Last week saw me confronting my worst fear (other than being buried alive). Heights. Not heights as in flying (never had a problem with that) but heights as in up, up, up, being hoisted into the air by a crane and onto Alba B – the offshore platform.
Before coming here, it had never crossed my mind that I might have to set foot on one of these monstrosities. In fact, when the husband first announced that he was required to go offshore at least once every week as part of his role, the entire concept was new to me. These platforms, out in the middle of the ocean with nothing to see but, well, sea, are managed by people who actually live out there for weeks at a time – with very little to do but eat, sleep and work.
You reach the platform by taking an early morning boat from the jetty close by compound. The boat ride takes about an hour, hour and a half, and it can get quite rough once you get out to sea. I was fortunate to have been provided with some anti-seasickness pills and so did not get drawn into the rolling motion of the waves as I gazed back at the island mountain in the pale light of the dawn and later, once the mountain finally disappeared, towards the horizon.
The platform, to those not from the oil and gas industry, is mostly a combination of cranes, bridges, metal grating and pipes. As you approach, it looms above you, cranes reaching out like arms stretching towards the sky. And as the boat slows and bobs backwards towards the platform, you see the crane start to move from the side as it picks up Billy Pugh.
Billy is a basket of sorts, used for transporting workers and visitors on and off the platform. It has a floor, a roof, and vertical ropes fixed between. There is no other protection or reinforcement to keep you from falling out. The crane lowers Billy onto the back of the bobbing boat and when it’s your turn, you move forward and wrap your arms around the ropes, crossing your arms in front of your body and you don’t let go. Slowly, slowly, the crane raises Billy up to the height of the platform. You can feel Billy’s gentle sway in sea air and sometimes a jolt should the crane stop midair.
So how did someone with a severe phobia of heights manage this without completely shutting down and refusing to go on? Well, once I had wrapped my arms around Billy’s ropes, I closed my eyes, pretended I was somewhere else, and breathed. And so when I reached the top, a man suddenly appeared beside, no doubt mystified as to why my eyes were still closed and I was not letting Billy go, and confirmed that I had made it.
So Billy, in the normal course of operations, is not too bad provided your crane operator is qualified and the weather conditions do not disrupt the ordinary process. After leaving Billy, I fumbled off my life jacket and tinted safety glasses in place, wobbled my way across the metal grating of the metal platform to the safety of the interior office area.
Having mastered Billy I was feeling somewhat elated. Until that is, it came time for my safety tour of the entire platform. It was here that I met my nemesis – steep stairs of metal grating up to the top level of the platform hanging out across the ocean with nothing beneath, and bridges of that same metal grating with nothing but a single metal handrail (okay I could be exaggerating slightly here – my memory has blocked this trauma out!) to grasp onto. My palms began to moisten and my ankles shook as my feet in my too-big safety boots attempted to negotiate the grated stairs – up, up, up and then – back down. How did I manage it? As it was not possible to pretend I was somewhere else given that I actually had to propel myself forward and walk, I fixed my eyes forward, and up, somewhere in the distance, not daring to squint too hard at the height beneath the grating. It was yet another moment where my shonky eyesight, in conjunction with my tinted safety glasses, worked in my favour.
It is not the height above water that is the issue. Rather it is the height, full stop. The concept of drowning does not concern me anymore than the next person. And for those that don’t consider heights the terror that I do, it will be difficult to comprehend the sensation that I experience, and that appears to be growing worse with age.
But despite all this, I managed to get up there – and I managed to get back down, without too much of a scene. I will not however, be volunteering to go back anytime soon.
Clearly would not have made a good offshore process engineer!