Three Weeks on the Lun-A

It’s now been three weeks since I arrived on the Lun-A gas production platform in the Sea of Okhotsk.  So what has it been like?

In a word: odd.  As I said in my earlier post, all anyone does is eat, sleep, and work.  There are no weekdays on the Lun-A.  There are no Monday mornings, Friday nights, Saturdays, or Sundays.  There are no days off.  All there is is day shift and night shift.  Other than a slight variation in the work, one day is identical to any other.  There is little to mark the passage of time, as going to work one morning doesn’t seem like starting a new day as much as repeating the previous one.  I’m still on night shift, so I don’t even get to notice changes in the weather, although I have noticed that it has been blowing a gale for the past two weeks almost without letup.  And it’s got colder.

People work like this for 28 days before they go on leave for 28 days, then return for 28 days, and so on.  They arrived at this period having found that men on platforms turn into violent beasts capable of murder on the 29th day offshore.  Tales abound of the scaffolder who missed the helicopter off the Brae-A in 1986 and went on to devour one of the drilling crew in a fit of fury over a missing pair of Redwing boots. 

Where was I?  Yes, that’s right.  People adopt personal techniques to manage the effects of 28 days of utter sameness.  Some religiously cross off the date on the calendar.  Others deliberately don’t follow the dates at all.  Looking out for new faces from a crew change, meaning you no longer have the longest to go, is another trick.  Me?  I plodded through the nights for the first two weeks, then this week started counting down the days.  I couldn’t honestly say that it’s boring, because it’s not.  It’s just…the same, every day.  A bit like building a railroad, I imagine.  It’s hard to find a word for it.  Just to get a reference for a single day, I’ve been looking out for something, anything.  Even an albatross, but none has flown by.  Besides, crossbows are banned on the platform.

Anyway, next Wednesday I’ll be frogged off the Astoria – an operation which still takes place in a howling gale – and go back to the island in the boat which made me seasick in calm waters.  Apparently, this boat can clear a reef in 45cm water depth, which tells you all you need to know about its ability to stay level in rough waters.  I’ll be relying on the tablets again.

Did I mention people get 28 days holiday after a month on the platform?  I don’t.  Ordinarily I don’t work offshore, I was seconded here on a one-off assignment, so I’m back to my normal job in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as soon as I return.  Well, not quite.  First I have to take a 4-hour trip in a Kamaz bus to some lighthouse in the north eastern outreaches of Sakhalin Island to do an inspection of a staircase, a trip which I am told will involve at least two river crossings.  The lighthouse is in an area of the island which is supposed to be stunningly beautiful, a place where scientists gather to watch the whales.  When I was on the boat out to the Lun-A and looking out the door I glimpsed a huge, black dorsal fin emerge twice from the water off the stern.  I’m hoping, once I’ve done the inspection, I’ll be able to spot a whale or two and get some photos.

Then it’ll be back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, my home, and my wife. I’m looking forward to it.


There has been an awful lot of fuss recently about people believing in, or not being sufficiently sceptical of, creationism.  Sarah Palin has drawn huge amounts of criticism for saying she believed in creationism, and the director of education at the Royal Society has been forced to resign for stating that creationism should be discussed rather than excluded from school science lessons.

My question is: why all the fuss about creationism?

Now let me first state, I think the whole notion of creationism is barking mad and goes against a whole raft of scientific evidence not to mention basic common sense.  And I don’t think it’s a subject which should be taught in science lessons, although I think the outrage expressed at the mere suggestion that the subject should be discussed says more about creationism’s critics than its proponents.

But of all the stupid, ignorant, and unscientific ideas that are out there, creationism doesn’t strike me as being any less stupid, ignorant, or unscientific than a lot of ideas that pass for conventional wisdom.  Socialism being a viable form of economic management over market capitalism, for instance.  How many instances of teachers believing in and teaching the virtues of socialism over capitalism occur in our schools?  It’s not like there hasn’t been full-scale experimentation carried out on the subject, when we consider the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and North Korea.  I remember being taught by a Glaswegian geography teacher that agricultural communes in China – the type which ensured Chinese never grew enough to eat – was a viable alternative to the type of farming practiced in the west.  Is this any more stupid, in the face of all the evidence, than creationism?

Sarah Palin believes in creationism, and she might one day be president.  Yet the incumbent president, and our own glorious leaders, believe in trade tariffs.  Putting all the evidence together on a table, which belief is more irrational?  And which belief causes more harm?

Sarah Palin chooses to defy scientific findings, close her ears, and believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago.  Most of the world’s leaders choose to defy an awful lot of scientific findings, close their ears, and believe the earth is heating up uncontrollably, and we the public must stump up billions in taxes to do something about it.  Which is the more irrational?  And which is most likely to cause me, you, and everyone else serious harm?

Yes, Sarah Palin is ignorant of scientific methods and findings.  As are most people.  The average Brit’s understanding of science is bordering on non-existent.  Last time I looked at a GSCE science paper, it required students to look at a picture of a thermometer and write down the temperature it read.  I believe that a requirement to balance a chemical equation disappeared from the chemistry syllabus years ago, and I have little confidence that a majority of the public would know the chemical formula of water.  Ask people how long ago they think dinosaurs lived, and calculate the variance of the answers.  Who do you know who can explain why the sky is blue?  Or leaves are green?  And what’s the difference between wavelength and frequency?

Just for fun, I’ll throw in this anecdote.  When I was staying in Owens Park hall of residence in Manchester the TV reception in my room was awful, but was okay if I dangled my small internal aerial out of the window.  One of the tutors collared me and told me to bring it inside.  Because it was dangerous.  Apparently, if it rained, sparks could come off the wire and cause a fire.  I fear that in general people’s understanding of science and engineering isn’t much more advanced than this.

So I find it a bit ironic that people who inhabit a country where scientific ignorance is rife amongst the general population and its politicians (who endorse expensive regulations to eliminate substances in quantities proven for centuries not to harm us) should castigate a vice-presidential candidate for believing in something unscientific.

But I find it baffling that it is creationism which, out of all the stupid beliefs which are out there, gets held up as the one which demonstrates unsuitability for public office.  Whereas economic idiocy is no barrier to entry.

Like I said, I’m baffled.

If oil companies ran resturants…

…they’d be something like this.

(A middle-aged couple emerge from a taxi, smiling, happy, looking forward to an evening of good food and fine wines in each other’s company.  They enter the door of the restuarant, over which is displayed a sign reading: “11,541 Dishes Served Without Dead Customer”)

Male Diner:  Hello, we’re…

Waitress:  If you’d just like to step over to that counter over there, sir. (pointing to a counter adjacent to the main entrance, behind which sits a uniformed man)

Male Diner:  Huh?  Oh, okay. (they shuffle over to the counter, looking somewhat confused)

Uniformed Man:  (pointing to a ledger) Please sign in.

Diners:   Eh?  Oh, okay.  (they each write their name in the ledger, wondering why this is necessary)

Uniformed Man:  Okay, thanks.  Here are your badges. (He hands over 2 large, rectangular badges with DINER written in large red letters across them.  They are a lot thicker than they should be, because for some reason there is a plan of the building and the adjacent car park on the back of it)  Make sure you wear them at all times when you are in the restaurant, and hand them back in when you leave. (the couple shuffle back to where the waitress is standing, the badges hanging awkwardly from their lapels.)

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The Sakhalin Salmon Run

August and September on Sakhalin Island are known by everyone as the season where the salmon swim from the sea up the thousands of rivers and streams all over the island to lay their eggs.

This is a time when huge nets are slung across river-mouths to be lifted by crane and emptied by the ton into lorries, the operators of such activities having either paid huge sums of money for licenses to do so, or paid huge sums of money in bribes to do so.  The first is more common, the second suspected and almost certain to go on, and it is true that fishing inspectors drive up and down in a fancy new Land Cruisers (lending much weight to suspicions of the second scenario) ensuring that nobody takes a fish out of the river without having first paid for it one way or another. 

For those without cranes, the options are to stand by the river and fish in the traditional fashion or get hold of a small dinghy and row out into the river mouth.  Individuals are supposed to purchase a license for 10 fish from the fishing inspector, but I doubt that many of the several hundred Russians you see down by the river have bothered with this.  Most people are catching fish purely for personal consumption.

You’d be hard-pressed to call it fishing.  Salmon swimming upstream to lay eggs aren’t much interested in biting at a lure, but so dense are the fish in the water, holding their position against the current trying to take them back downstream, that is is simple to throw in a large treble-hook and foul hook a large salmon, or if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, you can simply wade in and grab one.  You can even go fishing with a large rock, caveman style.  But it’s not the stuff you’d find many fly fishermen seeking the thrill of a battle with a Scottish salmon to take much interest in.  That said, casting and spinning on the beach can get you a fish which could make you feel some sense of achievement, more so than whacking one on the head with a club as it idles in the shallow water.  The sheer volume of fish is quite incredible, as the pictures below show.  No stream seems too small to attract thousands of salmon, which seem to almost take up more space than the water itself.

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Of course, fishing in local waters being prohibited by any employee of the company I work for, I did not attempt to catch any fish using any method, and nor did the group of people I was with.  The two fish that I cooked along with potatos, carrots, and onion in a large pot, and the fish that was roasted on the fire in foil with added lemon, during the last camping trip were purchased legitimately from a local fisherman only after we had obtained explicit confirmation from the fishing inspector that the fisherman concerned was fully paid up and was an altogether wholesome citizen of the Russian Federation.

Any mighty tasty they were too.  The fish, that is.

Fighting in Turkmenistan

Back in May 2006, The Economist ran an article on Turkmenistan which said:

There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to Islamic radicalism—and create a nasty failed state that could destabilise an already volatile region.

Upon the death of Turkmenbashi 7 months later in December 2006, I recalled that article in this blog post, adding:

Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in.  Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense. 

Had [Niyazov’s eradication of education] been allowed to continue, or indeed if it does continue, then the country will likely join the likes of Somalia and Afghanistan as fertile grounds in which to establish Islamic fundamentalism.  But with a lot of luck, and in the hope that Russia and the US can cooperate to help get Turkmenistan back on its feet without squabbling to the point where things are left to get worse, the situation should improve. 

There have been mild overtures from both Russia and the west towards enticing Turkmenistan back in from its self-imposed isolation, but events in Georgia and other issues have prevented any definitive actions regarding the gas-rich Caspian state.  And with the current climate between Russia and the US, it is unlikely that there will be much cooperation between the two on anything, let alone ensuring Turkmen development is supported in a bipartisan manner.  I always keep half an eye on the developments in Turkmenistan, and so I noticed this story from the BBC:

There has been heavy fighting in Turkmenistan between Islamist militants and security forces in the capital, Ashgabat, unconfirmed reports say.

Residents told news agencies that at least 20 police officers had died in gun battles on Friday night, and that police were now patrolling the area.

This report generates as many questions as it provides information, the most prominent one being where are these Islamic militants coming from? Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamic hotheads are not in particularly short supply.  Or are they home-grown?  Or a mixture of both?  I read an account in one of Colin Thubron’s books where the author asked some Turkmen whether militant Islam could take hold in the country.  The wisened son-of-the-desert Thubron addressed the question to said that any such threat would come from Iran and had little chance of being produced domestically.  But it’s probably best not to extrapolate too much from one person speaking to a travel writer passing through the Karakum desert.

However, Russia would do well (and I’m sure they are) to find out pretty sharpish if this story is true and where the troublemakers are coming from.  If it turns out to be Iran, we could see a shift in attitude between Russia and Iran.  For some time the Russians have been gambling that a belligerent Iran poses more of a problem for the US than Russia, even to the point that they seem prepared to extend this assessment to a nuclear armed Iran.  An Iran which can export trouble to Turkmenistan – which also shares doesn’t share (see comments) a border with Russia – might make the Russians reconsider.  They’d do well to make up their minds before Iran advances much further with its nuclear plans.

Russian Plane Crash

This is very bad news indeed:

A passenger plane has crashed near the central Russian city of Perm, killing all 88 people on board, officials say.

The Boeing-737, belonging to a branch of the national airline Aeroflot, was on a flight from Moscow.

At least 21 foreign passengers were on board. An investigation into the cause of the crash is under way.

Radio contact with the plane was lost as it was landing. The wreckage was later found outside Perm, which is located near the Ural mountains.

“The Boeing-737 carried 82 passengers on board, including seven children, and six crew… All passengers were killed,” Aeroflot said in a statement quoted by AFP news agency.

“As the plane was coming in for landing, it lost communication at the height of 1,100 metres and air controllers lost its blip. The airplane was found within Perm’s city limits completely destroyed and on fire.”

A resident of Perm interviewed by AP television news described hearing an explosion that threw her out of bed.

She said her neighbours saw the plane was on fire when it was “still in the air and it looked like a rocket and crashed near the building”.

“The whole sky was lit up like a firework display.”

There are two things which make this particularly worrying.  Firstly, the operator was not some two-bit outfit from the provinces but Aeroflot (albeit Aeroflot Nord, a regional branch of the national airline).  Aeroflot has made huge strides towards being a decent airline in the last few years, and of all the Russian airlines it was the one I felt most comfortable flying.  Secondly, this is a Boeing-737 not some outdated Russian aircraft, although it must be said that the Boeings and Airbuses do not have a great record in Russia.  Perhaps it is something to do with the maintenance regime required to keep the western aircraft in the air compared to the Russian aircraft, or maybe the state of the runways plays a part.

But I hope the investigation into this crash is conducted properly and transparently and the results published without any potentially embarrassing details omitted.  Despite all the noise and worries about Russia’s recent resurgence as a country with some clout, one thing everybody was happy about is that Russia has been able to vastly improve its airline industry from the dark days of the 1990s when travel in or through Russia was strongly advised against so frequent were accidents.  A properly conducted investigation will no doubt reveal weaknesses and faults in the system somewhere along the line, but to do otherwise will recklessly endanger more lives.  Let’s hope the Russian authorities will do what’s necessary.

Life on the Lun-A

Well I made it offshore okay, a bit of sea sickness on the boat out aside.  For some reason to do with how they’ve parked the Astoria (the floating hotel) beside the platform, they aren’t helicoptering people in and out this summer, and instead we’ve got to take a 2-hour trip on a supply boat with a load of seats right in the front, beneath the deck, with no proper view outside.  The sea wasn’t rough, but there was a bit of a swell and I think somebody designed our tub to go up and down Bayou Teche not cross the Sea of Okhotsk, because it was pitching far more than was good for my wellbeing.  I am normally okay on boats, I’ve been on loads of ferries and dive boats, but this wasn’t like being on a boat: it was like being in a dark room which is being chucked about.  Standing by the door looking at the horizon helped a bit, and the sea-sickness tablets even more so, purely because (and I believe this is how they are designed) they sent me straight to sleep and I awoke beneath the Lun-A being yelled at by some huge seafaring Russian to get into my survival suit.

Access to the Astoria is via a personnel transfer capsule called a Frog, in which three people sit and get snatched off the deck of the boat by a crane, hoiked in the air, jiggled about a bit for everyone’s amusement, and plonked on the deck of the Astoria having hopefully managed to keep hold of their baggage which was sitting unsecured on the floor beside them perilously close to making a large splash in the waters below.  It’s not half as bad as it sounds, no worse than having to clamber into the rubber survival suit beforehand, and much better than trying to get the damn thing off afterwards.

The Astoria is a semi-submersible vessel, which I think means it is sinking but in a controlled manner, which is operated by a Norwegian outfit and therefore carries an air of being able to remain semi-sunk without danger of becoming completely so.  There are a few salty old Scandanavian sea dogs running the tub, sporting bushy white beards and looking exactly as a ship’s officer should.  I don’t know their names, but I’d bet at least one of them is called Olaf.  It’s not the prettiest of vessels, as can be seen from the picture here, but inside it is spotlessly clean and extremely functional.  I am in a four-man room which comes with a small en-suite shower and toilet, and two sets of bunk beds which are, I was pleased to discover, long enough to sleep people like me.  Laundry is done on a daily basis, just like in a hotel, with ruthless efficiency.  Were the Astoria to run aground, it would probably be the best run hotel in Russia.

The food is magnificent.  We have two soups, a salad bar, a dessert bar, three different kinds of potato, two different kinds of rice, a pasta dish, two different meats, fish, a fridge full of fruit juice, a freezer full of ice cream, cold meats, cheeses, bread, jam, peanut butter, and fresh fruit.  And most of it varies with each meal.  I’ve not seen anything like it in years.  Nor have the Russians.  They are piling their plates as if the siege of Leningrad restarts at midnight.  Self-discipline is required if you want to return to the mainland the same size and shape as you went out.

Access to the Lun-A is via a large and sturdy gangway between it and the Astoria.  I am working the night shift, which has the advantage of me being able to sleep in the room alone, my three roomates working the day shift.  It has the disadvantage of me falling asleep halfway through your first shift.  You also don’t tend to see any sun, so you have to come to terms with the fact that you will soon assume the complexion of pimps and vampires, although there are not too many of either on the Lun-A platform.  On my first day on the rig I was struck down with a terrible piercing headache, unlike one I’ve ever had before.  It came on suddenly almost as soon as I’d crossed the gangway, and it got worse as I walked around.  I wondered whether it was a side-effect of the sea sickness tablets, then wondered whether it was dehydration, then wondered if I should go and see the medic and get some paracetamol, then wondered if this was some weird affliction that offshore workers get, culminating in the pressure in their head becoming so great that their brain explodes all over the galley one breakfast.  Then I thought I’d try loosening my hard-hat, which I’d screwed so damned tight on my head thinking it would blow off on the wind to the Kamchatka Peninsular, and my headache vanished within a minute.

Life on this platform is simple, being reduced to three activities: working, sleeping, and eating.  I have brought books which I haven’t read, there is a TV which I haven’t watched, and there is a helideck which – I don’t like to boast – I have walked around twice.  The view is quite nice, and although it doesn’t consist of much other than sea and the distant coast of Sakhalin Island, the sunsets can be spectacular and the breaking dawn worth stopping and looking at.  The sea sloshing around the huge concrete legs sometimes takes on a lovely deep green colour normally reserved for brochures of the Seychelles, but at night it turns to an inky black moving threateningly a hundred feet below the deck.  It is not a water into which you would want to fall.

So that’s pretty much it.  Other than possibly changing to the day shift at some point, this is how I will be living until 1st October when I will hopefully become a landlubber again.  If anything exciting happens between now and then, such as the mysterious disappearance of one of the concrete legs, a kraken attack, or an impulsive decision to join a band of marauding pirates, I’ll let you know.

Offshore to the LUN-A

This evening I will be boarding a northbound train on the first part of the journey to what will be my home for the next month:

Lun-A Platform

At the moment the sea isn’t quite as icy as it is in the above picture, and missing from the photo is a large floating hotel anchored alongside which will provide me and a couple of hundred others with our accommodation whilst we are out there.  I will have internet access, but whether I will have time to post anything is another matter entirely.  If so, I will post something.

Lun-A Platform

Some blurb about the platform:

Located 15 km off the north eastern coast of Sakhalin Island, in a water depth of 48 m, LUN-A is a drilling and production platform with minimum processing facilities. Oil/condensate and gas separation including gas treatment for transport to the LNG plant will be done onshore at the onshore processing facility.

—  Four legged concrete gravity base substructure (CGBS) that was engineered and constructed in Vostochniy port by Aker Kvaerner Technology AS and Quattrogemini OY. PA-B CGBS was installed in June 2005.

—  Fully integrated deck construction built separately in South Korea, Samsung Heavy Industries construction yard. The topsides were installed in August 2006 on the pre-installed CGBS by float over technique.

The platform includes drilling and gas/hydrocarbon liquids/water separation facilities, storage for chemicals and a living quarters module. Process, utility equipment and living quarters are separated and located in different areas to maximise safety. The main working areas are enclosed, temperature controlled and ventilated with local winter protection for equipment located in the open. The living quarters have a capacity for 90 permanent and an additional 36 temporary staff.

The LUN-A platform is designed for year-round operation in harsh climatic conditions and is built to withstand rough seas, severe ice and high seismic activity.

Let’s hope that last bit is true.