I was always a bit of a dreamer through childhood. I didn’t enjoy post-war grammar school, although a reasonable amount of the education has stuck with me. I enjoyed reading, though, usually gung-ho novels of adventure in exotic locations, King Solomon’s mines, Kipling, Denis Wheatley, and of course, through puberty, anything to do with sex. TV was still in it’s infancy, but Hans and Lottie Haas stirred my imagination with their programmes of undersea exploration, and later on of course Jacques Cousteau with his fabulous boat Calypso, in exotic locations, sunken wrecks, (Treasure!!!) – I couldn’t imagine any other existence could possibly come close to working as a diver.
Mick Binns – baby diver, with his dad.
In general, puberty for me was dreadful. The world was full of gorgeous girls, in mini-skirts, with tits and everything, and I couldn’t talk to them, partly through the necessity of having to hide a raging erection whenever one came within 5 yards of me. Drink knocked the corners off my shyness I found, as well as knocking the knickers of some girls, and cigarettes were an easy way to break the ice, as well as making you super-cool if you developed a James Dean slouch. So, like probably every other teenager, puberty was for me, “Cigareetes and Whisky and Wild, Wild Women” in the words of one of my dad’s favourite songs. Let me apologise now to every girl I ever harassed, mauled or abused before I started to treat them properly…. I truly am sorry.
At 18, I went down to a job at Carpet Trades in Kidderminster – my first time away from home, alone. I was there 9 months, and loved every minute. I started playing Rugby Union (I’d played League in Brighouse). I had a great mate, Paddy Wilcox, whose father was sales director of Pirelli Tyres (Free calendars!!!) and who bought a fabulous (for us at that age) 2-seater 1946 MGTC. When I returned to Crossleys Carpets in Halifax, my grandmother bought the car for me, from Paddy, for £150, the most memorable present I ever received.
To someone working in the carpet industry in West Yorkshire, earning £7 10 shillings a week, diving was a pipe dream. But things were changing in the 60’s. Discontent among the baby boomers led to new fashions, an upsurge in drugs, great new music and groups, and music festivals.
A local entrepreneur decided to run a music festival out in the country, in 1969, in a natural valley at Krumlin in West Yorkshire, fairly close to Brighouse, where I lived. By now I worked at Crossley Carpets in Halifax, and together with another employee, Nick P, we hoped to cash in. We had the idea of selling sandwiches and making lots of money. We paid the organizer a fiver to operate as the only sandwich provider. Nick’s brother was at York University, and he got 20 girl students from there to come to the festival, and sell sandwiches from wooden trays I’d had made by a local builder, which they slung round their necks and wandered round trying to sell to the crowds. Elton John was on – (he was paid £90 for his gig), and a number of top bands had been booked, including Pink Floyd, The Move, Fairport Convention The Who, Manfred Mann, Pentangle, Ginger Baker and Airforce, Mungo Jerry, and many others. However – a taste of things to come, for me, – the whole event was an unmitigated disaster. We had talked a local baker – Barkers of Hebden Bridge – into providing the sandwiches – a good selection – for no deposit, as we were both skint. What a great bloke he was. We did our sums – 25,000 people coming for 3 days and nights, plus 2 days for travelling – so, 5 days x 25000 = 125,000 possibly 2 lots of sandwiches per day, therefore maximum 250,000. However we decided to be sensible about it – conservative even. So we only ordered 60,000 sandwiches, which we reckoned we’d sell easily and could then retire to the Bahamas.
We rented a couple of Godfrey Davis rent-a-vans, picked up the first load of sandwiches from the deep freeze of a mink farm at Hebden Bridge, where they were stored, and set off the to the festival on the Thursday where stage and equipment were being erected and people had started turning up. This was of course an outdoor, open-air festival in July, in the natural bowl between hills in God’s beautiful Country. Nothing could go wrong, we were both going to be rich, and we had 20 nubile girl students, all high on pot, trying to make us rich or get into our pants. We fought manfully against it, but were overwhelmed by superior odds.
We’d looked forward to a few days of sandwich selling, sex and sun. What we got was a hailstorm. In July. And it was massive. About 30 million tons of hailstones gathered over Krumlin, and then dropped in. The temperature plummeted, people started suffering, exposure set in, then the bloody hailstones melted – in the natural bowl in the hills, and everything was flooded out. Rod, from the Anchor pub in Brighouse, had taken about a million tins of baked beans. He couldn’t lose, he said – he’d got them on sale or return. He was heating them up in cauldrons of hot water, and then selling the hot baked beans. When the hailstones melted, he was flooded out, the cardboard boxes burst, and all the labels were washed of the tins, so his sale or return terms were void.
One crumb of liquid comfort was Elton John sending bottles of brandy into the suffering, freezing crowd. But, from a personal point of view, my first major disaster. I took my Godfrey Davis van home, and decided to run away to France where I would dump the van, and become a hippy. My Dad convinced me to get a night’s sleep first, and in the morning of course, things were still bad, but looked slightly different, especially after mum had served up a big bacon breakfast. Dad persuaded me to face up to the disaster instead of legging it to France, and try to work things out. Well, we tried, and failed miserably. We brought in the press, papers and TV, tried various ways of selling off our 60,000 sandwiches (British Rail, Wembley and other stadiums, the Isle of Wight Festival etc.) but all to no avail.
I left Crossleys in shame to get away from the jokes and sniggers, and ended up at another Carpet manufacturers in Brighouse, Firth’s Carpets, in the showroom. But my heart wasn’t in it. I’d had a glimpse of another world, and couldn’t settle, and quite fancied hitting the hippy trail. The only thing that kept me at Firth’s was Vicki, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. The Export director’s secretary, she used to float through the showroom causing bulging erections in all us poor showroom wallahs. She was so devastating, I couldn’t speak when she anywhere near. I was so intoxicated with her, and she was so far out of my league, but I was determined that I’d have her. I pursued her relentlessly, by befriending her best friend, who took up my case after I confessed my complete infatuation with Vicky. I finally embarrassed her into agreeing to a date, when I discovered that, although of Polish extraction, Vicky could not hold her vodka. After a meal and a bottle of wine, followed by a dozen or so Stolichnaya’s, she passed out in the taxi, and I had to carry her over my shoulders up the stairs to my bedsit. Strangely, for me, I behaved well, put her (clothed except for her long leather boots) into my bed, and then slept in the armchair. The next day she half believed I’d taken advantage, but eventually relaxed when she realized she was still virgo intacta. Over a long talk, I told her I was thinking of leaving and trying a hippy lifestyle, and she just, immediately, said she’d like to join me.
Complete with Rucksacks and 2-man hike tent, we set of hitch hiking, with no fixed destination. Through a combination of lifts, we ended up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. We needed money, so a quick visit to the labour exchange got us both set up with jobs, at Caister Holiday camp, about 3 miles up the road from Yarmouth. Vicki was working as a shop assistant in the camp supermarket. I got a job on the strength of my name. When I registered as Michael Binns, the guy said “I’ve got just the job for you” which is how I ended up emptying the rubbish bins on the camp, earning about £10 per week.…. a dustman called Binns…
We’d set up tent in a nearby campsite, so things were pretty good. The weather was good, we’d just enough money to live on, and were pretty happy in our tent. And then another job turned up, for what seemed phenomenal wages. The offshore gas industry was in its infancy, and was centred on Yarmouth. I followed up an advert in the Yarmouth Mercury, for stewards to work on the gas platforms – 12 hour days, 7 days per week, 2 weeks on, 1 week off, £25 per week!!! It was a fortune, especially as food and lodging was free. The work was hard – we had to clean out every cabin daily, do the laundry, and serve the food for around 70 men. At the end of the 12 hr day, you were knackered, and just collapsed into your bunk until the next shift. However, on board was a team of commercial divers, and my juvenile dreams of diving were re-ignited – if these men could do it, why couldn’t I? On top of that, a story in one of the Daily papers featured the newly developing offshore diving industry, in which divers were paid – wait for this – up to £1000 per day. I couldn’t believe this, but had to start looking into it, and found that the company was Northern Divers, in Hull.
It was getting to the end of the season in Yarmouth, so we decided to move to Hull, and for me to try and break into the diving game. Having learned that commercial diving was just a means of transport to get a skilled man to his place of work, it seemed obvious I needed a trade. I was lucky enough to get accepted onto a government training scheme for welders, about 7 months, and soon after that got a job as a site welder for GKN piling operations. I’d enquired into training schemes for divers, and found that I could get a 6 week course in Commercial Diving from Fort Bovisand, in Plymouth, for, I think, only £450 – still a hell of a lot of money for us as our circumstance had changed somewhat. Gone was the hippy life, Vicki was pregnant, and we needed somewhere to live. In 1975 I finally got enough money together for the course, Vicki and son James went to live with Mum and Dad, and I set off for Bovi.
Fort Bovisand was one of a number of defence forts built on the South coast as protection against a Napoleonic invasion. There were 17 of us on course no 2, all sleeping in bunks in 1 of the casements. We arrived on Sunday 27th April, for a 6-week course in Commercial Diving. Arriving in dribs and drabs, we congregated in the Bovisand bar, and started getting to know each other. For some reason, the 2 blokes I met first became my lifelong best friends, rock solid and steadfast, and incredibly funny company.
Dave Atkin was a 6ft 4” ex Royal Marine officer, about 26 years old; Robbie Todd was a Glaswegian plumber living in London, about 35 years old. Dave was the most organised bloke I’d ever met. He even had a short washing line in his kit, with pegs attached, and the means to brew a cup of tea for 3 at the drop of a hat, anytime, anywhere. He also had a much more detailed knowledge of world events and politics than I had, (or anyone I’d ever met) and was a funny and convincing talker. He was married to Linda, living in Grimsby, with, at that time, no children. Robbie Todd had served his apprenticeship in the Glaswegian dockyards, and as the 5 ft 7” younger brother of an older, 6ft tall Glaswegian hardcase, he’d moved to London partly to get away from all the nutters who came looking for revenge on Tommy’s younger brother. Living in Earl’s Court (with 2 other Glaswegians friends) he married Jane, a lovely English rose, who was the cookery editor for Woman’s Own magazine at that time, later moving onto the board of Hamlyn publishing. No children. Dave was incredibly fit; Robbie wasn’t. I wasn’t in too bad shape, and enjoyed the physical exercise routine every morning. We were up at 6 am, then out for about a 2-mile run, followed by a half hour exercise routine. After that, get into Avon dry bags (rubber diving suits), and fins, congregate on the harbour wall where we split into 4 teams, then jumped into the sea (which could be a 20 ft jump depending on the state of the tide) then each team had to link arms, and swim together on their backs, around 2 anchored buoys, about ¼ mile swim, and really hard work. Dave made it into a race every day, and his team won every single day of the course, really bloody annoying. The 3 of us were in different teams, and towards the end of the course, Robbie asked to go into Dave’s team, just to experience winning!
I guess that the Bovi team were developing the course at they went along; although there was an itinerary, it was a lot different to the courses that came along after Government money became available. Our 6 week course started with the first 2 weeks undergoing a crash course in B.S.A.C SCUBA diving. That was mainly great fun, with odd moments of humour and panic. Part of the training involved lifesaving practice. We paired off, one man would swim 100 yards or so out to sea, then give the BSAC signal for a diver in trouble. His partner would then swim out and rescue him. The man in trouble was supposed to be unconscious, so the idea was to get him on his back, and tow him to shore, where he would be given further first aid. While swimming and towing the unconscious man, you had to practice giving mouth to nose resuscitation, to get air into a potentially drowned man. My partner was Lou C, a big, fit bloke who’d done a bit of boxing. He wasn’t the brightest firework in the box, but he was keen and good fun. For the first part of the exercise, he swam out and I rescued him, without any problems. My turn then; I swam out the hundred yards, Lou came out to rescue me, turned me on my back, and started to swim to shore. After a few yards, he started to administer mouth to nose resuscitation. Now, we’d been told to simulate this, but Lou decided he would make it more realistic, and blew hard up my nose while holding my mouth shut. Unfortunately, his mouth was full of water as well as air, and I started drowning, instantly. When I tried to struggle, he was far too strong for me, and he blew more water up my nose and into my lungs. I remember almost passing out, as he got me to the beach, and a few others had to come over and give me artificial respiration in a bid to save my life from Lou’s enthusiastic ministrations. I was careful to avoid Lou in future partnerships. He was a really likeable guy, who’d had a rough time as a kid. His father was an American airman, who’d seduced an English girl after the war, then legged it back to the States when she got pregnant. His early life had been a succession of “Uncles”, and of course frequent changes in schools. His inability to form lasting relationships with either school friends or Uncles, led to a stammer. He told us that at after 1 move, when he was about 10, he moved into his new school. The teacher introduced him as a new boy, and made him stand up in front of the class, and read a passage from Huckleberry Finn, in order to check his level of reading. He was so nervous, that when he started, he said “ Huck and Tom jumped into the l-l-l-l-leaky boat” The whole class started laughing, and after that, he was called Leaky-Boat-Lou.
So, after early morning exercise, we’d adjourn for breakfast, and then into the classroom for the physics lessons we needed to understand how a subsea working environment would affect our bodies. Here we learned about Boyle’s Law, Charles’s Law and Henry’s Law. We also learned about the specific dangers, ranging from decompression sickness (the bends) to oxygen poisoning, H2S poisoning, embolism, nitrogen narcosis, blocked sinuses, shark attack, and a multitude of other scary things you didn’t get as a welder or a plumber . After lunch it would be in-water training, then cleaning and care of equipment. The last 4 weeks were all focused on the commercial aspects of diving. Bovi only had limited supplies of commercial equipment, so everything was at a premium. However we had the chance to use a few different types of surface supplied equipment (where air is pumped down an umbilical to the diver) instead of the self-contained air tanks carried by the diver when using SCUBA. Incorporated in the umbilical was a hard wired comms system, so that the diver could communicate with the dive controller.
Unfortunately, as we found later, none of this was cutting edge stuff; the dive helmet of choice in the North Sea (which was at the cutting edge of commercial diving evolution,) was the Kirby Morgan, whose development of different models soon included attachments to the helmet for a camera and light. This was expensive and exotic stuff, and light years away from the Bovi gear, which used various types of masks and helmets to be found all over the commercial world.
One of them was the Desco, also known as one-breath-from-death. It was a scary piece of kit. The full-face mask was secured in place by a rubber “spider” which went around the back of the head. Poor design meant that the mask couldn’t cope with your exhalations – when you breathed out quickly (if you were working hard), the only way the air could escape was by forcing the mask off your face, with a really alarming prospect of the whole thing coming off, leaving you with no comms, and breathing water until you could retrieve the mask and get it back on.
We also learned the basics of how to start up compressors, generators, and work with pneumatic and hydraulic tools, and had the opportunity to try different types of underwater cutting and welding, explosives, photography, and the decompression procedures including operation of a recompression chamber. For me, it was a good basic introduction to the world of Commercial Diving, using basic equipment, however it was focused on well-established civil engineering diving, rather than the evolving oilfield diving, where huge money could be earned. We had to break into that area ourselves, after leaving the course.
The course ended with a 50 metre dive, the legal limit for air diving, which was, for all of us, both exciting and scary. Only a few minutes on the bottom, go to a given location and then return to the down line, ready for ascent. Controlled ascent to 30 ft, then stage decompression, at 20 ft and 10ft, hanging on a rope from the boat. I had a problem on this dive, which had strange consequences. We did the dive, as usual, in our Avon dry-bags These had a small inflation bottle attached, which we used to adjust the suit buoyancy – as you went deeper, the air in the suit was compressed, causing it to squeeze your skin, so you’d let in some air from the buoyancy bottle. You had to be careful not to put in too much, as you might overdo it, and come flying to the surface, causing all kinds of horrible diving deaths. On my 50-metre dive, my hands were very cold, and the valve of the bottle was quite stiff, so I decided to complete the dive without using any suit inflation. Big mistake, as the thin rubber fabric, started to squeeze areas of my skin all over my body. By the time I got to the seabed, I was as stiff as a plank, could hardly move, and was glad to leave bottom, letting the air in the suit expand and release its grip on my skin as I ascended. However, my body ended up black and blue with about 20 areas of suit-squeeze. When I arrived home a few days later, Vicky thought the bruising was as a result of a fling with another woman, and never really believed my story about suit-squeeze.
There was an element of competition involved on the course, with a promise of job offers from a North Sea Diving Company for the top 4 people on the course. Dave, Robbie and I were told to go to Gt Yarmouth for an interview, and when we turned up, there was also – guess who – Leaky Boat Lou, who had come bottom on the course, but managed to get the name and address of the company from someone, and just turned up!
In fact I came close to not finishing the course; I ran out of money with a week to go – I didn’t have a penny, and couldn’t afford to eat. Only a last minute loan of £50 saved me – my old school friend John, in London, who lived in London, and had put me up when I was trying to sell my 60,000 sandwiches. I hitchhiked to London at the weekend, and then back to Plymouth, cash in pocket, to complete the course. At the end of the course, I hitchhiked to Yarmouth, where I met up with Dave and Robbie (and Lou!) for the interview. We were all given promises of jobs with C.U.E (Consortium Underwater Engineers) who turned out to be the biggest bunch of cowboys ever to strap on goggles, flippers and oxygen tank…. But more of that later.
The only stumbling block was that we had to provide our own wet-suit – at a cost of £60, impossible for me, but somehow, Dave Atkin found it for me – after knowing him for only 6 weeks. The best thing diving gave me was the constant and unwavering friendship of the 2 best men I ever met, Dave Atkin and Robbie Todd. Lucky man.
© mick binns 2018
ROBBIE AND JANE TODD