I’ve just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. A truly great book but I’m not going to review it here. Rather its episodic nature put me in mind of a small incident that occurred in the northern Adriatic some years back.
Italian rigs don’t operate on the same level of safety as their counterpart in the North Sea. I don’t know how it is today but around five or more years back, one could forget about safety reporting, meetings or reviews. The job I do has the potential to be highly dangerous with the worst-case scenario of multiple deaths if I get it wrong. That doesn’t really seem to matter though. It was always a struggle to get people to appreciate safety.
The time was 19.35, winter and a dark night. One of the advantages of lax safety is that one could use a mobile phone, with the helideck being the best place for reception. I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a red flare? It was just a glimpse; I couldn’t be sure. Five minutes later there was no doubt. Another flare appeared from the same quarter. Somebody needed help.
I took a bearing and rushed down to the radio operator to report what I had seen. The rig’s crew were Croatian, so while one guy went up on deck to check my story, the radio operator raised the Croatian coastguard. Since the rig was in Italian waters however, we were referred to Rome, headquarters of the Italian coastguard.
Contact was swiftly established. Meanwhile the guy had returned from the helideck and confirmed there was another flare at 19:45. Rome advised they had no units in the area but since the rig had a supply boat on standby, they advised us to send it to investigate. It was time to see the Italian company representative.
The Company Man’s first approach was to ascribe the sightings to fireworks from a nearby town. The rig was out of sight of the coast and the supporting account from the Croatian crewman ruled this out. We had a request from Rome to investigate the flares. The arguments went back and forth but finally the Company Man refused to release the standby vessel to go. What would happen if something happened to the rig while it was away? The weather was good and it was the first time I had ever heard safety being cited for any reason on that rig. In this case however, it was a reason for inaction.
In the grip of anger, I returned defeated to the radio operator and we both sighed and shook our heads. I was on deck to witness a flurry of six flares at 20:00hrs. Then there was no more.
Next day, the weather was beautiful. Last night was just a dream. What could happen on such a glittering calm sea? Certainly no one could be in trouble, no one could die.
So it goes.