Workers aboard this vast, rumbling network of pipes and compressors call her an animal--a volatile creature with good days and bad. Her moods swing, her pressures shift and her lifeblood flows from black pools two miles below the sea floor.
This is Platform Gail, one of the largest and most sophisticated offshore oil rigs in California--a small city sitting in almost 800 feet of ocean nine miles off the coast of Port Hueneme.
At 900 feet tall, she is a virtual skyscraper at sea, just 300 feet shorter than the Empire State Building. Her base, just above the water, is the size of a football field. Day and night, Gail sucks up oil and gas, sending it roaring through pipelines to storage tanks in Carpinteria.
She pumps about 4,500 barrels of oil and 10 million cubic feet of natural gas every 24 hours. She desalinates water for the crew, filters poison gas from the oil and makes her own electricity.
Those aboard Gail sometimes seem less like technicians and engineers than cowboys atop a bucking bronco.
"It's a low-risk, high-consequence environment," said Sally English, the platform's supervisor and the only woman working on Gail. Even with the latest safety equipment and backup systems, the consequences of an accident are enormous.
Employees conduct daily emergency drills but try not to let the hazards of the job interfere with the work. Many are seasoned offshore employees. They are used to life on a swaying maze of steel girders above a rolling sea. Their noses are conditioned to the pungent odor of petroleum, their ears dulled to the din of machinery.
They work seven 12-hour days, then go home for seven days. While on board, most share small, dorm-like rooms. For entertainment they watch television, call home or exercise in the recreation room. Alcohol is forbidden and smoking severely curtailed. A stray spark outside designated areas will be detected by sensors that shut down operations and flood the area with thousands of gallons of water.
But this life holds an attraction and camaraderie that few jobs can match. The environment is always changing, there is an element of risk and marine wonders abound. The money isn't bad either, with salaries starting around $40,000 a year and topping $100,000.
"I worked two weeks on land once and I couldn't take it," said Javier Marin, a 39-year-old from Oxnard who has worked on platforms since he was 18. "I said put me back offshore."
A trip to Gail begins at the Port of Hueneme, where workers board the 115-foot boat Wendy Tide. Depending on the weather, the trip can be a pleasure cruise or a nightmare.
On a recent day, luck was with them; the seas were tranquil but foggy. A whale spout appeared nearby and pelicans wheeled overhead.
"It's not a bad commute unless the seas are high," said Steve Metheny of Ojai. "I've seen a lot of macho men go down."
Metheny, 54, visits Gail three times a week to monitor its chemical supply. There are engineers, technicians and a lifeboat repairman aboard. Some will return that afternoon; others will stay a few days.
Laura Kranzler, 33, is an engineer with Venoco, the Carpinteria-based company that owns Platform Gail along with the smaller platforms Grace and Holly. Kranzler visits Gail to make sure nothing leaks aboard the platform. Hydrogen sulfide is a constant threat.
The highly poisonous and flammable gas is a byproduct of the petroleum extraction process. It can kill quickly and with little warning. Workers train daily on what to do and where to go in the event of a gas leak.
An hour passes. The boat captain steers carefully in the dense gloom.
Slowly, out of the mist, a towering structure emerges like a spaceship in a cloud. There is a long telescoping arm with flames fed by natural gas roaring from the end. Metal stairways and steel grates crisscross the three-story platform. Radar dishes jut from one side. The small figures of men climbing stairs and operating cranes become visible.
"When you first come out here, you are just in awe because it is so complex," said Metheny, looking up at Gail. "But after a while, you realize it's a little city."
A crane high above lowers a circular rubber basket to the boat deck. Workers put on life jackets, step onto the side of the 10-foot-wide basket and grab the ropes that suspend it. The crane winches them up. They rise 50 feet, 100 feet, 150 feet. Winds buffet the basket.
"Think we'd make it if we fell?" asked one man, looking at the sea below.
"Maybe," replied another. "Maybe."
The basket is set down on the platform.
On board, dozens of workers in blue overalls, plastic glasses and helmets walk through alleys of pipes and drills. The smell of gas and oil strikes like a fist and the air vibrates with the sound of pumps and compressors. Orange "DANGER" and "POISON" signs are everywhere.