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How to Pack for Weeks on an Offshore Oil Rig



Kyle Bardsley spends a lot of time at sea, but he rarely goes swimming. “That’s frowned upon. Plus, it’s really dangerous—the deck is about 60 feet off the water,” he says. “It’s an oil rig, not a resort.”

Mr. Bardsley, 31, is a senior project engineer for Diamond Offshore Drilling based in Houston. He spends 30% to 40% of his time traveling to oil rigs around the world—the company has 28 offshore drilling vessels—managing renovation projects, maintenance and inspections. He also coordinates mobilizations, when a drilling rig is moved to another site.

Earlier this year, he spent eight weeks on an ultra-deepwater rig called the Ocean BlackRhino, about 30 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, where a crew was modifying the rig for its next contract. He is headed back to the Gulf in September for a 10-day repair project.

He says he packs only two days’ worth of clothes—there are laundry facilities at sea. Regulations make packing easy. Everyone on the rig is required to wear Diamond Offshore’s personal protective equipment (PPE) uniform while working: bright orange button-down shirt and matching pants made of fire-resistant material.

The color helps machine operators spot people moving on the deck—or off it, in the case of an accident. “If the vessel were to sink, the PPE makes us easier to spot in the water,” he says.

Mr. Bardsley packs jeans, sneakers and a couple of T-shirts for evenings when he is off-duty. There are no full days off on the rig; employees work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

“You’re so busy, you don’t really have time to be lonely or bored,” he says. Plus, there’s Ping-Pong, which gets pretty competitive, he says.

A modern oil rig like the BlackRhino can house 210 people. It has a six-story residential block, management offices, a galley, gym, laundry, helipad and a 200-seat movie theater/auditorium. “It’s basically a floating city,” Mr. Bardsley says.

It’s also a dry city: Alcohol is prohibited.

His gear always includes a tether, which attaches to his shirt, to prevent his hard hat from blowing off the rig in a strong gust. An oil derrick can reach more than 300 feet tall, the equivalent of a 30-story tower out in the ocean with no surrounding landscape to block the wind.

“If you’re working at heights—on a crane or in the derrick—you’re harnessed in and 100% of your tools are tethered,” he says. “Marine debris is a big deal. If a water bottle falls overboard, we have to report it.”

Steel-toe boots and impact-resistant gloves are required. “Hand injuries like busted knuckles are the most common injuries we have,” he says.

The rig operates 24 hours a day, with an established hierarchy: Roustabouts and roughnecks fill entry-level maintenance and labor jobs; motor hands, derrick men and drillers work the equipment, while tool pushers oversee all drilling and deck operations. When Mr. Bardsley steps onto a vessel to run a project, he works directly with the offshore installation manager, who is considered the rig’s captain.

Mr. Bardsley has been at Diamond Offshore for four years and says he is still trying to prove himself with crews. His young age and northern roots—he grew up in Erie, Pa., while most rig workers are from the South—occasionally set him apart.

“I’m just a skinny Yankee as far they’re concerned,” he jokes.

He often has to climb 20-foot ladders and descend into empty fuel tanks or ballast tanks that are only opened every five years for inspection. A gas detector on his shoulder measures oxygen, carbon dioxide and deadly hydrogen sulfide, emitting a piercing alarm if levels are hazardous.

Personal cameras, cellphones and other “unprotected” electronics aren’t allowed on the rig. “Let’s say we’re drilling and hit a gas pocket, and we’re engulfed in a gas cloud—the smallest charge could start an explosion,” he says. His iPad and flashlight are clad in explosion-proof material that is “intrinsically safe,” designed to block any spark or electrical charge from igniting the flammable gases around it.

In 2014, he was tasked with moving the ultra deepwater rig Ocean Endeavor from Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, through the Bosporus Strait to a drill site in the Black Sea near Romania.

Along the way it would have to pass under two bridges spanning the Bosporus with a maximum clearance of 190 feet. The oil rig was 376 feet tall.

The Endeavor, which weighed about 38,500 metric tons, had to be cut in half, shipped in pieces and reassembled on the other side. This involved a logistical ballet of tug boats, floating cranes and heavy-lift cargo vessels.

Mr. Bardsley says it took about two months to take the Endeavor apart and a week and a half to sail to Romania. The rig passed safely under the bridges, clearing the legal height limit by just 8 inches.

“I knew it would, but there was some suspense,” he recalls. “Fingers were definitely crossed.”

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