EN VOYAGE – Hibernia – PART ONE

22 Jul 2003

Over the past 15 years I’ve flown—a lot! Into the far north, jammed with fishing and camera gear into bush planes; across the continent in a jump seat of an Air Canada 767; in various Canadian coast guard helicopters into all the manned light stations of British Columbia in dead lousy weather when it was raining sideways and in brilliant Pacific summer. I’ve swooped and skirted Gulf Islands in old Otters and to the north Pacific coastal communities on Cessna’s.

But this was different. Looking down onto the wave-rolled sea, a twinge of fear crept nastily up from some hidden corner of my subconscious. This was tough stuff. It was reality of the coldest kind and I knew its name—“danger”. Here strapped firmly into my seat aboard the Cougar Puma helicopter, one of the best and fastest on the coast, and snug in my state of the art Mustang survival suit—I was afraid. No drugs allowed onto the rig. No matter. I’m making my own version—adrenaline.

Never have I felt so disconnected from tradition and comfort zones—from experience, when out of the mist that so often shrouds the Grand Banks with 315 kilometres of ocean behind me, loomed a multi-legged monstrous structure, spewing flame.

As we landed on the protruding pad off a corner the platform, a fire crew was at the ready. Sparks of any kind, including a camera flash, could activate the heat sensors and the entire rig would shut down … showering even the most innocent.

Hibernia is the only oil rig of its kind. It’s doubtful another will ever be built. As it grew at the 4000 acre Bull Arm construction site it was indeed a triumph of human ingenuity and tenacity. There were so many nay-sayers. Only one word describes Hibernia—massive! It weighs 1.2 million tons yet was floated 500 kilometres to a point over 3 billion barrels of oil then grouted to the ocean floor. On November 17, 1997 “First Oil” came in and broke the Canadian record of 25,000 barrels. The people of Hibernia pumped 45,000. The rig is protected from winter storms by a 15-metre-thick ice skirt. Two modified jet engines supply 22 megawatts of continuous power for the platform, using the gas that surfaces with the oil.

For 21 days an average of 185 crew members work 12-hour shifts. Life on board is active, work is heavy and crew members get very hungry. The cafeteria is open around the clock. The food is simply delicious and most is rig-made. No frozen fries here! Meat and potatoes take on a whole new meaning. Great spuds are held in such high esteem that stuck on a post in the kitchen is a list of 29 different preparations. “Phil’s potatoes” are mashed with bits of ham, green onion and sour cream. “Shipwreck potatoes” are also mashed, whipped with red and green peppers, crushed tomatoes, bacon then topped with bread crumbs and cheese before they’re baked. “Cape Breton potatoes” are enriched with leeks and cream.

When crew was being selected for the rig, the chefs who applied were among the best in St. John’s. Gerard AuCoin grew up near Cheticamp, New Brunswick. He was the sous-chef at Hotel Newfoundland. Boyd Hancock, the pastry chef and his team-mate, Joe Delaney, also worked at that hotel, while Walter Walzthoni, who began his Hibernia career while the rig was being built in Bull Arm, came from Austria to St. John’s.

Food, to them, is their life and feeding the men and women of the rig is more than a job. They realize that, after 12 hours of really hard work, great meals become a focal point. So, the cooks turn many of the meals into events. In honor of our visit, a special Newfoundland menu was prepared. Old fashioned Newfoundland cabbage soup (sometimes called “lobscouse”), smoked salmon and a wonderful seafood salad, cod tongues and cheeks, salt beef with peas pudding, fish ‘n brewis and of course, potatoes. The meal ended with bakeapple cheesecake, blueberry “sidewalks”, rhubarb tarts and fabulous date squares.

With the exception of the dinner rolls, the pastry chefs bake everything from fruit cake and gingerbread to butter tarts and the best molasses tea buns I’ve ever tasted. Great bread is their speciality.

Anita Stewart, of Elora, Ontario, is an award-winning freelance journalist and culinary activist

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