The Vinland, located off Nova Scotia’s Sable Island, was Dave Watson’s first offshore rig.
Teacher Dave Watson proves it’s possible to escape the allure of oil patch prosperity
As a shaggy youth with less than stellar grades, Dave Watson didn’t come across as someone who was on track for a university education when, in Grade 9, he mentioned to his school’s guidance counsellor that he wouldn’t mind being a teacher.
“He looked me up and down — long hair, marks weren’t so great — ‘nah, you can’t be a school teacher,’” Watson recalls.
That verdict helped set Watson on a path that didn’t deviate for the next 20 years. While he surpassed his three older brothers by graduating high school (after the principal hauled him into the office and predicted he was going to end up just like his brothers), like many a farm boy from Beaverlodge, Watson went right to work after Grade 12.
After several cycles of working for a while then travelling extensively to Europe and South America, Watson found himself back home, a young husband and father, supporting his family by servicing drilling rigs.
“I covered northern Alberta so many times, up the Alaska Highway, chasing drilling rigs,” says Watson, now 60.
Then came 1982. Alberta’s oil industry died. Fortunately for Watson, someone he knew suggested that he apply to work on an offshore drilling rig in the Maritimes.
“So we packed up a VW microbus with a German shepherd, a baby and expecting a second child, drove to Nova Scotia and worked the offshore for three years.”
Watson arrived on his first offshore rig in 1983, one year after a severe storm sunk the Ocean Ranger in the unforgiving waters east of Newfoundland, claiming the lives of all 84 people on board. He arrived to find an environment that was unlike the recklessness that Alberta rigs had a reputation for. What he found were professionally run operations staffed by an international cast of characters.
A helicopter approaches the rig off Sable Island to take Watson and his crew mates home.
“The camaraderie out on these rigs was second to none. Everybody relied on everybody else because one wrong move and everybody could lose their lives,” Watson says. “And then at the same time, I met people in the oil patch who couldn’t use a knife and fork, and were some of the most primitive-based people I ever met.”
During his three years in the offshore sector, Watson worked on a variety of rigs off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. His job on these rigs was to service and maintain the many mechanical systems and pieces of equipment, such as centrifuges, desalters, desanders and shale shakers. He also worked with the “drilling fluid guy” to keep the drilling mud clean.
As self-contained 24-hour industrial sites with their own living quarters, recreation and dining facilities, the rigs were like floating villages, and they had a routine.
“You got used to the rhythms and the pulse of the rig,” Watson says.
His typical work schedule was two weeks on, two weeks off. During his days off he was a full-time father to his three kids at the home they maintained in Mahone Bay, N.S., near Lunenburg. This was in contrast to his experience in Alberta’s energy sector, where the norm was four days off per month.
A distant view of the Labrador #1, off Sable Island, taken while flying to shore.
Part of life on the rig, and part of the appeal of being out on the open ocean, was witnessing the incredible forces of nature on display. Watson remembers one occasion when he tried to walk across the deck while getting blown backward as rain hit him in the face like it was being shot from a firehose.
He also remembers another occasion that afforded him a closeup look at both the sky and the ocean.
“I woke up one night rolling in my bunk and I went outside and it was just Hades outside, like the wind was howling and anchor chains slamming, and out of the dark would come a big black wall, a 40-foot wave that would just come out of the night,” he said.
As wave after wave approached then passed, the rig would alternate between pitching severely upward then severely downward, as it rode up the leading edge of each wave, then back down into each trough. As this was going on, Watson was up on deck, one moment looking through the clouds into the starry sky, the next staring down into the inky black ocean.
“These are the sorts of things ... you just can’t wash them out of your mind,” he says.
“To be out in an environment like the ocean is so unique. It’s just such a rare opportunity to see nature where it can be as smooth as glass to something that’s just unfathomably angry, violent.”
A different path
After Watson had worked offshore for three years, the industry slowed down and he was laid off. He returned to Alberta and got back into construction and the oil industry. This meant being gone from home all the time, which led to the end of his marriage.
“Once the marriage was gone, I looked at myself and said, ‘You know, I don’t want to turn 50 in the oil patch,” Watson says.
So even though he was making good money pipelining, at the age of 37, he enrolled in the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge. His first teaching job, at 42, was at an outreach school in Grande Prairie.
“When I got my first paycheque I was quite aghast because [as a teacher]
I netted in a month what I used to net in a week as a pipeliner,” he says.
“The ironic thing was, when I started teaching, my quality of life went through the roof. At the end of the day they would say, ‘you can go home now’ and I was like, ‘what?’ and ‘What do you mean I get weekends off?’”
Watson said it took him three years to get used to being a teacher, to having a desk in a classroom, and having most evenings and weekends to himself. He now teaches Grade 6 at Riverstone School in Grande Prairie.
“As hard as it is, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life, other than travelling,” he says. “I’ve been so fortunate that life’s journey has taken me in this direction.” ❚
Q&A with Dave Watson
What’s your strongest memory from your travels to South America?
The memory that really stands out was the reason why I travelled there in the first place and that was the Incan archaeological site of Machu Picchu in Peru. I had seen a photo of it in a book on South America when I was in about Grade 2. At that age, I thought that it would be impossible to travel to such a far off, exotic place. When I was travelling in Europe at the age of 19, I realized that I could follow my dream and travel to South America to see this incredible site. It did not disappoint me.
Did you pick up any Maritime slang when you worked down there?
While I can’t say that I picked up any Maritime slang while living in Nova Scotia, I did get used to the various dialects that are present in the Maritime provinces. Of course we all know about the folks from Newfoundland and their regional accent, but even in Nova Scotia I came to understand that the various regions of the province had unique dialects. I lived in Lunenburg County and they spoke in a different way than, let’s say, people from Halifax. Cape Breton people have their own unique dialect.
What, if anything, do you miss about the oil patch?
Having the chance to work on the offshore rigs on the Atlantic was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. It had all of the attributes that a guy could want: danger, camaraderie, excitement and of course, the chance to work out on the ocean.
If you were graduating from high school now, what career path would you choose?
Would I become a teacher after I graduated high school? More than likely not. At that age, I always wanted to be an archaeologist.
What’s the best part of being a teacher?
I love to see the change in my students throughout the year, whether academically or through personal, positive growth. It is a very rewarding profession.
I still love teaching and have not regretted a moment of going back as a mature student to enter this very rewarding profession. Still, there are some changes I would like to see come to the profession: more teacher autonomy, more self-directed PD, a decent break at noon hour to rest and collect one’s thoughts before going back into the classroom. ❚
A tale of two rigs
Within the oil and gas exploration sector, offshore drilling rigs are referred to as mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs), of which there are two main types: jack-up and semi-submersible.
The jack-up style has three or four movable legs that can be extended (“jacked”) above or below the drilling deck, which is a water-tight barge that floats while the vessel is being towed to the drill site. Once on site, the legs are extended downward into the sea floor and hold the drilling deck above the waves.
The Labrador #1, stationed here in the Strait of Canso, N.S., is a jack-up rig.
Semi-submersibles sit on giant pontoons and hollow columns that float high in the water when the rig is being moved but are filled with seawater at the drill site to partially submerge the rig. With much of its bulk below the water’s surface, the semi-submersible becomes a stable platform for drilling, moving only slightly with wind and currents. During drilling, an anchoring system holds the structure in place over the well.
Sources: Dave Watson and www.diamondoffshore.com.
Before Class is a profile series about teachers who’ve had interesting jobs before entering the teaching profession. Instalments will appear in the ATA News periodically throughout the school year. If you know of a teacher who would be a good subject for such a profile, please contact managing editor Cory Hare at email@example.com.