CHAPTER 14 The all-go-crazy-navy

Chapter 14 The All-Go-Crazy-Navy

By now, 1986, Dave Atkin was general manager of A.D.A.M.S.,( Algosaibi Diving and Marine Services) otherwise known as the The all-go-crazy-navy, or just “Crazies”. I phoned him this morning, just before I started to write, to ask him for a timeline of his years with Crazies, as follows;
1976 January started as a diver with A.D.A.M.S along with Robbie Todd.
1976 June Robbie quits after falling in the harbour with everyone’s mail.
1980 Dave promoted to supervisor
1982 moves on shore as ops manager
1984 promoted to General Manager.
1994 Retired back home to Grimsby.
After he’d given me this time line, he said,
“Exaggerate as much as you like, Mick, whatever you write will be a pale shadow of the truth!”
When Dave went out there with Robbie in 1976, Crazies were diving from the decks of dhows. They had the maintenance contract with ARAMCO for all the offshore installations belonging to Saudi Arabia. The reason they had this contract, as I understand it, was a “Thank you” from the king of Saudi Arabia to Khalifa AlGosaibi for his support when he seized power in Saudi Arabia.

No need for elaboration with stories from Crazies, it was a melting pot of madness, filled with the highest proportion of lunatics I’ve ever come across. A few years earlier, they were hiring American criminals who had been given early release, after doing a diving course, on condition they worked overseas, so Crazies had had an influx of murderers and rapists, (on top of their own home-grown nutters), just so that Uncle Sam could get rid of them overseas, (although they still had to pay their American taxes)! Even ordinary blokes ended up tinged with lunacy after spending a few months there. They could not have had a better boss than Dave, who as a 6ft 5” ex Royal Marine officer, was madder, and harder, than any of them. He even played Scrabble to win, not for fun.

Anyway, to start at the beginning…
When I phoned him, he had just won the biggest commercial diving contract in the world, at that time, known as “The Trestle”. He knew me and my failings well, and said, “Mick, I can give you a job, but I can’t keep it for you.” Fair enough. The trestle was a long concrete construction which had been built a few years earlier, from the refinery on the beach, out to sea to a depth of around 80 ft, where it was deep enough for tankers to come alongside and load up. This trestle carried pipelines to load up tankers with LPG. The whole thing was a massive construction, 6 kilometres long, supported on hundreds of massive concrete pillars, piled into the seabed. Unfortunately, when it was built, someone forgot to put an important ingredient into the concrete mix, which was crucial to killing off sea worms. Shortly after it was completed, this mistake was discovered during an inspection of the subsea concrete legs, which showed every pile was being honeycombed by said hungry worms.

3 companies were asked to bid with a method of dealing with the problem. Dave’s solution, in tandem with the Japanese company, Yokohama Rubber, was to wrap each leg with a greased bandage, and then encase the leg with a fibreglass sheet, secured with titanium nuts and bolts. This method was accepted, and Dave had won a multi-million-pound contract. A.D.A.M.S already had 6 vessels working on their regular maintenance contract with ARAMCO, but this new contract required an extra 120 divers, working from 6 boats. Each boat had been fitted with containers for the extra accommodation and toilet facilities, very basic. After arriving in Saudi, I’d spent a night in the ADAMS guest house, and then took a zodiac out to my boat, the Algosaibi 21.

Dave, true to character, wasn’t sat on his arse in an office, he was out working (diving) on the 21. He was first up in the morning, diving with the poor supervisor, who had no chance of running his own boat, but had to dive as buddy with Dave. Everything was done in SCUBA. I vividly remember arriving in the little Zodiac. Dave had just arrived back on board from a progress meeting on the beach at ARAMCO, where the Yokohama rep had blamed the slow progress on the poor quality of the divers, denying that the problem lay with a construction fault in the fibre glass sheets made by his company, where the flanges were separating from the sheets. Dave had not made an issue of this in the meeting but had fumed about it until getting back on board the 21. The Japanese rep had arrived shortly before me. When I arrived, the small Japanese rep was stood at attention on deck, Dave was standing over him, jabbing him in the chest with a sausage sized finger, shouting at him that if he ever blamed Dave’s divers for failures caused by shoddy Japanese manufacturing products, he would personally rip his limbs off, and make sure he disappeared at sea. This was quite an introduction for me to what turned out to be a 7-month job. The Japanese rep contacted his company, and there were no future problems. This is one of the areas where Dave was good. He’d said nothing in the meeting about the faulty product, just said he would sort out the problem. He addressed the problem forcefully to the guilty party, who knew he had better sort it out, on pain of something excruciating if he didn’t, and ARAMCO got the thing sorted out with the minimum of fuss. Either he always knew how to do this sort of thing, or he learned it in the Marines, I don’t know which, but whenever you had a problem, Dave seemed to be able to sort it out. And whatever situation came up, he was able to laugh it off. He never ever seemed stressed, although I know that stress took a huge toll on his life, he just never let it show, and in doing that, he shouldered the stress for all around him, an extraordinary leader, re-assuring for everyone who worked with him.

On this job, I discovered I was a jelly-fish magnet. Working in pairs at about 80 ft, we would usually have decompression stops on a stops line at 10 ft. It was jelly fish season, and as soon as we stopped on the line, they would be queuing up to drape themselves all over me, leaving my dive partner untouched. It didn’t matter that I was fully clad in neoprene, they stayed on me when I climbed out, and would sting me as I took my gear off. This was every day, and by the end of the week, my arms were so swollen that I couldn’t get my Rolex off. My head was also quite swollen, and I felt like I’d done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. Dave also had been badly stung and had a big bag of yellow fluid hanging below his chin, making him look like a pelican. Dave had a word with me, saying he’d made arrangements for me to move onto another boat, the Algosaibi 1, which was working in the shallowest part by the beach, where there were no jellyfish. I asked him if he was moving there also, because of his bad stings. He denied he’d been stung! I asked him what was that big bag of fluid at his neck, then? He denied there was one, even while it was flopping around his face! Anyway, off I went to the A1, and had recovered fully about 5 days later. Once the jellyfish season was over, I transferred back to deeper water.

There was a pretty good atmosphere on all the boats. In spite of the Spartan conditions, the work was hard and satisfying. It wouldn’t be allowed today. We were diving in SCUBA all the time, and repetting, which means working out your “residual nitrogen” in your bloodstream, allowing for the depth and time of the previous dive, plus the “surface interval” which then, according to the dive tables gives you an x minute penalty for the next dive. That also is now illegal, but when I first started, at C.U.E., we were diving on every tide, ie every 6 hours, and working out our penalty each time. At the end of our 2-week stint, we were like zombies. Mind you, at Crazies, everyone was like zombies anyway, before they even got in the water!

Even so, it was a good atmosphere, and they were memorable characters, many of them dead now. A good proportion were ex forces divers, there were ex French Foreign Legionnaires, and a number of ex-pats from Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Zimbabwe and quite a few other countries. There was no organised recreation, other than a small screen TV which was hooked up to a video cassette player, and everyone brought in pirate tapes of the latest movies, which were always astoundingly bad recordings, done in cinemas. You’d see the silhouettes of people standing up to go out to the loo, and the sound recordings were awful. Also, the messroom would only accommodate about 8 people comfortably, and there might be 40 on board, so most guys didn’t spend too much time in there. This is before the era of mobile phones and laptop computers; the biggest tech innovation at that time was the Sony Walkman, a portable music cassette player, which guys wood hook onto a belt, and do weight training or exercises on deck, listening to “The Dark Side of the Moon” or “Tubular Bells” or whatever the current favourite was. The only other forms of recreation were reading or board games. There was a library on each boat. I usually bought 3 paperbacks at the airport, which I’d leave on the boat after I’d read them, most other divers did the same thing, so there was always a good selection of reading material. “Uckers” and “Risk” were the favourite board games; Uckers was a favourite in the Royal Navy, similar to Ludo, and played on a homemade board, with homemade wooden counters, and was an incredibly noisy game when played by testosterone fuelled divers.

Of course, alcohol was forbidden, both by the country, and the Company, which made it even more desirable to the guys whenever it became available. At one point, I moved over to the Red Sea base in Gizan. I was taking over a room from “Ginge” C, an ex-Navy diver. He asked me to look after his beer supplies while he was on leave. It was an incredible set up. His room was below deck, in the bow of the ship. He’d removed the wooden panels to expose quite a large space between the panels and the hull plates, and he’d installed a 10 gallon tub for his beer mash, which he de-canted into large bottles once fermentation was complete. He’d sit down happily at the end of the day, watching pirate videos, drinking his home brew, and bugger the headaches tomorrow. Ginge and I were once moored alongside in Gizan, when we were approached by the Captain of another vessel. He’d fouled his prop with some rope, and offered us a bottle of Gin if we could remove it. We went along happily, removed the rope, collected the litre of gin, and returned to our boat. We left that afternoon, with an overnight trip to our location, so decided to drink it on the way out, which we did – sat in the sun drinking neat, warm gin, no ice, no mixers and no lemon. We had to bloody well force it down, and pretend we were enjoying it.

The local home-made spirit was called “Siddiqui” which means “friend” in Arabic. However, some brews were more friendly than others. It was dangerous stuff to distil, and the temperature had to be monitored very closely -drinking the wrong stuff could lead to blindness and death. When ARAMCO first started their operations in Saudi, so many men died after trying to distil booze, that ARAMCO issued a pamphlet to all their employees, called “The Blue Flame”, detailing how to build a still, and how to run it properly. It also gave recipes, how to make orange and chocolate liqueurs plus other ideas. Most people just drank Sid and Coke and ice. In general only a third of each “mash” would be drinkable, but this third was truly excellent pure alcohol. It had to be diluted with at least 1 to 1 water and was completely tasteless. You’d sit on a stool in the bar of someone’s villa, happily drinking what tasted just like Coca-Cola. You’d have 5 or 6 of these, get off your stool to go to the toilet, and fall straight on your arse, I’ve seen it lots of times, and done it myself. The drink was so good that most people never got a hangover the following day, so good Siddiqui was prized and cherished, and would seriously enliven any game of Uquers offshore.

The downside of course, was that alcohol is dangerous in the workplace, especially in a diving environment; add this to the drugs also found offshore, and “Crazies” became an appropriate name. Besides the inherent dangers, you were at risk of being jailed, deported, and losing your job through misuse of drugs and alcohol, but most people regarded this as a challenge, rather than a deterrent. Mark C was a diver heavily into both drink and drugs. Mark was a bit strange anyway (he’s dead now). He frequently brought in marijuana hidden in his luggage, and always got away with it. But he wasn’t much of a sharer, and preferred smoking alone, usually on the back deck at night time. On 1 trip, he’d bought a toy teddy bear, supposedly for his niece when he returned home, but he used to sleep with the bear on his pillow in his bunk. Someone asked him for a reefer, to pass round, and he refused, saying they should have brought their own stash. That evening, the bear went missing from his bunk, and a videotape was left in its place. When he put the tape in the machine, it showed the bear on a table, with someone wielding a pair of scissors near the bear’s ear, and a voice saying “Snip, snip! Give us some dope, or the bear gets it!” Instead of having a laugh, and passing some round, Mark took real umbrage, and called on the radio to Bill S, the ops manager at the time, reporting a theft of his personal goods. Bill went offshore to sort it out, and couldn’t believe the story he heard. He apparently said he was returning to the beach, and if he heard another word about it, everyone on board would be run off.

Mark was involved in another famous episode. He would try any kind of drugs, and had his own shooting up kit. He’d run out of drugs, but had some Siddiqui, so decided he would inject himself with the alcohol, straight into his bloodstream. This was late one night, and he retired shortly after to his single room below decks. The boat had just finished a job up in Kuwait, and was returning to base, a journey that for different reasons would take 3 days. After 2 days, someone noticed that he hadn’t seen Mark for a while, and it turned out that no one else had, either. One of the divers was sent to check on him. He came back up, and said “He’s in his bunk, but he’s dead!” Instant panic, so the skipper – an ex-trawler skipper from Hull – went down with the Dive Supervisor to check him out. The rooms were poorly lit, but they couldn’t detect a pulse, tried a mirror to his mouth, no sign of breathing, and he was fairly cold. They went back on deck and had a get together to decide what to do. The consequences of a death on board could be quite serious for everyone, particularly the skipper, (who was quite a twat anyway) and he was worried that he’d be locked up and held responsible, especially if there was booze or drink involved. They were still a few hours away from base, and the skipper insisted that they throw his body over the side, and claim he fallen overboard, and been lost at sea. Now, Mark was not a popular member of the crew, but the other divers were outraged at this, and there was quite a hullabaloo going on, threats and fists flying from all sides, when suddenly, Mark staggered out onto deck, retching and looking – literally – like death. Even worse, he could hardly speak, and appeared to be either still drunk, or brain damaged. At least this sorted out the problem of throwing him over the side. They returned to base, and Mark was given his marching orders. He was put in the guest house until his ticket and money had been sorted out. I arrived from leave the following day, and shared the communal room with Mark, who was still in a bad way. He gave me – bit by rambling bit- most of the story, but he still had trouble talking coherently, and couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish a sentence. He also couldn’t understand why he’d been sacked! A couple of years later, I heard he’d had a leg amputated, for “smoker’s leg”, and a couple of years after that, I heard he’d died.
© mick binns 2018