GAS & IRON DIGGING FOR DOLLARS DOWN UNDER; Portrait of a 'roughneck': mud, money, and might

Nigel Masterton is 6 feet, 4 inches tall, weighs 215 pounds, and has fingers like lodgepoles. He more than fills a large chair. And somehow you know those bulges under his powder-blue corduroy shirt are not air pockets.

All of which makes Nigel well equipped for his work: grappling 12 hours a day with mud- spattered, 1,800-pound lengths of steel tubing.

Nigel is a "roughneck," part of a gritty breed of laborers who work the drill ships around the world proving for oil and natural gas. In this case the ship is the Regional Endeavour, a converted iron ore carrier that has been boring holes in the cyclone-prone waters off Australia's North West Shelf.

Nigel's job, with its long hours sweetened by hefty paychecks, mirrors the type of work that is luring laborers to Western Australia from around the world to cash in on the country's abundant natural resources.

Tasks on a drill ship are as regimented as a marine base. Each crew has its own sphere of responsibility -- from the "tool pushers" to the "roustabouts." It is the roughnecks' job to wrestle with the drill itself -- a sweaty, mud- caked chore that requires more than its share of brawn. Working usually three to a crew, the roughnecks link the tubing that pushes the tungsten-tipped drill deep into the ocean floor. The ships draw all types of workers, from lawyers to high school dropouts. They are lured by high-seas adventure and the chance to make a quick buck. Like a nomadic band of oceanic grease monkeys, some of the workers drift from rig to rig around the world in search of the highest paycheck.

Nigel, who has been working on drill ships in the North West Shelf area for two years, pulls down about $28,675 a year (or $25,000 in Australian dollars). It is enough to allow the 25-year-old to own a $63,000 home here and drive a new sports car.

"We're making more money than many doctors who have been out of school for two years," boasted the mustachioed worker in Perth, where he was on leave.

While at sea, the roughnecks work 12 hours a day for 14 straight days. Then they are off for two weeks. They also get a month's vacation each year. The work can be risky, however. About eight months ago three of the Regional Endeavour's eight anchor chains snapped during a cyclone.

"The fourth chain was just about on the way," Nigel recalls. "If that would have gone, it could have been nasty ."

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