All at sea on rig sleepover

To set foot on Taranaki's Maui A offshore platform you must first learn to cheat death.

Not all forms of death, just helicopter crash death, which is a very real possibility when flying 35 kilometres out to sea to land on the relative pin head that is the rig.

Training to survive this potential crash into the frigid Tasman Sea takes place at Spotswood, New Plymouth, in a deep pool of warm salty water.

"We used to have a pool that was just 19 degrees centigrade," said trainer Morgan Davies as Radio New Zealand reporter Juliet Larkin and I, strapped into the seats of a fake helicopter, were lowered into the tepid pool for a very gentle crash simulation.

"But when it's that cold no-one listens. They get confused. They don't pay attention. So the pool is 29 degrees now."

Which is quite pleasant and not confusing at all so that even when the helicopter was tipped upside down I was able to wriggle free from the seat restraints and pull myself out a window to the surface and thus survive with relative ease.

These days everyone who sets foot on the rig has to complete such helicopter escape training. Well, not quite everyone. Prime Minister John Key and Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges were excused, though considering the potentially fatal consequences of forgoing such learning, it is not clear whether their exemption was an honour or a political statement.

This one-day of training costs about $1100 and in my case was paid for by Shell Todd Oil Services. There are two reasons for this. First, no reporter in the history of the world has ever had $1100 to spend on anything and it was STOS who invited me to see their rig and a new fully automated drilling operation in the first place.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Rob Jager," said the STOS boss when I met him at 6.15am the next day in the Helicopter NZ hanger at New Plymouth airport.

We had actually already met last year at an oil and gas industry conference. In that sea of Italian loafers and high-end tailored, wool-blend suits we talked long enough and close enough for him to point out the high petrochemical content of my own attire. Until then I thought my $200 Hallensteins suit had let me blend in with the high rollers so Rob's offhand comment had stung. But I didn't want to bring up that pain again.

"Nice to meet you too," I said. I was one of three media types going to the rig that day. With me was Juliet from the day before and TV One's Haydn Jones. The plan was to fly out to the rig, walk around, see the flash drilling thing in action, have a biscuit or two and fly home again.

By 7.30am everything was going to plan and we were on the rig talking with rig boss Greg Lester about safety. It would be safe to say he takes safety very seriously. There is hardly a wall of his rig free of warnings and directions to ensure no-one so much as cuts themselves shaving.

"Unfortunately 84 days ago someone twisted their ankle. That is not good enough," Greg told us gravely. "Guys, you are duty bound to intervene if you see something up there that is unsafe. You have to say."

It was serious stuff and it made Rob smile from ear to ear. As chairman of the Government's Workplace Health and Safety Taskforce and boss of Shell New Zealand, health and safety is Rob's main squeeze.

"If you think holding onto a handrail sounds silly," he said as I forgot to hold the handrail going up one of the many sets of stairs that must be climbed to get anywhere on the rig, "read the stats."

I wasn't sure where you would find such statistics and I didn't ask. As a first-timer on the rig I had enough to take in already, from the yellowing 1970s decor of the living quarters to the sumptuous lunch menu to the mournful squeaking of a wind sock on the rig's helicopter deck 40 metres above the Tasman Sea.

"There's a seal eating a fish down there," I said to Juliet in a not altogether seemly level of excitement. "He's got a gurnard."

"We used to fish off here. It was good fishing," said Greg. "But we would break our line and the submersible would get tangled in it so it had to stop."

From the helideck we could also see the machine that brought us to the rig in the first place - the automated well drilling technology. It removes people from one of the most dangerous jobs on any rig.

The particular well operation we were watching it drill was targeting a pocket of gas 4000 metres under the sea. After 34 years the big easy gas is gone, Rob tells us. Pockets are all that remain. But with all the infrastucture already in place even a pocket can reap a profit. How long they will be able to keep finding these pockets is a matter of conjecture.

It could be two years, it could be 10, it could be longer. The truth is there are so many factors determining the life of the rig it is nearly impossible to know when it will be shut down.

Though the automated drilling rig was a real feather in their cap for Rob and Greg the best part of the visit arguably came after that when we descended to the walkways beneath the drill floor, about 20 metres above the sea. From here we could see the famous seal colony. About 30 of them swum in rows like fat glistening sea sausages bobbing in the push and shove of the deep blue water.

It was heartening to see nature had been able to incorporate the ugly industrial island that is the rig into their life.

"I bet you've never seen that before," said Rob.

"They're making me hungry," I said.

Luckily lunch, like all other meals, starts early on the rig and by 11.40am we were sitting down in a surprisingly small dining room to eat lemon chicken on rice and being told the wind had got too strong for the helicopter to pick us up.

"You might be stuck here for the night," Greg said.

The suggestion turned into a definite and by 2pm we were making calls to those who needed to know we wouldn't be coming home. This was quickly followed by a discussion on whether the unexpected layover entitled us to a day off work later in the week.

We concluded it did but realised our bosses, as always, would spin the experience as something we should be grateful for, therefore making our request for time in lieu seem pathetic.

In the 24 extra hours we were forced to stay on the rig we read 23 magazines each, watched one Super 15 game, played two games of Yuka, slept for eight hours in a bunk, participated in one 5am evacuation alarm, had two imminent helicopter rides home cancelled and ate six times. It sounds action packed but it was mostly just sitting around feeling a bit awkward.

The last meal, exactly one day after the first, was a steak the size of a book and though I didn't really need it I ate it anyway. What else was there to do?

"You were getting into that suit a piece of cake when you came yesterday," said Rob as my steak filled legs struggled into my bright orange survival outfit with the ride home finally on its way.

"Now you can hardly get it on."

It was the second time Rob had commented on one of my suits. Of course it stung. I decided to let it go.

Taranaki Daily News