CHAPTER 3 OCEAN TECH
I stayed with Oceantech for around 7 years. They were a good solid company, and in the main I got on well with everyone. Divers tend to be extrovert, opinionated, physically fit, full of testosterone, heavy drinkers, and of course some characters rub up badly together. There is the same kind of mix as in other pools of society, and you find liars, thieves, sexual deviants, bullies and guys with every other kind of character flaw. Diving seems to attract some extreme examples. A diver working for Crazies (Algosaibi – the All-go-crazy-Navy) used to work part time for a taxi firm in Birmingham on his leave. Apparently the company owner was gay, and made advances towards the diver, who reacted violently, and ended up killing the owner. What to do? Confess, or try to get away with it? He came up with a disposal plan, and packed the body in the boot of his car. Stoney Cove is a deep flooded quarry near Leicester, used by SCUBA divers. He drove up there, strapped a few weight belts on the body, and dropped him in the deepest part. Of course, the body was found, and what our man had forgotten was that he’d written his name and address on the inside of the weight belts. Ah well, some you win…
In general, the teamwork generated in commercial diving was tremendous, something I’d never seen before, but which I think you’d probably find in the armed services. Dependency on your mates was a given, and on most jobs there was a real pride in being part of a skilled working team. You could always fall out over a beer, or a woman, later. As legislation came in, the diving companies gradually became more professional, and they also started to establish work practices, which became common across the various companies.
These were firmed up considerably by the establishment of the AODC, the Association of Offshore Diving Contractors, (IMCA was formed in 1995 through the merger of the former Association of Offshore Diving Contractors (AODC, formed in 1972) and the Dynamically Positioned Vessel Owners Association (DPVOA, formed in 1989). Consequently, our operational roots and technical credentials are second to none in our industry.. This was set up by companies working in the North Sea, where the environment was worse than had been encountered in other parts of the world. Initially, I think it was non-governmental, run by representatives from the various Diving companies in the North Sea. Later on, of course, it expanded, politics and other countries got involved, and it evolved into a different beast, but for me, the initial objectives and accomplishments were terrific, and stimulated huge improvements in our industry.
The object was to try and establish common diving practices, which would reduce accidents and incidents,, (and in the process, stop losing dive time on the job) At first each company produced their own remedies to address situations which arose.
An example of this was a contract we worked on in Denmark. The diving range was around was around 140 ft-150 ft. In common with most diving companies, the decompression tables we used were US Navy Oxygen Surface Demand tables. The procedure for a dive was to establish the maximum bottom time for the working depth, and therefore get the most productive work from your diver. You would start to bring him out about 2 minutes before the maximum time allowed, and then follow the decompression tables. He would come up a downline, or in the cage, at a strictly controlled rate of ascent. He might have to do a short water stop at 30 ft, the time controlled by the supervisor. When his stop was complete, he would continue his time controlled ascent to the surface, where he would be “dressed out” of his suit and equipment by the rest of the diving team as quickly as possible, down to his bathing trunks, when he would transfer to the inside of a recompression chamber, where warm clothing and towels would be waiting. Once inside, the door would be closed, and the chamber pressured up to the equivalent depth required by the decompression tables. Once established at that depth, he would have another controlled ascent to the surface, during which time his body would theoretically dispose of the nitrogen still buzzing round his bloodstream. I say supposedly because these tables were not foolproof, and the tables for 140 – 150 ft produced many more bends than other depths – it seemed obvious to us that there was a fault. Over the first couple of years in Denmark we were treating bends on average once a week. We established practices which reduced the number of incidents; we would add time or depth to the tables, which increased the amount of decompression time. This certainly worked, but the oil and gas companies weren’t happy about this, as extra decompression time meant less water (productive working) time. Still, every time you had a bend, the diver had to go on a treatment table. If there was only 1 chamber on board, then all diving would be suspended until the treatment was completed, losing even more productive work time. Different types of bends affected divers in different ways, more of which later, but they certainly battered your body, and would have long-term consequences. We didn’t care. We were roughie-toughie North Sea tigers, who could take anything they threw at us. What a bunch of fools.
As the companies became more experienced and professional, so did the general equipment and techniques start to improve. New practices were being introduced, with a view to establishing maximum bottom times (which won contracts with oil companies) and reduced accidents and incidents (which lost working hours (and also incidentally hurt people). When I started diving, it was normal practice throw a heavy weight over the side, tied to a long rope which would be secured on deck. This was your down line. You’d jump off the end of the boat, dressed in either a wet-suit, a dry bag (like the ones we wore in Bovi) or (Rolls-Royce!) a hot water suit, which fed hot water through all the time, keeping you warm. You were dressed in fins and a weight belt, to establish your buoyancy; you would be wearing a diving helmet, to which was connected an umbilical line to the surface. The umbilical contained an air hose, a pneumo hose (to establish the divers depth) a communications cable for either voice comms, or later, video, and a safety line. All of these would be taped together at about 1 ft intervals. A bale-out bottle connected to a harness would be slung on the diver’s back – if his air supply from the surface failed, there was supposed to be enough air in the bale-out for the diver to get back to surface. From his harness would be slung a motley array of tools –hammers, chisels, scrapers, wire brushes, various types of inspection meters and related tools. You would try to swim, or be dragged by your tender, to the down line. You’d descend the down line as quickly as possible, clearing your ears (hopefully!) on the way. Once you hit the seabed. You’d report “On the bottom”. The Supervisor would use the pneumo to establish and record the depth, which would then determine the decompression table for your dive, and would establish how long you could stay on the bottom. After that you’d begin work.
Within a short time, it became more or less normal practice to use an “A” frame and cage to deliver and recover the diver. The A frame was secured to the deck, and a cage was suspended from it over the side driven by a hydraulic winch. His tools would be hung inside the cage, or in a toolbox.
There may be another pneumo hose attached to the cage, which would also be festooned with lights, camera, anything that may be of use to the diver, and improve working time on the bottom. Another large bottle of gas would be included in case of emergency .It had the added benefit of a controlled descent and ascent, meaning decompression schedules could be more closely monitored. The diver no longer had to tire himself out carrying all his crap whilst climbing up a down line, and the ladder back into the boat. During the ascent, comfortable in the cage, he could divest himself of much of his personal equipment, meaning he could be dressed out more quickly when back on deck, and recompressed in the “pot” (chamber) within the times specified by his schedule. If a diver had a short stop at 30ft, his schedule would say he had to be recompressed from leaving his stop to being at 40ft in the pot inside 5 minutes. 1 minute of that is taken up with the ascent to the surface. They still have to raise the cage above deck level, and secure it. The deck crew then lead the diver onto deck, where he’s stripped of his remaining equipment – helmet, neck seal, bale-out bottle, dive suit, undersuit etc. He’s then led to the chamber, and climbs through the round door, which is immediately closed and sealed. The supervisor begins pressuring up. You’re sat inside a small round tube, wet and naked, and put on an oxygen mask. There’s a loud hissing as the chamber starts to pressure up. You’re wet, naked, cold, trapped in a steel pipe with no control over your fate, and your mum is nowhere near to comfort you. You feel pressure in your ears and sinuses, and have to start clearing your ears during the descent to 40 ft. As that depth is reached, the hissing slowly dies down, and the inner door slowly opens as pressure equilibrium is reached with the main chamber. You take off your oxygen mask, climb into the main chamber, put on a new O2 mask, and then close and seal the door to the entry lock. You confirm that the door is closed and secure, and that you are on O2. The outer lock is brought back to surface pressure, in case it’s necessary to send in anyone else (medic, doctor, anyone who may need treatment).
There’s a bunk, warm blankets and towels, book or newspaper inside, and a hot cup of tea is sent in. Thoughts of mum start to fade as you settle down, and think of the money you’ve earned, and how you are a real North Sea Tiger. Women love you. Men envy you. You’re rich, and can’t wait for whatever the world throws at you (as long as your mum is still there when it all goes wrong….)
Of course, as diving evolved, then the whole job became more complex. Minimum legal requirements for a dive team in the North Sea were established. 5 men – a supervisor, diver, stand-by diver and 2 tenders (usually divers) whose job is to dress the divers and tend their umbilicals. But now you needed extra bodies to fulfil the workload. Someone to drive the winch; someone to service the dive gear; someone to service and maintain the compressors, generators, banks of gasses, hand tools etc. Later on, it became a requirement to have a diver-medic on board. Diving was being split into specialist areas, of construction, inspection, and terminal maintenance; new offshore developments were bringing in exotic structures which required everyone to be much better educated in the requisite engineering. As these things developed, so did a greater awareness of diving safety, which brought forth new legislation, based on the recommendations of the AODC (association of Offshore Diving Contractors). The AODC also morphed into a new organisation, IMCA (International Marine Contractors Association) which had a much wider remit than just diving. It covered the whole gamut of operations utilised offshore in the oil and gas industry throughout the world, including Diving, Marine (boats) Offshore surveys, and Remote Systems & ROV’s (underwater robots). They have divided the world into 5 areas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Africa, Middle East and India, North America, and South America. Their core committees cover competence and training, contracts and Insurance, Health Safety Security and Environment, Lifting and Rigging, and Marine Policy & Regulatory Affairs. It is a massively different game now from the days when we used to throw a clump weight over the side attached to a rope. I have to say, I preferred the early days.
The dive is controlled by the Dive Supervisor. Each dive was recorded giving details of the diver, the standby diver, equipment checks; diving procedures used, work task, and work completed. He would note the time the diver left surface, the time he arrived on the bottom, the time he arrived at the work site, the time started work, times for leaving the job, leaving bottom, arriving surface, and every other facet of the dive, including the tables used and any problems encountered.
Records are only as good as the person keeping them, and many, many records were falsified, for a variety of reasons. In order to keep records neat, most supervisors would record the dives in rough, and transfer them later to the official dive record. Mistakes could be made during this transfer. Sometimes rough copies were lost or deliberately falsified in order to “protect” either the supervisor or his diver, or the company. One of the safeguards put in place to try and prevent this kind of abuse, and other mis-practices, was the use of reps (Diving Representatives). They were hated and despised by supervisors and divers alike. They were employed by the oil/gas company, who had put out the Diving contract, and wanted someone with appropriate diving experience to be on board during diving operations, in order to look after their interests.
Now, this term “look after their interests” is quite ambiguous, and in general, the main contractor didn’t know what his “interests” were. He knew there was a subsea job to perform; his planners had planned out how the job would be done (usually in a topside, not subsea, environment!). His engineers had built the required fabrications to be installed; the accountants and lawyers would be present in force in any bid meetings, where Diving Companies were invited to bid to for the job; and unbelievably, they wouldn’t have anyone present with any diving expertise. So it was easy for diving companies to present plausible solutions to subsea problems, and baffle the main contractor with science. They were making it up as they went along – and many times, they came up with great ideas and solutions, but other times were embarrassing fiascos. No-one cared, no-one got blamed or sacked, the companies were awash with money, and anyway, if it went wrong, it was the divers fault. Stories abounded of the grotesque cock-ups made by divers, useless divers, drunk divers, incompetent divers, diving companies, cowboy diving companies, companies who had no business existing in this modern world. I never ever heard of anyone in a main contractor being held to account for poor planning, incompetence, bribery (a fairly common occurrence) ignorance of diving conditions/methods/procedures etc. That’s the way of the world. When someone working for the oil company fucked up, he would usually be promoted, or transferred to an overseas division, and then promoted. It took years before they had proper diving representation for diving contracts. And in the meantime, the reps would sit in the dive shack, next to the supervisor, and often would try to interfere in the running of a dive. Frequently heard was “Could you just ask him to…..” These dives were usually well planned in advance, and discussed between the supervisor and the diver, after being given the overall task by the rep. To change the diver’s task during the dive, always caused problems, and would build up resentment between the supervisor and the rep, who are sat shoulder to shoulder in the dive shack. All the reps became well known, and traps were laid by supervisors to embarrass them.
One of the best ones I heard concerned a rep, Mike, who was actually very easy going – too easy going for his own good. He was on a sat job. Saturation diving is used for deep diving, using different mixtures of gasses instead of air. It’s a highly expensive, sophisticated operation. A complete dive team is put inside a big sat system on the deck, which is then pressured up to a holding depth, close to the working depth. They will stay in there, under pressure, usually for a month. Decompression can take a couple of days at the end of this stint, so it’s the best paid branch of diving because of having to live so long under extreme conditions. It’s a very productive system from the client’s point of view, as he gets lots of work done, and doesn’t lose time on decompression on every dive. 2 divers transfer from the main chamber to a dive bell. The pressure inside may be equivalent to 600 ft of seawater. The bell is then lowered into the water, down to 600 ft, when the door will open automatically as the pressure in the sea, and the bell, equalise. One diver acts as the tender, dresses the other guy in, who then swims out to commence work. He will work for a pre-determined shift, maybe 4 hours. At the end of that, he swaps places with the other diver. Once their 8 hrs is finished, they seal the door on the bell, and return to surface, where they transfer to the main chamber, still under pressure at 600 ft.
In this instance, Mike was supposed to be in the dive shack, watching operations, but he was a trusting chap who thought the divers were his friends….
One of them had his birthday while he was in sat, and had smuggled in a few bottles of whisky. They’d had quite a celebration the night before, and were still pissed, impossible for the supervisor to dive them. Losing one full dive would be massively expensive to the dive company – more than £100,000 per day the day rate for the boat and crew. Luckily, the rep hadn’t come into the dive shack yet. The supervisor put a videotape on the monitor of the previous days dive. When the rep came in, they exchanged greetings, the rep noticed the work being done on the video monitor, and happily went off to his room for another cup of tea. If he’d looked over his shoulder, through the window, he’d have seen that the dive bell was still in the rack! Of course it all unravelled in the end, involving buckets of blood sweat and tears, and a change of direction for Mike.
During this phase of my life, marriage had begun to disintegrate. As with most marriages, faults on both sides, but it wasn’t helped by Vicky being home, having to look after James alone most of the time, while I was either down Yarmouth or Offshore. Money wasn’t now a problem, nor were other women – except in the eyes of my Polish mother in law, Paula. She inserted a worm into Vicky’s head when she said “What do you think he’s doing when he’s in Yarmouth, going out with the boys, and they’re picking up girls? You think he goes home alone?”
This was the start of a period when every time I came home, she’d ask me if I’d been with anyone else. It got to the point where I’d dread coming home.
To make matters worse, One of the divers, Graham G. had brought a German girl, Renate, to stay in the diver’s flat with him. She would come along with us every night when we went out to eat, and have a few drinks. I returned to Yarmouth from home once, having missed an urgent call out, so Renate and I were alone in the flat for a week. We continued the same routine of eating out and drinks in the pub,and became quite close. Neither of us made a move, but it was quite disconcerting to feel closer to this other woman than I did to my wife. The next trip home, Vicky went ballistic when I told her I’d been alone in the flat with Renate for a week, and this proved to be a breaking point for me. I left early to return to Yarmouth, leaving Vicky in tears. When I arrived there, the lads had returned from the job, and Graham had come to the same conclusion, that we’d been having it away while he was offshore working, poor lad. Very close to a punch-up, I decided I couldn’t continue to stay there either. I found a flat close by, and moved in the same day. Now, as I was packing stuff into my car, Renate came out, also in tears, saying that She and Graham had broken up and she’d told him how close we’d become while he was away. Not a good move sometimes, this telling the truth business. She asked if she could come and stay with me, and, to my shame, I agreed immediately. I fell heavily for Renate, but was racked by guilt over Vicky. I didn’t know what to do, or even what I ought to do. I thought I needed some time away from everything in order to sort myself out. Oceantech had a small job in Libya, which was serviced by a single diver, Mike A. He would go out for a month, and return home for a month’s leave while someone went out to relieve him. Most divers didn’t like the job, for numerous reasons, but it seemed to fit the bill for me. I’d be working, earning money, not drinking, and ought to be able to work out my course of action with Vicky and Renate. Renate was young, only 19, and intended returning to Germany soon in order to start university, so that more or less took care of long-term plans regarding her. What to do about the future with or without Vicky was another matter. I spoke things over with Malcolm Johnson, and he agreed I could relieve Mike Anyan on the next changeover. My passport was sent off for a Libyan visa, and 2 weeks later, I was on my way to Ras Lanuf via Tripoli. Most of this period is a time when I’m not at all proud of my actions. I took the coward’s way out, which I’ve done on a number of other occasions, instead of meeting and dealing with problems. On reflection, I don’t like who I was back then, and I suspect lots of other people felt the same way about me.
© mick binns 2018
Next episode Chapter 4 to follow 16th August