An Ex Apprentice All At Sea 1980 to 2008

A little bit of personal history.

Follow up to it all started in 1963

Andy Knowles 64A

In 1979 at the age of thirty I decided to leave the Army. I had young children and decided it was time to attempt a settled life. I had planned on remaining in the South of England, but had no joy in getting employment that I really wanted.

So towards the end of 1979 we decided to move back home to Aberdeen. We settled quickly, living with my father for a short time. Early 1980 I started work with Marconi Marine (Oil Industry Division).

On joining Marconi’s, I met the only other ex Arborfield Apprentice who was working in the oil industry in telecommunications, that I knew of. This was Arthur Gibson (57A) whom I met again at the 2007 reunion. (A few stories could probably be told about the early days at Marconi, on various equipment courses, don’t mention any bars, and flower displays to Arthur.

This employment in a way was to be on a par with Arborfield, and the Army in general. After spending about two months at the Marconi workshop in Aberdeen, getting familiar with some of the equipment in use on offshore installations,

I was sent on my first job offshore to the ill fated Piper Alpha platform. (For those who may not know, this installation was destroyed in an explosion, and massive fire in 1988 with the loss of 167 lives).

My first trip offshore coincided with another accident offshore, with the Alexander Keiland semi-submersible rig. I was flying out to the Piper and heard when I arrived, that the Alexander Keiland had broken its anchors in a storm and one of its legs had broken.

This resulted in a list, and eventual capsize. I believe they managed to evacuate all but 3 personnel before it capsized. It was eventually towed away to a Fiord in Norway.

Anyway back to my first job. I was on the Piper Alpha to install a new aero beacon for flying operations. This was required because they had installed a new helideck, installed was a bit misleading, as they just lay the new one on top of the old. So I strung the new wire antenna around the helideck, removed the old equipment from the cabinet outside. (Not the best of sites considering the weather conditions.) I installed the new equipment in the Radio Room and commissioned it, and was ready for returning to onshore. Three days that was my first offshore trip.

I then spent the next eight months going to various installations around the North Sea. In between I had a six week spell in Hamburg at the Blohm & Voss docks starting the installation of a new radio room in a module for the Fulmar Platform. Six weeks there and practically nothing was done. Time waiting for the likes of electricians to supply power, and install sockets etc. was the biggest hastle. Especially when they were Romanians, and they thought you could install a cluster of four 13amp sockets orientated in all four directions. I had enough after six weeks and returned to Aberdeen and some other lucky person had the pleasure of finishing the job.

I then started my first, as they called it permanent job, on the Ninian North Platform, with a two weeks on two weeks off rota. This was much better to my mind to have a regular routine. After a year on this platform I applied for a job with the owners. (Chevron an American owned company.) I was successful and started with the company in October 1982 on the Ninian Central Platform.


Ninian Central was Chevron’s flagship installation in the North Sea. It was constructed at Kishorn base in Scotland. It was a massive construction, with the concrete base at 600,000 tons, the largest concrete construction, at the time in the world to be floated out to it’s position approximately 100 miles east of the Shetland Isles in 450ft of water.

During the passage to the Ninian Field it was at times barely 10 feet above the sea bed. Once in position, it stayed in place by sheer weight, all up with the topside at over 700,000 tons. Unlike other standard platform installations, which were metal construction, and had their legs pinned to the seabed by basically what were giants nails, at 75 to 100 feet long.

Having already spent time on the Northern platform I was relatively familiar with the equipment on the Central, apart from the Tropospheric Scatter main communications link to onshore. I soon got the hang of this system. Five metre dishes were pumping out 1000w to be received at the BT station on the Shetlands for onward routing to the mainland. Both the Northern and Southern platforms had line of sight radio links into the Central to be multiplexed on to the main Tropo link.

Lots of evenings and nights were interrupted over the next few years keeping these systems going. But the most labour intensive system was the telephone exchange. It was no other than the Strowager electro-mechanical monstrosity which took up half of the 25 foot by 25 foot communications room. This equipment must have been obsolete when it was installed. I remember being at the Marconi site in Coventry on a course and saw some bits and pieces on display in cabinets. In the late 1980’s it was time to get a bit more up to date with equipment, and we had new electronic exchanges installed on the Ninian platforms. These were the TSX50 and S200 Mitel exchanges, they were a delight to work with compared to the Strowager, which I took great delight in ripping out, and disposing of. Also at the time we were in throws of getting into data networking and communications. So we had new TDM multiplexing equipment which overall was making the whole communications set up a lot more reliable and easier for maintenance purposes. PC’s were in their infancy as far as we were concerned. (Lots of ZX Spectrums going about) But further progress was made with the introduction of PC’s with ‘Windows’, a revolution to the offshore world. These soon took the place of teleprinters and typewriters.

During this time we did enjoy ourselves as well, there were onshore parties organised for all parts of the country. The furthest we travelled for one was down to Portsmouth on the Friday, returning on the Sunday, a long way for a few drinks but always fun. (Not as sedate as the AOBA reunions.)We also had our characters offshore. One that springs to mind was Malcolm Paterson. He insisted he was the only sane person on the platform, as he had a certificate from Nettley Hospital saying he was. (An ex-matelot for you). He gave an outstanding performance when we had a VIP visiting party offshore going round the installation. As the party were going through the turbine hall, there was Malcolm running around with a kids windmill stuck to his hard hat, saying ‘I am only testing the wind strength’. When engaged in conversation he was asked what his family thought of him working offshore, his reply was ‘the wife only thinks I have nipped out for a packet of fags’. These were only a few of the pranks he got up to, some could not possibly be printed.
Over the next few years things settled down communications wise, in the Ninian field, there were a few more updates on equipment, but nothing mind boggling. In 1992 I then moved on to the project for Chevrons new installation, the ‘Alba North Platform’.


This was a new challenge again as I was to spend six months onshore at the yard building the accommodation module for the platform. This included the new telecommunications room. Located in this was the majority of the systems, including a KU band satellite communication link equipment, line of sight radio, multiplex, UHF repeater stations, telephone exchange, PA system, Cisco routers, and a few other computer based bits and pieces. This was being built at Burnt Island in Fife.

I was there to oversee the installation work of the equipment and do some pre-commissioning work. I also spent a few weeks over in Holland where the module containing the radio room was being built. I did manage to get home most weekends during this time. In July 1993 it was time for all the modules to be taken offshore and assembled during a period called ‘Hook Up’. This lasted for almost eight months before first oil was produced from the platform. At the height of activity there were over 400 people employed fitting it all together. Full commissioning took another 6 months.

We all started on a three weeks on three weeks off rota, although I did have four weeks holiday to take as well, which I spread out over the year. Once all the commissioning was completed, we settled down to, an average of one hundred and twenty five people on the platform. (Max 144).

Work now for the next few years consisted of maintaining all the communications and entertainment systems. (Yes we had SKY TV.) Life progressed easily and technology was updated as the years passed, but nothing really exciting. The next major step as far as I was concerned was changing to a two weeks offshore, and three weeks at home rota. Only twenty weeks work a year, more than enough, I was still getting paid the same, and more time to play golf.


The next major change in the way we communicated with onshore was to move away from satellite communications, and going to a network of Line Of Site Radio links.

These links were from several oil installations to one central point, and from there via a fibre optic cable which ran in conjunction with an oil pipeline to shore. This gave all participants a much better and faster communications link. (To be upgraded to 8Mhz. in the near future not as fast as some onshore but far superior to what was available offshore.)

We also now have a separate Wireless Internet Cafe, for individuals to use their own laptops.
The next two years should not see very many changes, apart from me probably retiring at the age of sixty two. (Even more time to play golf).

Wish all the best to those who know me, and all those I have yet to meet again.

Andy Knowles 64A D Company

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