Easy to avoid, easy to get hold ofAt an outpost in the North Sea, 116 oil workers are working close together for two weeks at a time. We joined the seafarers’ chaplain on a visit to Wintershall’s Brage platform.
Around 125 kilometres out at sea, to the west of Bergen, a Sikorsky helicopter circles the Brage oil platform prior to landing. A crew of offshore workers jump out onto the deck. They are ready for two weeks of 12 hour shifts. As they head into the rig, they bump into the team they will be replacing; these are coming up the stairs and are ready to go home for their four weeks off.
Annstein Lothe (62) looks much like the other workers in his orange survival suit, but he is here to do a completely different kind of job. He is the seafarers’ chaplain for Brage and six other platforms in the North Sea.
“My job is mainly about being there for people who spend much of their lives offshore. The special thing about this service is that I am not only a guest in their workplace, but also in their home”, says Lothe, fishing out a ticket from his inside pocket; this shows his cabin and lifeboat number.
“In many ways, I get much closer to people here than in church”.
Chaplain in coveralls
The sun is shining on the Brage field today. From his cabin window on the accommodation module, Annstein Lothe glimpses the Oseberg platforms in the distance: Oseberg A, B and D. Otherwise, it is just a sea of ocean.
“You cannot complain about the view”, he smiles, closing the door of his cabin so that he can go out and do what he likes most of all: meet people. Brage has 116 oil workers on board, divided into day and night shifts. Mechanics, crane operators, drillers, nurses, cleaners and chefs are in full swing all over the platform. For Lothe, this means finding his way along narrow corridors, up and down stairs, past an absolute maze of pipes, valves and wheels. He operates without a regular meeting place, and he does not wear a dog collar.
“I think that it lowers the threshold for openness when I come to them in their workplace. It creates a closeness and a camaraderie, which is also valuable to me”, says Lothe.
He walks around in coveralls like everyone else, with the yellow and blue Wintershall logo on his chest, but wears a helmet bearing the word ‘chaplain’.
“Is that you, Annstein”? calls Ragnar Nordstrøm (51) when the seafarers’ chaplain walks into the mechanical department.
“I almost did not recognise you with your clothes on”.
Both men burst out laughing. Nordstrøm has been working offshore for 21 years, and he has met Lothe many times before. The last time was in the little platform sauna.
Safety on the shelf.
Lothe tries to meet as many people as possible from both shifts during his time on the platform. Sometimes the conversations can be long, and sometimes they are nothing more than ‘nice to see you again’ and ‘see you at dinner’. His tour continues to the control room, what you could call the ‘nerve centre’ of Brage. This is where oil production is monitored and controlled. Lothe has swapped his coveralls for a white shirt bearing the Norwegian Seamen's Mission logo. Platform Manager Øyvind Daae Frøyseth (53) appears from behind a row of screens.
“Nice to see you again”, says Lothe, with a wave. Frøyseth has been working offshore for more than 25 years, and has been Brage’s Platform Manager since 2015. He has nothing but positive things to say about the chaplain’s role in this high-tech environment.
“It means a lot to us out here that Annstein comes to visit. Working in the North Sea means long, hard working days, cut off from family and your typical social life. It can be tough. On top of that, there is a huge range of different jobs and professions, and everyone has to work together if it is all going to succeed. The tiniest mistake can have major consequences on people and the environment.
“On Brage, we give health, safety and the environment a very high priority. There are a lot of things that can go wrong on a platform, which is why it is important for us to keep our employees healthy, in body and mind. If you have personal problems, and are carrying around baggage from home or work, and have no one to talk to about things, it is easy to lose your concentration in a work situation where you have to be absolutely focused. We very much appreciate having a seafarers’ chaplain who can listen to our thoughts and concerns about issues that might be difficult for us to talk to our colleagues or employer about”, says Frøyseth.
The next stop on his tour is the galley. Hungry oil workers have just been served meatballs, turkey breast and fish for dinner. Chef Stine Rotneim (33) is having a well deserved break.
“It is really lovely when Annstein comes to visit. He is a person I can talk to about anything”.
She is in no doubt that the presence of the seafarers’ chaplain on board is a big plus for the team.
“I hope and believe that I can offer some relief on board, that you feel that you can talk confidentially to me about issues that are personal or difficult. Although I also see that many of you are good colleagues for each other, and you do the important job of looking after each other”, was Lothe’s response.
“That is one of the many reasons why I am happy here. After all, Brage is my second home”, she says.
One floor above the galley, in the big, bright lounge with sea views (what else?), some oil workers are sitting around a table. Annstein helps himself to a cup of coffee and sits down with them. There is a relaxed atmosphere and the talk is about which is best: day shift or night shift? Opinion is divided, but there is one thing they can agree on:
“Two weeks go by more quickly when you are happy”.
The helicopter accident.
The crisis in the oil industry has hit many companies and oil workers hard in the last few years. More than 40,000 jobs have disappeared since 2014. However, there have been some glimmers of light in the statistics from the last six months, and that is a natural topic of conversation when the seafarers’ chaplain comes to visit. So is the tragic helicopter accident off the coast of Turøy in April last year, when 13 people lost their lives on their way home from Gullfaks B. An accident which still affects the entire industry.
Several oil workers have gathered in one of Brage’s meeting rooms. Annstein Lothe is often asked to hold courses and talks when he is on board. This time the focus is on people’s experiences after the Turøy accident. After a brief introduction from the Platform Manager, the seafarers’ chaplain takes over.
“I am not talking about this just to dig up bad memories. I want to focus on the follow-up work that the oil company has done, and all the work that has gone into making sure that the relatives are looked after. We have to focus on the good work which is being done, which is helping to reassure our loved ones when they think about accidents like this”, says Lothe, who was on the boat which took the relatives out to Turøy two days after the accident.
The audience is attentive. Several people wipe away tears while Lothe talks.
“It was a brutal accident which affects everyone who works offshore, including we seafarers’ chaplains who also travel in these helicopters. It affects everyone onshore who has family offshore, who think that it could have been my husband, my wife or my child”, says Lothe.
After the talk, the seafarers’ chaplain continues with his round. Outside the gym, he stops and says hello to two oil workers who are just about to start the night shift. It is now evening on the platform, but here the work goes on around the clock, 365 days a year.
In a few days, the helicopter will be landing with a new crew, taking another batch of people back to the mainland. Lothe’s next port of call is his home in Ellingsøy, just outside Ålesund. Then he will go on to visit Sleipner, Draupner, Gudrun, Gina Krog, Draugen and Alvheim. Over the course of the year, the seafarers’ chaplain makes a lot of short trips offshore. He tends to stay three to four days in each place. And he has been doing this since his first North Sea trip in 2008.
“It is a privilege to travel out to the platforms and be part of the crew. The offshore chaplain service is provided jointly by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission and the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, but it is important to emphasise that I do not have to report to management. My job is to be here for everyone to talk to, and to be easy to get hold of, and easy to avoid. I am there on the oil workers’ terms. That is what makes my job so meaningful”.
The Norwegian Church Abroad’s magazine “Hjem” no. 6/17