It’s a certain type of person who is prepared to work on an offshore platform in the middle of the ocean off West Africa for 1 month at a time without a break. But at least you typically get 1 month off after every month at work to compensate. Blakey is heading back to work for his four weeks on the platform in January 2020, flying from Switzerland (where he lives with his girlfriend Sarah) via Addis Ababa, when he notices a group of Asian passengers wearing masks. Blakey isn’t yet carrying a mask on him, but he is starting to think that perhaps it might come in handy. On the transit bus a Western bloke, mask around his neck, has also noticed the group and suddenly pulls his mask up over his nose and mouth, clearly assuming that the group is from China and therefore probably carrying this Chinese virus.
Over the next four weeks, Blakey’s offshore crew curiously checks the global Covid numbers during nightshift, more out of a distant interest than a belief that it might impact them personally. The world seems like another planet when you are isolated out on the platform. Switzerland doesn’t even identify its first positive case until the month is up and Blakey is on his way home. Within a few days however 1 case has become 8 – after all, they do share a border with Italy which is the first country in Europe where Covid really takes off.
For his month off, Blakey and Sarah have arranged a vacation to the US, road-tripping around the South-West before finishing with the Indian Wells tennis tournament in Palm Springs (the primary purpose of their trip, both of them massive tennis fans). The night before they are due to leave, Blakey, a lover of live music as well as tennis, has booked them tickets to a Sam Fender concert in Zurich. But just days before the concert, a cap is put on the number of people permitted in closed venues and the concert is consequently cancelled. It’s mildly irritating as well as disappointing – why are they cancelling concerts when there are only 8 cases? Sadly, it turns out to be just the first of many live concerts Blakey will miss in the coming year.
Unfazed by the number of Covid cases now in the US, Sarah and Blakey arrive in a slightly subdued Las Vegas. The guy at the hire car office goes on and on about Covid but seems to be somewhat behind with his assessment, “it’s as if this is some sort of pandemic happening!” It’s easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world as they drive through the iconic red rock scenery of South-West USA. They hike Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, gripping the chains on the narrow slopes towards the top, and Blakey, while acknowledging the immediate risk of potentially falling, wonders idly how many 100’s of people have touched those same chains potentially spreading Covid. The drive towards San Diego is fun, but with about a week to go they receive news that the tennis tournament has been cancelled. Deflated, they still head to Palm Springs. The intended venue is completely devoid of any buzz or excitement. Standing there, as a lone security guard takes their photo, they both somehow know this is not going to be the year they thought it would.
Their return flight is soon cancelled and they are moved to one with a different route. Flights seem to be cancelling all over the world and there is a risk that they will end up stuck in the US. With the tennis tournament cancelled as well as their return flight, there is no real reason to stick around for an extra few days, so they call the airline and after sitting on hold for over an hour, manage to change their flight to a few days earlier. During transit in Chicago, Blakey hands over his passport at check-in and is informed that he won’t be able to board the flight as Europe is only accepting Europeans. Uncomprehending, his heart stops for a second before he remembers that he has inadvertently handed over his Australian passport rather than his British one. He corrects his error and is allowed to pass through. Should he have been denied boarding, he and Sarah would have been faced with the prospect of going their separate ways – Blakey having no alternative but to return to Australia, and Sarah, on her own, back to Switzerland, for who knows how long.
By the time they arrive back in Switzerland, the airport in West Africa where Blakey works has also closed, so he will not be able to return to the platform a week later as scheduled. Switzerland too has announced its own lockdown and the Starbucks where Sarah is a manager has been shut. After 9 years maintaining their relationship long distance, first between Australia and Switzerland, and more recently between Switzerland and West Africa, they are suddenly thrown together in a single bedroom apartment without any definitive endpoint. It’s rather a refreshing change from their usual time-dictated routine, and they adapt to their new living situation comfortably: enjoying their time together, the absence of pressure to work, absence of a deadline. Blakey accompanies Sarah to Starbucks on a couple of occasions, eerily situated within a now mostly empty shopping centre. As manager it is Sarah’s responsibility to ensure the store continues to meet hygiene standards even while not operating. A hopeful couple approaches, eager for a caramel macchiato and Sarah has to convey that no, they aren’t in fact open.
With Blakey stranded at home, his rotation partner (or “back-to-back”), remains stuck on the platform; after expecting to be at work for just 4 weeks he will now be there for who knows how long. Blakey is able to provide partial support remotely, but the reality is that the work is hands-on and there’s a limit to what he can do from his laptop. They all know that the company can’t keep these guys living on the platform forever, so logically it is just a matter of time before they figure out a way to bring them in and out.
The company does in fact band together with other petroleum companies and contractors in West Africa to arrange a charter flight to bring people home and others back to work. Blakey, ready to relieve his back-to-back, flies from Zurich to London in June, gazing at the empty departure boards in mostly empty airports. He stays in London for two nights, sticking to his hotel room as much as possible, only really venturing out for food and a jog. He jogs past a café close to the airport, which appears to have converted to more of a pub than a café (despite the fact that pubs are officially closed) judging by the number of people drinking beers out the front.
The charter flight is full of petroleum industry workers crammed on top of each other in the economy section. It’s quite a change from the last few months of minimal human contact, however Blakey is not overly worried given he will be required to quarantine for 14 days anyway. Late in the evening, they arrive at Malabo airport (not often an enjoyable experience) and are made to stand shoulder to shoulder, sweating inside the sweltering building. The airport has not seen regular flights for a few months now and it seems like the customs officials are perhaps not quite ready for them – it takes even longer than normal to get through and their passports are unexpectedly confiscated for the duration of their quarantine. People are getting onto the wrong buses for transfer back to the compound – it’s a shitshow.
Blakey and the rest of the crew must complete 14 days quarantine on compound before they are allowed onto the platform. The company has been at pains to protect the safety of those working offshore in order to avoid a cruise-ship-type situation. It’s vital that they don’t see any positive cases out there. The platform is where the money is made, so if it becomes contaminated, it will be a disaster. Quarantine housing has been set up for the offshore workers consisting of a single bed, bathroom with lukewarm shower and small living area. Meals are delivered 3 times per day, and they have been provided a microwave for reheating if needed. A small scaffolded area 2 metres by 3 metres has been erected outside each door which can be used for loud conversations with fellow quarantiners or enjoying a few socially distant beers. It’s okay, but the bright lights from the generator outside the window, along with an excess of food and insufficient physical activity, are making it difficult to sleep.
Their back-to-backs have been out on the platform for a good few months without reprieve, and now it’s Blakey’s turn. Out on the platform for extended periods with pretty much nothing to do but work, go to the gym and watch TV will take its toll – there is a good reason why rotations are normally limited to 4 weeks. Blakey and the crew find ways to maintain morale, setting workout challenges and holding trivia nights. He’s out there for a total of 72 days in the end; 92 since he’s been home. 89 since he saw a female in person. He’s definitely ready to get home.
Things have progressed since that first quarantine and subsequent ten weeks’ in the middle of the ocean. The airport has reopened and the quarantine period has reduced, so rotations are officially shorter although continued flight cancellations make them somewhat difficult to implement. The offshore team know that they all need to be vaccinated if they want to get back to normal. Vaccinations in Switzerland are up around 50% for the first jab and Blakey will soon have his second shot. It’s European summer and things are open once again, he and Sarah go out for coffee, mask-less and while still careful, it is a lot more comfortable and laidback than previously.
Ten weeks on a platform surrounded by nothing but blokes and the sea probably isn’t on many people’s bucket list. But what if there was no other choice?