Olan Sisk reckons he’s seen some “mind-blowing” sights out at sea while working on offshore construction vessels the world over.
Like the time a Chinese destroyer came hurtling over the horizon towards them, and simultaneously a nuclear sub popped up out of the water, in the mistaken belief that spy equipment was being planted on the seabed. The incident happened, he says, as China and Taiwan were about to go to war.
“There was a bit of a standoff,” Olan observes – in what seemed something of an understatement – as he talks to the Chronicle from his Raglan West home.
The 37-year-old hydrographic surveyor recounts also seeing some “amazing” underwater wrecks through his work. Like a Russian sub that was torpedoed in World War II, its shell now sticking out of the seabed and spotted by the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) of a construction vessel he was aboard.
“We’ve got cameras on the ROVs,” he explains of the sensor system, “and rely on video feeds up to everybody on the vessel.”
As a hydrographer, Olan has specialised in offshore construction the past four or five years and is just about to head back to Brazil where he’s involved in “hooking up” offshore gas fields. Employed by an Italian construction company called Saipem, which has offices worldwide, Olan also works in such far-flung places as Egypt, West Africa and the Black Sea.
He can be away for several weeks at a time, then “everything stops” for him back in Raglan. That’s when Olan leaves the house they’re renovating and the daily dog-walking to partner Eva Rich, who works downtown at Tonic Hairdressing.
He says Eva – a Californian he met here in Raglan – handles having a fly-in, fly-out partner “very well”. And it makes her appreciate him all the more on his return, he laughs.
Meantime Olan works 12-hour days confined to whatever vessel the company charters, working alongside 100 to 300 others in a male-dominated industry. “I’m almost institutionalised at this stage,” he says of his work situation. “I just crack on with it.”
It’s been this way for 15 years now, and Olan’s got his daily routines going. “You roll out of your bed and up the hall to work,” he says. “There’s no commuting.”
There is a gym on board the vessels though, he adds, which is very important given the restricted environment and intensity of a job which demands a high level of problem-solving “because nothing ever works how it’s supposed to at sea.
“It’s not like calling Bunnings to get a piece (of equipment) out there,” Olan quips. “You’ve got to make do … innovate.”
Working so far from home – whether it’s his native Ireland or Raglan where he settled in 2009 – has been frustrating at times, Olan admits, precisely because that other life is on hold and there’s nothing to be done in a family crisis for instance. “You’re stuck in the middle of the sea!”
But he’s not likely to swap jobs for a nine-to-five routine any time soon. “I prefer this to something I’d (possibly) hate.”
Olan studied hydrography – the science of seabed charting – during the late ‘90s in Plymouth in the UK. One of his summer jobs back then was with a small survey company working for the Port of Cork in the South of Ireland, keeping port maps up-to-date.
The job was “really interesting”, he says, because it involved everything from driving the boat to gathering and editing the data.
Then he moved into much larger scale hydrography, positioning oil rigs in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, and from there into the positioning of fibre-optic cables on the seabed of the South China Sea and the South Pacific Ocean.
The nature of the job’s “exploded” over time into much more than it was historically, Olan explains. Originally, hydrography was primarily about charting harbours and laying telephone cables.
With the development of GPS in navigation has come complex positioning, sensor and data management, he says. “It’s very easy to make a small balls-up with big effect along the way.”
But it’s interesting work, Olan insists, involving the planning of routes for fibre-optic cables between countries and seeing what’s below the seabed for oil and gas reserves, or for offshore wind farms.
Wreck investigation also comes into it, he adds, and environmental impact assessment such as monitoring the size of reefs.
Like any job “it’s got its ups and downs”, Olan concedes. But spending weeks away at sea means there are also good breaks from work back home in Raglan, which he discovered as a backpacker at Solscape in 2005.
Sometimes when the west coast weather turns ugly “I definitely need to get outta here,” Olan admits, but otherwise he loves his time in Raglan. “When I’m away I’m waiting to come back.”