The snowy conditions Shetland has experienced this winter may be out of the ordinary for the majority of islanders, but for Captain Gavin Gray from Yell it is nothing unusual.
Captain Gray is operations and marine manager at the De Kastri oil terminal in Khabarovsk Kai, eastern Russia, where the average winter temperature is anything from -20°C to a toe curling (or should that be frost biting) -30°C.
Working a shift system, he spends around half the year there and the other half tending his croft in Aywick.
Commuting around 5,000 miles may seem extreme, but Captain Gray said he is used to working abroad and travelling a lot.
“I’ve worked all over the world China, Nigeria – even Orkney.” He said that his current posting was however probably the furthest and most difficult to get to out of all of his work destinations.
“It’s very remote. The main thing that went on here before oil was lumber and cutting down trees. There’s no nightlife.”
He said that while the area is fairly isolated, he doesn’t find this to be a problem.
He said: “Before I came here they told me, ‘It’s not very great, there’s no people, only three of four thousand’, but I thought, well compared to Yell, that’s huge! I don’t find it that bad; it’s no guttery like home in the winter.”
For much of the year the bay outside the terminal is frozen. However in the summer the weather is warm enough for local children to swim in the sea.
This winter’s trip home is much more like what the captain is used to: “Today it’s around -10°C in Yell, which is unusual. But this would be a fine winter’s day in Russia.”
Captain Gray has worked at the De Kasrti terminal since just after it opened in 2006. The oil terminal is one of the biggest in eastern Russia, but according to Captain Gray it is “braaly peerie” compared to the Sullom Voe terminal.
Nevertheless, the terminal recently received a Terminal of the Year Award at the fourth International Congress of the Oil Terminal 2009 conference, as well as the ExxonMobil Presidents Award, which is the highest award a terminal can recieve within ExxonMobil.
The oil terminal also received a Terminal Safety Award, which Captain Gray was personally responsible for.
He said: “I am delighted in particular for the nationals on site. This award is only made once every three years. Having been on site during this period there is certainly a personal satisfaction in being involved. But I’m just a small cog in the whole process.
“The work involved is very varied, you never know what may arise. You have to be flexible and be able to prioritise.”
However, despite his high pressure job, Captain Gray said his “second job” is no less demanding: “The biggest issue is trying to fit in the crofting end of things.
“My ‘back to back’ for work for the past three years stays in South Africa and within reason we fit our work and time home schedule to suit our own needs. It’s a bit of a joke that he is arranging his holidays depending on when I’m slipping tups or clipping sheep!
“When I walk out the door at work he walks in and takes over. But when I walk out the door at home there is nobody walking in to take over croft! However I have an arrangement with very dependable neighbours.”
Travel time also has to be done in his time “off”, and as it can take around three or four days to get back to Shetland, Captain Gray often spends less time in the isles than he does in Russia.
When he spoke to The Shetland Times last week the captain had been due to make a return trip to Russia but was snowed in at Yell, giving him a bit of extra time at home.