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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK
The ups and downs of life offshore
BBC News Online chats to platform manager Dave Buckland
The Beryl platform is 180km off northern Scotland

Beryl is an unusual choice of name for a North Sea oil platform.

And the 200 men who work there, not to mention the three women, lead a pretty unusual sort of life.

Dave Buckland in helicopter
Commuter delays are the biggest cause of complaint
All workers come offshore for two weeks at a time, working 12 hour shifts every day during that time. Then most get three weeks' complete break.

Some parts of life on the platform sound all too familiar: commuting is the biggest cause for complaint, while watching the World Cup is one of the highlights.

When the helicopter is delayed by fog or wind, the workers are well and truly stranded, and tempers can fray.

Easy life?

Apart from that, the crew seem remarkably content with their life at sea.

View of the platform through the helicopter window
A first view of the office
"You get pretty fond of the old place," says field superintendent Mike McAdie. "It's like a second home."

"Och, Christmas, it's just like any other day," he says cheerily. "I was here over the millennium and had a hot dog and a cup of coffee at midnight".

ExxonMobil's Beryl Alpha oil platform, a bewildering mass of metal on legs, is situated far into the North Sea, about 180km northeast of the Scottish city of Aberdeen.

"People think it must be really tough to work out here," says Mr McAdie.

Man at work offshore
It's an ageing workforce offshore
"The reality is you only work five months of the year and spend a fair bit of time in the coffee shop and the canteen."

Strict health and safety regulations on the platform restrict the amount of time the crew are exposed to the noise and the cold, meaning they tend to work far fewer hours than their peers on land.

Duty-free perks

And while life offshore represents an undeniable lack of freedom, the recreation facilities are pretty impressive: a full-size snooker table, a cinema, a fully-equipped gym and a sauna.

Fishing, however - once a popular past-time - has been banned because of the danger to divers, although shark and whale spotting live on.

Tanker loading offshore
The platform pumps 90,000 barrels of crude oil a day
Other perks include free phone calls home, unlimited free food and the opportunity to buy duty-free cigarettes.

The two-man cabins - very similar to those on a ship - come complete with satellite television offering the delights of UK Gold, as well as an ensuite shower and toilet.

In fact, it's almost possible to forget where you are altogether while inside the windowless living quarters.

Outside, the full size and scale of the platform, together with its excruciating noises, are inescapable.

With 148 metres above sea level, and 117 metres below, Beryl Alpha is four-fifths of the height of the Eiffel Tower.

Beryl Alpha platform
The platform was one of the first to use subsea technology
Its complicated workings stretch over four floors and a maze of rooms, divided by thick steel doors to ensure any blasts are contained.

Temperatures vary from the bitter cold of the wind-exposed upper levels, to the stifling heat of the rooms which act as the platform's own mini power station, producing enough electricity each day to light up 130,000 homes.

Few workers are wandering around the platform's hub of machinery, with much of the work happening in the control room down below.

A job for life

It's an ageing workforce out at sea, with many of the men now in their early 50s.

Dave Buckland with oil samples
The platform's manager shows off his different crude samples
Many of the maintenance team were recruited from Scotland's shipbuilding industry, while many of the electricians came from abandoned mines.

Now, the industry is facing a skills shortage of technicians and is doing all it can to entice new, younger workers.

The government curtailed its apprenticeship schemes to encourage new oil rig workers when the North Sea's rapid period of growth came to an end.

Beryl Alpha control room
Much of the work happens out of the control room

The focus of oil exploration is moving away from the North Sea to new hotspots.

Dave Buckland, who has been in charge of the platform for the last five years, is now moving on to oversee the design and operation of a platform in one of those key new areas, in Angola.

But while the heyday of the North Sea is long gone, its oil and gas reserves are far from running out.

Beryl Alpha produces enough crude oil each day to fill 630 petrol tankers and enough gas to satisfy the needs of 3.2 million households.

The Skene gas extension, added to Beryl Alpha
Beryl's new Skene development cost 250m
And she has just acquired an additional gas platform, a 2,500-ton module, built onshore and lifted out to sea.

Built in 1976, Beryl was expected to have a lifespan of 25 years.

Twenty-five years later, she is expected to be pumping out oil and gas for another 15 years.

And that should make Beryl, the wife of the platform's original designer, proud of her namesake.

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