Women left behind by the oil slick: Work on North Sea rigs has ruled and often wrecked the lives of workers and their families. Leonie Jameson meets three women who know

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SINCE 1969, when oil was first discovered in the North Sea, men, and for the past 10 years, women, have laboured hard to pump Britain's liquid gold ashore. These 30,000 workers' private lives have been jeopardised by life offshore. They and their families suffer disproportionately from divorce, stress-related addictions and the burden of disruptive children. In 1988, the Grampian Women's Aid marital counselling service reported that 60 per cent of its clients were the partners of oilmen.

The scale of these problems is hardly surprising. Marooned on a platform 130 miles out in the North Sea, managers, clerical staff, cooks, engineers, riggers, electricians, roughnecks and roustabouts used to work two weeks of 12-hour shifts followed by two weeks off. Nowadays three weeks on, three weeks off is common. In the early days, divers could be away for six months or more.

A vast pay packet was once compensation. But after the boom of the late Seventies and early Eighties, wages offshore were on average no more than 20 to 30 per cent higher than equivalent work onshore - even though offshore workers do nearly 500 hours a year more than the industrial average. Employees of the major oil companies form only a quarter of the workforce. The rest of the hard labour offshore has always been done by contractors, many of whom move from platform to platform, enduring long periods of unemployment in between.

Commuting by helicopter is an occupational hazard: 41 oil workers and crew were killed when a Chinook helicopter crashed on its way back to the Shetland Islands in 1987; more recently, crashes of helicopters from the Brent Spar and Cormorant Alpha platforms claimed a further 17 lives. Every journey to and from work is a source of anxiety to the families of the workers.

In the past 25 years more than 400 lives have been lost and countless injuries have been sustained by North Sea oil and gas workers. Since most of these accidents are not 'disasters' they attract little publicity. One woman whose husband was killed by a helicopter blade describes herself as a 'second-class widow'.

Successive governments have tolerated poor safety regimes and working practices that leave workers exposed to unnecessary danger and even death. The Piper Alpha disaster of 6 July 1988, in which a fire destroyed a platform and killed 167 men, resulted in a complete overhaul of safety regulations. Anne Gillanders's husband was killed in Piper Alpha. The more she heard about offshore conditions from the Cullen inquiry into the tragedy, the angrier she became. 'The pressures were there to rake in the money at all costs. The safety of the men just wasn't taken into consideration as much as it was onshore.'

His personality changed when he began diving full-time

Pamela Barnett, 46, was first married in the Seventies to a diver, and her second husband is an offshore worker. She has three sons and lives in Aboyne, near Aberdeen.

MY FIRST husband was a telephone engineer and his hobby was diving. You needed to be a bit of a daredevil to be a diver. I remember going out in a boat with my ex-husband and some friends who were divers and we saw a basking shark 30ft long. I was terrified but they all wanted to jump in the water to join it.

In 1970, when North Sea oil exploration was in its infancy, he joined a diving company. I think his personality changed once he became a professional diver - he became more distant. It's a very solitary job and a lot of divers are far closer to their buddies offshore than to their women. I suppose it's inevitable when they are stuck together in a saturation chamber for weeks on end.

My ex-husband liked the substantial sums of money divers earned in those days. He was 23 and came home wanting to jet off and socialise, while I wanted to have a family life.

At the time I wasn't aware of the dangers of diving as my ex-husband didn't want to talk about them. But I met a diver who told me that he'd once been sent with a camera to inspect a weld on a pipeline. While he was down there his camera floated away and the men in the support vessel saw the enormous face of a 40ft conger eel appear through the lens.

The shifts varied but at one point my husband was away for seven weeks. I rang up the company and asked when they were sending my husband back and they said: 'Oh, he was onshore two weeks ago.' That's how I discovered my husband was having an affair. I suspect that not many divers' marriages have survived from those days.

When I met my husband, Eric, he was working as a labourer. But his brother was always encouraging him to join him offshore because the money was much better. It wasn't until we took out a large mortgage in 1989 that he became a roughneck on a drilling rig.

Eric and I have been married for 14 years and I think the key to success is not hiding things. Many women won't discuss problems when their husbands are offshore because they don't want to worry them. But I think you should phone up the rig and talk.

The oil companies are better now at dealing with the personal side of things. One Christmas our house was flooded, all the presents were destroyed and I was standing in my wellies wearing a safety helmet phoning Eric, who was offshore. Just then a great heap of plaster fell on my head. He was devastated. He went to his company and they flew him back.

For the past 18 months the drilling activity in the North Sea has really tailed off and last Christmas Eric was laid off for a month. I took a university degree three years ago so with any luck I'll be able to work if my husband is unemployed - which may be when he comes home this Friday.

We looked forward to him going away

Anne Bone's ex-husband worked offshore from the early 1970s as a welder. They have two sons, who are in their twenties, and Anne, 42, now lives in Aboyne, near Aberdeen.

FOR US the North Sea was either fast or feast. When my husband was working he earned pounds 120 a week - a lot when our rent was only pounds 7. We were able to go out and buy whatever we liked for the house. But another time, he was out of work for 18 months and I lost a pounds 1 note in the street. I'll never forget walking up and down in tears trying to find it, thinking that we had no money to feed the children.

The shift patterns had a bad effect on our relationship, which wasn't good for other reasons. For two weeks I was a single parent, able to make decisions and social contacts outside of my relationship. Then my husband came home; he was usually very tired. And he wanted alcohol, which was banned offshore. So for the first five days he simply disrupted our lifestyle. After that, things would calm down and he'd want a family life, by which time my children and I were usually too angry to participate. In the end, we used to look forward to him going away again.

He was a contract worker, so we were never sure whether the trip he was on was going to be his last, and during the winter periods he couldn't get jobs offshore which made for total insecurity.

I'll never forget an occasion towards the end of our relationship, when my husband had finally got a job offshore and my sons and I were looking forward to a bit of peace without him. I was on the phone, when I heard the back door open and there he was, back again 24 hours later. He said he'd been too upset about the problems in our relationship to stay on platform. I couldn't believe it.

The offshore life allowed my husband to deceive himself. I'd say to him, 'You know you drink too much.' And he would answer, 'No, I don't - I can go two weeks without drinking.' Of course, if you haven't got any alcohol you can get through two weeks, but it doesn't mean you are any less desperate for it. And I know he used to suffer when he was offshore and couldn't drink.

I wasn't in the North Sea to be mauled

Diane McCutcheon, 31, worked as a catering stewardess in the North Sea, one of four women among 250 men. She lives in Aberdeen.

ONCE I was cleaning out the juice machine and a guy walloped my bottom. I said to him: 'You've done that once, don't do it again.' If he had tried it on again, I would have gone to the platform manager and made sure that he was off the platform so fast his feet wouldn't have touched the helideck. That's the expression used in the North Sea for getting rid of a troublemaker.

They say in the North Sea that if you can't take 'the crack', jokes and swearing, you shouldn't be out there. I can tell a rude joke with the best of them but I wasn't out in the North Sea to be mauled.

Generally, the lads were well behaved. At first having women offshore was a novelty - the day we arrived the lads all showered and shaved. Usually they go through the fortnight without bothering until the day they go home.

Once they got used to us lassies, the men became friends. After they'd been on leave I often had to act as an agony aunt, listening to them moaning about their wives. One guy came back and poured out his heart: he'd got home to find his wife had walked out leaving him just his favourite mug and a microwave meal.

I met my present partner offshore. It was a bit difficult because sex is a disciplinary offence offshore, so we knew people were wondering whether we were getting it together onshore. His ex-wife used to give him a very hard time: she enjoyed having the money, but wanted him at home all the time. Obviously he couldn't do both.

I stopped working in the North Sea after four years. The fear was getting to me. Just before I started, there was an explosion on the platform I worked on. I was also afraid of flying. In 1990 I was about to get on the chopper when we were told to get off again. It turned out that the helicopter carrying workers from the Brent Spar had crashed, killing six people and they wanted the sky cleared for the rescue helicopters. I gave up in 1992, soon after the Cormorant Alpha crash, which killed 11 people.

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