Life as an Offshore Worker
24 NOVEMBER 2023
Beyond the shoreline with Pieter Janssens
In this exclusive feature, we dive into the world of offshore workers. For those of us who have never worked at sea, it can be difficult to imagine - especially the extended periods away from family, friends, and home comforts, surrounded by only steel giants and the ocean’s waves.
At Motive our offshore workforce of multi-disciplined personnel is a vital arm of the business, at the forefront of some of the toughest challenges.
One such individual is Motive's Senior Lead Technician Pieter Janssens, who this year celebrates Ten Years with Team Motive.
Pieter joined us recently to talk about his career working offshore since 2007, giving a unique insight into his experiences at sea, the long hours and travelling, and what keeps spirits afloat when it all gets a bit challenging out there.
Photos courtesy of Energy Insider / Pieter Janssens
What inspired you to embark on a career offshore?
Sailing around Britain in our steel ketch 20 years ago, our course collided with a North Sea platform at night.
Whilst passing so close to the rig legs, the welding seams were visible, I remember wondering what life would be like on such an installation.
None of us were aware of the 500m exclusion zone. Surprisingly, nobody on board spotted our boat or made contact on the marine VHF radio. Looking up at the impressive steel jungle rising from the sea sparked my interest in the offshore industry.
What types of training and qualifications do you have to obtain to work offshore?
Obviously, the usual survival certificates and medical are the minimum.
Rigging and lifting, working at height and other safety courses might be required, project depending.
I did Mechanical Engineering at Moray College and later 2 Hydraulic modules in Aberdeen. Whilst all this helps, the most important quality is the knowledge of technical equipment and practical operational experience.
We work in a niche industry where mistakes can prove to be very costly.
What is the offshore culture like?
Offshore life can be very demanding; cramped quarters, a relentless daily 12hrs+ work schedule in often harsh weather extremes, with very limited activities after work.
Working worldwide, it's interesting to note the vast differences in cultures and work conditions. Anything between perfectly organized efficiency, to utter random chaos. You never really know what adventures the next job will bring.
What’s the longest time you’ve ever spent away offshore, and how do you prepare for being away for long trips?
My longest trip offshore has been 10 weeks. Onshore trips are more easily bearable.
Any trip longer than 2 weeks has a noticeable impact on family life. It's easier nowadays with internet and WiFi. Luckily, the days of 10-minute weekly phone calls are past.
Being able to switch off helps to cope with the boring life in a prison-like marine environment.
What do you enjoy the most about life offshore?
Travel and variety. Exploring new places and experiencing different cultures. I wouldn't really like to return to the same installation on a permanent rotation, there's still so much out there to discover.
"You never really know what adventures the next job will bring."
What kind of vessels/platforms have you been on, and do you have a favourite so far?
Hundreds of different vessels and rigs, all over the world. Some rust buckets can be a shocking eye opener, without much regard for safety or comfort. In stark contrast, Norwegian vessels are as good as it gets.
Can you share some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had whilst at sea?
- Baleen whales surfacing alongside our boat in Angola
- Pelicans flying past in the Gulf of Mexico
- Catching tuna in Congo from the back deck
- A toucan landing on our equipment in Borneo
- Flying fish jumping on deck in front of our winch in India
- Seeing an Ariane rocket launch in French Guyana
- Climbing table top mountain in Cape Town when the vessel was in dry dock
- Sailing into Rio de Janeiro
Sunsets are always great to admire in the tropics.
And your 'scariest moment'?
Winter storm in the Norwegian Sea near the Arctic Circle. The back deck was awash for 2 days and a 15 metre wave broke away one of the massive ROV doors from the side of our ship. Most of the crew was too seasick to function.
How do you maintain your wellbeing while away for prolonged periods?
Maintaining physical wellbeing is easy offshore, as there is almost always a gym on board.
Staying mentally healthy is a lot more challenging, especially if there is no fixed end date in sight and your stay is dependent on the completion of the project. It can be worrying to be stuck far away from home, in times of need. Offshore life isn't suitable for everybody.
Any interesting customs or superstitions you have witnessed when sailing?
Not really. The days of wooden tall ships and rampant sailor superstitions are over! Renaming a boat is still considered bad luck, however.
What is your proudest moment in your career?
Breakdown repairs can be very rewarding.
To fly across the world and be able to fix essential equipment which has halted the entire vessel is always much appreciated by the client. Especially when the local bush mechanics tried first and only made it worse. It always feels rewarding knowing you made a difference.
"To fly across the world and be able to fix essential equipment which has halted the entire vessel is always much appreciated by the client."
What changes have you witnessed during your time in the industry?
One of the biggest changes to offshore life is the availability of WiFi on board. It's so much easier nowadays to keep in touch with everyone at home. The days of queueing by a phone, or looking for a desktop to send an email home are past.
What is your advice to any young person considering a career offshore?
The energy sector can be volatile and offshore work quickly becomes insecure during an economic downturn. Don't expect job security and spend all your wages when times are good, save something for a rainy day.
What do you wish you had known before your first offshore trip?
- Bring some comfortable clean indoor shoes to avoid having to wear boot covers over your shoes inside
- No need to take too many clothes along, as the laundry on board is quick and efficient
- Travel light, you'll often have to carry all your luggage at once
- Don't bring anything too valuable as things can get damaged or go missing
- Pack a universal travel adapter for your electronics
What’s next for you?
Keep exploring ... As long as I'm able to work, travel and discover new horizons, I'm happy.
Coming from an offshore background where I spent many years working away from home in the likes of Norway, Africa, and Brazil, I can really relate to what our Offshore Teams go through.
These days my time is mainly spent traveling around our global hubs and working from behind my laptop. I thoroughly enjoy my role as CEO, planning for the future, working out what we need to do to get there, and ensuring we have the right teams in place.
That being said, I still tell people that when I worked Offshore, those were some of the best years of my life. Yes, you may miss out on some birthdays and Christmases, but when you’re home your time is your own and you can spend it doing all the things that are a struggle or need some sort of planning if you work 9-5.