21 Questions: Exclusive interview with Grenville Whyte 

November 17, 2020
Mr Grenville Whyte – Drilling professional

Grenville Whyte was raised in an off-the-grid homestead near Kirkland Lake, Ontario.

He was the third child of four and back then, the implementation of school buses saved him from being home-schooled.

In 1960, he wanted to go to the Arctic and a suggestion from his teacher helped him land a mechanic’s job there. Just a year later Whyte found himself working for Heath and Sherwood Drilling (‘H&S Drilling’). This ultimately led to his 60-year long career in drilling.

Whyte and five of his colleagues bought the company in 1986 and ran it until 2002 when Cabo Drilling Corp. purchased it.

With Whyte on board, Heath and Sherwood was the first to develop and implement slim-hole drilling and to this day holds the record for setting up the deepest wedge. The company supported Northern College and driller training courses for surface and underground diamond drilling helpers and operators.

During his career, Whyte has worked on drill sites across the entire world.

Grigor Topev: How and why did you choose to pursue a career in drilling?

Grenville Whyte: During my high school years, I specialized in Auto Mechanics but longed to see the Arctic. My auto teacher suggested that I contact a local company that had many projects there. I took Mr O’Keefe’s advice and did just that. They hired me immediately and put me on a mechanics apprenticeship on May 1, 1960. I became a journeyman licensed mechanic, as soon as I completed it.

GT: Tell us the highlights of your career with Heath & Sherwood Drilling.

GW: H&S Drilling was doing a lot of work for Labrador Mining in the Labrador City and Schefferville, Quebec areas. So, in 1961, I went to the Labrador City area to help build camps, maintain four drill rigs, and operate an on-site dozer for drill moves for a period of six to seven months straight. Afterward, I went to Panama with field supervisor Nick Roman to assess a project and refurbish drill rigs owned by the mining company.

During these periods, I would go back up north and work at Fort Chimo. Our base was Schefferville, a few air miles south of there. We stayed in a tent camp, an hour’s flight north of Chimo. I went there in late March 1964 and came back home in early November, got married, but kept traveling to the drilling areas.

In the following years, I spent time as a field mechanic throughout Canada. I moved up to shop and field supervisor for all mechanical projects and then to managing field and shop operations domestically and overseas.

In 1986, six of us employees, including myself, Jim Savage, Andy Attwater, John Halsall, Blaine Pullen and Brad Pullen got together with some investors, purchased the company, and named it Heath & Sherwood Drilling (1986) Inc. We ran it until 2002 when Cabo Drilling bought it and has been operating it ever since under the same name.

GT: You have 60 years of experience in the drilling industry. What is your most memorable drilling experience so far?

GW: During my 60 years in the drilling industry all with the same company, but under different ownership, I spent time in every Canadian province and many American states, plus quite a number of overseas and South American countries around the world, such as Peru, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Honduras, Liberia, India, Spain, France, England, Albania, The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico.

Once, H&S Drilling was contacted by the Canadian company Bectel that requested a technician to travel to Liberia and assess a property for Liberian Iron and Steel. I was selected and met with Moe Molesky of Bectel to do the project. All went well and I laid out what could be done on this property. Previous attempts included heli- and man-portable drills, however, I suggested an overland scenario and as a result, the contract was awarded to H&S Drilling. I was on the project but came home for Christmas.

Liberia is a very homogeneous country with very strict laws so crimes, such as accidents or disputes, were often punishable by death, especially if there was a foreigner involved. On New Year’s Day, our company owner contacted me to inform me that one of our drillers was in serious trouble, as it was suspected that he may have been involved in a murder at the local village. I jumped on a plane and got over there immediately. The driller turned out to be absolutely innocent, so I got him out of the camp and back to the capital city Monrovia but had to help him get a visa and leave the country.

I made arrangements to meet with a representative of the government. I went there and found myself surrounded by armed guards that escorted me to the high official’s office in a disrespectful manner. Apart from more guards, all I could see there was the high official, sitting in a large black leather chair. With sweat running down my back, I put my hand out for a handshake and said, ‘How are you, sir, I am Mr Whyte’. There, for the first time in my life, I wished for a different last name. He got a strange grin and stood up, shook my hand and said, ‘Pleased to meet you, my name is Mr Brown’. I must have gone into a shock, so he spoke again, ‘No, Mr Whyte, my name is really Mr Brown’.

There was a bit of a chuckle, then he told the guards to return to their posts and we started a friendly conversation. He approved the exit visa for our driller, so  I successfully got him out of the country.

GT: Can you tell us more about H&S Drilling back then, their most important expansion and how they commenced working internationally?

GW: H&S Drilling was formed in 1927 by Mr Heath and Mr Sherwood with the first machine shop and service center for drillers. The machine shop spawned to support the diamond drilling surface and underground division, making everything from rods to wedges. They separated into two companies in 1951 – one of them focused on diamond drilling and the other on manufacturing. After one of the owners, Mr Heath, passed away in 1953 Mr Jack McBean, Chief geologist at Upper Canada Mine, bought the drilling division. He managed to secure a surface drilling contract in Sudbury for Inco. This was a chance for expansion as they had already moved into overseas work. All progressed well until things like the Inco strike and oil glut hit in the early 80s.

Meanwhile, H&S Drilling worked on other projects, such as a lumber sawmill at Harwood Lake, a John Deere Tractor dealership, and Jamar Plywood Factory in Kirkland Lake. The company’s machine shop and manufacturing facility were sold off to another group and they still continue operating to this day under the name Heath & Sherwood (1964) Limited. Over the years, we worked closely as they grew into a wordwide business.

GT: H&S Drilling spent many years working on a major project at Little Cornwallis Island. Can you tell us more about the history of that mining property?

GW: Cornwallis Island was historically a home to the most poleward base-metal mine in the world. It was famous for the vast concentration of zinc and lead deposits discovered there.

Mr Jack McBean, the owner of H&S Drilling, had invested money in a property, located on the island. As I understood, he either optioned or sold it to Cominco Mining, which developed it into an operating mine, with H&S Drilling doing the exploration and definition drilling for the project. H&S Drilling transported their drilling equipment and left it on the island for years. Every spring a team would go there to drill and stay until winter.

The property was a ramp type mine with living accommodations and its own shipyard for transporting the ore by ocean freight each summer.  I myself never got the opportunity to visit this project, but I did arrange for repairs and shipments to the site.

Working on a drilling project in Colombia

GT: At a certain point, H&S Drilling had over 45 drills working only for Inco Mining in Sudbury (purchased by Vale in 2006). Please expand on that fact.

GW: There was an opportunity to purchase a drilling company in Sudbury that had already worked with Inco. H&S Drilling, having larger drills, was able to drill deeper holes and started using taller steel derricks on their rigs with 40 to 50 ft (12 to 15 m) rod pulls to hasten production. The holes were navigated with the use of standard steel wedges being modified at different times.

One of the senior field supervisors was in touch with an Australian firm that was working on a retrievable wedge, which he dug into. Inco got very interested and helped out in getting these wedges for H&S Drilling. A lot of people worked together to perfect the wedges that saved Inco loads of money and gave them the option of getting more information from the drill holes. During this period wireline core drilling was also introduced which made a huge difference on daily production.

H&S Drilling was also doing underground core drilling for many of the gold mines around the area. With this expansion, they opted to get into underground drilling with Inco in Sudbury as we already had 10 to 15 surface drills there and a service shop. H&S Drilling Manufacturing was building the HS-45 drills, so they made some of those electrically powered. They also used air-powered drills and purchased some JKS Boyles wireline drills and converted them to electric.

GT: H&S Drilling’s engineering division was the first to develop and implement the innovative slim-hole drilling. Tell us more about the diamond drill rods that were specially developed for slimhole drilling back then?

GW: The drill rods at that time were wireline, but could not handle the depths required. Therefore, the engineers came up with an aluminum rod that had steel joiner couplings. These couplings were locked into the aluminum rods with a locking compound so the coupling would not unscrew from the aluminum.

The rods had a thicker wall, so you would drill N-size core with an H-size diameter drill rod. Due to not being able to put downforce on the aluminum rods, the first thousand feet of hole were drilled with the standard configuration of rods made from good quality steel tubing. This gave the drillers sufficient weight for the drill bit at shallow depths. The rods would be pulled from the drill hole in 60 ft (18 m) lengths and stacked in the 90 ft (27.5 m) high steel tower.

At about the same time, there was a labor dispute with Inco in Sudbury and a strike took place shutting down operations. This was a huge blow to H&S Drilling. The strike ended but part of the settlement was that all Inco drilling had to be done by their employees and no contractors could be onsite. As a result, Inco purchased some of the H&S Drilling drill equipment at about the same time the oil glut hit, and the exploration for oil came to a standstill, leaving these deep hole rigs sitting idle.

H&S Drilling sold its operations facility in Sudbury and moved back to Kirkland Lake. Meanwhile, Gold Fields in South Africa wanted to start drilling deeper expecting to find more resources. This project went on for a few years. One of their drill holes was drilled to a depth of 17 791 ft (5422.7 m), which still holds a world record for being the deepest wireline core drill hole. Later, this division was sold off in South Africa.

GT: Tell us more about the famous HS-150 drill rig?

GW: The HS-150 drill rig was a completely new design, completely hydrostatic and controlled by the operator from a console on the drill platform floor. It was truly a deep hole drill rig, used for slim hole oil well drilling. The drill head was powered by a hydraulic motor and raised and lowered by the main hoist. The tower was 90 ft (27.5 m) high and pulled rods in 60 ft (18 m) stands. Core barrel lengths were determined by ground conditions and varied from 10 to 60 ft (3 to 18 m).

The oil companies used these rigs in Jamaica, Newfoundland, Gaspe and at different locations in the High Arctic. They were completely heli-portable and the working platform was 12 ft (3.5 m) high from the ground to give room for the blow out preventers (BOP). Due to the huge outlay of money to get these rigs manufactured, equipped and up and running, Challenger International, a manufacturer of drill strings, became a partner.

As a result, there were many developments with the HS-150 drill, manufactured in-house with Heath & Sherwood Machine Shop.

GT: What were the challenges that H&S Drilling faced while setting up a record-breaking wedge at 3048 m (10 000 ft), which aimed to redirect and continue a hole?

GW: Due to hole depth, rod weights and instrumentations available at that time, the operators had to determine the exact location of the equipment downhole as well as wireline cable stretch, drill rod stretch, rotational backlash, etc. Depths like these require an experienced driller, who knows how much the wedge and the bit turn at 10 000 ft (3048 m) when making one revolution on the surface during wedge orientation.

GT: Tell us more about your work at Cabo Drilling?

GW: My work responsibilities at Cabo Drilling remained quite the same as with H&S Drilling, but with a few additions. I took over the Cabo International service and supply warehouse, shipping parts and equipment to different parts of the world such as Spain, Albania, Panama, Colombia, Greenland, etc.

I also worked with suppliers and shipping companies to arrange products and delivery; loading sea containers, air shipments, etc.

I dealt with a number of Canadian Aboriginal throughout Northern Ontario and Quebec to arrange the training of their people, who would assist on drilling projects. This meant traveling to the remote Northern Ontario reservations and spending time with the locals.

As drilling slowed down in the last few years, I looked after the Ontario base, keeping equipment maintained and moving it to other divisions where requested.

GT: There were not many manufacturers of diamond drilling equipment at the beginning of your career. Which were the ‘big players’?

GW: The major manufacturers of drills and drill tools were Boart Longyear, JKS Boyles and Sullivan.

Most of the drilling was being done with standard diamond drilling equipment like rods and core barrels; each time the core barrel was filled, all the rods had to be retrieved from the drill hole to get the core in the tube.

GT: You actively supported the development of diamond tools. Can you share more?

GW: During all the time I spent at H&S Drilling, through management and ownership changes, we have always dealt with Fordia for our tool rentals and diamond products.

We were always striving to achieve an increase in production, so the more footage you could get on a diamond bit, the more you could drill before having to pull all the drill rods out of the hole for a bit change. Mr Paquet, Fordia’s founder, contributed to the success of our operations as he would come to our place to deliver bits, retrieve the used ones and salvage the reusable diamonds. We would discuss bits performance, rearrange diamond settings, patterns, etc. He would assess if RPM made performance better, test drilling muds, or determine whether we needed more or less weight on the bit. He would also test water ways configurations of the drill bit, depending on the type of ground or advise how much fluid to use for free cutting.

GT: Tell us more about the time you operated in Cuba?

GW: We were working for a Canadian mining company, operating in Cuba, which wanted a Canadian contractor for their project. Terry Aimone and I visited Cuba in order to set up meetings with their local drilling division that was equipped with old Russian drill rigs and had operators in need of guidance. The diamond bits were out of date and antiquated. We offered to arrange the delivery of some modern equipment, send skilled Canadian drillers to work with the locals and do some training. We contacted Fordia, who put together a package of diamond products, and thus supplied the best diamond tools for the Cuban drillers and specific ground conditions. Then we brought some of the Cuban drillers to Canada and provided more training, which helped them gain valuable experience. To this day the client is still importing products from Canada.

GT: Deep hole drilling is becoming more and more popular. What are your thoughts about it? What tools and techniques can help that segment develop?

GW: Deep hole drilling is without a doubt discovering bigger and better ore bodies. To enhance this phase of drilling, the industry requires better drill rods with tougher tool joints and threads as well as better rod handlers. The industry also requires diamond tools that can give better production before changing the bit, and in-hole lubricants that last longer to reduce drill rod wear as well as simpler computerization to control the drill parameters.

GT: What is the most challenging down-the-hole-related issue that you have ever experienced and its solution?

GW: We had a situation with badly broken ground at depth with very high water pressure, so we had to install a larger diameter surface casing with a BOP assembly and bleed-off valves below. We drilled with a larger diameter core barrel assembly until we passed the high water pressure zone, then we secured the drill rods there by cementing them to the bottom. Afterward, we continued the hole to the depth, required with the original size coring system. Upon completion, it was cemented back to the collar.

GT: Can you remember which field practices, established in the past, are considered standard procedures nowadays?

GW: It was determined that the drill hole had to be flushed after each core run with a certain number of water gallons per minute, depending on hole depth, in order to eliminate core barrels getting stuck in drill sludge.

GT: What is your opinion on drill rig automation and control panel computerization?

GW: Drill rig automation can be a positive change, if you are in a suitable environment for it. In most cases, you do not have the problem-solving diagnostic equipment or the people with the required skills to operate on hand. The problems with the new T-3 & 4 engines cause a lot of downtime on drill rig equipment. You have to remember that this same equipment works in temperatures from -50 C (-58 F) to +100 C (212 F), so keeping it simple is the best way to go.

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