Forget coffee mornings or knitting circles, this 72-year-old woman braves ninety mile-an-hour gales, helicopter rides through lightning storms and bawdy banter from co-workers as … Britain’s oldest oil rig worker.
Great-grandmother Pat Thomson, known as “Auntie Pat” or “The Queen” by her fellow rig workers, packed up her job as a primary school teacher and joined a BP rig in 1984.
The fully-qualified materials engineer has now spent the last 30 years in far-flung locations including the Falkland Islands and Gabon and in the early days had to share accommodation, toilets and even the showers with men.
Mother-of-three Pat, of Matlock, Derbyshire, said: “I decided to quit teaching as I wanted to go on an adventure, and I have always loved science. It was very scary, especially being the only female on a rig full of men.
“The rigs were far from female-friendly. I had no other female to share the experience with and ask for help. I had to share a cabin with four men, and use the same communal showers and toilets as them.”
But Pat was no shrinking violet when it came to sharing a cabin with men.
She said: “My first day on the rig – I arrived in the afternoon when most of the men were asleep after doing a 12-hour night shift.
“The last thing these guys expected was to see a woman arrive on the rig and that was certainly made clear when a man walked past me naked on the way to the showers.
“Another time, I was sharing a cabin with a young guy who was quite shy about being in the same room as a woman. He was worried as he had not brought any pyjamas, but I assured him it was OK as I had brought two nighties with me. I have never seen someone go so red in my life.”
Because everything on the rig was set-up for men, free time for Pat was not a happy occasion.
She said: “My life was essentially work then sleep. I had no option, the only things the guys ever watched on TV were cowboy films, sport or porn”
Pat – who earns £700-a-day – said that to survive offshore she had to make herself ‘one of the boys’.
She said: “I had to adapt myself to working like a man. I didn’t wear low cut tops or lots of make-up. I tried not to complain and I got my hands dirty, I didn’t want to be seen as some little woman who needed special treatment.
“I would even put Pat instead of Patricia on job applications for offshore work as I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“I would have to get a steward to check if the communal toilets were empty before I went in and I’d leave a pink towel over the door so that the guys knew not to come in, or come in at their peril. My handiest qualification for dealing with the rig crew proved to be primary teaching.”
Pat even starred in the 1994 documentary “The Black Island” directed by Dutch film-maker Robert Rombout – who looked into life on-board North Sea oil rig F.G. McClintock.
One crane operator – who was vocal about his dislike for women working offshore – was asked what he then thought of working with Pat and replied: “Pat is different, she is one of the lads.”
But not all rig workers shared his enthusiasm for working alongside a lady.
Pat said: “They were quite bitter and nasty about women being offshore, ruining their men-only club.
“Apparently I should have been back at home looking after kids, or working as a stewardess and not a logistics superintendent.”
Sexist men were not the only challenges for 5ft 3 Pat, and she revealed her constant battle with the natural elements.
She said: “Getting off helicopters onto the deck in 90 mile-an-hour winds was horrible as I am only little and I would get blown around the place.
“The guys even had to form a human chain and pass me up the steps, but over time, I have grown accustomed to flying by helicopter and now it’s not as scary as it used to be.
“There have been some particularly hairy moments, such as flying through a lightening storm and on another flight back to Aberdeen many years ago, the pilot calmly informed us that one of the engines had failed and we were relying on just one.”
Pat also had to contend with the dangers of the rigs themselves such as a potentially fatal hydrogen sulphide gas leak in the Irish sea.
She said: “It would be common to hear the gas alarm going off regularly when working in the Irish sea as we were drilling alongside a live gas platform.”
“When I realised I wasn’t going to die, the first thing that came to mind was ‘oh my god I look like such a state, I need to change and put on make-up before we get back to Aberdeen.’”
Pat has worked way past retirement age and believes offshore life is what saved her, after her partner Russell died in 2010 from prostate cancer.
She said: “Being offshore was a great way to take my mind off Russell. It really helped me move on, if not I would have been sitting around in my slippers feeling sorry for myself. And I love challenges so that is why I haven’t packed it in yet.”
She recently finished a job out in Gabon, in West Africa, where she was in charge of a team of men, many of whom had never had a female boss let alone a woman of 72.
Pat’s partner, 79-year-old Robert Wood, couldn’t be prouder of her achievements:
He said: “I think it is fantastic all that she has done. You don’t meet many women who can say they have worked offshore, I am very proud of her.”