What it’s like installing the world’s biggest ultra deepwater drilling rigs

Byron Birkbeck has visited 45 countries during last decade

Watching the sunset stretch across Singapore’s skyline is a breathtaking sight that Byron Birkbeck will never forget – and not just because of the warm glow of orange on his face.

Birkbeck (Millwright ’05) enjoyed the view from the deck of a massive semi-submersible offshore drilling rig, Odfjell Stavanger, as it pulled into port after sailing 20 days from a shipyard in China.

The scene was so unusual it stopped even the most well-travelled sailors – aboard a Russian warship – dead in their tracks.

“We’re on this massive yellow cube and they’re on their warship and we’re just taking photos of each other,” recalls Birkbeck. To complete the image, local fighter jets and helicopters buzzed overhead as Singapore’s air force ran drills to mark a national holiday.

“It was just surreal, it’s hard to describe it. It was a really cool day.”

That Singaporean sunset is a favourite among many experiences during Birkbeck’s decade working and living overseas. The NAIT grad manages the installation and commissioning of drilling systems for some of the world’s biggest ultra deepwater rigs, such as the Blue Whale I and II – designed to operate in 3,660 metres of water and drill to depths of 15,000 metres.

These vessels aren’t fixed to the ocean floor like a Hibernia platform, but sail under their own power to wherever they’re deployed for deep sea oil extraction. Blue Whale I mines for flammable ice, a natural gas hydrate found at extreme depths in the South China Sea.

It’s a side of the oil and gas industry Birkbeck didn’t even know existed when he was a millwright apprentice at NAIT where many paths lead to jobs in Alberta’s oil patch (including his own at one point). These floating engineering marvels not only give him the opportunity to work one some of the most advanced systems in the world, they’ve allowed him to chart a career full of global adventure and cultural experiences.

From rural Alberta to South Korea

Byron Birkbeck on a bicycleWorking overseas is far removed from Birkbeck’s rural Alberta roots – he hails from Mayerthorpe, a town of 1,300 people northwest of Edmonton. It’s also a world away from the work camps of Fort McMurray where he found himself working – and not always enjoying himself – during his apprenticeship.

“Everyone [up north] was so money driven. That’s all they talk about – working overtime, where you’ve invested.”

During his off days, Birkbeck would escape through travel, whether for a quick holiday or backpacking through South America. When he was back in Fort McMurray, he met an older man who told stories of working on offshore oil platforms in West Africa and Trinidad.

“I was, like, that’s pretty amazing. I always kind of dreamed about going over there,” he says.

Eventually, the old timer had his fill of travel and offered to put forward Birkbeck’s name the next time an opportunity came up. Next thing he knew, he was on a plane for South Korea in 2009.

From shipyards to open ocean

DSME Daewoo Shipbuilding Maritime Engineering in South KoreaWhen working at giant shipyards in Korea and China, he’s known as a “closer.” Birkbeck oversees crews of 40 workers to ensure equipment is working properly before the massive vessels set sail for deeper waters. Crews are often lifting 400 tonnes of equipment and have capacity to lift up to 1,200 tonnes. The scale is awe-inspiring, but so is the work. They’re the “first-line problem-solvers” who work closely with engineers to troubleshoot systems.

“The equipment is getting bigger, more capable, more advanced, more automated, more safe, but that’s why we are here,” Birkbeck says. “There’s always problems to solve. There’s always an opportunity to learn new technical skills every day.”

“Being from the Prairies, I’m not a big fan of the ocean.”

Life on a giant floating oil rig (Blue Whale vessels are as tall as a 37-storey building with a deck that’s larger than a football field) isn’t for the faint of heart (though Birkbeck doesn’t actually live aboard unless it’s to test equipment in deep water). But when aboard, the accommodations are comparable to an Alberta work camp. “You don’t have a ton of personal space for yourself,” he says, but notes there are gyms, a rec room, movie theatre and internet.

“Being from the Prairies, I’m not a big fan of the ocean,” he laughs.

There’s also opportunities to learn about other people and places. It’s not uncommon to work alongside people from a dozen different countries, who bring their own training, experiences and culture to the job. A mechanic from Scotland requires a different management style than a PLC engineer from Indonesia, he says, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to best leverage their skills. The people are one of the best parts of the job, he says.

“It’s a mixed bag of people so we get to focus on the uniqueness of each other. It beats talking about money.”

Given the cost of the vessels and the fact that most are scheduled to start drilling on a set date to pay back multi-million investments, it can be pressure-cooker work (particularly when oil prices were higher). A missed handover date can cost as much as $500,000 a day.

“You can imagine that’s just a little bit of pressure,” he says.

Life over Seas

More adventures to come

He works 12-hour days for a month straight but then enjoys a full month off. It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s allowed Birkbeck to gain new experiences through travel. He’s visited 45 countries on six continents, from New Zealand to Malaysia to East Africa to Mexico.

When he first started working abroad 10 years ago, dreaming of the next trip would be almost as much fun as the adventure itself, especially during some of the more mundane moments of a month-long work schedule.

“During the first five years, I was travelling at least three months of the year. Sometimes I wouldn’t come home [to Canada] for six months or seven months.”

Whether it’s a motorcycle trip through India or a 4 a.m. sojourn through a Tokyo fish market, Birkbeck hasn't run out of places he wants to visit, though he can now plan his trips on the fly. But sometimes absence – and time – makes the heart grow fonder. The trip planning has become less complicated and he makes more trips home to Alberta to be close to family.

“When you’re 37 [like I am], going to night parties in Thailand might not be the same fun as they were when you’re 18.”

One day, he might feel the pull to come home for good, especially if he settles down and has a family. But even then, he’s just as likely to follow his own path.

“The logical thing to do would be to come home, but at the same time there’s people living abroad all over the world. There’s no rule you have to raise kids where you were raised.”

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