Five am. I’m shivering on a cold concrete floor wondering where it’s all gone wrong. I’m earning $180,000 a year, not quite on par with a superstar footballer, but me waking in the Darwin lock-up isn’t going to make headlines in any newspaper either. After 28 days without civilisation, women or beer, and 30 hours without sleep, it’s an overwhelming feeling to be 3000km from home with more coin than common sense and a hotel room to get rock star in. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last, but thankfully I’m homeward bound so for the time being my employment is safe. So far, a couple of lads have been marched from the job for missing their outward chopper and that ain’t a price 1 even want to think about paying.
I’ve managed to score one of those phantom jobs that the school counsellor never mentions. You don’t go hunting for them; they come to you and when the chance comes knocking you grab the fucker with two hands and wring the shit out of it for as long as you can. I work on a pipe laying barge in the middle of the Timor Sea, sweating my ass for 12 hours a day, 28 days at a time thinking of nothing but the tick-tock of the too-slow clock and what the hell I’m going to do when I’m free again.
The work is hot, sweaty and dirty and by far the best part of my job is its title of Buffer and Grinder. We are in the process of constructing a 500km pipeline from Darwin to a gas field near East Timor. The hours and monotony of the daily routine slowly play on your mind and you begin to understand exactly what is meant by cabin fever. The crew is a mixed mob and with 350 charged-up males living in confined spaces it is easy to tire quickly of the differences and shortcomings of others. Cramp, dehydration, migraines and heat rashes add to the mix and the threat of a quick injury to keep you on your toes. Featured in The Australian newspaper under the headline “Life’s A Lottery Aboard Floating Death-Trap” this barge has seen many victims over the years, more recently including a broken back, some lost fingers, a mangled hand and a couple of fractured wrists and ankles..
People always seem to wonder about the threats of falling overboard and sharks. While the risks of a fall are similar to those of eating it off your balcony at home (actually it’s less likely as there’s no alcohol when working at sea), there are emergency procedures for men overboard and training runs. A veteran engineer was telling me about the differences between falling from an Aussie rig as opposed to a North Sea platform. While the fall might not be hard enough to kill you, in both cases you expected to last a max of five minutes before perishing. Whereas death will be by the cold in Europe, in our temperate waters it’s a safe bet you’re going to be shark bait before you can even start thinking about shivering. This is one of the reasons why fishing is no longer allowed from barges and platforms nor is the industry as liberal with its waste disposal methods as it used to be. We had a large croc cruising round the barge for a week recently, kinda freaky given that we were about 250kms out to sea at the time.
In the north-west near Barrow and the Monte Bello Islands, there an abundance of epic surf. Up until recently, workers at Barrow’s onshore facility were able to sneak away for waves in their time off but a few too many injuries and the ever present libel issues saw that practice stopped. If not being able to surf isn’t bad enough, watching your playground crank empty has to be a heartbreaker. Sitting on a barge watching the May 2002 West Coast Big Wednesday swell belt the islands (apparently Trigg was double overhead to give you an indication) and knowing there was nothing I could do about it, was torturous. Insult to injury was an older bloke with a set of binoculars who felt obliged to have me “check this out” every time a bomb smoked through.
So, gnarly danger, no waves, why are we here? Well, y’all know the answer already… the Green. It’s all anyone talks about and it can get to the point where you don’t give a shit about it anymore, well not until you’re back on dry land anyway. On average, you earn between $A800 and $A1000 per day depending on your position. In offshore construction, welders are the big cheeses, deservedly so as they are utilising a trade, as are mechanics and electricians. Many of the other positions are filled through a “who you know” recruiting system which leads to serious beefing between those with skills and the often untrained Family Brother In-Law (FBI) hook-ups. In the end, though, everyone understands that whatever it takes to get out here, do it and screw the rest of them. It is dog eat dog, and even if you express sympathy for the injured guy, if it means you come off the reserve list to get a gig, fantastic. The tax is rank, 48%, the same as any corporate fat-and this seems downright rude to most of the crew. However, post-taxman skim, you still have a fat lump in your pocket.
There are so many ways that the boys get rid of their folding, some more conventional than
others. I’ve spoken to guys who have drag cars and seen their kids at the airport with no shoes and bad teeth. And at the other end of an old guy proudly told me how he put his three kids through private school and rules a fat pad in the middle of The GT (as the cool kids arereferring to the luxo Perth Golden Triangle these days.) Cars are a necessity, but only in Ford and Holden and motorbikes, boats, and investment properties rate highly too. For the boys who get among it in the line-up, this unity to enjoy the best fashion available.
Underground Margaret River ripper Sam Kinney has been rorting these gigs for a few years now, working as a welder to supplement a south-west lifestyle most can only dream of. A founding member of the Beer Fridge video monstrosity, he can find sanctuary among his quiver of 20-odd boards, a ski for tow-ins, a full tool kit, a Sandman van restoration project, and the obligatory four-wheel-drive for hunting waves. When not offshore earning the big stuff, he fiddles around with little welding projects to keep beer money up, works on the Fridge vids and menaces the line-ups, pubs and bedrooms of the River. Tough to take.
If hometown hero isn’t your priority, there are plenty of avenues to hit it up OS. Rabbit McColl and Shannan Sarson are two boys who left the highrise shadows of Scarborough Beach almost a decade ago and took their act on the road. With a bit of bullshitting, they managed to scam their way into the North Sea industry and have been ruling the waves of Europe ever since. Working through British employment agencies gives the added benefits of the mighty Pound Sterling and has seen the boys thrash every and carve fresh tracks the length of the Alps. Between them they’ve; also managed to explore a decent chunk of the rest of Europe in a style and manner that no amount of Contiki tours could ever hope to recreate. Things started to get ridiculous when two-week breaks were seeing them heading as far a field as Mexico and South Africa so they decided to roll on home again. Six months later and both have tickets booked the hell out of here once more.
The rewards are obvious but at what cost? In a sense, your life is prison-like for the duration of your shift: there is no freedom, you eat and sleep as dictated by your work, contact; with the outside world is minimal and there:; is no chance of escape. When you see boys in orange overalls marching laps of the helipad| lifting weights with shirts off and ink out, all that is lacking is a couple of brothers shooting hoops and you’d be in the penitentiary! Contrary to what my mates would like to think!! I am yet to become the meat in a big-boy sandwich. Sure there are plenty of rumours and with this many dudes and not a single female you’d assume there’s always going to be some alternative practices going down, but who really cares anyway?
In the end, it comes down to how bad you want it. At times, you’re going to hate it, and yep, you will miss the swells and parties of the year and the Sunday morning hangover-busted body-bash. And yes, you’ll become desensitized to porn. And that ain’t cool. ;
The way I rationalize it is this. I earn a bottle of Cuervo every hour, each day out here is another week in Indo, and a week of my labour is another month of living in the snow. There’s a price to pay and though some might wheel out the old no pain no gain cliché, I much prefer how Madd Head once laid it out: Pimp’n ain’t EZ, but it sure is worth it.