Derek Riggs wakes up for his shift at 11 p.m. Empty cans of energy drinks surround his bed. He is able to pop one open without opening his eyes. It’s the first day of his 14-day shift. He was off for 21 days, which gave him just enough time to forget about the tough hours. Someone knocks at his door. He opens it in a haze.
“Howdy, Derek. You ready to get started?” Jeff asks. Both Derek and Jeff are Derrickhands. They bonded their first day of training. It was a routine for them to get breakfast together at the beginning of the shift.
“How many of those things are you on?” he walks over to Derek’s stash of energy drinks in the corner of the room. He has hundreds of them lined up.
“I was feeling the strawberry kiwi one earlier, so I went with it for this shift,” Derek says.
They go to the cafeteria to get breakfast. Every type of breakfast option that Derek could ever think of is available. He decides on eggs benedict, ham, bacon, hash browns, waffles and pancakes. He needs the protein, but this job is also a good excuse to eat like he’s got a week to live.
“Hey, I heard that Todd got a non-camp gig over in Louisiana,” Jeff says.
“Yep, he’s been put up in a nice hotel. Also, they give him living expenses, so he can eat anywhere he wants.”
“It’s got to be hard to beat the food they give you here,” Derek says while spewing out bits of waffle. Living on an oil rig without very many women puts a damper on table manners.
If a rig site is near a town, companies typically put their workers up in hotels. When the rig is in a remote location, companies provide a camp. Workers travel to the oil rig from the camp site in a crew truck. Generally, workers work for 14 days straight with 1-3 weeks off. Because of the long hours aboard an oil rig, companies must give their employees enough time to rest up.
Johnny walks over to Derek and Jeff. They both look up and stare at their plates to prevent themselves from laughing. The word on the rig was that Johnny started crying when he dropped a screwdriver on his foot. The screwdriver was part of a sunglass repair kit and couldn’t have been larger than an inch. It made everyone start to wonder about the company’s new Leasehand. A Leasehand/Roustabout is an entry-level position. Their duties include cleaning up the “dog house” (rig office), handling drill pipes, cleaning debris, driving the crew truck, taking mud samples and assisting crew members. Derrickhands are higher up the food chain. They are generally promoted from Motor Hand. Their job includes assisting the Driller, training new crewmembers, guiding drill pipes out of elevators and maintaining drill fluid. And not crying when they drop tools on their feet.
“I hear that I get to train with you guys today,” Johnny says.
“Do you think you can handle it? You know we work with screwdrivers a little larger than our thumbs,” Jeff says.
“You guys are all a bunch of rednecks. You wouldn’t even understand what it’s like buying new Versace glasses and having them break the first day on the job,” Johnny retorts.
Derek rolls his eyes and asks Jeff if he’s going to eat his sausage. He pops open another energy drink.
“Ok, let’s get to it then,” he says.
The wind had picked up on the platform. Above the men, workers are hanging on to the scaffolding. Storms are a big deal for oil platforms. For example, Katrina destroyed 30 oil platforms and causes nine refineries to close down. The hurricane caused the United States to produce only 12 percent of its normal oil production.
Derek starts work by helping Johnny and the other Leasehands move a large pipe through the platform. He climbs the derrick scaffolding to help guide the pipe into the derrick’s structure. The derrick is the device that lifts the drilling string that contains the machinery, which turns the drill bit in the hole.
“Hey, Johnny! Put some back into it,” Derek yells.
Johnny drops his glasses and stops to pick them up. The other men lifting the pipe come to a screeching halt.
“Why the crap would you wear sunglasses at night?” Jeff asks.
The men get the pipe positioned and Derek walks over to have a chat with Johnny.
“I am in charge of safety on this shift. If I see those sunglasses one more time, they’re going over,” Derek says.
Johnny takes out a cigarette to light it. The men rush over to stop him.
“Are you insane? You’ll light this place up. There are designated areas for smoking on the platform with safety matches,” Jeff says.
Derek and Jeff walk over to the mud pumps to listen for any abnormal sounds. Mud pumps are used to cool and lubricate the drilling bit. Mud is also used to plaster the walls of the hole to prevent collapses.
“Sounds good to me,” Derek says.
“You jokers take your break?” Alan asks. Alan is one of the Drillers on the rig. Derrickhands report to and take orders from the Driller.
Derek grabs another energy drink and watches the sunrise. It’s amazing being on the rig. While the ocean is completely calm, the oil rig is brimming with life. Gas smells, loud noises, the sound of men yelling at each other and the constant sound of the pump makes the oil rig take on an urban feel. Derek likes to call it “Pipe City.”
He has been working on an oil rig for five years. He started out as a roustabout and made his way up the ladder. His first day was a disaster. A hurricane was coming in and they had to secure the oil rig before evacuating. Over time, he’s gotten used to the crazy hours and hard work. Also, the pay afforded him the opportunity to buy a little red sports car. Who says you can’t buy happiness?
For your sake, we hope it doesn’t rain.
He sees Johnny looking lost and confused.
“How’s it going?” Derek asks.
“I feel totally out of my element. I’m scared. I’ve lost two pairs of sunglasses since I’ve been here and I miss home,” Johnny says despondently.
“It gets easier,” Derek says.
Derek and Jeff check the pH level of the mud. They add chemicals and monitor the Calcium level. Out of the corner of his eye, Derek sees Johnny getting chewed out by another worker. He walks over.
“What’s the problem?”
“You training this yahoo? He needs to get trained on not being an idiot.”
“Yep, I offer those classes,” Derek says casually. “Come with me to the doghouse.”
Derek sits Johnny down and offers him an energy drink.
“I want you to start painting the lower doghouse. I want you to not think. I want you to not do anything that you would normally do unless you are told to do it. You will get yourself or everyone on the rig killed if you continue to think,” Derek says.
Johnny nods and starts painting.
Jeff walks over to Derek.
“What do you see in that kid?” he asks.
“I see myself at 18. Come on - we’ve got an hour before we’re off. Let’s see how much we can get done, so we don’t have to stay late. Those hash browns are starting to back up on me”