By Larry Bleiberg
The Dallas Morning News
MORGAN CITY, La. - It doesn't look like much from the outside. A warehouse on stilts, or maybe a giant trailer house perched over the water. But "Mr. Charlie" is a historic landmark, nonetheless.
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The structure, standing on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, was the world's first movable offshore oil-drilling rig. For 40 years, it scouted for petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast. Now, it serves as a training site for new oil workers and as a tourist attraction - the only rig in the world open to the public.
For anyone who has seen these industrial outposts hundreds of miles from shore and wondered what life was like inside, this is perhaps the only chance to find out.
The answer: institutional and all business.
Morgan City, about 90 miles southeast of New Orleans, was known for its shrimp fleet until 1947, when engineers successfully drilled for oil in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. Soon, the town became a major supply center for the industry.
Before Mr. Charlie was built in 1954, oil companies constructed platforms at the exact spot where they wanted to drill. When they were finished drilling, they tore the whole thing down.
But Mr. Charlie (named for the father of an oil executive) could be towed from place to place. It had the ability to drill in up to 40 feet of water, which meant it could operate several miles off the coast. The newest platforms can drill in seas thousands of feet deep. Some float on the water's surface and are held in place by motors.
Like other historic properties, Mr. Charlie appears modest up close. But this is no museum piece. As a training site, the rig serves as temporary home to hundreds of students a year who get an eye-opening introduction to life at sea.
Tours lead down well-worn linoleum hallways lit by fluorescent bulbs. Each sleeping area accommodates four to eight students in bunk beds, for a total of 56 workers. Personal storage space is limited to a locker and a drawer. When they're not working, students divide their time between a television room and a cafeteria, which serves four all-you-can-eat meals a day, including a midnight spread.
"The food is plentiful and good," says Virgil Allen, the tour guide and head of the Rig Museum. "There can be a weight-gain problem."
It's not that residents do much sitting. Once they're on the job, workers typically labor in 12-hour shifts. Most spend 14 days working, then get 14 days off. It's hard but lucrative work, offering overtime after 40 hours a week. Even rookies can earn $50,000 a year. The most demanding job is the drilling crew, which must wrestle 32-foot steel pipes into place on the derrick.
"It's a very dangerous work environment but can be done safely," Allen says.
Less demanding are maintenance, housekeeping and catering jobs.
Although newer rigs may be plusher, Mr. Charlie gives a good idea of what life is like onboard. The biggest challenge: isolation.
"Some of the most successful are ex-military," Allen says. "Even ex-cons do well because they're used to being cut off from day-to-day society."
The isolation is why the old rig is still a great training ground for future offshore employees. During a weeklong class, students aren't allowed to leave the vessel, which stands only a few feet from shore. Instructors watch students carefully. If someone always needs to be in charge of the TV remote, it can suggest problems during long stints at sea.
As the tour ends, two trainees walk past the tourists, carrying their suitcases up a ramp.
"Once they walk up here and check in, they can't go down," Allen said. "We've seen some quit after two or three days. They know it's not for them."
Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, weather permitting. Charge: $5. Contact: www.rigmuseum.com