Weeks at sea, close camaraderie and a good salary; what it’s like to work in the offshore industry
January 18, 2022 the article below about working in the offshore was published in NRC. AYOP brought journalist Jette Pellemans into contact with employees of our members Oceanwide and Neptune Energy. A great publication that draws attention to the offshore sector and working in the offshore. Read below about the lives of employees who spend weeks at sea.
The offshore industry: away from home for up to months at a time, working seven days a week, exhausted at the end. On the upside, a high salary and a fraternal relationship with colleagues. Four men share their experiences working in the offshore sector.
The moment his working day at sea is done, Guido Hartmann (42) takes his phone and facetimes with the home front: his wife and four children. One evening, some 18 months ago now, the videocall took on a serious note. His nine-month-old son had a high fever, and Hartmann actually saw his child convulsing on screen. At attack of some sort, but what? His wife was there, emergency services were called, but Hartman was some 300 kilometres away… He operates robots for wind energy company C-Ventus and was working on an offshore wind turbine farm in Northern Germany.
“I had the decision-making authority so decided to turn the boat around and head for home. I knew it was a six-hour sail to Eemshaven and another two hours by taxi to get there. They were some really stressful hours I can tell you.” Thankfully everything turned out well. After various checks and a night at the hospital, his son was allowed to go back home. Three days later, Hartmann was back at sea.
“An office job would make me deeply unhappy, and I don’t know if my marriage would survive me being home every day.”
Guido Hartmann, drives underwater robots
Although he doesn’t like to reflect on moments like this, Hartmann accepts the disadvantages of ‘offshore life’. “If someone knows of a job that is equally as adventurous, with the same amount of action and freedom but around the corner from home, I’d consider it. But an office job would make me deeply unhappy, and I don’t know if my marriage would survive me being home every day. My wife and I both appreciate our freedom so this job is for now our best match.”
Life of extremes
The Netherlands has always been well represented in the offshore industry. Last year, the sector was good for some 9.5 billion euros and employed nearly 30,000 people. As well as the oil platforms on the North Sea there’s the wind turbines and transport over sea. The work has a reputation for being heavy but very well-paid. While wages used to be sky-high according to the interviewees, today they’re around two to four times above average. And in almost all cases, the same wages continue onshore too.
The ‘offshore life’ is one of extremes. Either you’re working seven days a week in a small space with almost exclusively male colleagues, surrounded by endless seas, or you’re off for a period of two, four or even ten consecutive weeks and able to go on holiday, devote time to your hobbies or be an active part of your family… Only to then once again disappear off to sea for weeks on end.
Chiel Suers (56) from Den Helder is used to it all. He hadn’t even turned 18 when he made his first sea journey as a sailor. “I loved it from the get-go. I earned some serious money and flew back and forth to the platform on a helicopter – what else could a young man want?”
He is currently working as a ship engineer on a research vessel owned by the NIOZ institute on the Dutch Wadden island of Texel. Even during his weeks off Suers can’t stay away and does jobs for Oceanwide Personnel Services, an offshore employment agency.
Back home in Den Helder, he lives with his wife and 19-year-old daughter. “When my daughter was young she used to ask me why I was leaving when other fathers were usually home for dinner. I would explain to her that later I’d be home for two weeks on the trot, take her to school and put her to bed every day. And as soon as her bike became too small we’d be able to afford a new one thanks to daddy’s work.”
Suers’ wife is from the Philippines, where they have an entirely different view of offshore life. “Many of the men work at sea and are sometimes away for as long as two years so my six-week absence is no problem for her.” His wife raised their daughter fulltime for 12 years, and started working again part-time as a homecare nurse some seven years ago.
Not all relationships can cope with work in the offshore sector. Bram Heikoop (28), maritime officer for Jumbo Maritime (a company involved in heavy transport over sea), saw his relationship end last March. The fact that he spends periods of ten weeks from home was one of the reasons for the break-up. “It isn’t the most attractive job for a partner, I must admit. You have to be quite independent yourself and have your own life and friends. I had a girlfriend who was quite dependent on me and that just didn’t work.”
For now, Heikoop is enjoying his adventures at sea, learning how to be a leader, and broadening his horizons by seeing different countries and cultures. Should he wish to start a family at some point, he wouldn’t want to combine it with the offshore life. “I saw a good friend of mine who had been onboard for two months. Arriving home he was startled by how much his son had grown in the meantime. I don’t know if that’s something I’d want.”
Being away for weeks on end isn’t a relationship killer in all cases. The wife of Ferry Edelaar (48) sometimes jokes at the end of his break period that it’s about time he went back onboard. Edelaar is head of operational management on a North Sea platform run by offshore gas producer Neptune Energy. Two weeks on are followed by two weeks off in the Frisian town of Bolsward. “It’s quite heavy for my wife – all or nothing. After two weeks home, everyone is happy when I head back out. I always say I’m returning to my ‘other family’.”
The days at work have a fixed pattern. The alarm goes off at ten to six in the morning and his 12-hour shift starts not much later – from seven to seven. He then uses the treadmill and rowing machine for half an hour, has a bite to eat, watches the news, calls his wife and heads back to bed at ten. “Not everyone is suited to this rhythm, but I enjoy it. I like working with schedules and structure.”
In contrast, Guido Hartmann’s days with underwater robots are extremely varied and he never really knows when he might have to take the helm. Hartmann may be called today to head out tomorrow. It may be near Vlissingen for a week, or six weeks in Libya or Taiwan. For a ‘super high-energy person’ like Hartmann this variation is welcome. His wife doesn’t have a paid job and is therefore flexible enough to adapt to his unpredictable rhythm, although they do have discussions on occasions. “She says that everything revolves around my job’, and that’s true. But my wife also understands the benefits as my salary easily supports our family. At the same time, she’d like to have her own career and that can indeed be frustrating for her.”
“Travel is precisely why I love this job. I’m working and travelling the world at the same time.”
Bram Heikoop, maritime officer
For maritime officer Bram Heikoop the daily schedule is somewhat different. His employer Jumbo Maritime transports heavy cargo such as wind turbine parts from A to B. His last trip was from Northern France to Australia. “Once we set sail, our days follow a certain pattern. My first shift is from 12 to 4 in the morning. It’s known as a dog watch and is traditionally the second officer’s job. This is followed by a block from 9 to 12 which mainly involves safety checks, and later from 14.00 to 16.00. It’s not an easy rhythm, but you get the hang of it soon enough.”
After a trip of some eight weeks and delivery of the cargo, his term is done. The latest job saw Heikoop return via Indonesia and Vietnam before flying home from Singapore. “Covid has made it more difficult, but travel is precisely why I love this job. I’m working and travelling the world at the same time.”
Taking each other into account
And all that time, the men are onboard with their colleagues around the clock. Ferry Edelaar says this means taking each other’s needs into account. “Everyone is a professional. You discuss who showers first, leave each other alone if someone requires a moment by themselves; these are the unwritten rules.”
“You discuss who showers first, leave each other alone if someone requires a moment by themselves; these are the unwritten rules.”
Ferry Edelaar, gas platform worker
On the other side, there is the fraternity that grows onboard. “I once saw a colleague notified that his son had died in an accident. Those are the moments you never forget. We supported as best we could and quickly got him a helicopter home. Dozens of colleagues attended the funeral.”
Bram Heikoop initially had some issues being together fulltime, especially with men that he didn’t get along with so well. “Harsh words are no exception in this world and that got to me at first. I thought I was doing something wrong. Now I know that any friction should be addressed as you’re bound to have a run-in again.”
Back home, all interviewees indicate they’re knocked out for two or three days. Sleeping, recovering from the many days’ work without much privacy. After that there’s plenty of time for hobbies and DIY.
Chiel Suers was never one for sitting still anyway, so he’s ready to go again after just a week’s rest. If he isn’t doing short assignments for Oceanwide, Suers helps a colleague building a conservatory or researching which fish are ideal for his gas barbecue, as the Filipino crew taught him. “And whatever I do I keep getting paid. My colleagues and I are still amazed by the job we have sometimes!”
Photo: Maritime officer Bram Heikoop is at times away from home for longer periods: “It’s not the most attractive job for a partner, I must admit.” Photo credits Merlijn Doomernik