Chapter 5: A Job Unlike Any Other

I am the only trainee on the base and the engineers all agree to bring me to the rig. I carry out many missions in record time. This has the effect of toughening me up and the engineer in charge gives me more and more opportunities to work directly on the computer.  I prove to him my eternal gratitude by taking care of chores like verifying tools and printing long log films.

I am so confident… Walking in the shadow of my tutor, with no other responsibility than to obey him, without fearing the consequences. However, this comfortable situation cannot last forever and after four months of this treatment, I feel myself ready to take the ultimate test, which will mean the end of my training. It takes place on a real job, with the engineer and the FSM who will come on board to judge my level.

I never used to be anxious at the thought of upcoming school tests, but I am panicking the day before this exam. When the big day comes, I am as ill prepared as possible. Another mission has delayed my arrival on the platform, and prevented me from setting up the right conditions on the onshore rig (where the tools are operated from a truck). I am there for the first time, and I am not familiar with the truck, the tools, or the rig itself. Moreover, I have never worked on an onshore rig. To make things worse, I arrive so late that I do not even have time to practice on the equipment or verify the proper functioning of the tools that belong to another engineer.

“Belong” is a big word, but every engineer is responsible for a set of tools worth several million dollars that they have to keep in good condition. Things are not off to a good start. The FSM has not yet arrived. He is only an hour drive away and has promised to join us later. The first tool that I put in the well is showing erratic measures. I try to retrieve data and I fiercely work at it on my computer. Panic sets in. Despite all my efforts, I do not manage to reboot the tool and I have to take it out of the well to replace it. Fortunately, there is a second one on site. The job continues in the same vein, with tools breaking down one after the other and the engineer in charge soon has to take control of the situation. Even with the two of us, repairing the damage will not be easy.

We are flirting with catastrophe on a regular basis. The tools, which are full of electronics, descend to the bottom of the wells, where the temperature is over 120 degrees Celsius and the pressure is around 1000 bars. Technology is limited and the tools sometimes break down. The breaking down of tools can be accelerated by negligent maintenance. Everything is at play before the start of the mission, the chances of a bad maneuver that can be repaired during the execution are almost nil. If I am not responsible for the problems encountered, the test cannot be validated. I could have eventually been judged on the way I reacted, but that would have been a bit unfair, as experience plays a big role in these situations. 

I’ll barely wait a couple of weeks before taking my chance again. This time, it is a barge in the swamps that I know quite well and I arrive early. I have time to simulate every combination of tools and check that everything functions correctly. We are with two technicians, Franck the team leader and Smart his helper. Right from the start, Smart proves to be very uncooperative and refuses to carry out a number of my instructions, while showing more than obvious bad will when he does. I have to get angry in the middle of the mission, which at least helps me release some of the pressure. Did he think it was his duty to test a novice or is he reluctant to take orders from a woman? I will never really know.

In the end, I passed the test, not with honors, but sufficiently well to get bestowed the title of Field Engineer. This means that after the next session at the Parma training center, I will go on a mission on my own, with the bonus of a promotion, a change of status and a salary increase. As soon as I return to the city, we celebrate the occasion suitably. Everyone has been through it and I do not need to express what I feel out loud to be understood. The ordeal is over and for the first time, I am confident I will succeed.

I am excited at the thought of returning to Parma. This second part of the training is supposed to be a lot calmer than the first one, as it is no longer about selection. It feels almost like a vacation. I will finally be able to visit the city, go shopping and spend my first paycheck. There are no stores in Warri, which greatly limits the temptations of a young employee who has never earned any money in her life, who has a thirst for spending and who, for the first time, has what she considers to be a small fortune in her bank account. Of course, I cannot wait to find myself near a working phone to contact my family and all my friends to whom I have so much to tell.

Telephones are almost non-existent in Nigeria. The only way to get an international line is to fight through traffic jams for an hour to get to the phone center in Warri. Then, after half an hour of waiting, it is our turn and an employee struggles for another half hour to get a line by dialing the number on an antique round-dial device. Then comes the miracle of the known voice at the end of a line that works… for five minutes amidst the crackling until the inevitable disconnection. In general, we lose our motivation after the second phone-call. Parents are quickly taught not to worry if they don’t hear from us. After all, if a plane crashes, the newspapers will report it!

I am a lot more self-confident than the first time, but considering the personal relationships that have been established, I feel a little anxious at the idea of seeing these companions that I have not seen in four months. I am proud of having already passed the test, which is a relative achievement. It turns out there are only four of us who have accomplished this feat before returning to Parma.

I am surprised to find my first FSM who had greeted me so coldly upon my arrival in Nigeria. He was appointed director of the training center. I have to admit that this position fits well with his character. He seems to love instructing this pack of young engineers who live in fear of being fired. I am not talking about us, of course, but about the unlucky ones who have to participate in the first part of school with him.

Most of my colleagues are really happy to be back. Coming from places as inhospitable as the jungle, the desert or the swamps, to go to a city as beautiful and full of life as Parma is an incomparable joy. Our stay is as different as possible from the previous one. We go out a lot and get little work done. We play a lot of sports and even organize a squash tournament. I haven’t played sports since I left university and my general physical state shows it. We spend the weekend skiing. Our Nigerian friend who has never seen snow is not thrilled by the trip and ends up walking on the side of the slopes with his skis on his shoulder.

The director is hated by almost everyone. His attempt to frighten us into admiration with his strong ways falls flat on our newfound confidence; we do not fear this man with an imposing physique who tries in vain to blacken our stay. My relationships with the others have improved slightly, mainly because the tension has dissipated and the course is now more like a summer camp than a boot camp.

I make friends with the secretaries and once a week I join their girls’ night out, when husbands and boyfriends are left at home. My Italian gets better during these outings and I make the boys die of jealousy. They would love to get closer to these Italian women. It must be said that these women are particularly unapproachable, especially as the members of our group, aided by alcohol, do not always behave in an elegant manner. Their behavior does not fit with Italian culture and we are considered to be curious beasts everywhere we go. After Nigeria, this is not exceptional.

I manage to get closer to some of my colleagues, even those who form the heart of the group and are the life of party. Tom, an Englishman, is one of them. I strongly suspect that he was somewhat in love with Francesca and he does not hide the fact that he does not particularly appreciate my company, although he remains polite.

The end of the course is approaching much too fast and I am a little apprehensive about returning to Nigeria. The long-awaited moment to operate as an autonomous engineer has arrived. I will have to take on my duties without hiding behind my tutor. We separate after a month with regret. I do not think I will ever find the same atmosphere of hard work and protective complicity.

I make a loud entrance or at least a winning one back to Warri. The serious business will finally begin. We are at the start of June. In ten months so far, I have not earned a single dollar for the company. As soon as I arrive, I am congratulated by my FSM and assigned to a platform called Western Polaris I. This rig is in the middle of the sea, an hour away by helicopter.

My rig, My team, My tools and My equipment: I made it!

I start working for Americans, Texans, with a thick accent that I have a hard time understanding. I regularly have to call on other English speakers for them to repeat the instructions of the captain in a comprehensible way. Off to a good start – not only am I a woman, but I am incapable of understanding English!

I prepare my tools in the city and wait, nervously, for my first solo mission. I leave two days in advance in order to get acquainted with the facilities on board and to check my tools one final time before my first job. I am pretty well received upon arrival and I get to know the people I will be spending time with during my long journeys on board.

The population of a rig is made up of several groups. In the drilling teams, there are expatriates in rotation who stay on board for a month before going back for a month, and local workers who stay for about two weeks before going back for a week. They work a dozen hours a day in two shifts. There are also the client representatives who stay on board for one to two weeks before being replaced. Finally, there are the service company employees who, like me, come “only” for the time it takes to complete their mission, which can last several weeks!

Space is very limited and we move between the unit, where there is just enough room for a chair, the operations area where cables and pipes overlap, the room with bunk beds and the common areas that we share with 80 people. Very quickly, we long for a bit of freedom, for walking space larger than the helideck and for a real single room. In short, we want to come back to land.

For the client, the aim is to keep us on board for as long as possible to be sure that we will not come back late for the next job. For us, the objective is to take advantage of all the opportunities to go back to the city. It is a previously unsuspected pleasure to see a few new faces, to go out, to drink and to have a bit of space for ourselves. Those who live on board in rotation form a family and they accommodate, more or less agreeably, the intruders who do not participate in the life of the rig.

This job is a first for the rig where no one has seen a female engineer and no one knows me. It is the big test that everyone waits for before passing judgment on me – a woman who wants to make people believe that she can do a man’s job.

As soon as I arrive, I feel hostility from the second on board, a New Zealander who criticizes me as much for being a woman as for being part of a nation that sends agents to bomb a ship off the coast of his country.[1] I am under too much pressure to shrug off these unpleasant remarks which he seems to feel obliged to make constantly. We quickly reach a state of open conflict. My legendary sense of humor is crumbling.

After checking the tools and the computer again, and reading over my technical textbooks once more, I begin to find the wait a little too long and bad for morale. Finally, they finish drilling and come out of the well to give me room to work. I know I still have several more hours in front of me, but the die is now cast. The job will need to be done and I am alone on board, without a way out. I no longer have the choice. Escape is not possible. Of course, it starts in the middle of the night. Of course, I did not manage to fall asleep beforehand. Of course, I am tired when I start an activity that will last between thirty and forty hours. During this time, I only leave my unit to go to the rig floor (the place where the tools go down in the well). In this frenzied state, we assemble our tools and make them descend. I like this purely mechanical operation that means the start of the job and which allows me to gather my thoughts before getting down to serious work.

During the descent, my heart stops beating as I turn the switch that sends power to the tool train. I will feel this anxiety all throughout my career. It is the moment of truth: either everything is fine or the equipment breaks down and big problems begin. This time, there is no problem. I stifle a sigh of relief and I feel confident about facing the next steps.

However, during the ascent, my tool has problems and begins to give completely bizarre measurements, fortunately outside the zone of interest to the client. I try to go back down and start again on the zone, but the tool has no interest in any of this. I can feel the sweat running down my back. I do not want to show it, but I am close to panic. After a while, I am forced to give up. The tool definitely refuses to work. Thankfully, we are outside the studied zone, but I am not very proud of the result I am presenting to the client. When I return to the base, I receive numerous admonitions from my FSM who explains to me how I could have improved the log. This episode gives the client the opportunity to say that he does not want anything to do with me and that I should be replaced by a more experienced engineer (and a man too?). This episode will cause me to spend long hours in the city checking my tools again and again without ever managing to reproduce the problem. The tools would become known as the cursed tools of Warri after the same malfunction is repeated on another job, with another engineer. No one is able to reproduce it in the city, making it impossible to diagnose the problem. I will certainly not forget this first job.

Back in the city, I spend ten very intensive days between client visits and checking my tools, before finally convincing myself that I can send them back on board the Western Polaris I for another upcoming job in five days.

That evening, I call my friend Pascal. Pascal? He is a Frenchman who arrived in Nigeria a few weeks before me and who is in charge of the mechanical department and the maintenance of the machines. Apart from the boss, we were the only French people and very quickly created strong bonds of friendship. He always stays in town and is usually my knight in shining armor when we go out to clubs, my confident after my love affairs and my companion in discovering Warri and its surroundings.

I bring him with me tonight with the avowed intention of drinking a lot, having fun and above all forgetting that my first mission was a fiasco: the mission I had waited for so impatiently and that was supposed to leave an unforgettable memory! I have to start afresh. We stop to pick up some French friends, Nicolas and Pierre, to start bar hopping in Warri. We have a few drinks for the road and we head to our favorite bar, the BeachComber, after Pascal was called back to the base.

I am driving. Almost all companies, aside from ours, use chauffeurs for their expatriates and it is unusual to see a white woman behind the wheel. There is no room in front of the entrance and I decide to park on the other side of the road, in a badly lit corner. Pierre and Nicolas get out of the car and head for the bar while I finish maneuvering the car into the parking space. I am about to get out of the car when a group of people approach me shouting something. At first, I think that they want me to park further away and I grumble a little. At that point, I am absolutely unaware of what is happening. I hear a thumping noise that sounds like a poorly tuned car exhaust, which is nothing out of the ordinary here. It is only after I feel the barrel of a gun to my head that I finally understand that their intentions are not peaceful.

We have been trained to face these situations and we know that in case of an attack, we must keep our cool, give what the attackers ask for without resistance and above all not look at them to show that we will not be able to recognize them. While the theory is simple, nothing can prepare for the real thing! I did not have time to scream or even panic before one robber punches me in the face, while the other violently drags me out of the car. They jump into the car and drive off before I can react and I find myself in the middle of the road, arms flailing, dumbfounded. This is a nightmare! It all lasted less than a minute.

In a daze, I look around me for witnesses to confirm that this indeed happened. Only then do I notice that there is not a single pedestrian on the road. The usual crowd has disappeared; they have all taken refuge in the bar. Pierre and Nicolas are also in there. In shock, I scream at them: you abandoned me! Why didn’t you stay and help me? They do not answer me and show me their bloody legs. This calms me down instantly. My friends explain that they turned back when they noticed the mob surrounding the car. Before they could see what was going on, they were shot at by the frightened robbers and then dragged inside by a panicked crowd. That was the sound of the “exhaust pipe!”

The bar is filled with expats who have apparently all lived through wars and other extreme situations and have advice about exactly what to do in this situation. We get out of there quickly as someone suggests pouring whisky on the wounds, while another advocates a tourniquet instead. I hail a taxi and take them as fast as possible to the cleanest and most reputable clinic in the area, the most classical, but safest option!

My brain is drained. I am in the waiting room when my boss arrives. A bush-baby had told him. I update him on the events of the evening. After confirming that they are in no danger, we leave Pierre and Nicolas in the hands of the medical team to go to the police station and make our report. My friends made it out with a few shots between their thighs and feet, no vital organ was hit. They were repatriated to France, and both recovered very well, with just enough battle scars to entertain at social events. After this adventure, Pierre did not return to Nigeria, but I met up with Nicolas again shortly after.

When we arrive at the station, nobody seems to care about our situation. We stay there for what seems like forever. There is no chair and my legs are wobbly. Finally, when a policeman attends to us, he asks us to fill in a questionnaire before making a report which will join the others on the table. Having no details to give about my aggressors, the hopes of finding them are slim, but that is the least of my worries at that point.

We finish these administrative procedures late and I start to feel the aftermath of the attack. My FSM, a Frenchman named Laurent who arrived six months before, does not give me any moral support and tells me off several times when he thinks I’m slacking. No whining allowed here! This is confirmed the next day when he expects me to come to the base. In the early afternoon, I ask him for a car to go back to the clinic. He answers impatiently that I could just borrow a car from one of my colleagues. I would have preferred a car with a driver, but it doesn’t occur to him that I might be anxious about driving myself… which I am; I drive with the doors locked, hanging on to the steering wheel and glancing suspiciously at every pedestrian I pass. After all, I do a man’s job, in a tough environment, I haven’t been hurt, so why should I feel the need for moral support like a young helpless girl?

The big boss in Nigeria, who lives in Lagos, comes to visit me a few days later and starts by telling me not to worry about the car. I manage to restrain myself from telling him that it had not even crossed my mind and that my life seemed, at least to me, infinitely more important than a Peugeot 504, even though it is the queen car of Nigeria. He eventually asks me how I am feeling and tells me that even though I am okay now, I could face an emotional aftermath in a few months. If this happens, he says, and I start hating the country and its inhabitants, I have to warn him so that he can transfer me out of Nigeria. During this difficult time, he is the only one who gives me a little bit of support, and who anticipates the phobias that could result from this experience in the medium term.

The next day, I happily go back to Western Polaris I. I know I am safe there. The intensive work, without any problem this time, allows me to forget about what just happened. Ten days later, I find the city much more serene than when I had left it.

This going back and forth, between the city where I always go out and the rig where I work hard to be recognized as a professional, makes the following months pass by quickly. The client ends up telling my superior that he is very happy with me and does not want me to be replaced. Of course, he will never admit it, but I think he has recognized the benefits of having me doing the same job as a man, while bringing a feminine touch on board for the enjoyment of the gentlemen. I do take pleasure in the caricature. It was not just to surprise them that I took out my embroidery the first time, rather I discover a passion for cross stitching. It is a perfect hobby for this life: it takes up little space in my bag and is never finished. It is perfect for long evenings when, stuck on the rig, I have exhausted all other leisure activities, read all the available books, watched the videotapes three times and given up on talking to companions I did not choose.

This morning, we leave the rig for a new mission. It should be a normal mission. I know that it will be long, but not very complicated. By reflex, I quickly check my bag. As usual, my operators load the spare parts we will need into the car and we are off. The rest now is routine. No one is surprised by my coming, I belong to the furniture.

I spend a night on board after having prepared my tools and the job starts in the early morning, in ideal conditions. I make myself comfortable in my unit in anticipation of the long hours to come. In the evening, I feel feverish. I take a short break to visit the doctor who, not surprisingly, diagnoses me with a bout of malaria. It is not the first time and I know now how to recognize the symptoms: fever, trembling, a sensation of intense cold, abdominal pain, diarrhea, migraines, cramps, aches and pains. It is like a big flu, only worse. It must be said that I gave up malaria prevention a long time ago. I could not keep it up regularly and it has the unpleasant reputation of causing long-term side effects.

Going outside in the muggy heat does not even warm me up. I get blankets and grit my teeth in front of my computer. I continue typing on the keyboard, with only one finger sticking out of my wool ball. I know the medicine will kick in soon.

I spend the next thirty-six hours shaking, sweating and drinking liters of water without stopping work. There is no one to replace me and I cannot abandon the unit. Fortunately, my condition does not worsen and, once again, I have only a minor attack that does not require hospitalization. The end of the job coincides with the end of my illness and I stay on board two more days to sleep and recover before going back to the city.

I accumulate experience and now belong to the club of experienced engineers. A few months after my first job, Hervé, the driving examiner, comes from France to visit us. He regularly comes to check that we are still fit to drive the work cars. This time, he is asked to make a film about safety at work. Unluckily for me, I am the first to leave on a mission and he comes with me. Is this the beginning of my acting career? More seriously, I lecture my assistants: making a fool of ourselves is out of the question. We review the basic rules as well as the heavy lifting postures. Everything goes well and Hervé films the operation. In our job, we handle dangerous materials, such as explosives and radioactive sources. These operations are governed by drastic safety measures. We monitor any source of current, even induced, and at the fateful moment, I send everyone out and remain alone in the face of danger. I am alone when I connect the detonator before sending the tool full of explosive charges down the well. If there were an accident, I would be the only victim. There are no second chances! That is the best motivation. I never take risks and I always follow safety procedures to the letter.

Today, there are no explosives, only radioactive sources. The risk is different and the aim is to limit exposure time as much as possible. We wear a badge that permanently records the absorbed radioactivity to check that we always remain under the safety limits, which are themselves well below the danger level. This is a fairly standard procedure. The lead container is placed near the well, using special elongated tongs, the cylindrical source is placed in the tool before the helpers quickly lower it. Again, the engineer is alone during this operation.

Today, I cannot do it. I insert the source into the tool’s sleeve as usual, except that I cannot close it. I am aware of the camera pointed at me. The screw spins in a vacuum while Hervé is filming. I try again several times without success, I get angry and Hervé is still filming. Obviously, this never happens to me except when I am being filmed. I take a deep breath and I put the source back in its container; I then carefully clean the thread before starting again gently, without panicking. This time, there is no incident. I never saw the video and I don’t know if the sequence of the first aborted attempt, with my swearing, has remained as a textbook case of what not to do.

In September, I finally try to leave on my first vacation in a year. I get delayed a first time because of urgent work. The workers then started a strike. The show must go on! All the forces of the base are mobilized so that the client does not notice anything. We go to the rig with two engineers and cover all the jobs this way. This situation lasts for ten days, all the engineers are exhausted. We are tired of these long negotiations and decide that one of us should talk to management. The others all turn to me: I should go, they say, because I’m the only one in the group with the “balls” to do it. But the strike finally ends and I can go.

I only have ten days left. This is enough time to fulfill an old childhood dream: a safari in Kenya. I inaugurate my superb camera for the occasion, I rent a four-wheel drive car with a driver-guide and camping equipment. We leave for an adventure off the beaten track of the usual organized trips. Obviously, nothing happens as planned. In the rush of the departure, I forget my glasses and I move around in a blur. I buy binoculars. I instruct my companion to stop the car so that I can pull them out as soon as we cross an animal.

On the third evening, I am entitled to a declaration of interest from the guide who imagines that any isolated female is in search of adventure. Of course, this statement is met with refusal and I threaten to call his management to ask for a new guide at the next stop. It is an easy threat, I know, but it is the most efficient way to be safe. Of course, we are not allowed to go off the beaten track and when I insist on taking the wheel to drive off-road, I have to face the bad mood of the guide. We then get charged by a lone elephant whose territory we have encroached upon. He was right, the roads are safer, but so much less fun.

It goes without saying that we are not allowed to pitch our tent outside the camping areas where we are surrounded by crowds of tourists who I try carefully to avoid. To top it all off, when I have the photos developed, the film seems to have had a heat stroke or badly-dosed rays. The result of my trip is three photos, twelve rolls of films fogged up beyond repair and a head full of memories.

[1] The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed by the French foreign intelligence services in Auckland’s port on July 10th, 1985. The ship was on its way to protest French nuclear testing in Mururoa.

Chapter 6: The Meeting