Georgina ‘Glitterpants’ Penney has a new book out this month with a sexy heroine who works on an oil rig off Mauritiana in the glamorous-sounding role of ‘mud engineer’. Yes, that’s a pretty different kind of job for a romance heroine.
Lily ‘Beanie Queen’ Malone set out to learn more about what makes mud engineers tick as part of a mission to discover the murky depths of the character of Jo Blaine in Glitterpants’s new release Unforgettable You.
Beanie Queens don’t know much about mud-engineering, so Lily talked to Anja Dreyer (who’s been around oil rigs most of her working life) to find out more. Anja, originally from Perth, now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She’s also Georgina Penney’s great mate, and the inspiration for much of the Jo Blaine character.
Let’s start with the easy one first, Anja. What is a mud-engineer? Can young girls consider it a cool job?
Mud engineers, otherwise affectionately known as mud doctors or mudmen, design the drilling fluid used while drilling oil wells. They adjust the chemical quantities to give the fluid exact dynamic and static properties. Is it a cool job? Definitely. Glamorous – not so much, although that depends on your definition of the word. It’s an exciting, unusual job, and a little bit messy, but will definitely take you to some far-flung places.
If you go into a job like mud-engineering, is it pretty much guaranteed you’ll end up working offshore, or in the desert somewhere? In other words, somewhere highly remote and not particularly scenic?
There’s a joke in the oil patch that the most reliable way to find oil is to look in the hottest, coldest, windiest, wettest or driest place on earth because there’s guaranteed to be oil there. Sometimes you can get an assignment in a decent spot. The day they find oil in the Bahamas, I’m there!
What’s the best joke you ever heard on an oil rig?
An old time driller always writes "Fucking the dog" on the books whenever they are on down time. The tool pusher tells him they have a new secretary in the office and she's real religious so don't be writing that anymore. The driller starts writing "Chasing the dog" instead. This goes on for a while. One day after being down for a while he's in a hurry and forgets. He writes "Fuckin’ the dog".
A few days later the tool pusher brings out the pay cheques. The driller opens his and inside is a note from the secretary. It reads "I see you finally caught that dog."
Have you ever had to tell a six-feet-something, hundred-kilo-plus roughneck that he’s fucked something up so severely you don’t know how he ties his shoes in the morning?
“Billy-Joe-Bob, you’re an idiot every day of the week, why can’t you just take one day off?”
But seriously, sometimes it’s easier to just stare at them with an intense look of disappointment on your face. I dunno know why that works so well. Maybe I just remind them all of their mother. Apparently my new nickname around here is Mama Bear. As in 'don’t piss off the bear'. I’ve also been affectionately known as 'Dragon Lady' and 'Iron Maiden'.
How many women are there (on average) working on an offshore oil rig? And how many blokes. Any idea of the ratio?
Yep. There’s around 100 to 120 people on the average offshore drilling rig. Of that, maybe four or five are women. And that’s quite a high number compared to when I first started in the early 2000s. Back then I was the only woman.
Do the blokes really look like Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Owen Wilson in Armageddon?
They usually look more like Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty. But after six weeks offshore, even that starts to look good. That’s when you know you need to get off the rig. Like, right away.
In Unforgettable You, Jo has to share a room with one of her male colleagues? Could that really happen?
Yep, there are a limited number of rooms on a rig. They will usually try to have all the girls in one room, but if there’s an odd number, or not enough rooms, then you can find yourself sharing a room with the blokes. I learned how to sleep with ear plugs because, based on my experience, ninety percent of men snore. Loudly.
Is the food on an offshore oil rig generally crappy and bloke-ish? (Has lots of grease?) If you were vegetarian, or gluten-intolerant, would they cook that for you or would they tell you to get a job in a bank instead?
I think they would probably stare at you dumbly and ask what gluten is. The food is generally decent and there’s a lot of it, but it’s definitely not haute cuisine. And the quality is indirectly proportional to the amount of time since the last supply boat came by. First day: steaks. Second day: stroganoff. Third day: stew. Fourth day: pie. Fifth day: indeterminate meat in a thick curry sauce that hides all flavour.
What would the ultimate worst-day-on-the-job be for a mud-engineer? As in nightmare of nightmares where everything went wrong.
Hmm, let’s see. Your roommate snores all night louder than any possible decibel level earplugs could block. You get woken up in the middle of the night because your night hand screwed up some simple task. The well starts drinking mud (that’s when the drilling fluid is being lost to the rocks you’re drilling through) so you have to keep building more mud to replace it. Some rig hand flips a wrong valve somewhere and you spill a bunch of mud into the ocean. That’s very, very bad and requires a shit-tonne of paperwork. And then you get told your relief isn’t coming back to the rig and you have to stay an extra week or three. Yep, that would be a pretty bad day.
What about the ultimate best day ever on the job for a mud-engineer?
The day you go home!
Oil-rig jargon must get fairly suggestive what with all that rigging, drilling and piping. Can you give us some of the best (or worst) lines/jargon you hear on the job?
It’s a zoo on the rig. Everything seems to be named after animals. Cat walk. Monkey board. Dog house. Pipeline pig. Donkey dick. Then of course there’s all the ‘technical’ terms related to the well. Somebody once told me an oil company discovered a field and named all the wells after senior executives’ wives. But when they drilled the wells they were all found to be dry and tight (yes, those are actual terms used to describe wells).
How do mud-engineers like to let their hair down at the end of a shift (like when they hit dry land or home)?
Get drunk. Very, very drunk. Which isn’t hard when you haven’t had a drink in over a month.
Me, first I would take a really, really long shower or bath, wash my hair twice, loofah till my skin was red, wash my hair a couple more times for good measure and de-hairify. Sleep for about 16 hours. Eat some real food. Walk around naked, because I could. Sleep a bit more. Wash my hair again. You get the picture.
If you just arrived back home after your five-week work stint and discovered your house-sitter had kind of sub-let your house to a mate because they thought you were still away, what would you do to get back at the house-sitter?
I think Jo’s reaction in the book is exactly what my reaction would have been. I would be too exhausted to even argue. When you get back from a month offshore, you are bone tired, and all you want is space, peace and quiet and to just generally be away from people. I probably would have gotten a hotel room until I felt human again (which usually takes about four to five days) then I would have had a very serious talk with the house-sitter.
What do mud-engineers dislike (i.e. it makes their job harder)?
Trainees. Actually, no, we get paid extra if we have a trainee because it means you get woken up a lot and will usually work twenty plus hours a day. I would really hate it if I had to work with someone that had just been promoted from trainee (so I didn’t get the trainee pay anymore) but they were still so stupid I had to work twenty plus hours a day because they couldn’t do anything on their own.
And geologists. Because everybody on the rig hates the geologist. Sorry to any geos out there, but it’s the truth.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever accidentally overheard blokes speaking about on an oil-rig, for example, when you’re in the canteen and they’re talking within earshot?
I once walked in on a group discussing the finer points of donkey sex. The weird thing is they didn’t stop when they saw me. That’s when I realised I had truly become “one of the guys”.
Which celebrity would you like to see cast as a female mud-engineer in a movie?
Well, it depends if it’s going to be a realistic movie, or a Hollywood blockbuster.
If NASA arrived at your oil rig and said there was a meteor that was going to demolish the earth and they needed you to join a hand-picked team (led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck) to fly to the meteor and drill a hole in it to plant a nuclear bomb that would save the world, would you put your hand up?
Yes. Because I know that there’s no way blowing up that meteor would have saved the earth and I’d rather die quickly in space than slowly on Earth. Hey, I’m an engineer, we’re known to be overly logical!
What do you think is sexy about female oil-riggers?
They’re capable, take no crap from anyone, are usually in pretty good shape (it’s a physical job), and know what they want and how to get it.
How do you feel thinking that a book character has kind of been based on you?
I feel absolutely honoured. George always told me I lived a very interesting life, but to me it felt normal. It still does now. Seeing the book in print I realise I have been lucky enough to see and do some amazing things, and for that I’m thankful.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about mud-engineering, Anja?
Not really. There’s a reason George is the writer in our friendship. She has the talent for words, not me!
Thank you for your time.
No worries, thanks for asking!