AFTER spending almost every Christmas in the last 35 years working offshore, Neil Cushin’s family are used to opening their presents early.
And this year will be no different, even though he will be almost close enough to see his family home. The 58-year-old grandfather will be aboard the MPI Adventure fitting the turbine blades to the Tees Bay offshore wind farm being installed for EDF Energy.
That makes this Christmas away from home even more poignant for Neil.
“Working offshore is something I’ve done pretty much every Christmas since 1978 but this is the first time I have been so close to home,” said Crane operator Neil who lives near Sedgefield.
“It will be very strange seeing all the lights of Teesside knowing my family will be able to see the ship in the bay, but I’ll be stuck offshore for 28 days.
“I have worked the majority of Christmas days overseas and it’s no different to any other day. The drilling continues, the production continues and that can be a steep learning curve for anyone coming offshore for the first time.
“You soon realise that the continuation of the project is the upmost priority and there’s no partying and certainly no alcohol. The catering staff put together a Christmas lunch but it’s a rushed affair if I’m stuck in the crane cab from 6am to 6pm.”
For Neil and his family – he has two grown-up daughters Michelle and Cheryl and two grandchildren Edith and Oscar, as well as his partner Pam – Christmas Day is usually celebrated a couple of weeks early.
That was tough while his daughters were young, but Neil insists that the benefits of the offshore lifestyle outweigh the downsides.
He added: “We have always opened Christmas presents early and I had my Christmas dinner on December 12 this year.
“It’s often an accusation that is aimed at offshore workers that we shouldn’t be away from our families at Christmas. It was tough for myself and my daughters when they were young, but with the four weeks on, four weeks off routines I was able to give them a lot of quality time when I was at home, rather than snatched conversations or coming home late and tired from work every night.
“We were able to go for lots of trips away, walking weekends and skiing holidays which the girls loved.”
But does Neil ever fancy taking it easy and putting his feet up at Christmas.
“I have actually retired before but went back to working offshore a few years ago,” he said.
“Last Christmas was the first one I took off in probably 20 years and that was to care for my dad, who was unwell and has since sadly died. But then I got ill myself and ended up in hospital with kidney problems, so that put paid to Christmas.
“But I have always seen myself as being fortunate with work and it’s a lifestyle I have become used to. With offshore workers, you have a family away from home and there’s a lot of camaraderie and strong bonds that are developed – that helps enormously.”
Neil is just one of thousands of offshore workers who will be saying goodbye to their loved ones at Christmas to spend the holidays working across the globe on oil and gas platforms, laying subsea cables or building wind farms.
Hartlepool-based offshore recruitment firm Seatechs sends dozens of workers out each Christmas to work on installations worldwide from Tees Bay to Brazil to China.
Seatechs Managing Director Paul Cave said the offshore routine was not for everybody.
“It’s heads down and work while you’re offshore with 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. And it can be very difficult being away from your family, especially at Christmas.
“But there are some really big incentives such as the pay, working four weeks on, four weeks off and there’s nothing to spend money on offshore as everything is paid for. In essence, you work hard but you get very well paid and you can have six months a year off.”
Seatechs has built up a huge database of qualified offshore workers and has as many as 120 people on projects at any one time. One of the company’s biggest contracts last year was supplying staff for a floating oil rig installation off the coast of Brazil.
He added: “That was a big job, with 25 lads working on rotating shifts pulling pipelines on a floating rig. There’s a hell of a lot of North East lads, 70 per cent of the people I employ are from this region and they definitely have a reputation as hard-workers.”