John Tennant talks about his life working in the Great Yarmouth offshore industry
The early days
I left school at seventeen and my first job was at Fellows & Company in Great Yarmouth. I started in the general office and from there I worked in stores control, picking up tickets issued to the various sections in the shipyard – the joiners, painters, shipwrights, and loft people. The tickets would be collated and put into the relevant ledger to the ship being serv
iced in the dry dock at the time. We built and repaired vessels in the dry dock. Job tickets were collated so when jobs were finished or the ship was built, they had an idea of the actual cost. I also helped out in the wages section so my jobs were all involved in cost analysis. In the shipyard I got very friendly with John in the stores, Bill, one of the painters, and Jimmy, he was a carpenter. We were on our first holiday abroad, walking along the beach, and who should be walking towards me but Jimmy, and I thought, this is ridiculous, I’ve come five hundred miles to a foreign place for a holiday and the first person I see is somebody I work with.
Fellows was a subsidiary of FT Everard & Sons of London who would send their ships in for repair. We also built three F-class coasters, the Fixity, Festivity and the Frivolity – small vessels, four men operation. I had to take the plans of these new ships to the Department of Trade in London. I had a day off to go to the Head Office of Everard’s in London and then to the Board of Trade. It was very interesting. I saw somewhere different and even going down on the train on my own was new to me.
Fellows also converted one of the ships which we called the Yellow Peril. Some of the Everard ships were all black but others were yellow and were especially named after members of the Everard family, like the William J or the Ethel or the Frederick T. One was converted from a normal cargo ship to a cement carrier and when it was finished she sailed off to New Zealand. When the ship had been converted Miss Ethel came to see what she looked like, after all that work. I think they were hoping to do one or two like that but I think they only actually did the one. I got friendly with the captain on one of the ships and he said he was on a run from Casablanca to Kings Lynn and every time he got off the East coast he was doing nine knots forward and eight knots back because the tide was stronger than the ship could sail. Other skippers agreed. The vessels weren’t up to date so they had problems going against the tide most of the time.
At the beginning of 1965, when the offshore industry was starting up in Yarmouth, I started working as a shipping and customs clerk for Brown & Root UK Limited and George Wimpey & Company Limited. This was eventually abbreviated to Brown & Root-Wimpey Limited. Life was absolutely hectic. The offshore industry didn’t keep to a strict nine to five hours. If there was a supply boat in you had to go full throttle so you never knew what time you would be finishing. There were two of us in the department. We had to get all the papers off the ship and report them to Customs and Excise. The manifest went to Customs and to the oil or gas company. We made about five copies of this manifest, all handwritten, or typed if you could get big enough carbon paper to go in, because they were huge sheets. Eventually they slimmed them down and you could use standard A4. The information included how much fuel, water and bulk chemicals the ship had on board.
We had to decide how many trucks were wanted, when and where they were needed, and then you had all the paperwork to clear the goods for Customs. The offshore industry was new to everybody, even Customs. We had a set of rules from Customs – a massive book with all the details. If there was something out of the ordinary you had to phone up the local customs officer, get his opinion or he would come down and have a look. While one of us was doing that, the other was getting ready to load the ships with what they needed back offshore. Vehicles came down, filled with fuel, water and chemicals, in bulk as well as bags. They didn’t have containers yet. Everything was done on four foot square pallets, shrink-wrapped in polythene. The crane lifted them on to the decks where they were stacked neatly so that they didn’t move when the ship came out. Some pipes were anything up to thirty foot long so there had to be room for them to be put alongside. Occasionally, you got a non-standard item so you’d be juggling with the mate on the ship as to where he actually wanted it placed. A lot of items had to be placed on top of the pallets – the only space they could secure them to the deck, on the side of the ship on the rails – hoping that they didn’t get a rough sea when everything moved, which quite often happened. You would load a ship with pallets and chemicals, the ship would sail, get out to the rig and then they wouldn’t want half the cargo. They’d take off what they wanted, back would come the cargo and all the pallets would be upside down, on their sides, broken, and you had to get them ashore and get the deck clean so you could start putting fresh stuff on. It was a nightmare because the crane could only lift one pallet at a time to position them. If they wanted a double stack they did sometimes manage to pick up two at a time and put them on. All this went on before the implementation of containers which helped considerably and made life a lot easier for the crews working on the boat. You’d have thirty, forty pallets, all loose, sitting on the deck, a heavy sea swelling and they were moving. At the stern end of the ship the crew would be trying to get the cargo off before they could bring the other back. The ship berthed end on to the rig so we started, side by side, and everything had to be pulled towards the stern of the ship so the crane on the rig could begin to lift the stuff off. Everyone was very touchy. If that cargo shifted they needed to move fairly quickly because you couldn’t be sure where it was going to go.
Often, before the ship sailed, you’d send it down to one of the other berths in the port because different companies tendered for different materials such as mud or cement. You tried to work it that you’d send it up the river to pick up whatever contract they’d got, before they came to us to be unloaded from the deck. The company had to supply the crane, the stevedores and the trucks so you were constantly moving backwards and forwards. There was competition between the companies further up the river, as to how many supply ships you had done in that particular week, or whether you’d got this contract or they’d got that contract. It was competitive but you’d also try and help each other out.
The American companies worked in a completely different way to the British. It was like, get the job done and never mind the cost, while the British management was concerned about the cost before the job was done. But it didn’t work like that. Despite the cost, all requests for equipment were acted on to avoid the rig having to be shut down. If they wanted something urgently, depending on the size of the piece of equipment, you could helicopter it out but it would cost anything up to five, six hundred pounds an hour, to fly a helicopter. Two or three times I’ve sent the equipment out, underslung under a helicopter. You’d have a call saying ‘This must come out. Undersling it under a helicopter’. You put it on the back of a truck, go down to the heliport, go out onto the field, sit there while the helicopter came in, hovered over there, dropped a hook down. We used to get the people from the heliport to do that – hook it underneath. Once I sat in the truck while they did that and I never moved. You see the truck bouncing up and down, side to side, and the downdraught is absolutely incredible, you can’t believe the amount of downdraught there is underneath the helicopter when it’s just hovering and you suddenly see the piece suddenly lift off, off the back of the truck and you see it underslinging over there, it goes flying off and you think, hope that wire’s strong enough to hold it because if it drops it’s going to make a heck of a hole in somebody’s garden.
Once I had a call, at about eleven o’clock one night, requesting a helicopter to take an urgent piece of equipment out to the rig. The helicopter was based in Beccles and we used North Denes heliport on Caister Road. I was sitting in the office waiting for the piece of equipment. I think it was a stainless steel bar, about three feet long. That’s all they wanted. When it arrived I did the paperwork, got the truck with the driver, drove down to the heliport where the helicopter was waiting. The pilot couldn’t believe it was all for a three foot stainless steel bar. It took him about an hour and a half round trip. Everybody’s talking about (this) piece of equipment. About three days later, a boat comes in with a load of equipment and I thought, something looks familiar on this, and there’s that piece of bar. It came back. They didn’t want it. They’d found an alternative but it was too late. But if they wanted it, it was urgent. Sometimes you thought, what a waste – all that helicopter time and manpower.
On another instance, the rig, built over in Clydebank, came all the way round the coast, and they stuck it in the Wash, off Kings Lynn. They said ‘It’s got to be cleared to get out into the North Sea. You’d better go’. I went with one of the guys from the drilling contractors. He drove me all the way to Kings Lynn, got on a pilot boat, out to the rig in the middle of the Wash, onto the rig, and the guy on the rig says ‘Why are you here?’ ‘Because people have been saying you’re inside the three mile limit.’ ‘No, I’m not inside the three mile limit. I’m just outside the three mile limit.’ ‘But they said you’ve got to be cleared because of all this cargo we’re transporting to you from Yarmouth, on the supply boat.’ ‘No I’m not’. ‘Fair enough, I’m not going to argue.’ So back I get, back on the pilot boat, back into Kings Lynn, back in the car, back into Yarmouth. The following morning I went in, said ‘He said he’s outside the three mile limit’ ‘Is he? Oh.’ So I had to go to the Customs and have a word with them and they said, ‘That’s a bit of a problem isn’t it? Because you’ve been shunting all this material out ready for the rig, ready to go for when she spuds in her first well. I’ll have to phone Kingsbean House to get a ruling on this’. (Laughs) The local landing officer phones me up. ‘Yeah, we’ll get round it, you’ll have to do a composite manifest of everything that’s gone out on the boats over that period, and then we’ll work it and we’ll agree it so that everything is right, so there’s no problems. So that when the rig goes, you can do it’. The anchor handler, which is separate to a normal supply boat, is specially built, similar to a supply boat but it’s got a towing winch. Instead of a big deck area, it’s got a small deck area and a towing winch for pulling the rigs and also putting the anchors in place when the rigs and the drill ships want it. So he said ‘When the anchor handler goes out we’ll call that all this manifest, plus the rig, as part of the ship’. (Laughs) So this little boat got a manifest with about a hundred items on it, plus a rig, getting towed out from the Wash to its actual offshore location in the southern North Sea, but these were the things we had to do.
Design development in supply boats and rigs
Things changed in the 1980s when the ships got more proficient. When we first started some of the supply boats were of American design, made for the Gulf of Mexico and they were flat-bottomed. They went out to sea and half the time the water sprayed over the deck of the ship ruining some of the cargo. The Dutch Smit-Lloyd vessels were beautifully designed, and the English started building supply boats specifically for the job. One of theirs had a bridge like a threepenny piece, eight-sided, and you thought, what on earth is that? The standard ones had front, sides and back. We also had French, German and Norwegian boats. There were also different types of offshore rigs. Some had three legs and some four. Mr. Louie, unusually, had twelve legs, and the Sea Gem was a barge with six legs. The drill ship, the Glomar 4, actually floated. It had a derrick in the middle and underneath a big, what they called, moon pool where they took the plug out and drilled through the ship itself. On the rigs they had the accommodation on one side and the drilling section on the other side, over the end of the rig, into the seabed.
Some of the characters on the boats were right comedians. The Signal Service had been operating up in Hartlepool and she came down when the rig transferred from the middle part of the North Sea to the southern North Sea. The company set up an office on the marine base where we were. I went on board and I thought, we’ve got foreigners here, but they were actually Geordie and I couldn’t understand a word they said. I mean they were nice guys, they really were but that was a different language. One of the boats I used to go on, I used to step on board, if it was early morning, just after breakfast and cook was there. He said ‘Do you want a cup of tea’, I said ‘Yes’, ‘Standard NATO?’ ‘Standard NATO? What are you talking about?’ ‘Milk and two sugars.’ So every time I went on there, ‘Here you are, your standard NATO’.(laughs) They used to come out with real gems. Some of the rig managers were brilliant. You were dealing with them on a daily basis. Depending on the depth of the well they were drilling, they were either with you for three, four months, testing for, probably another month or two, so you got used to them. Some of the guys had nicknames. One of them was Les – ‘Get the job done.’ That was it. That was all he said. ‘Get the job done.’
It was an enjoyable, busy hectic life. Some days were normal, nine to five, with an hour for lunch which was lovely. When I first started at the marine base they had a minibus so you could go into town to do a bit of shopping. So long as you were back for one o’clock ready to start your shift again, all well and good. The base was manned twenty four hours so if they got a call after hours saying that the supply boat was going to be in x time and she wants to be turned round straightaway, you’d know that the rest of your evening and possibly your night gone. I’d get home about three, four o’clock in the morning and be back in again at eight o’clock. Between the two of us we’d alternate the calls by the week.
The introduction of containers
One of the biggest changes in the industry was the gradual introduction of containers in the mid ‘70s to ‘80s. A number of companies ordered different size containers. Initially I think the rates were about three or four pounds a day for a container, but of course they were always on long-term. Once the companies had got these containers they kept them on long-term hire, with the exception of the really big ones which they used to get as and when required. It made a heck of a difference. You had four foot, six foot, eight foot, ten foot and twenty foot containers and ten foot half heights, which is half a container in which they could put pipework and anything that couldn’t go in a normal box container, so everything was containerised. When they first got them, they forgot that if you suddenly opened the door and the ship had been rolling, a pallet was liable to fall out and land on the poor guy who was opening the container, so they designed a safety net which they put it in. When they were building a fixed platform to pump the gas ashore they had floating rigs attached to the platforms and supply boats, which were taking them out. Everything was in containers, didn’t matter what it was, it always came in containers. We had to plan where we wanted these containers because of the different sizes and different weights. They were fairly hefty things to move. Everything still had to be at the stern of the ship, even with the platform. They could moor alongside but generally, on all jack-up rigs, they had to be stern first. The drill ships could be side by side because they could be anchored. The rigs had to be positioned such that it was operational and beneficial for the supply boats for discharging or unloading cargo because of the tides and wind and weight conditions. Sometimes they couldn’t moor so they had a twelve hour wait before they could do the necessary.
The introduction of containers didn’t really change our working day. We still had to get vehicles in to pick up the containers and take them back to the respective companies. A trailer is forty foot long and eight foot wide so you’d only get one or two containers on a vehicle. You might have six, eight or ten vehicles waiting to pick up the containers and the same when they were delivering. The lorries would queue up to get to the quayside to be offloaded by the crane operator. Life was a lot easier for the crews. From the bridge they could see the container numbers on the top of the container as well as on the side so the captain or the mate could call down and say ‘Right, we want container XYZ or ABC next’. There were also containers that compacted the waste. Before, all the waste and rubbish from offshore used to come back in an empty container so the contractor had to get people in to empty the container and take the rubbish to the tips.
Health and Safety in the offshore industry
Towards the end of my time in the industry Health and Safety regulations were brought in. Initially you had safety boots and probably hats, I can’t remember whether I had a hat or not. I did later on, and safety boots and you had protective suits for the weather, especially if you were loading a boat at night and it was throwing it down with rain and freezing cold. You didn’t want to be standing there in an ordinary mac. You always had toe-tector boots and safety hat. I’ve still got the one I had when I was working. The boots came in very handy, very good for gardening and I’ve got a couple of coveralls. The English always said overalls but the Americans said coveralls and, you thought, what on earth are they talking about? Offshore they had to be flame-retardant and they had special colours, not just your plain average blue, some of them were red, especially for offshore. They had had accidents on the rigs so it was a good thing. A lot changed when Health and Safety regulations were brought it in, both on and offshore. Never go on a supply boat without the gangways out. I knew to my cost. I did that once (laughs), and I never did it after that. I always used to make sure the gangway was out because you’ve got the ship there and you‘ve got the quay and if the ship’s moving up and down and you’re trying to judge it and if you mis-time it, of course, you finish up between up the boat and the quay which I did. It cost me about a dozen stitches in my chin. I hit the end of the quay wall, which is not a good thing to do so from then you always made sure that the gangway was out. If the gangway wasn’t out you didn’t go on the ship. That was laid down by our boss. He said, ‘Right, you do not go on the ship if they don’t put the gangway up, it’s as simple as that. If there’s any problem refer it back to them’, so after that we never did, we always used to go on, on the gangway. One way or another you’re either trying to climb up a mountain or you’re sliding down a slope so to a certain extent you have to use your own initiative.
Working in supplies and surveying
I worked for Wimpey for about fifteen years and then decided to have a change. I worked for a Dutch company for a while. They had a base in Holland and a lot of our equipment used to come over on the ferries. All the supply companies had their own little niche markets: diamond drill bits, rock bits, downhaul cutting tools, tools that either straightened the well or bent the well. At least you weren’t working a twenty-four hour day. Every now and again you might get a call but it wasn’t as common as it was in the early days. I did miss those days, but when my daughter was younger I didn’t see her all that time, I was working. I think one year, other than having normal holidays, I actually got Christmas Day off. I used to insist I had Christmas Day off but then I’d have to work nearly all Boxing Day just to spite, (laughs). I also worked for a subsidiary of George Wimpey called Wimpol Ltd. They did a lot of survey work and rig positioning. They used to have locations along the Norfolk coast and we put beacons there and when the rig was moving they would get a fix from these, as well as from the satellites. That’s another thing that came in, satellite navigation. The rig could then get a position within about three, four metres of where they actually wanted to spud the well. In the early days, the area was a ten mile square that they were allocating when they first issued the blocks in 1965. Ten miles, that’s like half the way between here and Acle and you’ve got an area ten mile to put that rig in. They had specific locations in that area, where they felt there was the possibility of finding a gas pocket. When they found the gas pocket they would put the rig about two or three miles away from that location and drill another well to see what the extent of that particular field would be.
From containers to trucks
When Wimpol downsized the Yarmouth office and moved everything to Aberdeen, I went to work for a UK company, running trucks backwards and forwards to Holland and Germany. We would load the trucks up on a Monday, ship it over on the ferries Monday night so it’s there Tuesday, Wednesday, and then the truck would come back on the Thursday night boat so it got back in on the Friday so that we could get the stuff back. If there was anything for Aberdeen we could get it on the overnight trucks on Friday nights so it would be there for Saturday. That was mainly oil field related so that was a bit different. You had to make sure you’d got all the correct documentation from abroad – whether the cargo was in free circulation or under control. If it was under control it had to go into a bonded warehouse, and that’s what happened in 1965. All the equipment that came for the rigs had to be stock-controlled so every time they had a new piece of equipment, it was given a reference number, a description and you had to log it so that you knew exactly where it was. When it went out it was shipped out on documentation, came back in and you would book it back in under a different note, so you were keeping a constant record on stock cards. When we first started, the books were very cumbersome. It drove you mad looking back through all the pages for where that piece of equipment came in, so we developed a system on stock cards, so that you could have a record of the date it came in and the date it went out. Customs would come down and cross-reference all the paperwork that we’d produced. We used a similar system with the trucks because if the item was under control on the continent, you had to bring it into the UK under control. It was a lot more relaxed than the ‘60s and ‘70’s. By then Customs had cut back on the red tape. Otherwise, the amount of paperwork you finished up with, in those early days, just to get stuff backwards and forwards was a nightmare. In the ‘80s life was a lot easier but it wasn’t the same.
John Tennant (b. 1945) was interviewed in Gorleston for WISEArchive on 18th July 2016