Sara El Boustany, the only woman offshore

While Lebanon’s first foray into offshore gas exploration yielded lackluster results, it was a  milestone for the country and for one young woman – the only woman aboard the offshore drill rig. 

Sara El Boustany, 23, was a fresh graduate in Petroleum Studies from the Lebanese American University last year when she saw an offering to work aboard the rig that would drill Lebanon’s first-ever exploration well. She jumped at the opportunity. Then she got the job. 

“Being able to get a job at all, right after completing university, is important,” she told LOGI in an interview. “On top of that, we’ve been talking about exploration for so long. Having my first experience as part of Lebanon’s first experience was amazing in terms of self-development.”

Boustani earned the title Operations Engineer, which put her in charge of following up on the smooth implementation of the drill plans. 

She knew early on that she would be the only woman among more than 160 people aboard the drill rig, and for several weeks at a time. “Undoubtedly when I first learned that there were no other women offshore I had my doubts,” she says. 

She began researching and found that there was a global movement to get women working in the oil and gas industry – something she could now be part of. 

“We can’t deny there’s a gender gap that has more than one cause – from one side its perceptions and a lack of encouragement for women , which is linked to social and cultural norms that women don’t belong in this male-dominated world of the oil and gas industry,” she said. 

“I think women also carry part of the blame – there is a lack of awareness among us on the types of roles we can actually play. We’re told it’s a hard industry with harsh conditions and doubt ourselves. But men apply to all these opportunities even if they don’t think they’re adequate, while women don’t.”

“I just made sure I wasn’t seeing myself differently, that way I wouldn’t let anyone else see me differently,” she said.

While Boustany said that she had read about mixed experiences for women who venture offshore, her case only had small hitches – some of which were even humorous. When she went to collect her personal protective equipment after coming on board, Boustany found that even the smallest overalls were far too large. 

“I called the guy responsible for materials coordination and asked if he could custom-make some that are a few sizes smaller. He stayed silent. Then he said the only solution was  ‘to get yours from Toys R Us.” 

She ended up washing the overalls with hot water so they shrunk. 

Gender aside, there’s a lot that goes into getting offshore.

First, a 14-day quarantine for COVID-19, spent entirely in a hotel room which has a balcony, but is certainly no suite. 

Then, a trip by helicopter from the city to the Tungsten Explorer, the drill rig that lay off the coast of Beirut. Boustany spent 16 days aboard on her first hitch, and was supposed to have more than two weeks off before the second hitch. 

But she only got to see family for four days before being quarantined again. The second hitch lasted 34 days. 

Onboard, life is regimented. Meals are served three times a day in two-hour windows. Shifts run from 6 to 6, but many work longer. Rooms are shared by two people, but they are given alternating shifts so that each person gets to be alone for 12 hours at a time. 

Work never stops aboard the rig, and for many, night becomes day. 

Adding to the disoriented feeling, Boustany recalls that she would only see blue for days at a time. The coast would come into view and then disappear as the drill rig turned with the currents. 

“Its an enjoyable experience even though there are challenges, especially as a woman due to the very masculine culture and values,” Boustany said. “Proving yourself as a woman can also be challenging because men question our competency, so we have to work harder.”

“But the challenges persist regardless of gender,” she added. “You have to learn how to deal with people on board, from different cultures and values – what’s acceptable for one person might not be for the other.”

“And the ground is not stable – that takes some getting used to.”

Source: LOGI’s May 2020 newsletter