Chapter 2: Apprenticeship

CHAPTER 2 – APPRENTICESHIP

Back home from Yarmouth, living on hand-outs from mum and dad, who were already looking after Vicky and James. I was desperate for money, and couldn’t wait to start earning. Our work routine was 2 weeks on, one week off, and our pay was, for me phenomenal (although we didn’t at this time know anything about North Sea diving rates of pay. Only a year earlier, in Hull, I had taken Vicki out for a meal to celebrate my first £20 per week wage. My rate with CUE was £20 per day when working, – a seemingly staggering amount which enabled me to pay off my debts quickly, and get on a reasonably firm financial footing. When I moved to my next company shortly afterwards, Ocean Technical Services Ltd., their rates were £40 per day for air diving, £45 per day for mixed gas, although I was initially taken on at a reduced rate.

However, back to C.U.E… (Cripple  Us Everyday). I turned up for my first days work at the company owned by a couple of chancers, Albert and Dennis. Very rough diamonds, they each owned a Rolls Royce. Albert was a typical East End loud-mouthed Barrow boy, whose favourite insult was “You Cunt, You Cunt, You fuckin’ Cunt” You could have a good debate with Albert. The pair of them had been in the right place at the right time, and had won a contract with Phillips, which had made them millionaires. Their diving operation was exclusively SCUBA – a type of diving which was to be banned commercially in later British legislation for commercial work, due to it’s inherent dangers, mainly Limited air supply, and lack of communications with the surface. They had lost a diver, Paul Azzupardi, only the previous month, diving on SCUBA. They employed no experienced men – their system was to take SCUBA divers or a new intake from the growing number of commercial dive schools, and employ them for a short time on what were low commercial diving rates. Their dive routine was a nightmare, hardly believable looking back, but we didn’t know any better. There are 4 tides daily, which give 4 periods of “slack water” when diving operations could take place without the divers being swept away to oblivion by strong currents. The maximum depth was around 140 ft, and their system was to dive everybody on all 4 tides daily, for the 2 weeks you were on shift. That meant “repet” diving (another practice later banned) constantly, so you would do the first dive at say 6 am to 140 ft, with in water decompression, the 2nd dive at 12.30 in the “splash-zone” to less than 30 ft, the 3rd dive at 7.pm back to 140 ft, and the 4th dive at 1.30 am back shallow below 30 ft. The actual work period depended on the amount of slack water, which was governed by the monthly cycle of the moon affecting tides, namely springs or neaps. So a dive might be as long as an hour, or as short as 10 minutes. It also meant that if the weather was diveable, you never got more than 3 hours sleep between dives, and at the end of a 2 week tour, you were a fully paid up zombie.

 

The 4 of us, Dave, Robbie, me and Lou, turned up complete with brand new wet suits, at the heliport for our first helicopter ride out to the Phillips gas platforms, 3 of them, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Albert paired us off, and of course, I was paired with Lou. The chopper dropped of Robbie and Dave at Alpha platform, we continued through to Charlie. We were going to have our first dive immediately. As soon as we landed, Lou and I changed into our wetsuits, and waited for the chopper to leave. Just below the chopper platform was another level, where a 12 ft Zodiac rubber boat sat in a steel cradle, to which were attached some long strops. Albert loaded up the boat with diving equipment, and then called on a hand held radio for a crane driver. We climbed inside the boat, and sat on the side pontoon. The deck was about 100 ft above sea level. We were whisked into the air by the crane, and lowered over the side. As soon as the cradle hit the water, Albert started up the engine, and drove the boat out towards one of the legs. He secured the boat’s painter to a line hanging from the leg. There was no slack water, and quite a tide running, as we could see from the swirling movement of the sea around the leg. On top of that, the seas were pretty rough, about 8 – 10 ft with rise and fall of the waves., but the little boat rode the swells quite well. Albert explained that a scour mat had been fastened to the bottom of the leg, at 140 ft, to lie on the sea bed and hopefully prevent the seabed from scouring out around the leg. He just wanted to make sure the mat was still securely in place.

“Right, Lou can do the dive, Mick you’ll be his standby diver. Get him dressed in.”

I helped Lou don his fins.

“Where’s the weight belts?” I asked.

“Oh, fuck me, I forget ‘em. Never, mind, you’ll be all right, just dive without ‘em.”

A weight belt has lumps of lead attached to counteract the bouncy of the wet-suit. Without neutral buoyancy it’s virtually impossible to get below the surface. Still, Albert was the professional, we were the baby divers, he must know what he was talking about, this was obviously how you did it in this new Man’s World of Professional Commercial Divers…. I helped Lou into his air tanks, a triple set with 2 demand valves designed for CUE which weighed 109 lbs, but was neutrally buoyant.

Lou was now dressed, I was also dressed in as his stand by diver. We were about 10 metres from the leg. Albert said “Right Lou, off you go; swim to the leg, go down it and check the scour mat.” Lou slipped backwards off the Zodiac, and was immediately swept downstream by the tide, running at about 2 knots. Albert was screaming

“YOU CUNT, YOU CUNT YOU FUCKING CUNT COME BACK HERE!!!”

By the time Albert had released the Zodiac and started the engine, Lou was about 50 metres downstream, his head disappearing in the rise and fall of the waves. We drove downstream of him, and he clung desperately to the side of the Zodiac. I’ll never forget his face. He had faulty eyesight, so he’d had his own SCUBA mask made up with special inserts to correct the fault. These magnified his eyeballs, which had now glazed over with fear. He also had a big nose, which was too big for the mask, and was bent over to one side, with lots of snots running out of it and pooling in the bottom of the mask, hanging from his eyebrows and face. We hauled him into the boat, but he was by now a gibbering wreck. Albert said

“Right Mick, you do the dive. Lou’s your stand by diver.”

I knew immediately that if I needed a stand-by diver, I was as good as dead. That must be the way you did it in the North Sea. Albert drove the boat back towards the leg, and was going to tie up in the same position. I told him I wouldn’t be able to swim to the leg because of the tide, and wanted him to drop me off upstream of the leg so that I’d be forced by the tide onto the leg.

“FUCKING PUSSY DIVERS, ALWAYS BITCHIN’!!!”

was Albert’s response. Anyway, he dropped me off upstream, and the tide slammed me into the leg. I was able to grab the leg, and started to shin down the leg  below the surface, with the tide forcing me against the leg, and my wet suit suit trying to force me back up to the surface. The deeper I got, the easier it became, as the suit compressed and lost a little buoyancy, but by the time I got to about 120 ft I was breathing so hard with the effort that I was developing tunnel vision. I’d used so much air in the effort to get down that that my twinset was almost empty, leaving only the bale-out bottle with air for the ascent. The visibility was incredibly good, and I could just see that there was some kind of big white thing stretched out around the leg. That was enough for me, I started shinning up the leg making sure I didn’t get swept off I’d have ended up in Amsterdam if I’d let go of the leg. When I got to the surface, Albert had tied up the boat, and was downstream of the leg. I let go of the leg, and grabbed the boat, and got hauled inboard. “Everything all right?” asked Albert. “Yes, the mat’s in place and secure “ I said. “Did you inspect it?” He said. It was at this point that I realised fully that Albert was a cretin. “Yes, I swam all round it. It’s fine” I said. Albert was checking my SCUBA tanks.

“YOU CUNT, YOU CUNT YOU FUCKING CUNT!! YOU’VE USED UP ALL YOUR AIR!! WE CAN’T AFFORD THAT!!”

Welcome to the world of commercial diving. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Years later, in Saudi Arabia, I met another diver, Dave Mathers, who had actually been sacked by Albert for breathing too much air!

 

I only did 3 or 4 trips with CUE, before being “run off” by Albert (along with Dave) to make room for a new batch of baby divers. We started looking for work, but were still new to how to break in to the offshore game, and had no contacts. Robbie was still with CUE, and suffered a type 2 bend with them, more of which later.  One of the companies I phoned was Ocean Technical Services. I phoned their head office in London, and spoke to Peter White, who was the owner, although I didn’t realise that at the time. I went down to London for an interview, which went well, and he sent me to Gt Yarmouth where they had a newly established workshop under the direction of Malcolm Johnson, an ex navy diver and now budding entrepreneur in the commercial diving world. OTS had landed a contract with British Gas for diving services on a jack-up rig, the OFFSHORE MERCURY which was going to do some test drilling out of Fleetwood in Lancashire, in the Irish Sea. Malcolm agreed to make me part of the team (on a reduced daily rate of £25 per day, when working, everyone else was on £40 per day). However, it was a “stand-by” job. We had a dive team of 4 divers, including the supervisor. One diver would be stay on the rig for a week, to make sure the dive system was ready to go if the full dive team was called out. The other 3 divers stayed at home, on a stand-by rate of half pay, which meant I was earning every day, even at home.

The crew changed a little over the months, for different reasons. One of the characters to arrive was Mike B. He was around 40 years old, and had a remarkable history, although the full truth of his claims was severely questioned many years later. He had been a very young diver working for a Swiss diving company in the 1960’s at the very cutting edge of deep diving development. I think the company was SubSea International. They had developed a saturation system, which they were testing in Lake Geneva, developing their own diving tables as they went along. Mike was in his twenties, and was earning unbelievable amounts of money for such a young man, lucky to be in the right place at the right time. During these trials, he told me that his Rolex watch broke down. He sent it in to Rolex, explaining the circumstances. They serviced the watch, and sent it back to him with no charge, and also included another watch, which they asked him to include in a future trial, if he would record the details and perform certain tasks while wearing the watch. He said that over the next year, this happened 6 times, and each time he was given the watch in thanks for performing the tasks. By the end of the trials, he had made so much money that he retired from diving (at 30 years old!) and bought a 60 ft dilapidated yacht which he’d discovered in the South of France, and had once belonged to the Film Star Errol Flynn, who had died in 1959. He had the boat transported to England, where he had it refurbished, and decided to sail around the world (single handed) although he’d no sailing experience. He told me that he sailed out of Southampton, reading a book on how to navigate! Well, he ended up in the South China Seas, and by 1975 had run out of money, couldn’t afford insurance on the boat, and lost it after smashing onto a reef. At that point he returned to England, and landed the job on the Offshore Mercury. However, when he went for a medical, he failed, and didn’t return. I don’t know what happened to him, but in 2004 I was working as a rep on the BAR PROTECTOR. There were a number of old French and Swiss SubSea hands on board. I mentioned that I’d once worked with one of their old comrades – Mike B – instant pandemonium! “That Bastard” said one of them – “We did some diving trials in Lake Geneva, and did some work using Rolex watches. As thanks they sent a watch for each member of the 6 man diving team. Mike B stole the lot and fucked off!”

 

So we rotated the divers on the rig weekly. Money started  accumulating for us, finally, and we were soon able to buy our first house in Brighouse, a 2 bedroom Victorian terraced house, for £2000, only 100 yards away from my parents home, which provided great support for Vicky and son James when I was away. We paid off the house within a year, and had a fair amount of work done to update it, all quickly paid off. The company, OTS, was registered in Jersey, and they arranged a bank account for me in Jersey, into which my wages were paid monthly.

 

The Irish Sea job ended, so I was once again without regular wages. My supervisor on that had been Dave Puttock, and I absolutely loved him. He was a remarkable character, who just seemed to know  everything about diving, and I wanted to work with him as my mentor. A lot of people didn’t think the same way, of course, but I stuck with Dave, and for me it was a good decision. He was a Londoner who started his diving career in the Thames, on a work barge. He started as the tea boy, got to know all the equipment, and the divers on board used to dress him in full harbour gear (big brass helmet, weight belt, weighted boots, etc) and he’d jump in to clear the tools from the work site. That was how he learned his diving – no theoretical physics training or anything like that, but he was one of the most intelligent men I ever met, and he educated himself in theory, diving practice and medicine over the years.

He ended up working in Angola for a company called Divecon, at that time the biggest diving company in the world. This was before the offshore diving boom, and work was run on Civils Engineering contracts. Peter White was the African manager of the company, Malcolm Johnson was also working for them. They were all working in Angola. Civils contracts meant living on bachelor status for 6 months at a time, 5 days a week with local leave at the week-end, then a 2 week break home in UK. Dave had become very proficient with machinery, and could make anything work. He also was a workaholic, had to be doing something all the time, and was unable to sit down and relax with a beer or a cup of tea. He had eyes like Marty Feldman, one looked off to the left, the other looked at you. Then it would change – the left eye looked at you, while the right eye wandered off somewhere to the right. We never knew who he was talking to, as he was usually looking at 2 people at once, in different parts of the room, and he would usually get at least a couple of answers from different divers to any question he asked. He would try to cover up this defect by smoking cheroots, and letting the smoke wander into one of his eyes, so that he’d have to close it, causing a tear-streaked face. He always wore overalls and rig boots, usually without socks, even in restaurants, and his pockets were stuffed with a cornucopia of tools. I remember watching him stood on the lip of an SBM. A wave unbalanced him, and we all saw that he was going to fall into the sea. His arms were windmilling madly, his body gyrating like a break-dancer, trying to regain his balance, but impossible. Finally we saw spanners, hammers, tape measures, chisels being emptied from his pockets, as he jettisoned his beloved tools so they wouldn’t pull him to the seabed 100 ft below. We were all laughing so much as he hit the water, that no-one could do anything to help him. His head finally surfaced, he was struggling like mad to remain afloat (no lifejackets in those days!). Finally someone threw him a lifering and he was pulled to the side, sodden cheroot still hanging from his lips.

While working in Angola, Dave struck up a friendship with an American working on the same contract. He was also a go-getter, and the pair of them bought a couple of small motor bikes, and at week-ends would head off exploring into the jungle, armed only with a compass, on their bikes (all this long before GPS, into areas which had never been surveyed or mapped) Dave would take a mask fins and snorkel with him, and would jump into any river, stream or pool they came across, regardless of the crocodiles and various other nasty possible creature encounters. On one of these jaunts, they found a pool beneath a waterfall. Dave jumped in to cool off, and snorkeled to the bottom, about 20 ft deep. The water was reasonably clear, and he noticed that the bottom was “sparkling”. He took off his mask, and scooped some of the debris into it from the bottom of the pool. Returning to the surface, he and his mate inspected the sparkles, which were gold coloured. After swirling the water round the mask, and then emptying it, they were left with a tiny amount of what Dave thought was gold dust. A few more trips to the bottom provided enough for them to return to camp. I t was a big work site with good facilities including a geologist. They approached him, told him they’d bought a sample of gold dust from one of the locals, and wanted to ascertain if it was genuine. The guy checked it out, and later confirmed that it was pure gold.

Now this was in the days when the international gold price was strictly regulated, at around $180 per ounce. It was also in the era approaching Angola’s Independence from Portugal, and local war-lords were positioning themselves to extract as much money, wealth, power and influence as possible. Angola got its Independence in 1975, and Civil War immediately broke out. It continued for 27 years, with the main warring factions being the FLNA, UNITA and FLEC. However, in the months before this, Dave and his mate were working every week-end panning the gold from their pool. Dave had a plan. Before his next leave, he was going to build a furnace, melt the gold,  cast it into dive weights, then paint them silver to look like lead. He would take them back to UK, and then sell them wherever he could. Of course cruel fate intervened. The guerrilla warfare was getting ever closer to where they were working, and lastly, a month before his tour was up, Dave received a telegram saying that his father had died. He was to return to UK immediately, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be coming back due to the political situation. He hadn’t had time to make his dive weights. He spoke with his friend, who agreed to buy Dave’s share for half price, ie $90 per ounce. The dollar exchange rate at the time was around $2.4 to £1 sterling. Dave went home with a cheque for more than £20,000. He said he knew he wouldn’t be coming back, as guerrillas were shooting rifles at his plane when it took off. His money bought a cruiser where he lives to this day on the Norfolk Broads. By 1980 the gold price was around $600 per ounce.

 

One more story from the Divecon days. One of their employees, (John Pearson?) was working as their ops manager. He started a rival diving company of his own at the same time, unknown to Divecon called Deep Six, and came up with a novel way of saving money. Deep Six had landed a diving contract nearby, and when he needed divers, he asked Divecon Head Office (Back in the USA) to send some out. He’d meet the new batch of divers at the airport, and tell them he’d some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that the contract they’d come for (with Divecon) had been cancelled, and they all had to return home – except (here was the good news) he knew of another contract nearby which required divers – start immediately, but on less wages. Of course they all stayed. I think he may have kept the divers on Divecon’s books as ghost workers, and drawn their wages. Divecon was such a big company, that no-one had a handle on what was going on in darkest Africa. The resulting scandal, when it surfaced, brought down Divecon, there was a big court case in the states, which Dave Puttock was called to as a witness. Finally, one of the managers of Divecon (in Libya, I think) Peter White decided to start up his own company, Ocean Technical Services. He recruited at least 2 of his old buddies, Dave Puttock and Malcolm Johnson to work for him, giving them a small percentage (4% each) in the foundling company. Peter came up with a diving contract, which Malcolm organised as the Operations Manager, recruiting the necessary divers, Dave ran the operation as Superintendent, and also financed it, buying the equipment from his own money. That was the foundation of Ocean Technical Services, which, after a few name changes eventually sold for millions of pounds. Malcolm Johnson did very well from it, but Dave, as usual, got screwed, not being versed in the arts of business.

From my point of view, it was a wonderful opportunity to get with a young vibrant company, learning my trade, and working with people I liked and respected. I suggested to Malcolm that in view of the number of small jobs that kept coming up, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get a company flat in Gt Yarmouth, and have a team of divers working on equipment maintenance (at low onshore rates) ready to mobilise for any opportunity which might arise. It also gave him a small pool of divers from which to supply manpower for ongoing contracts. He thought this was a good idea, and set it up. This gave me a steady (low) income, boosted by occasional offshore jobs at, by now, full rate of £40 per day. I was terrifically happy with this arrangement, although Vicky was less so, and our relationship started to decline from this point, for a number of reasons.
© mick binns 2018

 

Chapter 3 to follow 9th August hopefully!