Offshore drilling rigs are tough, demanding environments with a reputation for being crewed by tough, demanding men. So it might come as a surprise to learn that one of the drilling supervisors working at Taranaki’s Maui gas field is a woman. LAWRENCE SCHÄFFLER reports.
AS A SENIOR DRILLING supervisor on Māui A gas platform, Gael Hodson’s life is defined by three-week rotations – 21 days on the rig, 21 days back on shore. Transport to and from the platform is by helicopter. The drilling never stops – there are no weekends, no public holidays. It’s a 24/7 operation – challenging, concedes Gael – but also stimulating and very rewarding.
For the uninitiated, the 20,000 tonne Māui A platform belongs to Shell Todd Oil Services (STOS) and is anchored in 110 metres of water some 30 kilometres off the Taranaki coast. The legs supporting the platform extend a further 80 metres into the seabed, making for a very rigid structure.
It has to be strong – the rig operates in south-westerly gales and mountainous seas and the design specifications call for it to be able to withstand waves of at least 23 metres, winds of 163 knots and earthquakes up to 8.5 on the Richter scale.
At any given time Māui A is operated by a crew of 65, of which two or three are female. For Gael, a typical day begins long before dawn and finishes at around 7pm.
“You have to be ready, outside, by 5.15am for the handover from the night shift, and to brief the crew arriving for the day shift. We discuss what’s happened in the previous 12 hours and what can be expected for the next 12 hours. From then on, until I hand over to the night shift, the job involves intensive monitoring and, if necessary, making some tough decisions.
“A platform is a dynamic environment and things can change very quickly. My office contains numerous screens displaying various parts of the rig – my team and I can monitor the situation without having to tour the structure. We also receive a continuous stream of operational data.
“You have to know how to interpret the data and if any aberrations rear up you need to be adaptable and make decisions quickly – you can’t afford to dither. We obviously try to plan things so that we don’t have any surprises, but you can’t foresee every possibility.”
Much of Gael’s role involves authorising safety permits before any job can begin.
“On a platform like Māui A with simultaneous drilling and production there’s lots going on – it can be a busy environment so we have to be sure everything is controlled correctly. You can’t afford to be lax about it. All activities require a safety permit signed off by the supervisor.”
Life on Māui A
So – 30 kilometres offshore, on an isolated drilling platform, sharing the space with a lot of men where, chances are, most of the conversation revolves around rugby – what’s it like? Is it awkward being one of only two or three females in a crew complement of 65?
“Not in the slightest. We’re all there to get a job done – whether you’re male or female is irrelevant. You have to show that you’re capable and competent. It takes a while to earn the respect, but that’s the same for everyone. In all my years on rigs – both in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world – I’ve never had a bad experience with fellow crew members.
“We’re all there to get a job done – whether you’re male or female is irrelevant. You have to show that you’re capable and competent.”
“I can also tell you that it’s never boring and you definitely don’t get lonely. Because of the three-week rotation system people are always coming and going so you’re meeting new people. I got used to the male-dominated environment very quickly. In a way university was good preparation – engineering school at Canterbury was also male-dominated.”
The rig has three accommodation levels, sitting above the operational deck. And before you ask, no, Gael doesn’t share a bunk room with the guys. By virtue of her seniority she has her own room and bathroom.
Even though she’s only on the rig for three weeks at a time, she is still able to personalise her room to a degree, putting up pictures (mainly of all the countries she’s visited). There’s a TV in the room offering the standard free-to-air channels, as well as Sky TV. A large common room contains a pool table and a TV lounge. There is also a gym with treadmills, rowing machines and exercise bikes.
For contact with family and friends ashore, the rig has Wi-Fi access and communicating tends to be via Skype or email, though there are also telephones on board. “On floating rigs the integrity of the comms link can be compromised by bad weather, but Māui A, fortunately, is a very solid, stable platform.”
Education and experience
What does it take to become a drilling supervisor?
Gael grew up on a dairy farm in Taranaki and completed school at New Plymouth Girls’ High. An aptitude for maths and science – coupled with advice from career counsellors at school – nurtured her interest in engineering.
“I wanted to be sure of a job when I finished university and from what I could tell an engineering degree pretty much guaranteed that. Even so, I never imagined I’d be managing an offshore drilling rig within a decade after finishing uni. The possibility wasn’t even on my radar.”
Her double degrees from the University of Canterbury (Chemical and Process Engineering in 2000 and a BSc in Geology a year later) were a perfect fit with STOS, where she began working as a reservoir engineer.
“The job was ideal for integrating my engineering and geology degrees, and I was given the opportunity to work on the Pohokura drilling programme, both onshore and offshore.”
She was soon transferred to a Malaysian operation with Shell, where she was responsible for designing the wells for offshore platforms. Onshore, she lived in Sarawak and Brunei before moving on to the rigs as a night supervisor on the wells. The night shifts ended when she was promoted to senior drilling supervisor in Brunei.
As with most drilling platforms the Malaysian and Brunei rigs carried few females. Slightly bigger than Māui A, they had crews of about 105 – mostly locals.
“We worked 28-day rotations. Despite the language difference I learnt an awful lot – it was a fascinating place to work, very busy and very hot.”
Gael returned to New Zealand as the drilling supervisor on Māui A.
Is a career on a drilling platform something she would encourage other females to consider? “I would encourage anyone to explore it – not just females. It’s a dynamic environment – very demanding but immensely stimulating. I’ve never regretted it.”