They’re a pretty old sight, and a rare one at that. Fanned out across the Cromarty sea loch before myself and one particularly fantastic Belgian, were the looming, gargantuan silhouettes of no less than 8 cold stacked drilling rigs, teed-up for a long stand to rust away for the time the oil prices are supposed to pick up. The water was still as a puddle, and under the cloudless sky, we began to inflate our comedically under-speced blow-up kayak and prepared to paddle out to sea under the cover of darkness.
In recent years, Cromarty has been known, not for the scenic beauty of its nearby loch or its quaint historic stature as an old port and fishing village, but as a massive parking lot for mothballed oil rigs. At a paltry £500 a day to keep these things berthed here (a laughably small amount of money in the world of Oil and Gas exploration), its no surprise that the drilling companies that own these things are leaving them here to languish ‘just in case’, rather than face up to the multi-million pound decommissioning costs. It must be said that if you’ve got the eyes for them, these rigs look absolutely majestic, otherworldly. Giant steel cathedrals of some alien religion towering over the tiny Scotch villages on the banks of Cromarty Firth.
We’d been firing it up the roads of the highlands nerding out on a playlist full of old BBC radio documentaries about the oil and gas industry and the bridges over the Firth of the Forth of which the newest, the Queensferry crossing, was due to open in the coming weeks. On our way out of Edinburgh, we had passed thousands of locals being unloaded by the busload, eager for a chance to cross the new bridge before it became a 6 lane motor way and closed to pedestrians to have a proper look at the infrastructure all their taxes had paid for. I’m sure the 1880s residents of Queensferry would have been furious at the construction of the now iconic Forth Rail Bridge, calling ‘eye-sore’ as soon as the first foundations were laid, and its unsurprising that there have been plenty of accusations that the rigs at Cromarty, our destination for the weekend, have had a negative impact on the local tourism industry. I’d say the those same complaining locals are missing a massive trick. I honestly think that if they started offering up boat trips up the Firth to see these titans of industry, they’d attract people like us and the same sorts of people who were jumping off those Edinburgh busses in droves.
Well, kinda like us. We make our own trips.
For the vast majority of people that even get to board an oil rig, you’d be approaching from the air by helicopter. From underneath, with plastic paddles, on the only half-decent inflatable they had left on the Decathlon website, you get a very good feel for how much of a fragile speck you are in comparison to these 20 thousand tonne monsters. The effect is crushing.
While everything around us was illuminated by the moon, stars and distant lights of the shipyards, the rigs seemed to ooze darkness. Defined by their total absence of light, the fire resistant paint upon steel reflected nothing, with only the slow, periodic rhythm of the bright white collision warning light filling in the silhouette of this vast inky monolith for a split second before returning it to total darkness.
The rig we had chosen as our base for the weekend was a large jackup rig, which take the form of a large flat triangular platform supported by 3 retractable legs. One irritating side-effect of this configuration, especially if you are in a tiny inflatable, is that the large low-hanging deck above above sets up a wind tunnel underneath it, massively exaggerating any waves on the surface of the water. On approaching the platform, we really struggled to paddle towards the temporary scaffold landing platform with our overloaded vessel and shitty plastic oars with the none-existent chop turning to 50cm 1-2 seconders within about 10 seconds of getting underneath the edge of the main deck above. With all this thrash it was intensely difficult to even get close to the landing platform, never mind keep the boat away from the razor sharp barnacles, and while our initial decision to ’tie the boat up and just go and have a look’ seemed like a good one on the shore, in reality we needed to get the hell out of the water and have a sit down before we got swept off.
We skipped round the locked stair door and made our way up to the platform. With no alarms or cameras, we were free to do as we pleased, so hauled up the gear, deflated the boat and stashed it out of sight from any patrol boats that might be watching.
Approaching the main deck from these lower access stairwells, I started to notice a strange crunchy texture to the floor that increased in intensity the higher we moved up the rig, as if we were walking on broken glass. By the time we were stood on the top deck, the floor was completely covered by hundreds of thousands of brittle white shards, as if someone had been sat smashing a limitless supply of fine white china all over the top deck of the rig.
The source of this strange phenomenon..? Giant barnacles as big as a fist, the size of which I had never seen before in my life, clinging to the retracted legs of the rig for at least 100 feet upwards, presumably to the high-water line when they were last deployed. Upon drying out, their shells must have become loose as the creatures within them perished and come clattering down the deck of the rig and littering the thing in these razor sharp tough-as-nails fragments. With the sea as still as it was, and with no audible activity happening in the nearby ship yards, the only sounds made on and around this huge structure were ours. Every footstep, clang of metal and crunch of those flipping barnacles resonated across this huge structure from end to end.
We set about gaining some kind of elegant non-destructive entry to the accommodation and control block, both to have a nosy round and to get a good place to kip away from the impending glare of the morning sun. Searching high and low for an open door, hatch or loose window, we eventually found direct access to the heli-lounge and borrowed a couple of mattresses from a dorm down the hall, laying our sleeping bags in the comparatively less stuffy / mouldy chill out area.
The accommodation sections aren’t the most glamorous. Endless cramped corridors and 90s looking wall panels, dirty lockers and kit rooms, pale, beige bunks, school-canteen style kitchens and dining areas. I hear the food is ok though.
Far nicer than these dank corridors, was the last sun of that summer, just beginning to glint through one of the port holes in the topside.
For those more familiar with the classic drilling installations of the 1970s and 80s UK off shore world such as the Brent and Piper platforms, a jack-up rig might be a new concept. It certainly was to me. In terms of the business end of things, a big set of drills and the facility to pump in drilling mud, lay pipe and get the good stuff out the ground are essentially identical to their larger cousins. The big difference is in the fact that jackup rigs can very easily be moved from place to place by virtue of just rolling up their massive legs and getting towed off to another oil field. This makes them really good for oil exploration, where you might be digging scores of test wells around a particular location to check for the presence of oil in prep for the big extraction rigs turning up and taking over. They seem to be all the rage these days, especially considering static platforms are such a pain in the arse to decommission, you can’t just blow them up and let them sink these days!
We got a few hours kip, and spent the day meandering around the rig. The turrets, cranes, gangtries and the drill deck, taking a nap in the drill cabin and getting right underneath the business end of the main drills, a huge black eye terminating in a pin-prick of light in the drill hole over above, fed by a bunch of huge drill mud pipes.
Before commencing our final meal (BBQ sausages if you must know), we had a quick run up the derrick to get the last light over the Firth and the other rigs stretching towards the port of Invergorden. I’ll say it again, how anyone thinks these things look ugly is beyond me. There about 400 Scottish lochs with f-all in them, lets at least keep this one as it is, eh?
Later on, back inside the topside, we discovered the last radio logs of the Transocean Galaxy III.
‘ALL PERSONNEL LEFT RIG 1240 28/4/15. RIG LEFT BLACKED OUT. DEAD SHIPS.’
I rather like that.
Shouts to King H for the good times.
Shouts to Transocean Drilling Corp for the playground.