For the Human Guinea Pig column, I do things you might consider doing yourself, until you reject the idea as outlandish. Before a friend of mine in the energy business offered to help me spend some time hanging out on an offshore natural-gas drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I had never considered this as a holiday option. (This is why I'm not a billionaire. It turns out Mohamed Al-Fayed, who is one, is planning to build a luxury hotel on an out-of-commission rig in the North Sea, an area known for its gale-force winds.) But now it seemed both salutary and patriotic to combine American energy independence with a vacation.
A rig is like a stationary cruise ship—minus the after-dinner Barry Manilow tribute—that has been turned inside out. All the things usually hidden away inside—the gears, the motors, the noise of machinery, the men in grease-covered overalls—are outside on proud display. And all life's amenities—the food, the beds, the pingpong table—are tucked deep inside, away from the sunlight.
Getting to the rig required an hour-and-a-half helicopter ride from the New Orleans airport. Looking out the window was like viewing a panorama of drilling history. Almost immediately after takeoff, my corporate chaperone, Bill Chemerinski, an expert in deepwater operations with Mariner Energy, pointed out what used to be offshore drilling: a barge in 10 feet of water. Then we passed production platforms standing in 200 to 300 feet of water—the depth of deepwater drilling a generation ago. Then, after about 50 miles the inner shelf dropped and the seabed gave way to rigs capable of drilling 10,000 feet below the surface. These are called semisubmersibles; that is, they are giant machines resting on pontoons, secured in place by 14-ton anchors. (Read more about them here.)
When we had flown 140 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, a little Lego tower, forlorn and tiny, emerged out of the mist. It was the Ocean America. Within minutes it became gigantic. It's more than 400 feet in length and 200 feet in width (by comparison, a football field is 360 feet by 160 feet). At the tallest point of the derrick it stands 270 feet above the water. We landed on the heliport, and the first person to greet me was a pretty, dark-haired woman, Amy Stewart, 44, the rig's safety officer and, she told me, my bunkmate. I didn't see many more women—of the revolving crew of 105 workers, there are only five. One is a ballast-control officer; the rest work in the kitchen and housekeeping.
Amy immediately took me inside to get outfitted. No one is allowed on the working portions of the deck without a hardhat, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots. I noticed that on the back of Amy's hardhat were two stickers. One read, "I ain't yo mama" and the other, "Wicked witch." She explained she found these on her hat one day and decided to keep them. To avoid getting caught in machinery, I was instructed to remove my earrings and wedding ring. (This could be a rig vacation slogan: "Leave your troubles—and your wedding band—behind!")
As we walked down the stairs to her room, she passed a worker coming up, holding two cups of soda. "Which hand are you going to put on the handrail?" she said to him, explaining to me that because the rig can shift in the currents, holding onto the railing is a rule.