October 18, 2021
A Day in the Life of… a Dynamic Positioning Operator

A Day in the Life of… a Dynamic Positioning Operator

2:45 pm – It’s now mid-day in the Gulf of Mexico on an ultra-deepwater drillship. I’m on Day 14 of a 28-day hitch and am working the 6:00 pm to 6:00 am schedule. The alarm begins its lazy tune and I begrudgingly awake. (I hear loud noises and announcements all day and am not a fan of jarring alarm clocks.) Mornings (on an oddly timed work schedule) are much easier with an early wake up and an intense workout in the gym. Working on the bridge isn’t always the most physically demanding job and keeping your sanity through taking care of your body is essential when working in mentally demanding environments. I call my wife, Allison, when I wake to check in on her day and get motivated, then check my email and social media to stay in touch with the world. After the gym, I prepare for watch, and read one of the books I downloaded for the hitch. I also have begun studying to advance to my Chief Mate Unlimited License and try to study for 30 minutes or more each morning.

5:30 pm – I grab my backpack and walk a few flights of stairs to reach the navigation deck and enter the bridge. I grab some coffee and look out of the windows to get my bearings and watch the waves for a few minutes. We are transiting to a new well location and will be making arrival later this evening. The first part of any watch schedule is always my favorite part of the day; there is something I find grounding about looking out of the numerous windows and seeing nothing but ocean in every direction. I come from a family of mariners and knew I loved the sea from the time I was little. I have grown to love it even more during my six years on the ocean. I discuss the previous 12 hours’ events with my relief, the upcoming operations, the inbound supply vessels and any failures in equipment affecting the vessel.

6:00 pm – I assume the watch as an Officer in Charge of the Navigational Watch and ensure the vessel is on the correct course line. I plot our position and compare with the GPS in the chart room before checking the radar for vessel traffic in the area and communicating with the senior DPO to ensure everything is in order for the upcoming well arrival. Some drilling vessels only change wells a few times a year, so to be a sailor and get to transit is always a welcome and exciting change in pace.

8:05 pm – We make arrival at the new well location and I slowly stop the vessel using the joystick control. The primary control of the vessel is dynamic positioning (DP), which controls the vessel’s motion along the surge (forward motion), sway (sideways motion) and yaw (heading motion) axis. The vessel’s six thrusters are able to compensate for and control the vessel’s motion based off a variation in azimuth direction and thrust force. Based on the environment and sea state, different axis may be easier to reduce speed for than others. At this time, our heading is the easiest to set as automatically controlled. Next, I use the joystick to slow our sideways motion below 0.2 knots and then select “sway” as auto controlled. Finally, I bring the joystick in an astern direction slowly to bring the “surge” axis within limits. Once this final auto control is selected, the vessel is in full DP with a pinpoint precise geographic location being maintained by a computer model. Today’s dynamic positioning is able to maintain position within inches of a setpoint.

Once the vessel is steady in DP, our bridge team begins setting up our position reference systems the computer model uses to compare position data in order to fight the environment and maintain our position set point over the well center. It is a primary principle within DP drilling operations to use two different modes of reference for vessel positioning. The vessel I am on uses three differential GPS’ which are provided correctional data through different combinations of satellite constellations, as well as two separate acoustic beacon arrays which use sound transmission and reception as a means of positioning. These acoustic arrays are the first objective upon arrival as this usually is the most time consuming. I begin by “waking up” the beacons on the seabed and calibrate them into two arrays containing four beacons each.

A Day in the Life of… a Dynamic Positioning Operator

With our two principles for position keeping established (differential GPS and acoustics) and accuracy confirmed, we begin equipment testing to ensure our vessel has optimal ability to maintain position. Some examples of testing include bringing each thruster and engine up to 100 percent load for 15 minutes, completing a 360-degree heading change to ensure there are no “blind spots” with our position reference systems, and transferring DP control to each of our various consoles. A primary element of DP is to have redundant equipment and control so that a single point failure of any equipment would not result in the loss of the ability to maintain position.

12:30 am – The senior DPO continues working on arrival trials and I begin completing the day’s cumulative consumption reports of drilling fluids, marine diesel fuel and water. Once the reports are finished, I complete a set of daily operational checks on the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) equipment vital to our vessel in the event of an emergency. I make test calls to various vessels and coast stations to ensure communications can be transmitted if needed. I check emails to make sure there is nothing that needs to be immediately addressed and respond if something does. After this I continue to assist with arrival checks and monitoring the DP system. While we are finishing up our checks, the drill floor has been running down to the seabed with a jetting assembly to begin spudding the well.

5:30 am – My relief arrives on the bridge and our previous role of updating is reversed. I make sure he is informed of everything that has been completed testing wise and what still needs to be done. There is a supply vessel with groceries and drilling fluids arriving in an hour, so they begin preparing for that operation. This is also prime sunrise viewing time, so I make sure to watch it as often as possible.

6:00 am – I depart the bridge having been relieved of the watch and go to my cabin for a little more reading and studying, then it’s off to bed for a chance to do it all again tomorrow. It’s an exciting job and I hope by telling my story, it reaches some young girl out there and makes her a little bit more interested in the oil and gas industry.

Author profile

Tiffany Woodcock is a dynamic positioning operator onboard an ultra deepwater drillship in the Gulf of Mexico. Her primary job duty is to serve as a Navigational Watch Officer, follow all navigation regulations and ensure the vessel maintains its position over the designated well center in order to conduct downhole drilling operations. Woodcock holds a Second Mate Unlimited License, a Master of Science in Maritime Administration & Logistics from Texas A&M University, and a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology from Mississippi State University. She is happily married to her wife, Allison, with a baby girl on the way and has a mischievous dachshund named Rufio. 

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