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It’s twenty-five years ago when I was last on a rig.  It was not my job, just circumstance that put me there. March 27th 1980 was not a bad day on the west coast of Scotland, at least, not a bad day compared to what we usually got.  As part of a Royal Navy helicopter squadron based at Prestwick, life wasn’t bad.  A small establishment, so not too much spit and polish.  A small department, so our routine was ‘flexible’.  I was one of four para-medics based there getting extra pay for our Search and Rescue duties, lots of time off, and plenty of cheap booze.  Usually evenings were spent either down at one of our locals, in the NAFFI bar, or a trip out to Ayr.  I was off watch, so the beer could flow. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was a motto we took seriously. Tonight however it was a kit washing and general sorting out night, so it would be a just few beers later on. 

For a sailor it’s a bad sign when you’ve just had a glass of cold frothy beer handed over and someone shouts out that there’s a phone call for you.  With no time to take even a sip, I was at the phone.  It was the duty medic and mate of mine, JC.  We were on standby for an incident, and it would be more than one medic required.  The beer was forgotten in an instant (we did take work seriously) as I ran to the medical centre and decked myself in all the aircrew survival clothing that was essential for UK waters.  JC filled me in on what had happened.  An oil rig, the Alexander Keilland, had capsized in the Ekofisk field.  I didn’t have a clue where that was.  The west coast of Scotland was familiar, with the Inner and Outer Hebrides, but this was totally new.  Then again we were used to that, having covered from Blackpool to some place near Inverness.   Suited up and ready to go, we grabbed all the medical equipment, then JC and I were driven down to ‘the line’, which wasn’t a line at all but a taxiing area for the Sea Kings (or ‘cabs’ as we called them) and the Ops room.  The medical equipment was stowed away in the cabs, and then JC and I strolled into the Ops room to collect the life jacket and personal life raft backpack.  We strolled because one of the aircraft handlers had told us we wouldn’t be lifting off for at least ten-fifteen minutes whilst a fault was sorted out on one of the cabs.  I made a mental note to see if I could bag the other cab, as I preferred flying in one without problems, but I was old-fashioned that way.

Inside the Ops room it was as always, a calm rush. Briefing was about to begin, so JC and I slipped in and tried to look as though we understood what the aircrew were being told.  The weather, call signs, and details of the incident were self-explanatory, but the technical stuff was there for them.  Not that I minded, as they were the specialists, just as JC and I were in our field, and we could blind them with medical science if needed.  The one bit I did note was that we were flying from Prestwick to RAF Leuchars, staying overnight and then on to the search zone at first light.  Not what I wanted.  It’s so much better to get up, get on with the job and then get home, but from where we were it was obvious that the overnight stay was the best choice.     

Twenty minutes later we were in the air.  I was in Rescue 02 (our call sign), the one that had had the problem, and JC was in Rescue 07.  For a medic the journey is the boring bit, especially when it’s dark so there’s not even any scenery to look at.  Military helicopters can be cold, noisy, and vibrate like hell, and my seat was a foldable canvas affair with a negative comfort score, so a journey of a few hours or so was no limousine ride.  But hey, if I couldn’t take a joke I shouldn’t have joined, as anyone that I mentioned this to would have replied.  I passed the time wondering what the problem had been with Rescue 02, and whether it was going to stay unfixed.

A transit room at RAF Leuchars is not a home from home.  It abused the privilege of being basic.  We had arrived late at night, and so didn’t really care.  All we wanted to do was to get to bed as soon as possible as we were to be up very early the next day, although as it was already after midnight technically it was later the same day that we would be getting up.

After an early call and a quick breakfast it was time to get started on the serious business.  There was no time for the luxury of feeling tired. The crew had the co-ordinates of the search area we were assigned to, and we were impatient to get going and see if we could save anyone.  The day was fair, with good visibility, so hopes were high.  Lift off couldn’t come soon enough as we were all impatient to get on with the task.  I still didn’t know exactly where Ekofisk was, but I did know that it was a long way off for anyone in the water.  I had already calculated the survival times for different sea temperatures and the North Sea was not at all generous in that respect.

In transit to the rescue site I assessed the chances of survivors.  The weather was clear with high broken cloud, so it would be easy to spot anything.  However there was still a good wind blowing, which would reduce our time in the air as the helicopters would have to fight against it.  A fairly large wave height would also make keeping track of any sightings more difficult, but that was at least one task we had trained and practised on, so all in all, the odds were in our favour, if only slightly.

Eventually we neared our search area.  One good thing about this was that I could stand behind the co-pilot and be the lookout on the left-hand side of the cab, which was a bit more comfortable than sitting.  It was decided that we would start at a higher altitude than the usual low-level approach as that would enable us to spot anything that bit quicker, and speed was vital.  We soon found that there were plenty of flotsam for us to spot, and we began almost a rollercoaster ride of gaining altitude, sighting an object, and so swooping down to investigate.  It was the most frustrating time ever, and curses were being uttered, because no contacts were human.  The worst ones were when we spotted something that was bright orange, because that raised the expectation of it being some sort of survival equipment, and so a person!  But it never was.  I rapidly came to hate those bright orange sightings.  We were wasting vital survival time, but of course there was no way we could consider not spending time making sure there was no-one clinging to any thing that we saw.

Time, that had gone so very slowly when we were getting to our search area, now ran out so fast it was unbelievable.  Sea Kings are excellent helicopters, but like all aircraft they can only stay airborne for a finite amount of time, and we had reached our limit.  It is impossible to describe how you feel when you have to leave empty-handed.  The frustration is already there, along with impatience, but now desperation, and a sense of abandoning someone in need is added.  As soon as the search area was left, with nothing to do now, I could only sit there and think ‘what if?’  Should we have turned one way not the other, started somewhere else, climbed higher to begin with?  It didn’t matter now.  Re-fuelling and returning if possible, otherwise home with tails between legs.

My musings were interrupted with a sudden flurry of comments and activity by the pilots, observer and aircrewman.  Rescue 07, the one I thought was the better cab, had developed a sudden hitch and had to land very quickly on an oil rig or else ditch, so we landed on an adjacent rig whilst the problem was analysed.  This was unexpected and quite exciting.  I looked forward to meeting the oil rig workers who no doubt would be grateful to us for helping there stricken co-workers, and would look upon us as heroes.  No doubt there would be a crowd of them gathered around us all the time we were there.

It was almost as if we were invisible.  Everyone was just getting on with their work, and hardly a second glance came our way.  A flight deck crewman led us down to the eating quarters, where it was a surprise to find that I was ravenous, and a huge surprise to find steak on the menu, and help yourselves to whatever you want!  This was Christmas and birthdays all at once, and a plate piled high was soon devoured.  Sitting back, I pretended to listen to the aircrew discussing the problem with our sister cab, and looked idly round at the rig workers.  If any were affected by what had happened to the Alexander Keilland I couldn’t see it.  They were all just getting on with their business.  I realised then that this was just an outing for me, and soon I’d be safely back on terra firma able to take a stroll round the town should I so wish, but they were stuck out here for weeks or even months, and had to live with the worst that the North Sea could throw at them all the time.  Then I remembered a quote I’d read about courage not always being in the roar of a lion, but in the quiet voice that says just keep carrying on.  The real heroes were all around me, quietly carrying on.

It’s now twenty-five years later, and more oil rig disasters have happened, more lives lost, more oil discovered.  Technology has improved beyond imagination, allowing oil to be claimed from ever more hostile environments.  The one thing that will not have changed is the quiet courage of the men who have to work there.


We lifted off from the rig a few hours later.  Rescue 07 had to wait until the next day before it was fit enough to fly.  I had another three years on Search and Rescue, landing on some varied and bizarre things, but never another oil rig.  And I never did find out who had my beer.

Clive Brook




Deepwater Horizon -The President's Report
Deepwater Horizon - The Progess of the Event

The KULLUK Grounding
The Costa Concordia Report
The Costa Concordia Grounding
The Elgin Gas Leak
The Loss of the Normand Rough
The Bourbon Dolphin Accident
The Loss of the Stevns Power
Another Marine Disaster
Something About the P36
The Cormorant Alpha Accident
The Ocean Ranger Disaster
The Loss of the Ocean Express

The Life of the Oil Mariner
Offshore Technology and the Kursk
The Sovereign Explorer and the Black Marlin

Safety Case and SEMS
Practical Safety Case Development
Preventing Fires and Explosions Offshore
The ALARP Demonstration
PFEER, DCR and Verification
PFEER and the Dacon Scoop
Human Error and Heavy Weather Damage
Lifeboats & Offshore Installations
More about PFEER
The Offshore Safety Regime - Fit for the Next Decade
The Safety Case and its Future
Collision Risk Management
Shuttle Tanker Collisions
A Good Prospect of Recovery

The History of the UT 704
The Peterhead Connection
Goodbye Kiss
Uses for New Ships
Supporting Deepwater Drilling
Jack-up Moving - An Overview
Seismic Surveying
Breaking the Ice
Tank Cleaning and the Environment
More about Mud Tank Cleaning
Tank Cleaning in 2004
Glossary of Terms

An Unusual Investigation
Gaia and Oil Pollution
The True Price of Oil
Icebergs and Anchor-Handlers
Atlantic SOS
The Greatest Influence
How It Used to Be
Homemade Pizza
Goodbye Far Turbot
The Ship Manager
Running Aground
A Cook's Tale
Navigating the Channel
The Captain's Letter

The Sealaunch Project
Ghost Ships of Hartlepool
Beam Him Up Scotty
The Bilbao OSV Conference