One of the things you learn to cope with in the navy is the absence of husbands or spouses for extended periods of time. ‘Sailing’ and ‘deployment’ are two terms under which shiploads of officers and men go missing for days on end. Every vocation has its own peculiar lexicon. For example, in the world of paratroopers, ‘jumping’ replaces ‘sailing’. When we did our Basic Para Course in 1988, the standard excuse for anything and everything was ‘jump ke liye gaya hai’ (‘he has gone for a jump’).
In the services, leave is very precious and like life insurance, it is the subject matter of solicitation. Leave granting authorities, like insurance agents, will try every excuse in the book not to grant you your ‘part of annual leave’. I always coveted a job that included plenty of scheduled leave ‘without solicitation’; long breaks where I could be around Madhuri and irritate her endlessly. In 2014, my wish was answered when I hung up the uniform and signed up for offshore flying.
The entire offshore Oil and Gas (O&G) industry works on a shift basis marked by ON and OFF periods. While the ON periods are essential to earn the bread, it is the OFF period which you actually work for. O&G workers usually follow a two or three week ON-OFF cycle. Helicopters are the crucial link for hundreds and thousands of O&G workers. Offshore flying is intense and pilots need to be given breaks when they become ‘hot on hours’ – a term used to describe pilots approaching the limits of their flight and duty limits. Hence, they too follow 6-weeks ON, 3-weeks OFF or some such roster.
Life moves into a different gear when you start working to an ON-OFF roster. There are long periods when you are (safely) away from family and turn tele-counsellor for your wife. Meanwhile, she slowly draws up an elaborate plan for your return. Don’t get excited. It’s not exactly a holiday to Scotland she’s planned. The refrigerator needs fixing, fans need cleaning, dogs need their quarterly spa and bicycles need air in their tires. Sometimes I get confused whether my time at home is ON time or OFF time. Madhuri quickly dispels any doubt by handing over the next laundry list!
Whether you are an engineer on the rig, an Oil Installation Manager (the rig’s boss), a cook or roustabout, human sentiments around being ON-duty and OFF-duty are universal. As a pilot, one usually sees sullen faces on the onward journey from shore to rigs. When you land offshore, there are smiles all around as your ‘return payload’ is mostly homeward bound. People shake hands with the deck crew, give toothy grins and high-fives, and the aroma of perfumes waft through the helicopter.
It’s not hard to see why. Like all work at sea, life on an oil rig is pretty tough and lonely. The platforms work 24/7, 365 days of the year. Offshore workers follow a 2 or 3 week ON/OFF roster. There are 8-12 hour shifts. You share cabins with two or four others and work at heights that can induce vertigo in landlubbers. Hot, combustible gases, flammable fluids, heavy, noisy, machinery and the vagaries of weather become your constant companions. It’s a veritable tinder box. Everything is fine-tuned to a drill. Lives depend on adherence to safe and approved practices, much like a submarine. Offshore helicopter pilots and O&G crew share a healthy mutual respect. It is a symbiotic relationship – we need them, they need us. Our fortunes react to the same upheavals. As per a PWC report, the oil downturn that started in 2014 led to over 400,000 job losses in the O&G sector. Hundreds of experienced offshore helicopter pilots were also sent home globally.
Thanks to our own roster system, we understand their lives and sentiments when they are headed home on breaks. The excitement of counting down to your next break starts to peak towards the last week. Among offshore pilots, “I am on short finals” usually means it’s your last week on duty. There is no phrase to describe the first day of duty for a touring pilot. The long face says it all as you unpack your bag, scratch your b***s and stare at the next day’s programme!
For people whose wives are pursuing a career, there is another thing you have to contend with back home. Folks at home are busy with their school and work. They have a routine. Look at me for instance. Smiles, hugs and the warm welcome aside, I soon start to get in everyone’s way. I want to sleep in but they have jobs and colleges to go to. Soon, they shuffle off to work and I am left all alone in the house with our two cats staring at me as if I am an intruder.
Then there is the maidservant problem in India. Just as you settle down with your WhatsApp chats and coffee, the maid is at the door. Wherever in the house you try to curl up she manages to chase you down, first with her dusting cloth, then broom and then the mop. Sir, zara hatiye, safai karna hai” (Sir, move over. I need to clean). By the time she has finished chasing you around the house four times, it is time to set off on your ‘bum jobs’ list. Because when your wife returns from work, you don’t want to hear “did you get something done or were you just lying around?” Me? I give a sheepish grin, make coffee and we arrive at a compromise! There’s always tomorrow.
Soon, your return ticket arrives and you get your excuse to procrastinate some more. The last week of break for touring pilots is officially ‘mourning week’ 😉
It has been a little over three years and loving it. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say. When I was a young boy with a fondness for the sea, people told me “don’t join the merchant navy. Your wife will run away”. It’s not true. 25 years in the navy and 3 offshore years later, I can tell you – it’s the husbands who ‘run away’!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.