Which island?

I’m planning a trip back to Sakhalin in August, mainly to take one last look at the place given the chances of my ever going back are slim, and to see a few friends.  For the first time in years I have had to organise my own visa to Russia, but I remembered the website I used in the past to get a quick letter of invitation, the document which must accompany your visa application.  Sure enough the Moscow-based agency is still going strong, and I filled out the application form listing Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as a place I will be visiting.

A couple of hours later I got this reply:

Please be advised that Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a city of a strict passport control. To visit this city, you are supposed to have an invitation issued by local migration authorities.

Drawing on my experience of having lived there for three and a half years, I can quite confidently tell you that the strict passport controls in place in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk consist of ordinary passport control at the airport and, erm, that’s it.  As for the invitation issued by the local migration authorities, I saw people come and go on many weird and wonderful business and tourist visas, not one of which had to be issued by local authorities.  I expect they have picked up the story that in late 2006 the FSB announced that Sakhalin would become a special border zone, but missed the one about them changing their minds five months later.

Still, it’s good to know that the tradition of Moscow not knowing what the hell is going on in the provinces is still alive and well!

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Goodbye Sakhalin

Apologies for the lack of postings over the past couple of months, and the general decline of postings in general over the past year or so.  There are good reasons for it, mainly the nature of the job I held between May 2009 and my getting sacked a month ago, but also a general weariness with Sakhalin (which I alluded to here) which manifested itself in an inability to write anything.

On 1st March I demobilised from Sakhalin Island having lived there on a residential basis since 12th September 2006, a period of 3 years, 5 months, and 19 days.  I’d known people who had been there 8 years and more so I’d not broken any records, but given we only intended to be there for a year before the experience gained would enable me to easily get a super job somewhere more civilised (ha ha ha ha ha!), we did pretty well especially considering we only had a handful of proper holidays in that time, one of which was utterly ruined by machinations at work.  Certainly, upon leaving Sakhalin, I don’t think I could have used my time there any more fully.  It was a magnificent experience, the best part of which was the wonderful people I met, befriended, and will likely always know who number in the dozens, both Russians and expatriates.  I worked for three companies on Sakhalin, had five or six bosses who ranged from the best yet to the utterly incompetent, and the work itself was unmatched in terms of exposure, responsibility, and experience but enough to make even the sanest contemplate volunteering for internment in the local loony-bin.

I will miss Sakhalin like hell, even if I no longer find superheated steam coming out of my cold taps with mildy scolding water from the hot, the electricity supply remains constant without 330V coming through your apartment one day and destroying everything with a transformer or motor, and the lifts do not need to be inexplicably switched off across the whole region come ten o’clock.  I will miss it like hell because it was the place I enjoyed being more than any other, where I met friends and forged relationships I never want to lose, and – I should admit – made a shedload of money which allowed me to purchase outright the Phuket apartment in which I am now sitting.

I doubt I will ever return to Sakhalin, not for the foreseeable future at least.  There is a 20% chance of some work there next year, on site up in the north, but by that time I expect I will have moved on, as will almost everybody I know there, who themselves represent a dwindling fraction of those who I knew from the beginning.  Of the ones I left behind, all but two or three – and this includes the Russians – have concrete plans to leave within 1-2 years, most much sooner.  Should I go back, I might be disheartened by the fact that it has become a different place from the one I left, as surely as the place I left was unrecognisable from the one I arrived at in 2006.  I owe Sakhalin a lot.  I expect I will owe Sakhalin my career, hopefully future wealth, and a lifetime of friends.  There has been a downside, several of them even.  Life on Sakhalin takes its toll on people, but I’ll write a separate post on that later.

There will be many posts later.  I now have time, I am unemployed and sitting in an apartment with a wooden balcony which overlooks a fancy pool and the sun shines every day.  If there is a time and place to write blog posts in large numbers, this is it.  There are many stories to tell of Sakhalin, the work, the companies, the people I encountered, and stories involving all three at once.  I will tell the whole lot here, in all their gory details, soon enough.

This winter saw a lot of snow fall on Sakhalin, much more than I’d seen in the previous three winters (cue the old-timers popping up in the comments to take a deep breath on their pipes, lean closer into the fire, adopt a grandad voice, and begin the tale of the winter of 2003.  Or was it 2004?).  On my last full day in Sakhalin, I pulled a Russian’s car out of the snow with my much-admired Toyota 4wd.  I’d done this several times this winter, the unwritten rule being if you have a 4wd and somebody is stuck, you pull them out.  I don’t know why, but on this last occasion I felt quite good about myself.  Pulling some fellow out of the snow to shouts of spasibo seemed like a good note to go out on.

I’ll miss it like hell.

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To Phuket, and beyond?

I expect some of you are wondering where I am, or indeed if I am still alive.  So first things first.  I am alive and well, and currently in Phuket, Thailand.  The resort town of Patong, to be exact.  I am here having taken the position of Project Manager on a $15bn development of the vast oil and gas reserves off the coast of Phuket.  Actually, I made the last bit up: I’m here on holiday.

My wife has been here for the past three months, we having reached a decision in August that she would go to Phuket to scope it out as a possible place to buy an apartment and use it as a base whilst I continue with a career gallivanting around daft locations in the oil and gas business.  I’d not been to Phuket before but had taken the opportunity to garner the opinions of the half of Sakhalin’s oil and gas workers who own property in and base themselves out of South East Asia. I discounted Malaysia and Indonesia on the grounds that they are Muslim countries, and frankly I had enough forced compliance with religious practices, internet censorship, and hypocritical moral codes of conduct when I was in the Middle East.  Besides, chicken sausages and turkey bacon is a poor substitute for the meat products of a well fed pig.  Bali could have been the exception, but my wife went there and found it packed full of Australian teenagers off their faces on drugs and everyone trying way too hard to be the coolest kid in school, and from her report it sounded like the Australian version of Magaluf.  No thanks.  I considered the Philippines, but only really knew Boracay which although a cracking place for a holiday is too small and underdeveloped to live on.  My first choice would have been Singapore, which I love despite the justified criticism that it is too sterile and organised (after 3 years in Sakhalin, bring it on!), but having checked my bank balance and found myself not to be a millionaire it was beyond my financial means. Vietnam I judged to be too underdeveloped, and besides, I need to get a visa every time I go there;  Cambodia and Laos were never a consideration despite the positive feedback from Gary Glitter, so Thailand was the country we went with.

Chang Mai in the north is a popular destination, mainly because it is cheap and nice, but it is nowhere near the sea and I wanted to be close to a beach.  Bangkok had certain appeal, mainly the abundance of good property, services, and job prospects for Yulia, but we didn’t want to be in a city all that much and again there is no decent beach nearby.  Pattaya (or nearby Jomtien) is hugely popular with expats and I’ve been there before, but in all honesty, although fun for a week or so, the place is a dump – think Blackpool in the tropics – and it seems to be a magnet for those on a sex holiday, a demand which is met by an abundant and obvious supply.  So we settled on Phuket which Yulia knew quite well having been there twice before, and came with the advantage of superb beaches, a reasonable level of development (Patong itself has a cinema and Carrefour, to name just two things, in a large centrally located shopping mall), and an international airport to which you can fly direct from Seoul, KL, Singapore, and a whole load of other places.  The drawbacks are that it is much more expensive than most of Thailand (although still miles cheaper than anywhere in the west) and the fact that it did get clobbered by the tsunami a few years back.  On balance, we decided this is the place to be and we are in the process of buying an apartment.

The grand plan is that Yulia will live here, for the intial six months learning Thai language in an extensive course which handily comes with an education visa eliminating the need for monthly visa runs.  After that, she’ll get a job either in real estate or hospitality where Russian speakers are in demand, the financial crisis seemingly only slowing and not stopping the stream of Russians turning up in various sunny resorts looking to offload cash.  I will stay in Sakhalin and possibly start rotating (i.e. 7 weeks on/3 weeks off) sometime  next year, and take my holidays in Phuket.

So what of Sakhalin and our life there?  Well, and this is related to Yulia’s move to Phuket, the place has changed.  When we arrived it was slap in the middle of the construction phase of two of the biggest and most complex oil and gas projects ever attempted, coming in at a total cost of over $30bn for the both of them.  The place was utter chaos, thousands upon thousands of foreigners of over 30 nationalities tripping over each other and the ever-changing Russian laws in their attempt to get the facilities built and the oil and gas flowing.  Money was flowing fast and free, established procedures as yet unwritten, and managers charged only with getting the job done come hell or high water.  And somehow we all got it done: oil and gas has been flowing from both projects for almost a year now, with few hiccups.  Sakhalin has transitioned from the chaotic construction phase to the more organised, orderly production and operations phase.  Gone are the amusing stories of 3km of 36″ pipeline “going missing” from a laydown area; expensive intelligent pigs smashing into a blind flange somebody has inadvertently left in a pipeline; people charging about in panic as a flare shoots up to 60ft in a tremendous roar because another part of the project blew down a section of pipeline without bothering to tell the chaps at the other end; a huge firewater tank being installed by a contractor who somewhat  implausibly thought nobody would notice the enormous dent in the side; construction contractors disappearing in the night (along with their advance payments) never to be seen again; tons upon tons of gravel and sand “going missing” on its way from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk by train to the northern sites; designs being amended even as construction nears completion; tales of drunkeness and womanising amongst the workforce; and a feeling that you’ve entered an Alice in Wonderland world and none of it is quite real.

Which of course it wasn’t, and financial and operational reality had to arrive eventually, and after a few false alarms through 2007 and 2008, in spring 2009 it did.  With construction finished there was no need for thousands of men who could get a job done under ridiculous circumstances, because those circumstances were no longer the case.  It was no longer necessary to pay $1,000 per day and upwards to mercenary contractors, because their skills and numbers were not required any more.  Production and operations requires thoughtful, risk-averse, and somewhat plodding characters in stark contrast to the “lead me, follow me, or get out of my way” attitude which is essential for a complex construction job.  (Incidentally, for those in the know, I’m quoting Patton here not David Greer.  Silly though his email was for quoting Patton without attribution, the applicability of the words was sound enough.)  Making snap decisions on limited information, essentially judgement calls, are demanded of a construction manager; a manager in operations must first discuss at length and achieve a concensus before proceeding.

Of course, none of this is new to those who have been kicking around in the oil and gas business for years, but for me it is a distinction I have only recently come to appreciate.  And perhaps unsurprisingly for somebody whose hobby is spouting off on a public website, I have realised that I am far more suited to, and far more useful in, a greenfield construction environment than in operations and maintenance.  I suppose it all comes down to character, but whereas certain personal attributes served me well in unorthodox, challenging situations (e.g. plonked on a Russian ship at very short notice and expected to figure out a way of keeping semi-suicidal Russians alive whilst making sure  an ROV could be retrieved from beneath an ice sheet), they tend to get me into trouble in the more conventional areas of the industry.  Versatile and reliable I most certainly am, able to play a smart diplomatic game and keep my mouth shut I am not.  Incidentally, the bollockings I get in adult life are identical to the ones I got in school from the age of 5.  I can’t see that much is going to change, can you?

So as the construction teams left the island in 2008-09, so too did the wonderful array of characters that accompanied them, and a lot of my friends were amongst them.  To somebody who came here in the middle of the construction boom, Sakhalin is a shadow of its former self.  It’s not necessarily worse, but it is different in a way which I don’t prefer.  I have perhaps 6 or 7 good friends left here, most of whom will likely be leaving in 2010.  The project I am currently involved in is a good one, and I have a position which is as much as I could have hoped for under any circumstances, but over 3 years on Sakhalin and the changes that have gone on has made me tired, both physically and emotionally (which, incidentally, is the reason for the lack of blogging).  I have potentially another 1-2 years work on this project, but it is open to question how long I can stay without either going a bit bananas or getting myself sacked.  With a bit of luck, the regular holidays in Phuket will make things a lot easier and I can carry on until the project’s completion (or at least until they don’t need me any more and it’s a good point to hand over and back out with smiles all round).  My experience on Sakhalin, that I speak quite a bit of Russian these days, and my being resident on the island all mean I still have quite a bit to offer the project but I have made it clear to everybody that this will be my last job in Sakhalin.  To stay any longer would be a big mistake.

Hence the apartment in Phuket.  Even supposing I find myself jobless next year, sitting about applying for jobs in our own apartment in Phuket is something which can be done remarkably cheaply, thus taking away any pressure to find another position quickly.  The longer term plan is to get on board one of the huge Australian construction projects which are just kicking off, and are generating fears of enormous skills shortages as oil companies realise that playing good cricket and rugby and having barbecues a lot doesn’t translate into enhanced capabilities of project delivery.  Whether I take a rotational job in one of the remote sites or a residential position in an Australian city I don’t know, but even if we decide on the latter – assuming such an offer is made – another advantage of Phuket is that it is very popular and hence apartments easy to rent out both long or short term.

I’ll keep you informed.  Meanwhile, there is a deckchair on Patong beach which I intend to go and lie on.

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Gazprom In Charge

It has now been just over two years since Gazprom assumed majority ownership of the Sakhalin II project, forcing Shell to concede its majority share whilst retaining operatorship and overall management of the development.

So what has changed since then?

Lots.  Firstly, almost all the non-Shell expatriate staff have been booted, leaving the organisation looking somewhat thin on the ground especially concerning project completion and maintenance.  Although to be fair, booting a whole load of expats out of Sakhalin Energy was something that should probably have happened in 2007.  Secondly, terms and conditions of employment have been squeezed to the point that there is very little overtime or training, which is having a big effect on the Russians.  And business class travel has been pretty much eradicated which, despite a review of the travel policy being sorely overdue, is probably not a smart move given where we live and what airports we must pass through to get here.  And it must be noted that it is open to question how much of the above is being driven by Gazprom or the Shell management who have been in charge since the beginning.  Ask the right people the right questions, and the fingers point to the latter.

Then last month Gazprom sent no less than 80 people to carry out an audit on Sakhalin Energy, the purpose of which was not clear but was subject to volumes of speculation by Russians and expats alike.  At one point, one of the senior Shell asset managers, a chap who I worked with on and off for 2 years but who never bothered to learn my name, asked one of the auditors how it was all going.

“You’re not paid to ask those sort of questions!” came the reply.

Ouch!  Welcome to your new masters, gentlemen.

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Camping in Sakhalin

The weather in Sakhalin is warming up nicely, the evenings are still getting longer, the bears are hungry and out in force…which means only one thing: camping season.

Camping in Sakhalin is worthwhile for several reasons.  Firstly, there is the scenery…

…which, if you choose the right spot, can include the sight of early salmon leaping a waterfall.  I never saw this when I camped as an army cadet in the Brecon Beacons.

Secondly, camping in Sakhalin involves driving 4WDs laden down with copius amounts of “kit” which is to be shown off shamelessly to your male companions.  Americans are welcome as they have a habit of bringing along eye-boggling amounts of kit purchased from the USA for a fraction of what it would cost you in Sakhalin, assuming you could even buy it here.  Hi-tec electronic gadgetry from Japan is also popular, at least with the blokes.  Upon arrival at the campsite, all kit is dragged from the cars, unpacked, and assembled willy-nilly around a huge fire which consumes a small forest worth of logs throughout the night.

Thirdly, camping in Sakhalin is forbidden unless all involved (Egyptians excluded) get totally hammered on beer, vodka, coffee mixed with Baileys and Glava, all three in succession, or anything else you fancy.  The drinking is interrupted for half an hour or so whilst everyone gathers around the barbecue and throws on pile after pile of meat, most of which goes uneaten because the Russian Army never showed up to eat its portion.  With everyone fed, the drinking continues and the singing begins.  Usually somebody talentless and tuneless gets out a guitar and does a fine job of keeping the bears at bay.  Once a suitable late hour has been reached, fetching firewood involves going more than a hundred metres into dark forest, and everyone is plastered, those brave souls with tents crawl (or in the case of the Americans, stroll and head for the east wing) into their nylon pods and fall into a drunken coma.  Those who lack a tent or are too chicken to use it cheat their way through the camping experience by sleeping in the back of their Toyotas.  Next time I’m gonna be leaving tin openers with pots of honey around the campsite.

Finally, camping in Sakhalin, like most seemingly mundane activities in Russia, often presents bizarre spectacles which would go sadly unseen were we to sit in dingy bars, crumbling apartments, or remain in the UK.  On our last camping trip a car inexplicably burst into flames on the opposite side of the valley, producing a column of thick smoke.  The bewildered occupants would normally have been rueing the loss of their car and contemplating how to get home again…   

…had their blazing chariot not set fire to the entire hillside, causing the driver and his passenger to attempt to stamp out the flames with their sneaker-clad feet.  As the picture below shows, they were not successful.  This made for a fine afternoon’s entertainment for those, i.e. us, watching from a comfortable distance.

But the fun wasn’t yet over!  Just as we were packing up to leave, for no apparent reason a minibus owned and operated by a Korean seaweed harvester opted to drive across a river rather than simply take the road, and unsurprisingly got stuck.  For our entertainment he rammed the opposite bank a few times without success, before his mate turned up in a jeep to winch him out.

All in all, a fine weekend camping in Sakhalin.  May those to come be as entertaining and bear-free.

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New Job

Well, it appears that after knocking on a lot of doors and tapping on a lot of windows I’ve found myself another job.  This should keep me in Sakhalin for another year or so, or at least until the economic situation in the rest of the world improves and the executives of various oil companies stop panicking over $50 oil and get their projects moving.

I start on Monday.

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Of LNG and Royalty

Wednesday of this week saw the official opening of the operations phase of the Sakhalin II Project, and an inauguration ceremony held at the newly built LNG facility on the southern coast of Sakhalin Island.  Within a few weeks the project will begin shipping cargoes of LNG to customers in Korea, Japan, and the US.  The ceremony was attended by Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and various other dignitaries from Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, and the UK.  The UK delegation included HRH Prince Andrew the Duke of York, who our Honorary Council persuaded to make a detour in his trip to open our new Honorary Consulate in a small ceremony to which I was invited.  From this, I can confirm that Prince Andrew can “work a room” with exceptional skill, has a sharp sense of humour which he doesn’t mind displaying, and is capable of making somewhat direct comments.  Considering who his father is, the last one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  I am glad I attended the ceremony and got to meet him.  I also had the opportunity to meet the British Ambassador to Moscow and pass on my gratitude to her embassy for bollocking the receptionist at the Belgrad Hotel in March 2004 who had dreamt up some problem with my visa which was preventing her from checking me in.  The incident happened during the reign of the previous ambassador, but I’m sure she appreciated the comment.

The inaguration ceremony of the project and the president’s visit received widespread media coverage across Russia, and one of the TV crews from Russia’s Pervii Kanal arrived a day or so earlier to make preparations.  They did so in the middle of a terrible blizzard which dumped about a metre of snow on us in 24 hours (we have had far more snow in my third winter here than in the previous two) and decided to make a small report on the conditions in Sakhalin and the presence of foreigners in the capital.  The two Australians they interview near the end of the clip are colleagues in my department, the one who speaks Russian I work with daily.

The construction phase of the Sakhalin II project is now all but over, and the number of expats left here is dwindling rapidly.  Since September 2006 I have for the large part been a very small cog…in fact, more like a grease nipple…in the massive machine which has built this project, but I’m not going to let modesty stand in the way of letting everyone know that the rock-dumping works I helped carry out on the Yuri Topchev in December were vital to the LNG facility being able to start up on time.  The Sakhalin oil and gas industry has not escaped the financial crisis gripping the world and it now looks as though there will be very little if any further construction works to keep me in employment here.  My contract runs out shortly, and I am in the process of looking for a job elsewhere.

I will have plenty to write about the current situation in Sakhalin closer to my time of departure, and yet more to write about it once I have gone.  For reasons I will explain later I am not too unhappy about the prospect of leaving, and in many ways I am looking forward to it.  I do not know where I will be going or when, but I am applying for jobs in Japan, Korea, Houston, Perth, Brisbane, Malaysia, Monaco, Paris, Singapore, and Norway.  Hopefully something will come up, and by mid-year my wife and I will most likely be gone from here.  I’ll let you all know soon enough. 

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Russian Christmas

On 7th January it was Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar, there was a soft snow falling from the sky, and people were out celebrating in Lenin Square that evening.  So I wandered down with my camera to take some pictures.

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian Christmas, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

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10 Days At Sea

I am now back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk having survived 10 days or so on the Yuri Topchev.  I must start this post by apologising for the lack of photos: I might be able to get some from colleagues, but I didn’t bring a camera out with me, the main reason being that taking photos around live oil and gas facilities is seriously frowned upon for safety reasons, and it wasn’t until I was out on the ship that I realised I was missing out on some superb photography, far outside any danger zone.  I did take some pictures when I was on the Lun-A though, which I have been too idle to post.  I will do so shortly.

The Yuri Topchev is a 100m long icebreaking supply vessel, a photo of which can be seen below in the Sakhalin port of Kholmsk.

Yuri Topchev

It was built in Norway a little over two years ago, and for the large part is a lovely ship: the standard of finishing in the cabins, bridge, and walkways is top class.  Unfortunately, the owners hit hard times at about 90% completion and they ended up skimping on a few essentials which would have made her a world-class vessel.  As such, it has second-rate navigational electronics and an enormous winch which takes up a quarter of the hangar-deck and – because a relatively minor complementary part was axed from the scope – is utterly useless.

Since its completion, the ship had not really done any work, and appeared to be brand new.  Unfortunately, nor had a lot of the crew.  As soon as I arrived on board, I discovered that they had not filled up with nearly enough food or potable water for the number of crew and length of trip.  All we had to drink was gassified bottled water, kvas, kompot, and tea and coffee.  Then the coffee ran out, then the UHT milk ran out (fresh milk is rare onshore Sakhalin, never mind offshore) and we were onto powdered milk mixed in a jug.  I hadn’t seen powdered milk since the 1980s, and I discovered it’s taste hadn’t improved any in the interim.  Then that ran out and we were onto cans of condensed milk.  We ended up scrounging milk and coffee from one of the platforms we passed.  The ship had left port only about 3 weeks before I got on board.  Good job Russians weren’t in charge of supplies on the Mayflower.  Food consisted of pelmenii, varenikii, pre-cooked sausages in boiling water, and a seemingly endless supply of cold-cut salami and cheese.  A middle-aged Russian lady did most of the cooking and did a great job considering what she had to work with.  The head chef, a Russian man decked out in full cook’s regalia, appeared to do nothing more than stir the pot of pre-cooked sausages in boiling water.  Fruit, salad, juice, and desserts were as absent as they were in a 1990s McDonalds.  Eventually, two days before we arrived back into port, a container of food was craned onto our deck, which turned out to hold what looked to me like about twelve tonnes of potatoes and cabbage.  After that, the food did improve somewhat, but the Safe Astoria it was not.

I’d not really been on a ship before, and I found it all rather interesting.  Unlike on the St. Petersburg pleasure cruisers or the Singapore-Bintan Island ferry which have signs everywhere keeping passengers out of all the interesting areas, I was free to wander around the Yuri Topchev and talk to the crew, with the exception of the engine room out of which I got chased by a rather grumpy Chief Engineer when he caught me looking as though I was about to meddle with someting (I was).  As such, I spent a lot of time up on the bridge in one of the five driver’s seats (I’m sure that’s not the nautically correct term) first looking at all the controls, then waving my finger gingerly near the controls, and eventually fiddling with the controls.  I limited myself to the radar display, which explains why the Yuri Topchev was not lost with all hands.  During my wanderings, I noticed with some interest that there was a room marked “Survivors” and another, just along the corridor, marked “Deceased”.  The latter was locked, which made me wonder what was in there and made me look a bit closer at the fatty soup we were being served for dinner.

The ship was registered in Murmansk which served as its home port, and most of the crew were from the same place.  The Captain was a chain smoker in the strongest sense of the term, puffing his way through a packet of cigarettes every two hours or so.  He wasn’t the most confident of captains, and seemed to panic when asked to do anything other than drive his boat in a forward direction, and when asked to hold the ship in a certain position or align it in a fixed direction he’d wave his arms and moan about the strength of the currents, the wind, the alignment of the stars.  Everything was all a bit too difficult.  Aeroflot pilots are reknowned for their bravado in landing their aircraft in the most appalling of conditions; their counterparts on the water don’t seem to be made of the same stuff.  At one point he said it was much too difficult to follow in the ice-free wake of an icebreaker leading in front of us, and raised all sorts of objections as to why it couldn’t be done.  I went to bed as the argument was in full flow, and woke in the morning to find a deckhand – the lowest ranked man on the ship, who the day before had been sweeping snow off the deck – at the helm doing a fine job.

On the other hand, the Chief Mate was a chap called Oleg, aged 34 with a tattoo on his upper arm of a bear bursting between the Russian flag and the saltire of the Russian navy over a ship on the high seas.  He was very obliging, highly competent, and seemed to present his ideas before the Captain who quickly adopted them and issued them as his own orders, much to the amusement of all who had figured out what was going on.  I got on pretty well with Oleg, and he told me a whole load of stuff about ships, the Russian Arctic, and showed me a few dozen pictures of Murmansk and the areas around it.  He had attended a maritime academy in Murmansk and was continuing his studies in the hope that in 3 or 4 years he would make captain.  I hope he does.  Maybe we’ll bump into each other again on the Shtokman project?  Or at Yamal?

The rest of the crew were pretty good, and with one or two exceptions all willing to do some work.  The Bosun was an older chap called Vladimir who sported a neatly trimmed white beard around the bottom of his chin and up the rear of his jawline which made him look like he’d stepped off the set of Planet of the Apes.  For a bosun, it was a good look.  And the toughest man on the ship was a Russian with a round, pock-marked face who would stand on the deck at 3:00am in -18C with a howling wind, his face uncovered, with all the concern of standing on the beach at Yalta in July.

Incidentally, before I came on board I’d always assumed that normal attire for a ship’s crew included items such as heavy knitted polo-neck sweaters, woollen hats, and welly boots.  As it turns out, shell-suit bottoms, flip-flops, and an old vest do just fine. 

So what was I actually doing on the ship?  I was clearing the moon-pool of ice, lowering and raising the ROV cage, deploying and recovering the sonar beacon, supervising rigging, lowering and raising the USBL pole, conducting tool-box talks, manhandling acoustic shackles.

Still with me?

Transmitting ultrasonic signals, securing hatches, pressurising the moon-pool, making vents air-tight, and raising and lowering a clump-weight.  In English, I was supervising a group of Russians whose enthusiasm often took the form of suicide and it was my job to talk them out of it.  And I occasionally had the task of asking nearby icebreakers if they wouldn’t mind awfully smashing up some ice for us while we worked.  A 4,400 tonne, 91m long supply vessel performing 360 degree handbrake turns in under 20 seconds is worth watching.

So after 10 days at sea we arrived back in the port of Kholmsk on Christmas eve, in time for me to get back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for Christmas day and join a group of friends in devouring a whole pile of turkey dinner.  We’d had a 44-hour voyage to port from the Lun-A platform which took us around the southern tip of the island within a short distance of Japan and close to areas of Sakhalin which are hard to reach by car.  Most disappointingly the weather was awful and you could barely see the prow of the ship through the swirling snow, and when the weather cleared up a bit it was night.  But I had spent a few hours here and there watching the ship plough through the ice leaving a perfectly straight channel of dark water behind us, and looking out over the lily-pads of ice which had all fused together in a patchwork, and the sun rising and setting over the ice sheet, and it was at times well worth being there (frustrations over my not having brought a camera notwithstanding).  Almost worth having to stand on deck in freezing wind with ice forming from my breath inside my balaclava trying to avoid a swinging basket filled with rock and coated with a thick layer of ice from being dipped in the freezing seas over and over again.

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I Dump. I Rock.

This evening I will be heading north up the island on the train to Nogliki, where tomorrow (weather permitting) I will be taken by helicopter to what was for a short time my home, the Lun-A gas production and drilling platform.  I will be on there a matter of minutes before being hoiked in the air on a frog and plonked on the deck of the supply vessel Yuri Topchev where hopefully I will be met by a crew member who will not wonder who I am or why I am there.  With luck, he will have organised a hammock for me.

All things going well I will be on the tub for a week, possibly heading north through ever icier seas to the Piltun-B platform, to assist with rock dumping around a subsea pipeline.  Rock dumping consists of dumping rock on the sea bed to protect a pipeline, or to give it support where it spans a trench.  And there were you thinking it was what happens to a groupie the morning after a concert!  Apparently they already have rock on the boat so I don’t need to hand-carry any out on the helicopter, but they have given me two replacement batteries for something or other to take out with me.  Having picked them up, I think I’d have preferred to take rocks.

I have packed a thick rope made from marine-grade hemp in case of emergency.  Not on the boat mind you, I’m talking about if the weather gets bad and I end up stuck in the transit camp in Nogliki for a few days.  Coupled with a sturdy beam (which admittedly would be hard to find in the Nogliki transit camp), my rope could prove to be a preferable option.

I’ll see you all in a week or so.  Allow two days for thawing.  It’s gonna be freezing out there.

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