Going home from Baku.
From March 2003 to September 2015, once every four weeks, I got to go home for a month on leave.
Most of that time was spent working in Azerbaijan’ s bit of the Caspian Sea, on a big red boat called the DSV Akademic Tofiq Ismayilov, operating out of Baku. DSV is an acronym for Diving Support Vessel, and that’s exactly what it did, everything on board was directed at supporting the saturation diving efforts of various companies over that period, but mainly McDermott’s.
The Akademic Tofiq Ismayilov bit was the name of an Azeri intellectual, after whom the boat was named.
I began work out there as a Pilot Technician on the ROV team, and finished up as a Supervisor and occasionally Superintendent.
The oil giant B.P was the umbrella contractor, but we were initially working for Fugro the Dutch Survey Company, then McDermott Diving, then Sonsub, then McDermott, and then finally Sonsub again. I was an agency employee, so I was handed around as the situation demanded
Initially the boat was beset by a litany of problems following a complete refit in the Baku Shipyards.
So during 2003 and 2004 it felt like we were the ‘grand old Duke of York’s soldiers’.
Every time we steamed out to go to work, we steamed back in again following some technical or engineering problem. Consequently we spent a lot of our time alongside the berth at SPS, 20 km or so South of Baku.
The DSV wasn’t luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but importantly I was allocated a two-man cabin, which I shared with the ROV guy on the opposite shift to me. So when I wasn’t working I had the cabin to myself.
It was a good boat to work on, everyone on board helped everyone else; it was so completely different from many of the boats I’d been on before.
In the North Sea, people from other departments didn’t even wish you the time of day, but on the DSV, we were really like a family. People from diving, from engineering and from the bridge were free and happy to drop into the ROV Shack for a cup of coffee and a chat, and we were welcomed anywhere in the same manner.
The food was very good and there was a gym, small but fully equipped.
I was very lucky to have worked on it for so long.
Baku in those days was just emerging from Soviet occupation, since the early twentieth century.
There were a lot of typically USSR drab grey apartment complexes, a lot of higgledy-piggledy slum -like un-architecture, but in the centre of the city, rubbing shoulders with the old walled city dating from the 11th and 12th Centuries, the style of the apartment houses was more European, with hints of Barcelona or Nice,
The European looking buildings were hangovers from the oil boom years in the mid 19th century, when the Nobel, Rothschild and other self-styled European aristocratic families, brought their architectural taste to the city, whilst overseeing their vast oil fortunes.
The currency when I arrived there first, was the Shirvan, which was linked to the Rouble. I never quite worked out the value of that money.
It seemed like ten dollars was worth millions, and often times I spent less than that on a night out and the taxi back to the boat.
Everything was unbelievably cheap to those of us who had dollars or euros.
If I had gone out as often in Aberdeen, Peterhead, Esbjerg or Bergen, I would have been working solely to pay for my social life. In Baku however, the runs ashore throughout my month at work, which for me, entailed drinking a lot of bottles of Heineken and a taxi home, might cost a hundred dollars in total.
A lot of the lads partook of the other distraction available, so for them their social life may have been somewhat more costly. I heard quite a few stories about guys waking up to find themselves, ‘girlfriend’ wallet and passport-less, the passport taking was to confine the ex-boyfriend to his hotel room untl he got a replacement and went home, and so unlikely to go looking for his ex, even if he could remember what she looked like.
When I was working for Fugro, it took them two days after taking us off the boat, to get us on a flight to London or Paris. For that time we stayed in a hotel, and they gave us two hundred dollars a day, per diem.
The currency changed to the New Manat around 2010, and from then on the money looked like and became valued like the Euro.
It didn’t matter though, because by that time BP had introduced zero tolerance to alcohol, and random breathalyser checks by the Nazi like security people at SPS.
So runs ashore lost their allure.
Whilst working in Baku I stayed in a variety of hotels. The first time I arrived I was driven through what I would consider slums, certainly very seedy areas, to a rundown boarding house, called the Red Roof Inn, which could have been a whore house or not.
The Karat Inn in the city became a favourite of Fugro’s for a long time before they were forced first by McDermott’s, then by Sonsub to put us up in the Crescent Beach Hotel, about halfway between the city and SPS.
The Crescent Beach Hotel did indeed have a beach. The sand was a dirty grey, dyed that colour by the scummy oily surf, which lapped in a disinterested manner against it, 24-hours a day seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, notwithstanding the odd storm, in the barely tidal Caspian Sea.
In 2014, McDermott decided to change our going home hotel, to the Kempinski, in a sort of salubrious suburb, high above the city, and closer to the airport.
The Kempinski is a flashy Russian owned hotel chain, claiming five stars in Baku, which appeared reasonable; the décor was certainly extravagantly opulent.
They initially gave out monogrammed Cross ballpoint pens, which for me at the time being a pen aficionado, was mighty impressive.
The receptionist staff never objected when I didn’t return the fine writing instrument after filling in my reservation, so at one stage I had quite a collection in my laptop bag.
They did stop giving them out a few months after we started going there.
One of my friends, Trevor Doyle, from the boat a fellow diver from the 1980s Algosaibi days in fact, worked as a saturation diver In the first McDermott phase, and in the second as a saturation diving supervisor.
For the last two years or so of the final McDermott’s phase, Trevor and I worked the same hitch, our work time and leave time was the same, and we worked the same shift when we were on board.
During our shift, we often spoke over the radio and before the morning meeting, we would sit on the bridge wing, drinking coffee, me smoking, and discussing the big news of the day, or the latest book we were reading. Sometimes, in the case of the biography of Saladin and the adventure of English, it was like snap, “I have read that one”.
He told me fascinating stories, of the relentless war that he waged, on behalf of the village council, against the local mole population where he lived, near Hull in England. He was the official Parish mole catcher, ‘Mole Catcher General’ as I anointed him.
He also had a taste for rabbits, and he used his pet ferrets to hunt them.
Now, me being an animal lover, you would think that I would be enraged by tales of ferrets ripping the throat out of bunny rabbits, and moles having the thorax crushed out of them, in spring-loaded traps underground. Funny though, I had imagined that mole catchers would somehow entice the creatures up into the light of day, to see it momentarily, before having their lives cruelly snuffed out with a big mallet or something, but no, they were spring loaded to death.
My reaction was quite the contrary to enragement, Trevor told his stories without the bloodlust of some hunters.
He was a gentle yet forthright storyteller, what we would call in Ireland a Seanchaí. He told his stories with a quiet intensity, and a belief that was infectious. He loved his dog and I believe that he may have loved the moles that he hunted, because he was hired to do so, and the rabbits and ducks that he regularly killed for food.
The indigenous Americans said prayers for the quarry, there was no hate there was no yee hah camouflaged slaughtering mayhem.
Trevor’s hunting was sedate and it was personal. I’m tempted to say that there was respect on both sides, as in the Native American mode, but I doubt that rabbits, moles or ducks had much sense of either being prayed for, or being preyed upon, and none of them was likely to turn on Trevor in defence.
Ernest Hemingway, whom I adore as a novelist, was a bloodthirsty hunter of trophies, so I’m torn between loving and hating him. He did not eat the water buffalo, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the lion or the tiger that he shot.
He and the other trophy hunters of that generation killed the biggest and the best.
In his hunting, Trevor’s ferrets, by definition, only killed the intellectually challenged and the weak bunny rabbits. His mole killing implement, only killed the disastrously misguided animals, and his buck-shot only brought down the slowest ducks.
So it could be argued that his hunting was simply an evolutionary stressor, directing the mole, the rabbit and the duck populations into producing ever better adapted organisms.
During our chats on board, we often discussed mediaeval history, a favourite study topic of us both. Of course my assertion that Richard Coeur de Leon and William the Conqueror viewed themselves as Norman French was met with profound scepticism.
One time he told me that he had invested in a longbow, so I teased him gently about firing armour piercing bodkins down rabbit holes in the hope of penetrating a fluffy bunny
And he teased me gently about the latest hammering that the Irish rugby team had just taken from the Stout Yeomanry of England.
Those were the days when Ireland (spud bashers) was regularly mown down and trampled underfoot, by the Swinging low Sweet Chariot of England.
On crew change day, the happy bus from the boat to the hotel, was the same as the sad bus that had arrived an hour earlier with the crew coming to work.
We usually left the dock after handovers, by about 11 AM, and arrived at the Kempinski hotel around 1130.
Some had a full overnight stay for a flight the following morning at 10 AM. But some, like me, had a small hours BA flight to London, so we would have eight hours or so in the hotel. Ample time to get some sleep, have dinner; shower and even to iron a shirt. Although from habit, I was showered and dressed for going home when I left the boat.
The moment we arrived there on that first crew change, and saw that the bar was right in the centre of the foyer, just next to the reception area, there was only one thought in our Heineken deprived minds.
It started off innocently enough. There was an initial throng of eager imbibers, some buying and some not so, very expensive bottles of Heineken.
Our marathon sessions at the bar in the Kempinski hotel foyer got started without planning.
There were some who drank two or three beers, bought for them by Trevor and me, and then sloped off quietly without reciprocating. One moment they were there, and the next gone. Leaving the two of us, drinking crates of Heineken, and talking about everything that was of interest to us both, from politics to Evolution to Mole Catching to Mediaeval History, Anthropology, Psychology, Literature and The Crusades. In fact the only taboo subject was work.
Pretenders to our debating forum came and went, even though the rules were simple. We drank and talked and bought, once someone drank, bought and didn’t talk pure shite, they were welcome.
Some drank and talked but were unwilling to buy, some bought and talked but were unable to stay the pace, and some bought and drank but talked rubbish and would invariably become bored and leave. There was one notable sponger who fell into both the former and latter categories.
This intruder wasn’t a work colleague; he was an interloper who worked for BP. He held forth loudly that the skulls of black people had a measurably smaller inner cranium than Caucasians. Of course his assertion is absolute rubbish, and we crossed swords in the one intemperate moment of all our time there. He stuck stubbornly to his falsehood, offering no scientific evidence at all, taking the bigot’s stance.
I was incensed by his racism, I posited that his mind was so narrow, in all probability it was his braincase that was smaller than normal. I became so exasperated, that I missed a very important issue. Trevor and I continued to buy; Mr intolerant continued to drink and spew his vile opinion, but showed no sign of buying a round, and so breaking one of the unwritten rules.
Trevor did not miss his omission, and after two or three free shots, he told yer man in his best no-nonsense Yorkshire accent “get your fooking hand down and get some beer bought”. And so exposed as a fraud on two fronts, he was shamed into buying the beers, and shortly thereafter he slinked off, dragging his prejudice behind him like a dark cloak.
There was never any formal agreement that we were going to stand there drinking and talking until the Heathrow bus was ready to depart, but invariably that’s what happened.
My fellow ‘to LHR’ travellers would suddenly appear with their wheelie bags, freshly shaved and ready to embark.
Of course my baggage had stood patiently at the reception desk where I had abandoned it eight hours previously, so it was easy for me to salute Trevor goodbye, to thank him for his company, and our stimulating discourse, take my bags and board the bus.
During the previous eight hours or so, we both got the opportunity to speak our minds, and despite some days spending up to 150 euros each on Heineken. Drinking the bar dry more than once, having to eat in situ, having to do with showering that morning only, having to wear the same shirt all the way home, and being stiffed one time for the bar tab of somebody else who had fallen by the wayside. Those sessions at the bar in the Kempinski stand out in my mind, as the most enjoyable social interludes of my thirty-seven year working life.
I remember leaving the hotel every time, I remember arriving at the airport and I was never turned down for boarding by the BA ground staff, whose rules on passenger’s alcohol level were extremely strict.
In fact, more than once I helped colleagues who were very drunk, and who would have been barred from boarding, to get through on my undertaking that I would be responsible for them throughout the flight.
Being refused by BA or any airline on the basis of drunkenness had serious implications for those so barred.
BP had a zero tolerance attitude to alcohol, so the person refused would have to pay for their own flight to London, and they would become NRB’d, Not Required Back
Both times it worked out thankfully, because I’ve seen many people refused, and many others arrested in Heathrow upon landing.
Because Trevor and I moderated our intake, it was measured, we did not set out to get drunk, we ate a bar meal, we stuck to bottles of cold Heineken and we maintained our conversation throughout, I believe that the alcohol failed to overcome us.
We were not philosophers and we did not profess to be. However the prevailing character of the conversation was philosophical, as in Athenian philosophy.
We followed threads of logic, unravelling tangles as we went.
Many times during our conversations, I had revelatory moments when I suddenly understood something that had been either vague, or that I had not understood at all beforehand.
Perhaps, we were just two middle-aged men having a drink and discussing the world from our perspective, but thinking back, it seemed so much more.