We Need a Hero to Make Projects Legendary

We need a hero: Rory Harbinson on a tour of Lake Kivu, at the old gas plant
Rory Harbinson

We want projects to be great, so we need a hero

What best do you remember about any project? I’m talking of memories that linger long after any statistics, the millions of incident-free hours. We need the type of memories outlive the productivity data, or the lists of who was there or got fired. They are better than memories of who screwed up. No, those fade as fast as management’s promises to look after you when this project’s is done. Instead, for that enduring memory, we need a hero.

Rather, these are the stark, vivid, often humorous memories. They speak of real people that won’t recede from memory.  Their stories are re-told in those long evenings after a days work, on another project on another continent. We hold a place in our hearts for such special people. It’s because we need them to be there, for us.

Telling their story goes deep. It’s way deeper than the glib “employee of the month” commendation. They’re more vivid than the winners of company awards with their awkward photo-opps and certificates. This character is not one for parading even at a gala dinner. He’d more likely skip attending.

I’m sure you know him, in fact I really hope for you that you know one like him.  Projects without him are short on character, dryer than binge-watching public service TV.

Saving the day, again and again

I remember it so on a project on one of the Great Lakes of Africa. But it was over a decade before that, deep in Mozambique. My hero had also made his mark. He saved the day, again and again. He did it in true carpe diem style.

The lake one was on a project testing an innovation. This one could prove up something massively important for our clean energy future. It can mitigate two gigatons of carbon and save lives. It promises to be a major gas project on Lake Kivu, producing power for two countries. More than that, it can avert a gas eruption that could otherwise kill millions around the lake.

But that one day, late January 2004, it really seemed close to failing. The project’s aims seemed too far of a stretch. We had totally new and un-tested technology and equipment. It was complex physics, pushing the boundary of gas-liquid theory. It was a search for better ways to produce one of the world’s untapped, but prolific low-carbon energy sources.

Our project’s speculative chances seemed to have run their course. No time was left, no budget, even hope was dwindling. No damn gas.

Our team of scientists and engineers, electronics technicians, were all scratching their heads. This had been a remote chance, like doing experiments in outer space – nobody had done it before. Silence, hanging; but the unspoken question was clear, “Was this all just bullshit science?” How could you even imagine that this would really work? Nobody has done this before.” A palpable sense of mission failure was about.

Need a hero? Enter Rory

Rory stepped up. He was the construction guy, a real-life MacGyver; but like on steroids. He was a diesel mechanic by trade, my first pick for any job in Africa for his sheer resourcefulness, anywhere. He stated calmly, “Listen up, we’re going to do this again, no giving up. We’ve come too far and this is not how this story ends. Tomorrow we’ll take it all apart, figure it out, put it back again. It will be a long day, we leave at dawn. Be at the dock at six.”

This was a serious side of Rory. No nonsense. His usual impish sense of humour was put aside. He’d always kept the team in good spirits. He always came up with a name for everyone. He called the English GM of the local brewery “Alf” because he was an “ambitious little f—–r.” Fabrizio, the young engineer, was forever “picannin”, African vernacular for a small boy.

The local crew spoke no English, except Tomas. He was the unofficial but sometimes laughably incompetent translator. Tomas called Rory “Mr Lolly.” Tomas kept his own name, but “Shorty”, “P–s-face”, “Tiger” and others never did. Rory stayed in touch with Tomas for years.

The universal language of trust

Language was never a barrier to communication for him. He spoke no French or Portuguese or local dialects, but I saw simple and demonstrative communication with his crews in Rwanda and Mozambique. It was clear that they understood him, but also respected and trusted him. Rory had a deep humanity, sometimes disguised but never absent. Wherever he was, he was the go-to person for anyone in dire need. People just knew that.

Cyclone Geralda in Mozambique caused torrential rain  as it hit Madagascar in 1994

Cyclone Geralda in the Mozambique Channel

He single-handedly fixed transport and power problems caused by 500mm of rain from Cyclone Geralda at Inhassoro in Inhambane Province, Mozambique. This was in 1994 when floods stranded tens of thousands of people. The flood had cut all north-south roads in a 500-year event.

What do you do when you need a hero, but helicopters and aid don’t arrive for a week and then left after a week. He organized locals to bring their sea-going fishing boats to provide ferry services. Rory even showed them how to strip down cars and walk them across the flooded breaks in the highway, like he had done for himself.

The “detour” around this break was 500km and a week’s drive. It wasn’t fixed for three months before the water subsided.

You don’t belong in any jail

He was once briefly in jail in Vilankulo. This was for taking his own boat out into the Mozambique Channel, cutting foreign pirate fishermen’s long-lines. They were illegally fishing in a dugong marine reserve, aware that the government had no patrol vessels to interdict them. On finding out that the rogue fishermen’s complaint had landed him in jail, the police chief let him free, saying he didn’t belong near a jail cell – they did.

Several times he rescued foreign tourists. Often people were seriously injured in road accidents. This was in a remote region of Mozambique  where ambulance services didn’t exist. So he got on with arranging Casevac flights and communicating with the injured’s families.

Back to the lake story; so the next day we packed two Marine boats with tools and supplies. Rory hired ten extra crew for the muscle-burning work of hauling up kilometers of pipe, cable, anchors and weights, hand-over-hand. We motored out over the calm morning water to the experimental rig, at first just a misty dot on the horizon. It was a silent trip, with even Rory deciding not to make jokes.

Making Voodoo

We all hauled pipe. The crew hauled 300 m of it out of the deep water and over the 10m steel deck with a rhythmic chant. We were checking joints, looking for tell-tale bubbles, stripping the electronics and lowering the pipe back into the depths. That evening, ashore, Rory patiently laid out the bundles of cable, meggering and checking each length and each joint.

He then opened up the steel canisters of electronics, built to withstand deep water pressure at 300m. The tell-tale capacitance reading was way off, seals had been compromised – a key discovery. So these canisters were dried out and re-made and double-sealed for good measure. Some hope now.

Repairs on the Kivu Pilot Project
Repairs on the Kivu Pilot Project

At dawn the next day the boats were re-loaded, with the same extra crew. It was 26 January 2004. Rory had decided that this day everything needed to be aligned. The locals spoke of the legends and mysteries in this lake; there was a mythical deep-water creature that needed to be appeased before we could be successful. The crew would find a sacrificial goat, so one was waiting on the boat too. Optimism was up.

The goat & the weather gods

Our local crew members slaughtered the goat. Its head was weighted and cast in, falling the 400m to the lake bottom. As if on cue the weather calmed, the lake surface perfectly mirrored the orange sun in a sky filled with volcanic haze. Even the electronic capacitance of the system was right on target, for the first time in weeks.

Crew on deck during gas testing of the pilot project on 30 Januray 2004
Rory and Fabrizio on the pilot-testing deck January 2004

We had to work fast. With the pipe again hauled over the deck, this time fitted with the cables and canisters, it was attached to the gas separator along with all the other gas lines and instruments. The whole bundle was lowered by winch into the water. All final safety checks were made. We repeated the start-up routine, once again.

The same tense anticipation, hoping for a result this time. Next we connected the electronics to excite the gas, the pipes primed with deep, gas-rich water. Then the clatter of the generator joined in its chorus with the sputter of a compressor. We watched as it bubbled air through the riser pipe to prime the gas-lift pumping. A low surge of water rose out of the pipe, growing steadily until it was a metre high fountain of bubbling water.

Success at last

Suddenly it surged, shooting 10m into the air like fire-hose, with much greater energy. With the gas directed to the flare it lit up enough to feel the heat on the barge. Over the roar of the water fountain and the hammering noise of the machines on deck, everyone was shouting. Rory lit up the gas flare. Smiles broke out everywhere. Hand-shakes. Success at last!

Rory stood calmly in the background, lit up a cigarette and gave a quick smile. “Cooking on gas,” he said, then “Never fear, Rory’s here.”

In memory of Rory

Rory_HarbinsonRory Harbinson died 2014 in South Africa aged 57. Lung cancer. It was just a day after we finally spoke. It hurt to hear him struggle to be heard. I hoped with everything that I had that he would get better, but I could not see him pull off this last miracle.

I’d said to him the things that I felt. “I’ve met and discussed things with Presidents and Prime Ministers, some great scientists and business leaders. But Changamire, you still remain one of two greatest people I’ve known. I owe you so much more than you can imagine.”

Even as we finished that project in 2004, I said to him that when we build that big, ugly construction barge for these projects on the lake, it will be the “SS Rory.” I get to name something, after all. Millions of people, that may never know his name, could some day owe their lives to his work that day. He wouldn’t want anyone to feel obliged, let alone fuss.

But I do want to see the SS Rory sail, and I want to see the full project built as a testimony to that day and many others like it.

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