to being responsible for over 300 recorded shipwrecks. In November of 1981, while we were drilling one of the Venture gas field exploration wells, Sable Island held true to it's reputation. A freighter called the Euro Princess lost power and foundered just a few hundred yards from the rig we were on, the Rowan Juneau. The incident was known to local roughnecks as the Party on Sable Island.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald ran this newspaper article describing the grounding of the Euro Princess.
This picture (click to enlarge) is of the Rowan Juneau jackup rig I worked on during the winter of 1981-1982, just off the east bar of Sable Island.
The Euro Princess incident made me reflect on whether working on an oil rig in the North Atlantic was actually a sane way to make a living. After some more thought, I decided to head back to western Canada for a ski vacation during the middle of February to clear my head and forget about work. As it turned out, it was a life-saving decision.
When I applied for my vacation, my manager asked if I would instead do a hitch of time on the Ocean Ranger. I was already familiar with the rig and it's setup from a couple of logging jobs I'd done on the Ranger just before I was transferred to Sable Island. At that point in time, they were short of perforating engineers and the Ranger was about to start a perforating job. It would probably have meant about a thousand extra dollars on my paycheck, but I knew I was getting too burnt out, and needed the vacation much worse than I needed the money.
While I was on vacation in Western Canada, on February 15th, 1982, the Ocean Ranger sank during a heavy storm in the North Atlantic. All 84 crewmen aboard the rig perished in the tragedy.
The oil industry publication Oil and Gas Journal ran a pretty comprehensive magazine article describing the Ranger sinking.
The Canadian oil patch magazine Roughneck ran this magazine cover the week after the Ocean Ranger sank.
The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail ran a newspaper article about the Ocean Ranger sinking. A few years later, a several million dollar Canadian Royal Commission inquiry into the sinking of the Ranger came up with numerous technical problems behind the sinking, but the political issues that many rig workers believed to be a contributing cause were never mentioned in the report issued by the Royal Commission.
In April of 1982, just over a month after the Ranger sank, I handed in my resignation and moved back to western Canada to take a long vacation and think about life. I spent the summer of 1982 traveling across Canada and back on a motorcycle, spending time with a number of friends and acquaintances along the way.
These pictures (click to enlarge) are from an open flow test on Canterra's Beothuk M-05 well during January, 1985. I witnessed the well logging and drill stem testing for the well while working for Canterra Energy. Canterra Energy, the company, was eventually sold to Husky Oil of Canada in the late 1980s.
The ramp in the lower picture is about 10 feet wide, and the circular ring at the end of the ramp is about 12 feet in diameter. The same ring is visible in the upper picture at the right end of the flare. That should give you some idea of the scale. The flare heat was enough to turn a bitterly cold North Atlantic winter night into a warm evening, even 50 feet back from the flare boom...
In the summer of 1985 I was still working for Canterra Energy. Canterra was long ago (1988?) bought out like many Canadian Oil and Gas companies of the 1980s. In any case they decided to participate in a two well exploration program in the Hudson Bay region. The bay is pretty much unexplored for oil and gas, but one geologist theorized there was great potential for oil and gas under the bay.
I don't believe the geologists in my company bought into the theory, but from a monetary standpoint drilling the well made good sense. The company had a rig under contract, and would have to pay for the rig even if it was idle. Also, Canterra had a Frontier Drilling department that the company wanted to keep busy since they had the staff on the payroll. Thus, they volunteered to operate the well for the main investors. Operators typically charge 10% above costs to cover their overhead in drilling an exploration well, and the company used this to keep the Frontier drilling group employed and get a back-in share on any potential oil and gas find. It made economic sense in a weird kind of way.
Both the wells Canterra drilled in Hudson Bay in 1985 were dry holes.
In 1985, a memorial was dedicated in St. John's, Newfoundland, near the Confederation Building, to the memory of the 84 crew members who lost their live in the Ocean Ranger tragedy.
In 1997, the Hibernia Oil Platform was completed and began drilling and production operations not far from where the Ocean Ranger sank. The platform is considered to be the world's largest oil platform, and it survives in a particularly inhospitable part of the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Venture gas field located just off Sable Island was eventually brought on line in 1999. The Sable Offshore Energy Project is reported to produce over 400 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.
Some more information about oil and gas Well Logging
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Audio and Video related to the Ocean Ranger disaster
The Calgary Herald newspaper wrote an article about the offshore safety situation a year after the Ocean Ranger sinking, in which the offshore oil rigs were referred to as "Sitting Ducks".