Tom turned to me and said cheerfully “home” “I’ve been here six weeks with no sign of me going to my actual home” he said.
“We are down on weather” Tom announced over his shoulder as we began the climb up, “every night the wind comes up to 30 or 40 knots, so the only work being done is during the day shift, and that’s not an awful lot” he continued.
“You can leave your bag on the landing up here, it will be safe and then we’ll go get some coffee and a sandwich maybe, are you hungry? I bet you are after your trip and that little boat”
I realised just then how hungry I was, I had had lunch in the Acuario, but since then nothing.
“Actually yes I am pretty hungry.” I said.
“Good, it’s time for the mid shift snack anyway, we will just go up and stow your bag safely and then go to the galley.” “The nightshift is midnight to mid day, I have had the ROV in the water twice in six weeks” he shrugged.
I climbed the steps and threw my bag on the landing.
Despite what he said about going for ‘mid shift snack’ Tom opened the door of the control shack and ushered me in, saying “welcome to the Idrotec control centre”.
I walked in to a 10 ft² room, packed it seemed with electronics. There were at least six monitors, all on standby now with their green status lights shining softly. Some were mounted in racks alongside power supply units for, what I could not say and some were mounted on brackets all angling down towards two chairs, positioned in front of everything in a commanding attitude.
Tom came in behind me and stood with his hands on the small of his back, angling his over 6 foot frame backwards.
He was in his mid-60s I would have guessed, much tanned with GI buzz cut silver grey hair and a very amiable smile on his face. He wore a pale red shapeless T-shirt, pale blue, much run through the wash, rugby shorts and flip-flops.
His skinny legs looked like two brown threads dangling from his shorts.
He said “this is it, I lost my nightshift partner a week ago, a Norwegian who drank too much and offshore. He had been drunk on the boat once and warned, but he had vodka squirreled away somewhere else and he did it again, so he was off.”
“Oh” was the best I could offer in response.
“Yes” continued Tom “I don’t know whether he was any good or not, because we didn’t do any work, but I think that he was drinking all the time, he must have brought vodka with him from home; Absolut, you know the one you get on British Airways flights?”
“Anyway, he’s gone and you’re here, you’re not carrying any Absolut vodka are you?” He said with a wink and a little grin.
“No, nothing like that” I answered.
“Right then, let’s go”
What all that stuff was in the shack, I had no idea and I couldn’t make a total gobshite of myself by asking, it was going to take subterfuge on my part.
He led the way down from the shack to the deck, and then in through a doorway on deck level to what I assumed to be the accommodation area under the bridge.
All the time that he led the way, Tom kept up an over the shoulder commentary on this Russian boat, Umka.
I learned that it wasn’t a very clean ship, it was overrun with cockroaches and bluebottle fly’s, everyone suffered from gastric problems, but there was a doctor on board.
Even as we walked, I could smell the warm damp air and see for myself the fly’s buzzing and the cockroaches scuttling.
He told me that our cabins were below, but because the day shift slept there also, I couldn’t dump my bag and have a look at bunks and personal space.
We went down at least one flight of stairs and along several corridors, on our way to the mess hall.
Tom told me that one good thing about the boat was that the mess hall did not double as the recreation room, as it did on many diving and ROV vessels around the world. The recreation room was directly under the bridge, and there was a television on which we might get to see the World Cup, if we were lucky.
Over Nescafé coffee and quesadilla’s the most delicious snack, Mexican in origin and completely new to me, Tom Brown outlined his life, the job and the ship for me.
He had been a radio officer on freighters for nearly 40 years, and it was his belief that UMKA had been a USSR spy ship in its previous life.
He had recognised the low-frequency radio masts, now presumably un-used, but still in place, as relics from the Cold War era when seemingly innocuous working boats like UMKA were broadcasting seemingly innocuous messages on the movement of ships through the oceans shipping lanes. Information crucial to the Soviets should a
‘Hot War’ break out.
He told me that the main contractor on board was an Italian diving company called Impresub. The job was to use their trencher to bury a pipeline.
Someone had made a serious error with the initial survey, identifying the seabed as soft mud, when in actual fact most of it was rock.
When the trencher went in the water and worked, which was very seldom, the blades made heavy work of cutting through the sandstone, and after four months only 1 km had been trenched (badly) out of 120 kms in the specification for the current phase of the contract.
Based on the initial geological survey, Impresub had undertaken to trench 12 kms per day, and had negotiated a lucrative contract to trench 700 km of exposed pipeline, and an ongoing agreement to trench all newly laid pipe for Pemex the Mexican oil giant, who were laying pipe like it was going out of fashion.
Everything that Tom told me, he told me in a conspiratorial way, as if he was telling me secrets that only he knew.
If Impresub managed to get their trencher working regularly and doing the job which they said it could do, then there would be work for us all for years to come.
Tom talked and talked all through our break
He was a Mason, but he couldn’t tell me anymore about that, because it was a secret.
Then he went on to tell me that in his home town of Elgin, the Knights Templar, fleeing from the French pogram against them, had gone to Scotland seeking the protection of Robert the Bruce and had buried their treasure and blessing icons from the holy land, under the cathedral.
T knew all about it, where it was what it was, but he could never tell.
When revealed it would change the world, and it would be revealed when the time was appropriate.
I was keen for him to tell me something of the ROV system, because everything I saw in the ROV Shack, including the shack itself, was a complete mystery to me. But after briefly explaining the ship and the job, all he wanted to talk about was his Masonic oath of secrecy, the Knights Templar secret of Elgin Cathedral, again which he couldn’t talk about and the supernatural nature of the buried icons, which was a closely guarded secret.
The mess hall was big for a boat, and was laid out like an American diner, without the Wurlitzer jukebox and with very visible insect vermin.
The red Formica topped table at which we sat looked clean but felt greasy and the foam and black plastic covered bench was ripped in a few areas, revealing the yellow foam beneath.
In the first few minutes there I saw a number of cockroaches, or one very fast one, scuttle across the walls and over the other tables, and a couple of big black flies buzzed lazily through the hot air.
If either a cockroach or a bluebottle encroached upon the chef’s work area, he flapped at them with a plastic fly swat.
The chef was a happy soul, who smiled hugely and greeted us in Russian when we entered, Tom explained that the only things he understood in English were to do with food, and otherwise he spoke Russian only. .
He made very good quesadilla, a griddle cooked tortilla filled with cheese ham and spices, absolutely delicious, delicioso in Spanish. I had decided that It was time to start learning Spanish, I figured Russian to be beyond my linguistic skill.
One or two young Italians drifted in while we were there, but Tom did not salute them, nor them he. It turned out that they were the divers from the nightshift.
During my time there I became friendly with the Italian divers, the surveyors and the deck crew, but to Tom they were almost the enemy, and he actively encouraged me to follow his example.
We spent an hour in the mess; I was thoroughly inculcated in the classified top-secret secrets of the Masons and the Knights Templar, without actually being told anything. I also had the idiot’s guide to the job and I had been warned that everyone except us was not to be trusted.
Outside, day was arriving and on the way back to the shack, I could see the giant trencher on the back deck. It looked like, and was roughly the same size as, an old-fashioned steam railway engine, with a thick umbilical of (presumably) hydraulic hoses attached were the funnel would be, and two giant circular and serrated blades on each side.
My diver’s brain was feverishly grasping at anything that a diver would understand. I was guessing that this behemoth was somehow lowered onto the pipe, positioned by divers and then when powered up, it somehow drove itself along the pipe while the boat followed.
When we climbed the steps to the ROV Shack, I stopped on the balcony where I had left my bag, and even a perfunctory look over the side confirmed my suspicion that the UMKA was not a DP (dynamic positioning) vessel. I could clearly see the wires of four anchors on the port side.
Back inside our shack, I asked how the boat followed the trencher, if that would ever happen and I was told that, they would come up on their anchors and pull themselves along.
Interesting, I thought to myself.
There were two chairs in front of the bank of monitors, Tom took the left hand one and I sat down on his right.
He opened with “you know the Seaeye setup, this is typical.”
“We have a TSS magnetometer on the sub, which will allow us to follow buried pipe.”
“We also have profiling Sonar’s on purpose-built outriggers, so that we can give the client Pemex copies of the pipes profile after Impresub had trenched it.”
I had seen a picture of a Seaeye setup, I had read about the TSS sub bottom profiling equipment and also profiling Sonar, but my CV was a tissue of lies and I felt, whilst listening, that right then would be a good time to panic.
How the hell was I going to pull this con off? Everything including the John Cleese pretending to faint occurred to me.
But, there was only one option, making a success of the job and getting paid was of paramount importance for the family.
Daire and Caoimhe, so far away, needed me bluff my way through somehow.
Obviously Tom was used to taking a nap after the mid shift break, because almost in midsentence, his head drooped onto his chest and he was asleep.
I stared at the racks of monitors and control systems, desperately looking for something familiar, there was nothing.
There was the main console, which had lots of toggle switches with names like TSS, thrusters, AC power, DC power DC 1 and DC 2.
There were the screens mentioned earlier all black now, but surely used for something when everything was working.
There was the thing called TSS, with its own control console, the hand controller for everything and a PC.
Genuinely hand on heart, I can say that the only thing that I was even moderately familiar with was the PC, because we had just recently got one ourselves with Windows 98.
I was profoundly distressed, while my new workmate slept in the chair beside me, gently snoring, I just wanted to scream my frustration at life, at the almost overwhelming mess that I found myself in.
I wondered how much stress a person could take.
There was no use in my looking at these banks of instruments, waiting for inspiration, there was none, so I sat quietly listening to Tom breathing softly and I tried to banish the demons from my mind while I waited for him to wake up.
Tom slept for two hours, and then woke up suddenly, looked around blinking a little, looked at his watch and said “well Jim, almost breakfast time.”
“Ham eggs and freshly made tortillas, everyday at 7 AM, but we need to get there a little bit before 7 to avoid the rush.”
“It’s just after a quarter to, so I will introduce you to our Surveyor Plus on the way there.
The happy-go-lucky Russian chef whom I had met earlier, continued to be happy and go lucky, serving up food already tainted with some bacillus or other, eagerly waiting to get inside these unaccustomed guts.
T told me, in a conspiratorial, manner that the Mexican company who had been awarded the contract by Pemex was called Buffete and they were based in Ciudad Carmen.
They had chartered the vessel and contracted Impresub, who in turn hired Idrotec.
The accommodation on board was Spartan to say the least, four bunks crammed into a cabin not even big enough for two. No air-conditioning to speak of and no personal space in which to stow our belongings.
Showering was such a major undertaking, that some of us four, didn’t bother very much, so overlying the sweltering heat was the miasma of body odour.
If I hadn’t been so stressed, I probably would have asked to be sent home.
Even in the worst days of Saudi Arabia, conditions have never been as bad.
Cockroaches scuttled up and down the walls and across the floors everywhere on the ship. Flies, like flying squirrels flapped around lazily, alighting where they liked whether it be it upon food or toilet waste. They may even have competed with the cockroach population for food and lodgings, but it seemed that both proliferated by the day.
Everyone, except it would seem the Russian crew, suffered from diarrhoea as a matter of routine.