Chapter 5 North Sea Tiger.
The Libya contract in Ras Lanuf was 1 month on, 1 month off, and on my month off I would occasionally be called by Oceantech, if a replacement was needed on other contracts, or a short-term job came up. I always took these jobs, mainly for the money, but also because I loved the work. Vicki and I had split up. I gave her the house and we came to an agreement about monthly payments. I could see my son James whenever I wanted, so we had a reasonably amicable split at that time. When I came back to Brighouse, I would stay with my parents, close to Vicki and James, but it didn’t feel right to spend too much time at my parents, and I wasn’t ready yet to buy another house. For the next few years, I was a bit of a gypsy, spending time in Malta after each stint in Libya, then a few days back in Brighouse, and often another small job for Oceantech, usually in the North Sea.
I did a 7-day job with Dave P and a couple of other divers. It was quite strange, as diving jobs go. We had to do a weld inspection on the cans of a semi-submersible rig in in Norway. This semi-sub had 3 long legs, on the bottom of which were circular caissons, which we called “cans”. Each one was about 30 ft diameter, giving us about 300 ft of weld to inspect. They were different to the jack-up rigs like the ‘OFFSHORE MERCURY” , which placed its legs on the sea bed, then would jack itself up the legs until it was well clear of sea level. Semi-subs were used in deep water, too deep for the legs to reach the seabed. The legs would be partially flooded with seawater, to give the rig stability, then massive anchors on huge chains would be run out from the rig to different areas of the seabed to keep the rig in place during drilling operations. As part of the insurance package on these rigs, non-destructive tests had to be carried out periodically on the structures. This was our mission now. The rig had been towed into a sheltered fjord in Norway, and the seawater pumped out of the legs, raising the rig up out of the water until the tops of the cans were only about 4 ft below sea level. So the legs, usually under water, now towered above us in the air, while below the cans there was a mile of sea down to the seabed, so don’t drop any bloody tools, alright? Subsea inspection was still in its infancy, being developed all the time. With my welding background, I’d become interested, and had done one of the few available courses in underwater inspection, back in Fort Bovisand. We were now to inspect the integrity of the welds attaching the cans to the legs, ie. We were looking for surface cracks in the welds. The system we used was called Magnetic Particle Inspection, or MPI for short. It was used quite successfully on land. Two permanent magnets would be placed about 6” apart, on a weld, setting up a magnetic field between the magnets. A fluorescent liquid solution containing iron particles would be squirted onto the weld. If a crack were present, the iron filings would cling to the 2 sides of the crack. The crack could then be “seen” when a black lamp using ultra violet light was shone onto the area, showing up the fluorescent particles. There were lots of problems. No underwater delivery system for the solution had yet been sent, so we used a fairy liquid bottle for the solution, and squeezed it onto the weld; at that time, the crack could only be seen in the dark, so we were like the Victorian photographers, trying to black out the weld area to be inspected, covering the head under a small tarpaulin underwater so that the fluorescent crack could be seen under the influence of the black lamp. It was all very Heath Robinson. The water was incredibly cold, and we were only using wet-suits. After a 4 hour dive, I was so cold that I’d lost feeling in my legs, and couldn’t climb out. I had to be pulled out, and dunked into a hot shower for an hour. After that we limited our dives to an hour.
After we’d finished the job, we flew back to London, and I called in to see Robbie, who lived in Thornton Heath at the time. He was sat in the garden, and was not well. Still with CUE, he’d had a bad bend, a type 2 affecting his central nervous system. One of the other divers, Geoff Stone, an ex-SAS soldier, had put him in the chamber to give him a therapeutic treatment. When Dennis, one of the owners heard about this, he ordered Geoff to stop the treatment, saying he didn’t believe he’d had a bend.
“He probably just needs a good shit “ was his professional opinion.
Robbie was sent ashore, and went to the North Sea medical centre, where they confirmed he’d had a CNS. They gave him proper therapeutic treatment, but it was too late, and unsuccessful; he was left with no feeling in the lower part of his torso. His diving medical was cancelled, so he couldn’t work as a diver anymore. When CUE were informed about this, they offered him a job as a supervisor, which he had taken. In those days, anyone could be a supervisor; you just had to be designated by the diving company. I tried to convince him to sue CUE, but for some reason, he was reluctant to do this, maybe because they’d kept him employed. Some time later, Robbie went to see an acupuncturist who’d been recommended by his wife Jane. He explained what had happened, and what were the effects of the bend. The acupuncturist said he’d never treated anything like that before, but was happy to give some treatment. He said that he’d recommend 10 sessions, but if no relief after that, then he would not continue the treatment. Not only that, but if it was unsuccessful, he wouldn’t charge him for the treatment. Robbie happily agreed to this arrangement, and after only 4 or 5 sessions had recovered full feeling in his lower body. He returned to the North Sea Medical Centre in Yarmouth, told them what had happened, and asked for another medical. He passed the medical with flying colours, but they would not accept that that acupuncture was responsible for his cure – they said it was a “spontaneous recovery”. It was round about this time that we started to realise that no one in the diving industry really knew what they were doing…. However one good consequence of this was that we were able to get Robbie on a job with Oceantech, run by Dave P, out in Libya, so he was rid of CUE, and worked quite happily with Oceantech for a number of years. Robbie has a real talent for man management, and was soon a supervisor, with probably the most successful and settled team in the company.
I had an email from Robbie after he’d read this post, as follows;
I enjoyed the north sea tiger section – I did get the sack from CUE – although I passed my medical, the Doctor said he was going to limit me to 50ft, so when I went back to work we were working on Foxtrot which was 45ft, but the next platform was 105ft, and Dennis said as your arms are not long enough to reach the bottom from 50ft you are up the road. Luckily Commander Bax phoned me up and said he needed four divers for Algosaibi . You were working, so I phoned Dave and we went out to Saudi. They did not know about my limit and I still had my original in date medical certificate and the rest is history.
The Libya job was another quite strange affair. We were sent out to the Esso refinery at Marsa Brega with a team of 12 drain cleaners from Sheffield. They were a motley crew, but good lads. It was very hot there, usually in the 90’s, and one of them developed splitting headaches. It turned out that he’d been in the army, and had once fallen, drunk, from a train in Germany, resulting in a fractured skull. The hospital had implanted a steel plate into his skull, and this was slowly cooking his brain in the hot sun. A big hat solved this problem. The job had arisen because of a problem with the cooling water intake line. This was an 800-yard long, 6ft diameter pipe, which went out into Brega Bay, where it terminated at a 20 ft diameter steel cage. The pipe delivered cooling water to the refinery, and for some reason the flow had been restricted. The theory within Esso was that balls of seaweed must have caused a blockage, so our job was to clear the restriction. We had taken out enough umbilical to do the job from the shore end; the drain cleaners had brought all their equipment, which we would have to install. Dave did the first dive. In those days we didn’t have head mounted cameras and lights, only voice comms. Dave entered the 800 yard tunnel, and started dragging his umbilical further and further up the line. He had a couple of torches with him, but there was no sign of a blockage. The whole length of the pipe was only under 10 ft of water, so again, we had no decompression problems. Dave managed to get about 200 yards up the pipe before returning at the end of his dive, leaving the umbilical stretched out in the pipe to make it easier for the next diver. He came back carrying a weight belt he’d found. We continued diving in this fashion, getting further and further up the pipeline, but by the end of the first day, we’d only got about half way up the pipe, and had found no evidence of a blockage. The pipe was fitted with anodes on the inside to protect the steel pipe from the effects of electrolysis, every 30 yards or so, and these were mainly completely corroded. By now it was a huge task trying to drag hundreds of yards of umbilical up the pipe, so our progress was deteriorating rapidly.
Marsa Brega was a big place, with about 2,000 ex-pat employees. These included families living there on married status, but the majority were single men working on bachelor status. Dave had worked out there before in the Divecon days, and knew the Marine manager, Cyril I think his name was, who was living there with his wife on married status. That meant they had a private villa, Cyril worked 5 days a week with weekends off, and they got about 3 holidays per year with flights paid for back home. Libya was a “dry” country – alcohol forbidden – but all the villas brewed their own beer, and most had their own still, to make pure alcohol from sugar, water and yeast This was called Flash in Libya, or Siddiqui in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. It was terrific stuff, when made properly, with no impurities, and no taste except a slight burning sensation on the tongue. Every villa had a bar, usually with bar stools. You usually sat at the bar, drank your flash with coke and ice, and wouldn’t realise you were having a drink until you stood up to go to the toilet, and fell straight on your arse. Incredible. Next day, no hangover or headache unless you’d really hung one on. We went round to see Cyril that night to tell him about the day’s events. When Dave mentioned the weight belt, he told us a sad story. A couple of years earlier, an Italian company had been contracted to replace the anodes in the pipeline. They decided to do it in SCUBA, with no lifeline, and no comms, and only 1 man in the pipeline at a time. One of the divers, running low on air, decided to return and get another set. However, he forgot which way was to shore, and swam instead to the end of the pipeline, where he ended up in the steel cage. This is only 4 ft below the surface. He’d have been able to see the sky quite clearly. The cage was overgrown with marine growth – if he’d only known, there is a door in the cage, which he’d have been able to open, and escape. He tried, in vain, to swim the 800 yards to the shore, inside the black pipe, and ran out of air about half way down. When they recovered his body, they took off his weight belt to help recovery. After hearing this story, we thought the restricted flow of water might be due the marine growth on the cage, and decided to have a look at the seaboard end the following day. We took out the dumb barge, the “L4” the following day, located the cage and found it was indeed completely covered with marine growth. We unbolted the cage, and lifted it onto the deck of the L4 leaving the 6ft pipe uncovered. The purpose of the cage was to stop large fish, mainly sharks, from being drawn into the cooling system. There were many sharks around the bay, mainly attracted to the other pipe, the cooling water outfall, which pumped hot water back into the bay. Sharks were attracted to the heat, particularly in winter, and you could take a zodiac over to the pipe termination and see 30 or 40 sharks, just basking in the heated waters. Hammerheads in particular were plentiful in that part of the Med, horrible looking beasts.
The idea now was to have the cage sandblasted and painted, and return it to the pipe. The only problem with that, for us, was that it looked like the job was only going to last another couple of days. Dave came to the rescue when he told Cyril about the depleted anodes. Cyril asked for photos, so the following day we took a few snaps, and Cyril agreed to a programme of replacing the anodes. That gave us another 3 weeks work, and the drain cleaners a 3-week holiday relaxing on the barge while we did our stuff. It was a great job, good work, good crack, fabulous climate and a few bevvies and stories with Cyril and his wife most nights. When we got back, we found out that Oceantech had landed a contract in Denmark, and that Robbie and I would be on the rotation.
© mick binns 2018