Atchafalaya Swamp

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Contemplating Mid-Life Part One


Quite a bit has happened since I last graced these pages, so a little update is in order. You might imagine distractions abound aplenty—the World Cup, and of course the recent arrival of my daughter Alesha.

She’s getting along nicely, thank you, and able to lift up her head bit. At least that’s what my wife tells me. Pretty soon she’ll be able to roll over on her tummy. Don’t know whether I’ll be around for that. I was only home for about a month to “bond” with her, until work has beckoned me back to the swamps of Balikpapan, and that’s where I am now, which brings me to the ills of being an overseas worker being constantly away from one’s family.

It never did bother me much, being away that is. I wasn’t home when my first-born came into this world where my wife had to go the labor room in a taxi. I came home a day later and took-off again for work soon after I drove her back to the house after the required two-day observation period. Of course I made sure there were enough groceries and baby-things before I left. I was lucky I had my mother-in-law come in a few weeks earlier. Especially being in a ‘foreign’ place like Miri, where we had no relatives.

Then seven years down the road came my second boy. I told myself that I had to be in the labor room this time around, meaning I had to be home prior to the anticipated date. I was on a rig in Vietnam at that time. Fortunately the Drilling Superintendent was an old crony from the ExxonMobil days in Terengganu so he could arrange choppers from the rig to shore.

But what was not so fortunate was the weather. The mid-year monsoon came early off the coast of Vietnam that year (El Nino?) so no choppers could be run in the gusting 30-50 knot winds. So there was no choice. A week prior to EDD (estimated time of delivery) was my deadline to be home. So I asked the Superintendent if it was okay to hitch a ride on the supply boat. It was perhaps about 150 km from the rig to the Port of Vung Tau, on the southern tip of Vietnam. He said okay.

Oh boy, was that the worst boat ride of my life! Five-meter swells, 50-knot winds, you name it. The supply vessel looks nothing like a ship. It has a shallow draft, has an open deck to facilitate transfer of large cargo. What it looks like is a huge tennis court sitting a few meters above the high seas.

What it means is with five-meter swells, the deck (and cargo) is constantly awash with seawater with every rise in the swell, which occurs every couple of minutes or so. I was prepared of course. My wallets, passports, tickets were already zip-locked in plastic and will stay in the breast pocket of my coveralls.

The transfer was slated at midnight. I would go down in a personnel transfer basket together with my two offshore bags; a duffel bag with clothes in it and one laptop bag carrying the company’s Dell. The crane operator that was going to pick me up must really be on the ball. He will time the swells so I don’t get awash with rushing seawater on the boat’s deck. The “window of opportunity” when the boat deck is clear would only be about a minute or so. Oh yeah, from the rig level where I was down to the boat’s deck below is about a hundred feet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done plenty of basket transfers before, but in relatively benign weather and in calm seas. And most operators allow basket transfers during daylight hours only. Because of obvious safety reasons like, in a man-overboard situation it’s easier to spot someone if he falls off the basket into the sea.

But here I am attempting the transfer at night, in stormy seas. It broke every rule in the book. But it was a ‘genuine’ emergency because of a promise made to a spouse to be in the labor room. Plus I had a crony superintendent in HQ who was willing to ‘close one eye’. Just as long as I don’t do anything stupid like drop in the sea or something and create an incident that requires SAR. In other words, don’t tell anybody, and please don’t screw up.

But things went wrong the moment crane picked me up. I found out later the crane’s radio ran out of batteries and the operator had to rely on hand signals from the boat’s crew below when he should be communicating by radio directly with the captain. Remember it was night and the spotlight illumination was sketchy at best. I was connected by piece of rope on top of the basket where 50-knot winds blew me around, so I hung tight. He’s got to time it just so or else I will crash on the deck since the deck constantly rises up and down by as much as five meters. Then there’s seawater rushing on deck.

So the crane operator misjudged. I just managed to jump on the deck from the basket so I wouldn’t break my legs. I screamed for the deck crew to grab my bags but there were more concerned about my wellbeing than my bags. In a matter of seconds the sea came rushing up to my knees obscuring everything. My two bags were “swallowed” by the rushing seawater, and for a moment all I could see was just the sea on deck. The bags totally obliterated. Oh-oh I didn’t want to think of the Dell and all its related accessories like adapters, mouse and so on. It wasn’t submerged for long, maybe ten or twenty seconds, and it was in a laptop bag after all. I was more pissed-off because I knew I had to dry my clothes in the hotel after I get in to port.

The journey was horrible you can imagine. What normally took twelve hours now became a sixteenhours. It was also the first time I threw up. And I’ve got considerable “sea-legs” I tell you. Don’t worry said the Chief Mate, because he had just thrown-up too. And he’s got close to twenty years on small vessels like these. It was THAT bad.

I spent a day in Saigon to get my clothes dried prior to flying home. I dared not power up the Dell in case it’s totally fried. When I opened the bag, it didn’t look too bad, no water sloshing around I mean. Just a bit damp, that’s all. But I’ll have to worry about that later. I got a baby to receive.

And that was five years ago.

In case you were wondering, I dried that laptop for a whole day when I got home. So nothing would get shorted at the touch of electricity.

Imagine my surprise when I fired it up and it worked perfectly.

* * *

Right now as I hit mid-life, I value more and more the time I get to spend with my family. Most people take it granted since they see their loved ones on daily basis. Me? I miss the critical moments, like when my first-born started to walk. Or when he first mouthed the syllable ‘Ma-Ma’. These are moments that can never be repeated. Ever.

So with the recent birth of my Alesha, I hope to change a few things. Make some resolutions to enable me to be home more often. Got to talk to my boss, rearrange some schedules.

Don’t know what it really is folks, whether it was the birth of a daughter, or contemplating mortality.

A little bit of both perhaps?