The reason to chopper out to Platform Irene, four and a half miles off the Santa Barbara coast, in 37-mile-per-hour winds, was to film more of our interview with Peter Bernstein, as described yesterday.

The theme of this particular segment was “risk” — investing entails risk — and so we wanted a metaphor. Drilling for oil is risky. Choppers are risky. Thirty-seven-mile-an-hour winds, I kept pointing out to no avail, are risky.

The helicopter was a $7 million job owned by a subcontractor to the oil company. If you ask me, it looked pretty humble for $7 million. We were advised to be careful of the sliding-door railings — “don’t screw up the door, please” was more or less the instruction — because the door cost $130,000.

Two pilots, two engines, room for 12 passengers (we were 11, but with a fair amount of camera gear as well). First we were told to provide our weight — “This is not the time to lie!” I kept advising everyone, nervously. Then each of us was issued a Mae West, I think they were called, in the unlikely event of a mayday, like the ones they show you every time you take off on a regular jet, only this time I paid close attention. We also got headphones to drown out the noise.

Off we went from the Santa Barbara airport, a few miles out to sea and 35 miles up the California coast to Irene, cruising at just under 140 knots, which is to say about 175 miles an hour. Whoa, is that coastline beautiful! And what perspective it gives to see all this from the air. The first balloonists must have experienced an incredible thrill, centuries ago, seeing everything from above for the first time. And unlike them, we could steer.

Irene is the northernmost of a chain of offshore rigs that sit about 4.5 miles out to sea. It was built around 1986 on a square-mile federal lease that cost $40 million. (Don’t hold me to every detail of this, but I think I got it straight.) It cost maybe $120 million to build, although it is a fairly small rig. It sits in 285 feet of water and can sleep more than 50 people. Most of them share common quarters, but the foreman and the one female on board have private rooms. (“Is she the accountant or a roustabout?” I asked. “A roustabout,” I was told, “and you don’t want to mess with her — she can heft three guys over the side of this thing.”) They work two shifts, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, seven days straight, then seven days off. When no drilling is going on, the maintenance crew is about 20. From sea level to the top of the drilling derrick: 310 feet, like a 31-story building.

We touched down on the bull’s-eye of the helipad.

“Please be real careful about loose papers or anything else,” we were told before we were allowed to deplane (dechop?). “It’s really windy out there, and if anything blows over, we have to go get it.”

There is a full-time environmental and safety compliance officer on the rig, and he seems to take all this rather seriously. In all the years Irene has been out there, only a few people have fallen overboard, and no one has been lost. There were two roustabout corpses on the metal floor on one of the levels, but I was relieved to see they had been constructed as a joke from a variety of rig-based parts — fire extinguisher arms, steel pipe legs, safety goggles, boots, and so on. Very lifelike, but no actual ex-human components.

We were all issued hard hats and safety goggles, and when our sound man’s hard hat blew over the side, three guys in orange heavy-weather gear had to climb into a twin-engine motor boat, lowered a couple of hundred feet down to the swells and white caps below. They retrieved the hat (“waste not, want not,” I was thinking, but actually this was part of the environmental discipline: zero tolerance for debris) and a few minutes later, we watched as they were winched back up, dripping boat and all, by a single strand of cable, drenched from the sea, but triumphant.

After a safety briefing, we were given full run of the place. It’s a lot of see-through iron stairs, descending down to the lowest level platform, which on a really rough day the seas wash over. Sea lions were cavorting amongst the forest of vertical pipes rising from the ocean floor.

It was really neat. And to think: all that money flowing silently through those pipes. Irene’s a wealthy woman.

Tomorrow: Goodnight, Irene



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