Every Thursday at noon, Ed Huben finishes his 5-hour commute from his home near San Luis Obispo by swinging to work on the end of a rope.
That maneuver begins a weeklong shift, all of which Huben spends atop a Gordian knot of pipes, machinery and electronics that could, if allowed to get out of control, blow Huben and his co-workers into tiny pieces.
It doesn't, though, because Huben and his co-workers make sure it doesn't. They are responsible for overseeing, in alternating 7-day shifts, the operation of the largest oil-producing complex off Orange County's coast: tandem offshore platforms, known as Ellen and Elly, that are operated by Shell Western Exploration & Production Inc.
Round the clock, 365 days a year, hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil flow up to the platforms, up from the huge natural reservoir beneath county coastal waters that is called the Beta Field by oil workers.
Getting at that oil requires that the workers live and work in an environment that demands specialized skill, vigilance, a serene nature and the ability to exist 24 hours a day on a structure, alternately dizzying and claustrophobic, that often looks and feels like a joint creation of Captain Nemo and Houdini.
It also requires the ability to imitate Tarzan at least twice a week. Because the crews arrive at Ellen by boat--after a 45-minute trip from Long Beach--they use one of several knotted ropes that dangle above one of the lower platform catwalks to make the short swing from the boat deck to the catwalk. It is, the workers said, the quickest and easiest way to travel the last leg of their journey.
Once on the platform, the workers fan out to varied jobs that compel them to work, eat, sleep and play in an islandlike isolation a tantalizing 17 miles off the county's coast, within sight of the Newport Center high-rises. They are surrounded by deep ocean in federal waters, yet they are on a static structure supported by several submarine legs that plunge 265 feet to the bottom of the ocean, making the platforms immobile islands.
Consequently, the 40,000-square-foot, 13,400-ton Ellen and the 55,000-square-foot, 10,600-ton Elly (all platforms in the Beta Field have names beginning with the letter E ) are actually highly sophisticated buildings. A trip around them on foot, however, feels more like a stroll on an oil tanker or a submarine.
"Every little space out here is used to its absolute potential," Huben said. "Everything is so eminently practical that this place has a kind of beauty of its own. And you're finding out new things all the time, things on the platform that you haven't noticed before. I've been out here for 6 1/2 years, and there was still stuff I was discovering out here after 5 years."
Huben presides over the electronic nerve center of the complex, a room on Elly whose walls are covered with switches, gauges and other devices that monitor each stage of the path the oil takes--from the time it enters the platform through a series of drilling connectors, to the time it leaves for Long Beach through a 16-inch pipe.
Huben makes sure that almost 1,200 separate safety devices are monitored constantly and inspected each month. Because of such instrumentation, which automatically controls much of the platforms' operation, the entire complex can be run by a 20-man crew and three supervisors.
Job descriptions, therefore, tend toward the technical rather than the physical. The workers like it that way.
"You're more of a technician out here than a roustabout," said Brian Kachelhoffer, 28, whose specialty is instrumentation.
"We're not like the old days, where you found guys working in the oil fields whose voice DB (decibel level) was higher than their IQ," said Jack Hannemann, 45, an electrician.
"We're new oil versus old oil," said Jim Vandivort, 39, also an electrician.
Not to say that they don't occasionally work up a sweat. On Ellen, where the oil is collected (drilling has ended at the Shell complex), it is 90 feet from the catwalk just above the sea to the building atop the structure that contains offices, galley and living quarters. The only way to get from one level to another is to climb or descend a series of stairs. There is no elevator. Arrangements are similar on Elly, which is reached via a 200-foot catwalk from Ellen.
The workers said agility isn't necessarily a prerequisite to a job on the platforms--although a quick tour of the facilities will convince any visitor that it is no place for someone with acrophobia. Many of the stairs wind up the outside of the structures in such a way that the platform is on one side of the stair while a lot of air--and a long drop to the sea--is on the other.
Still, said Don Knuppel, the production foreman for Shell's platforms, "these guys are the cream of the crop--we don't send just anybody out here."
The workers, Huben said, tend to behave on the job and off it with a mixture of gregariousness and independence.