In 2015, Tabitha Lasley, a former freelance magazine journalist, arrived in Aberdeen, Scotland, the United Kingdom’s oil capital, having spent four years on a novel about rig workers with nothing to show for it. (Her laptop was stolen from the apartment in London that she shared with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, whom she left when he did not sympathize with her loss.) “Sea State,” the result of her second try, was written out of the desire to “see what men are like with no women around,” as Lasley tells her editor. “But you’ll be around,” the editor replies. The exchange encapsulates the dynamic at the heart of the book, in which Lasley’s entrance into the worlds of her subjects, and the friction between them, produces the keenest insights. In Aberdeen—a city that combines “Louisiana avarice with Protestant thrift”—she insinuates herself in, “buying drinks, inviting confidences, like the tipsy hostess of a dour, exclusively male cocktail party.”
Rigs are insulated ecosystems—situated miles into the ocean, and populated mostly by men, who are stationed on board for several weeks at a time. For decades, they have been one of the few sources of well-paying blue-collar employment on the eastern shore of the U.K. My uncle worked on such rigs in the eighties. Like Lasley’s subjects, he flew by helicopter from Aberdeen, and chose the work because his options were it or the dole. At the time, the only compulsory safety training was a video that told you how to get into crash position and that, if the helicopter went down, you would die of hypothermia in under seven minutes. Often, he said, fog would force choppers to land by radar. Birds flew into the flames burning off the gases from the rig, leaving crisp carcasses strewn on the top deck.
Today, men who live in areas that were once home to chemical plants or mines are still the greatest share of the offshore workforce. Though the work pays well, it is not without its dangers. One worker Lasley interviews describes his rig as a “floating bomb.” Everyone knows the horror stories, of rigs sunk or exploded, and the industry’s shorthand, such as Shell’s “T.F.A.” (“Touch Fuck All”), which stood for a protocol that instructed riggers not to waste time on maintenance. Onboard, the claustrophobic atmosphere is intensified by a combination of physically exhausting labor, infantilization, and atomization. After their twelve-hour shifts, everyone either goes to the gym or bolts for their private cabins to watch their DVD box sets. The rigs are hothouses for masculine antagonism, because tensions among the workers cannot be resolved by fighting, which is prohibited. There is no camaraderie, little conversation, …….