Part II: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops

 

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My first time in a helicopter, I was in a state of shock. I was scheduled to take the 1-hr ride from the Den Helder airport, off the Dutch coast, along with eight, 200lb, tattooed, bearded men (aka traveling buddies). As I donned my bright yellow survival suit (supposed to keep me alive for a whole 10mins once we hit the 32°F North Sea water), I had flashbacks of the crash simulator. Strapped inside a chopper-like structure, our would-be crew is immersed in a pool of cold water, and flipped over repeatedly. I push the side window out to egress but nothing happens.  Divers swim around us as a safety caution. The water gets into my eyes and I lose one of my contact lenses. Ironically, I’m not worried about drowning or my blurry vision, but about being the girl who messes up the exercise and needs rescue!

I can think of so many times when I tried to dodge the ‘girl’ stereotype. It became my karma, mission, and duty. When taking my technical exams, the biggest fear was not failing but measuring up to my male colleagues. I felt as if I had to prove that I was equally smart and competent as them. Today, regardless of my degrees and accomplishments, I always go into ‘prove-myself-auto-mode’ at the start of a new challenge, either by pure habit or plain paranoia.

Back at the ‘heli-airport’, I put on my emergency oxygen supply. I am about to board, when I notice people staring at me. They don’t even try to pretend not to. Yes, I was not the average, 200lb, bearded, tattooed, female (those didn’t really exist). Actually, it was because I was a woman doing what it has been traditionally a man’s job. Still today, I don’t get used to the staring. Seriously, it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before. 😉

We take off, in a high-knot wind, through the dense, cloudy skies, and I’m wondering ‘how on earth does this guy see where we are going?’ We were in the middle of the deserted North Sea, held in the air by nothing but a spinning helix, a pilot, and a dashboard full of gauges. Again, I thought WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING HERE?? After 20 minutes expecting a nauseous, bumpy ride, my anxiety quiets down. The entire experience turns out to be smoother than a 6-hr flight from Heathrow to JFK (if you have ever queued up for UK security you would understand me). Another 35 minutes go by, and out of nowhere, there it was, a hard-to-miss giant metal skeleton, shining right at us. “Lady and gentlemen we have arrived to our destination, the K80 platform”.

Offshore, the captain was a white-bearded man with long-hair, an earring, jeans and a t-shirt. He was the epitome of a seadog, a pirate. Yet, he was in charge of running the show. I was not sure if this comforted me or worried me.  Boy, was I far away from the executive Den Haag headquarters. At sea, time goes by somewhat differently. It is like being in a cruise ship except I am the only female on-board. The all-Russian staff spoiled us as they cleaned our quarters everyday and did our laundry. The chef fed us potatoes, gravy and French fries at night, and home-baked cakes during the day. Once again, disconnected from civilization, the only get-away was to go outside and stare at the endless sea.

With more helicopter flights under my belt, the offshore routine became normal. Being part of the Southern North Sea Operations team made my all-time list of top things (up there with husky sledding in the North Pole). Een gezellige ervaring, zeker wel! I wish that this enthusiasm would have carried through after I changed roles. However, with time, the bottom line of ‘returning value to our shareholders’ was no longer mantra enough. Mission-less and passion-less, I was saturated with corporate standards & procedures (a slashed oil barrel price from $120 to $40 did not help the situation either). This all led me to close the fossil-fuel chapter of my life. Most importantly, my gut kept telling me that there were amazing things awaiting for me elsewhere. And you should always listen to your gut over anything else.

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Part I: A Girl’s Guide to Drilling Rigs, Helicopters & Offshore Ops

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If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be flying in helicopters out to sea as part of my everyday job, I would’ve laughed and call you crazy. Today, I must apologize for my would-have-been impolite attitude. It took only one phone call for me to leave my astronaut childhood dream (and space career) to join the supposedly ‘anti-polar bear’ oil industry.

The way I remember Shell is with appreciation and slight nostalgia. Not only I signed up for a company but an expat lifestyle, in which people befriended, dated, married, and worked  in the same circle. On one hand, I formed some of my strongest lifelong bonds then. On the other, this may also have been the reason why I left. I lived in a sort of snow globe, watching the outside world through a concave glass.

Never before did I experience what it was professional satisfaction. I was a 20-something, Colombian girl, in a foreign country (The Netherlands), telling senior colleagues, mostly men, how to run our operations. I felt powerful, entitled, and strong. No wonder why I loved my job.  This would all prepare me for what it was yet to come: working 12 months, with 40 tough-looking, cowboy-like men, mostly non-English speaking, in a drilling rig, for 14 days and 14 nights. I lived, ate, and slept in a pre-fabricated, cargo-like container. Nevertheless, after working 12 hours (really 15-hours), the premises of my living conditions became of such low importance, that at the end of that very long shift, I was glad to have a place where to lay my head (I would finish with ‘at night’ but sometimes it was ‘in the afternoon’ or even ‘in the morning’).

I also abandoned the concept of a sleeping cycle. It was more like “ok now that it is 11pm at night, I’ll sleep until 1am, wake up and make my way up to the drilling floor to join the night crew.” There I was, no heels, no make-up, hair up in a bun, in greasy orange overalls, half awake, half sleep, watching this huge rotating steel machine make its way 6,000 m (18,000 ft) below the ground. We were standing over the biggest hydrocarbon reserve in Europe. At any time the high pressure could trigger a major gas leak, and worst yet, an explosion. Something movie-like but as real as many tragedies in the oil industry.

It was a Dutch winter in February, without snow but wind chills that painstakingly pierced through your skin like tiny sharp icicles. Indeed, it was an exciting time, out of the office setting. But there were those nights under the moon on the drilling floor that I questioned my existence.

If you are reading this, it means I survived my year of isolation. Aside from the hard work, my time-off was bliss. Even Jules Verne would have been envious. For an equivalent period of 180 days I went around the world: chilling by the beach in Lebanon, partying in Mykonos, wine tasting in Andalucía, and cuddling up by the fireplace with family in NYC. Oh! And there was that monsoon season volunteering in Nepal where the b-school idea originated.

At work, I met some of the brightest, most ambitious and adventurous people. They were from countries that I didn’t know existed such as Azerbaijan, Brunei and Gabon (can you name the continent and language of these nations?). Thursdays nights I met up with my 3 co-workers/partners in crime: an Iraqi, a Nigerian, and a French. I truly felt like a citizen of the world.

I am not going to lie, being in the oil & gas business was a lot of fun. Many did wonder if I felt guilty for working in a place that was controversial w.r.t. the environment. Initially, it didn’t feel this way. I was in awe at the gained self-confidence, cultural awareness, and professional acumen. Eventually though, my inner voice advocating for a sustainable future would speak louder and louder. But I will save the rest of the story for the second part of this blog.