From Birkenhead to Bandar Seri Begawan and Bishkek

The Ramblings of a Wanderlust Builder

Chapter 7: Floating Planes and Gentlemen Mariners

Chapter 7: Floating Planes and Gentlemen Mariners

Das Island was intriguing in some respects. Although it was uninhabited until the off-shore oil fields were discovered, a small cemetery was found there, which was believed to have been used by dhow fishermen and pearl-divers over many years. The cemetery was enclosed and respectfully maintained by the company, as it fell within the area designated for new staff housing.

At a time when Abu Dhabi was a British protectorate as part of the Trucial States, the RAF had considered it as a possible emergency landing venue as early as 1933. With planes needing regular refueling, long distant flying then was achieved by hopping in relatively short stages and could take several days to get to military bases in places like Muscat or Aden. The idea was discounted when survey results deemed the coral sand surface too soft for landing planes. In the late 1950’s when construction commenced, the first thing to be developed on Das was the harbour, as all materials had to be brought in by barge from far off Bahrain which was a more developed oil producer then and where BP had its base and stores.

Eventually the asphalt airstrip was built, to enable the large numbers of men to commute for the multiple constructions and the oil processing that was ever ongoing. When I arrived, the oil plants were well established and were processing and shipping crude, fed by the subsea pipelines from the off-shore operations. A new high-tech gas plant was nearing completion and was preparing to come online to harness the waste gas from the oil processing and convert it to liquefied natural gas. Pending its completion, approaching Das Island by air for the first time, conjured up a scene from Dante’s Inferno, as the waste gas was burned off endlessly, in a spectacular array of roaring flares and belching black smoke.


Fishermen still utilised the island and were allocated dhow berths in the harbour and given free access to the company medical facilities. They also had the privilege of free flights on the company planes, should they need to go to or from Abu Dhabi for any reason. On one particular occasion a Skyvan cargo plane, had a problem with one of its engines when it was due to fly in from Abu Dhabi. The engineer who maintained the plane was stationed on Das and so the pilot made a decision to take a solo flight to him for checking, fully aware that the plane could manage unloaded, on one engine if necessary. Undeterred, a local fisherman demanded his right to go to Das, even after having the situation explained to him. Invariably, the dodgy engine started spluttering part the way into the flight and eventually cut out. The pilot called to the off-shore complex he was near and a helicopter was sent to follow the plane as a precaution. Just a few miles off Das and insight of the airstrip, the second engine also failed and the pilot was forced to ditch in the sea. The fisherman however left his seat in panic and sustained a broken leg and a lot of bruises. Predominately made of wood, the plane floated long enough for the alerted rescue boat to reach the scene and pull both men off.

The next day a 16 man shift crew arrived back in Abu Dhabi, from their UK leave and boarded a Skybus, [a Skyvan with seats] for the leg to Das. The news of the downing had reached them and so there was lots of banter and black humour prior to flying. After taxiing out, the pilot and co-pilot, who were partly visible to the passengers, turned around to ask if everyone was strapped in, to reveal both were wearing diver’s masks and snorkels’. The pilot forever insisted the ditching had been done on purpose to prove the plane could float for at least 16 minutes.       


The substantial completion of the Liquefied Gas Plant was the starting gun for the commencement of several new projects on the island. With the many hundreds of people utilised for the construction now leaving, the valuable space used for contractors temporary housing and materials storage, was now freed up for redeveloping. Following the relatively easy task of demolishing the old staff housing, the roads were now scheduled for up grading to a more permanent state. They had been retained as unpaved tracks to forestall potential damage, from heavy construction vehicles and tracked cranes, which trundled between the harbour and the worksite at extreme ends of the island. The air strip too, which was only suitable for STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) planes, needed extending and resurfacing after prolonged heavy use and to bring in larger planes, to cater for the transporting of the expanding staff. I had an interesting time to look forward to, with the coordination of various stakeholders to avoid major glitches.

The Bechtel Bomber

The main contractors Bechtel, who had built the gas plant, had to come up with a solution to transport their own huge workforce back and forth as the oil company charted plane was not suitable for such volumes. To resolve the matter they hired a refurbished WW11 Dakota, affectingly known as the Bechtel Bomber.


Undoubtedly the facilities on the island were of a very high standard with the provision of newly built and well-furnished studio style apartments for company staff and workers and first class mess and clubs provided.


I always thought it somewhat remiss to refer to the Senior Staff dining facilities as a mess, as it was comparable with some the better restaurants I have frequented. Apart from being furnished by Harrods, meals were complimentary of course, but that did not dilute the exceptional quality offered on an extensive menu or the standard or service. The dress code for both the Senior Staff mess and club was rigorously maintained with the requirement to wear a long sleeved shirt and tie for dinner, Thursday excepted, when short sleeves were optional. At weekends, frequenting the golf, sailing or cricket club for a BBQ’s was a good option also.     


As with my experiences in the desert, I found the guys I worked with to be resourceful and adept at applying themselves to scavenging and recycling waste materials, particularly when it came to enhancing their own particular club or pastimes. I also soon found that as I had management of the carpenter’s shop and construction tradesmen, I became a valuable asset to the various clubs and societies.


Some weeks into my tenure a shipment of beautiful hardwood planking arrived at my workshop, but I could not find any record of who ordered it or where it was intended to be used, so it went into my stock pending further inquiries.


With the expanding program of work, the golf clubhouse had to be relocated and their committee took advantage of the multiple, redundant old prefabricated housing units I had dismantled previously and redesigned a larger facility by cannibalising several of these units. Members gave their own free time for basic construction, but I was called on for interior refitting. The bar was pretty poor and as I had a certain amount of experience of bar fit-out in my career, I was asked to redesign and build a new one as a more appealing focal point.


Zulfiqar Ali was a super carpenter who worked for me while in the desert in Abu Dhabi and helped me build Bernie’s Inn. He was the first artisan I recruited to my team shortly after I arrived on Das and I gave him the task of crafting the bar. Using the unclaimed hardwood planking in my store, we machined and matched up the beautifully grained timber to make a fantastic 25 foot bar that would have graced any 5 star establishment. Some weeks after the clubhouse reopened, I was enjoying a beer there with Bill Lazenby, the Marine Superintendent. While admiring the bar top, he suggested I let him know when a load of expensive hardwood he had ordered some time ago had arrived. He had a special order from his budget for this specific timber, to re-deck tugs and fireboats in his fleet.

The liberated boat decking

The ownership and the reason I could find no record was solved, but I could have been in deep trouble. I waited until he was on leave and coordinated with his deputy to patch repair the boat decks with the balance of his timber. Bill was nobody’s fool and obviously knew the fate of his timber; however he was also a keen golfer and all around nice guy and just gave me a wry smile when I sent a drink over to him, on every single occasion I saw him.

This is the seventh in a series of blogs narrating the life of an Expat – from childhood years to his ascend as a veteran of the Travel and Construction industry.

Author

Bernard C. Dagnall, CIPM

Bernard is a highly experienced professional Project Manager with credentials earned over a span of 35 years with VVIP Clientele and Blue-Chip brands in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. He is also a creative writer having penned many industry-related articles and blogs.