Adventure on an Oil Rig
A few weeks ago I discovered the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum in Galveston. So we are going to learn a bit today about the oil industry and look at this facility as a place to work and a piece of art. And, to personalize it, we have stories from friends that have actually worked offshore on rigs!
The Ocean Star is a retired jack up rig. Most of the folks around Houston are acquainted with the drilling industry in some degree; it is a huge part of our economy. The rig has many exhibits and even offers a movie to explain how and why we drill, from exploration to production and transportation.
If you work in the industry, it is a cool way to explain to your kids what mom or dad does all day.
The Ocean Star has tubular or columnar legs instead of the open-truss style you might have seen in pictures. These were cheaper to build and worked fine in shallow water. I hear they tended to sway a bit in rough seas, especially when the legs were fully extended. Basically, a jack up is a drilling barge that is supported by legs that rest on a mat on the ocean floor. It can work in different depths by being raised or lowered on the legs. The Ocean Star spent her career in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oh, the walkway from the pier to the rig and that one you can see from the quarters to the derrick are just access for the museum. To get on a real drilling rig you either come by helicopter or by a crew boat.
Getting on/off from the boat is ... exciting to say the least. They use what is called a Personnel Basket to transfer the crew. A friend told me that is the favorite part because
"It means I am either getting on the boat to go home for days off (after being out for 14 days) or it means I am getting off the boat where I have been borderline sea sick for the last 6-18 hours.
It's also as great a ride as you can get outside of Disneyland because there's nothing between you and water/boat but 100+ ft of air and the crane's maintenance".
The museum has three floors of exhibits and equipment in the space where on a real rig you have sleeping quarters, various offices and storage areas. And a galley (dining room and kitchen). The food has to be good, but.....
"One day a week is designated "steak day" and its the highlight of the week. But different rigs have different definitions of "steak" and all of them have different definitions of "medium rare" which range from medium to burnt shoe leather."
Plus, rigs always have a recreation area. Generally, the crews stay on the rig for 14 days and then go home for 14 days. You have to have some place to be and something to do when you aren't working. You don't have a private bedroom, bunk rooms are shared and your room mates might be sleeping when you are off duty. The newer, fancy rigs have pool tables and workout rooms; I suspect the Ocean Star was lucky to have a TV/Movie room.
Did I mention there are birds hanging around the museum?
This was kind of a fun to see these birds from above. And I never pass up a chance for bird capture.
So, the first floor is called the pipe deck. And on a real rig, this has some equipment around the edges and the open area that holds the pipe. It is sorted and arranged to be picked up and moved by big cranes to the drill floor.
Just look at the cranes:
Cranes are really important. Listen to this:
"Once I watched a crane fail - and the block fell into the water and the drum kept unspooling for a couple of minutes before it jumped the shivs and made a bird's nest. That crane was down for a week."
The crane lays the pipe or casing to be used in the next sequence on that slanted part called the slide in the photo below. It gets picked up and put in the Monkey Board to be available for drilling. Don't you just love that phrase?
In the picture above you can see a Cementing Unit on the right (red), and a Decompression unit on the left (white round tank) for divers, but some rigs have Remote Operating Vehicles or ROVs if something has to be done in the water.
The building on the left is a Mudlogging unit. It takes a lot of equipment and crew to man a drilling rig. Oh, women work on rigs, too, but not very many of them.
This is the famous Kelly that rotates and does the actual drilling. That hose is what pumps the mud or cement into the hole. Many rigs have had topdrives replace the Kelly system. Instead of rotating the pipe from the rotary table as with the Kelly system, the topdrive rotates the pipe.
Yep, it is complicated.
And this is looking up to the top of the derrick. Pretty cool, huh?
Something else exciting is happening.....
The Carnival Cruise dock is right next door. The ship passes right by the rig on the way to the Bahamas.
OK, back to our drilling. A friend shared this story with me about drilling on a rig in the Gulf back in the 70s.
"The Letourneau jack ups like the one we had use legs that look like scaffolds. The bottom of each leg is covered by a big pod which looks sort of like an oversized and inverted coffee can. When you get to location, these pods sink down into the sand and muck on the seafloor and support the rig. Normally, a jack up rig goes through a procedure called preloading just after it arrives on location. They jack the rig up about 10' above mean sea level and then ballast the rig up to max in order to force these pods down into the muck until the ground is firm enough to support the weight. They do this by taking on a big load of salt water to increase the rig's weight temporarily. After they do this, they de-ballast the rig and go ahead and jack it up to operating height. Operating height is usually 60' or more above mean sea level. The idea is that the preload is supposed to simulate max loading conditions for the rig.
Anyway, back to our rig. One fine night, I was sound asleep when one of these pods gave way underneath the rig and fell 4' farther down into the muck. The weather was rough and the rig probably wobbled around just enough that the muck underneath that particular pod gave way in the middle of the night. So the rig was lopsided, and, naturally, the drilling contractor and oil company were concerned that there might be some damage to the rig. And this is not to mention that there was now a danger that it would break through again and tump us all into the drink. As it turned out, they went out and jacked that side up 4' to re-level the rig and all was well. I slept through the whole thing and only found out about all the excitement the next day. By this time, I was experienced enough to know the dangers involved and was very glad that I slept through it all."
Safety is really important on a rig at all times. There is a famous story about a co-worker who got written up for not holding on to the handrail while going down the stairs. He was carrying two bags, one in each hand, and didn't want to make two trips. His defense was eloquent but I don't think it passed.
This thing in the photo above is just massive. These are used to clamp around the drillstring or other components to move them in and out of the wellbore. That is what the roughnecks do on the drillfloor.
This is the control panel for the BOP or Blow Out Preventer. Modern rigs have more electronic controls and tests, but while drilling, the guys on the drill floor know best when to push the button if they need to stop the well.
Well, yes, we hope they do. I got this story from a friend who worked offshore:
"I had been in the oilfield about 3 weeks, and, needless to say, I was pretty wormy (an oilfield newbie is usually referred to as a 'worm'). I wasn't too familiar with things. One fine day, we were drilling along at a fairly shallow depth and encountered an overpressured zone. One of the oil company supervisors was pretty wormy himself. He probably knew quite a bit about rigs and drilling, but he was new in the particular job of supervising a drilling rig. As anyone who's ever done this can tell you, our respective employers pay in the millions of dollars for the mistakes we make and the diplomas we earn in the school of hard knocks as we're trying to master the business. This poor guy was no exception.
When we hit the overpressured zone, the well was flowing back pretty good. If this sort of situation isn't tended to right away, your well becomes a job for someone like Red Adair and a hit on the 6 o'clock news. Our hapless company rep was aware of all this, of course, and in his haste to get the well closed in, he hit the handle to close the blowout preventer before the driller shut the pumps completely off. The result was that the bottom of the well fractured as soon as he blowout preventer closed. At that point, your well is flowing in uncontrolled fashion from the overpressured zone into the fractured zone. This is called an underground blowout.
The risk with a shallow underground blowout like this is that the fracture will broach the surface. There have been instances where a fracture broached the surface directly underneath the rig, thereby causing the whole rig to fall over into the Gulf. It's a very dangerous situation. But thanks to my own worminess, I didn't realize any of this at the time. All I knew was that they had been drilling really fast, which meant that I had to work really hard at my job to keep up. When they shut the well in after they drilled into the overpressure, my own workload instantly went from frenetic to zero. I was so relieved! I just couldn't understand why all the other folks on the rig (who actually understood what was going on) were so upset. Ignorance truly is bliss."
Now you know a bit about the "oil bidness" which might be new to you if you live in one of those square states or someplace without natural resources to drill. I had a great time on this adventure as Pier 19 is really busy. Besides the museum and the cruise ships, this fire boat was spraying all over. There were other boats around and... of course, it is always fun to watch the birds.
Have you ever been to the Ocean Star Drilling Museum? Or have you ever been on a real offshore rig? Would you want to work offshore? Tell me all about it in the comments.
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