Chapter 6: Denmark.
Denmark was a super job, in many ways, and a disaster in others. Oceantech were contracted to Maersk, for maintenance of, initially, 1 SPM in the Dan Field. An SPM (Single Point Mooring) is a large buoy floating on the surface, which enables a tanker to moor up to it without dropping anchor. The buoy is connected to the seabed by a number of huge chains; the mid section runs on a swivel, and the whole swivel + the tanker, rotate with the prevalent current. The buoy is secured roughly above a PLEM, (Pipeline End Manifold). A pipeline runs out on the seabed from a tank farm, or refinery, and terminates at the PLEM. From here, usually 2 or more flexible hoses rise to the surface, and end up in strings of floating hoses. These hoses are often 24” dia pipes, covered in thick foam and rubber protection to help them float. Each hose is around 10 mtr long, and they are connected to each other with bolts, ending up in a long floating string. The tanker manoeuvres into position and moors up to the buoy using 2 mooring ropes from the bow; at this point, small tugs pull the ends of the hoses to the tanker. The hose ends are lifted out of the sea, connected to the tankers manifold, then various valves are opened, enabling the tanker to load up with cargo – crude oil, petrol, diesel, aviation fuel, etc. The load is monitored from the shore, and when the tanker has the required amount of cargo, the process is reversed, the valves are closed, the floating hoses disconnected, and dropped back into the sea, then the tanker drops its mooring ropes, and sails off with a multi million pound cargo. Things were slightly different in Denmark; the tanker was the Marie Maersk, a 20,000 ton tanker, quite small as tankers go, they were getting bigger and bigger, 100,000 ton not unusual. Also, most oil fields would have some system to increase the flow, making the turn around time as short as possible. Not the case with Maersk – product was gravity fed from the tank farm, very slow, so the Marie used to moor up to the SPM and sit there for 6 weeks until it was full, using only a 6” hose. Our job was mainly to sit there in case of any incident subsea, which might require sorting out. Also, there was a maintenance programme in place, a required inspection by the insurer, in this case DNV (Det Norske Veritas). This specified inspection of the floating hoses, changing each section out at set intervals, then subsea inspections of the whole structure for marine growth, chain checks, subsea hoses, corrosion checks, metal thickness checks, right down to the seabed, and include CCTV videos + close up photography of various items.
For any dive, the superintendent and supervisor will plan the work to be done along with the rep; the rep says what work the company would like done, the supervisor comes up with a dive plan, and then has a “toolbox talk” with his dive crew, when they are brought into the dive planning. The supervisor “drives” the diver once the dive commences. Every member of the team will have a good understanding of both the diver’s, and his own part of the job, and most divers on deck can visualise how the dive is progressing throughout the dive, depending on what tools need to be sent down, or lines moved, or a number of other factors. The Supervisor is the focal point of each dive, communicating with the diver and each part of deck plus the bridge, crane driver and any other contractor who may be involved. He is the one responsible in law if there is any incident. He has usually been a diver “on the tools” for a number of years, and has then fulfilled the various conditions to become a supervisor, conditions which include completing a certain number of dives plus a set number of hours running a chamber, sitting a supervisor’s course, and passing the tough exam. It’s certainly the hardest job on a dive boat. As usual as in any job, there are good and bad supervisors, but the vast majority are good. The diver has the best job, and is looked after by the whole dive crew. A new mobilisation soon sorts out the men from the boys, and some will not be invited to return when they go on their first leave, but usually, if a man gets on with the rest of the crew, and pulls his weight, then he will be looked after by the rest of the team.
Life on the MAERSK TRIMMER was no bed of roses. It was a small offshore supply vessel, on which had been plonked a mobile dive station – very different from vessels just a few years later, which were dedicated dive boats with built in systems, lots of equipment and good quarters and messing. The TRIMMER didn’t compare with that kind of boat. The ship’s quarters were already occupied by ship’s crew, so they converted a spare locker into a room for 4 divers – right next to the chain locker for the anchors. Every time the anchor was dropped, we were subjected to the most appalling noise, as if the world was ending. By the end of the season, most of us were able to sleep through it, or ignore it somehow. The worst thing was the bunks, which had been specially made to fit into the tiny room – each bunk was 5ft 9” x 1 ft 9” wide – unbelievable in this day and age, but no-one really complained, or quit – not even lovely John, who was about 6 ft 2” tall. He was called lovely John because there was another John in the crew – ‘orrible John. He was a rough Mancunian, always dressed rough, but who was a genius with any kind of tooling machinery. He’d served his time as a toolmaker, and could put a lump of iron on a lathe and turn it into a beautiful, precise piece of kit, without drawings, in record time. A really great bloke to have on a crew when it might take 2 weeks to get an emergency fitting sent out from the UK. On shore, he lived up to his nickname. He’d chat up a local girl, take her to the pizza house for a meal, and suddenly start to pull a green grape out of his nose, and then eat it, just for the laugh on seeing her horrified face as he did it. Lovely John, on the other hand, turned up at the airport in his double-breasted barathea jacket and cavalry twill trousers, and used to exercise at home by clearing the snow from neighbouring pensioners paths. A proper gentleman who never swore or got drunk, God knows how he became a diver. He was a great bloke to take over your pit when you were going on leave – when you returned, everything would be spotless. A really lovely bloke.
Our home port was Esbjerg, and it was a terrific run ashore. We were virtually the first oilfield boat there, and there were a number of good bars, pubs, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants there. The local girls liked us, and somewhere was always open no matter what time of day or night. I have never seen anywhere else in the world where so many people got so drunk so often. In fact some of the divers liked it so much that they left their English wives and set up home with a beautiful blonde Danish girl. 2 on my boat alone, lots more to follow, as the whole operation got bigger. I once drove over to Hull to collect a diver who’d gone home on leave, told his wife he was leaving her, and just left with 1 suitcase of clothes and personal stuff. He called me for a lift, I dropped him at the airport, and he worked from Esberg for the rest of the contract, saving OTS a lot of money in airfares. As time went on, Maersk expanded their operations, opening up next the Gorm field, to be followed by others. More diving contracts became available, and Oceantech got their fair share. Soon, operations were transferred from the MAERSK TRIMMER to the KOMMANDER THERESE, a converted trawler with a stern roller over which we conducted diving operations, jumping in off the roller, and getting out by climbing up a ladder over the stern, next to the roller.
There were a number of problems working in these waters. I was sent out onto the KOMMANDER THERESE during one of my leaves, and found they had a new, to me, diving hat, the Kirby Morgan 17, the first “hard hat” by Kirby that I’d seen. Lovely John (a good, thorough diver) was doing the dive, and Mike A was the supervisor, again a thoroughly competent professional supervisor. I told Mike I hadn’t seen a 17 before, so he gave me a good rundown on the helmet, how it was secured to the neck ring (or “toilet seat”), which rested on the diver’s shoulders. He personally dressed John in, and the dive started when he jumped off the roller to swim to the platform, about 30 metres away, and start his descent of the leg. One man was paying out his umbilical, as usual; another diver was peeling the umbilical off the storage horns as the dive continued. On deck, we suddenly got a shout from Mike, “Pull him in! Pull him in, quick!” We didn’t know what the situation was but the idea of pulling a diver up quickly has its own dangers; even so, you follow the instructions from the supervisor, who is the only one who really knows what’s happening. Lovely John had got down to about 30 ft on his dive, when his new Kirby Morgan 17 suddenly parted from the neck ring, and the air coming through the umbilical was trying to force the helmet off his head. John let go of the leg, and tried to hold the helmet on with both hands. He still had comms, of course, and between gulps of water told Mike what was happening. John was now off the platform, mid-water, and slightly negatively buoyant, so was slowly sinking deeper. This was when Mike gave us the shout to pull him in. 3 of us were hauling John and his umbilical up the 40-50 yards from the boat, with mike trying to gauge his depth as he was pulled in. We finally got John back to the ladder, and he climbed out, hat askew and dripping water, and we finally got to know the story. Mike wanted to change out John for another diver, but John insisted he wanted to complete the dive. So, we dressed him in again, he completed his dive, returned to the boat, then collapsed on deck with a bend and had to be treated with a therapeutic. All kinds of lessons in that little incident, but 1 lasting consequence was that afterwards I never completely trusted the Kirby 17, and always opted for the soft hood KM18 in preference when possible.
The other main problem was the depth, around 140 ft. We used US Navy tables, and at the time there seemed to be something wrong with the decompression schedule for 140 ft; we were told that the US navy tables had a 5% failure rate, (when a diver would get bent even though following the schedule exactly) and this always seemed to happen on the 140 ft table. When compared with the tables at other depths, it seemed obvious that they were wrong, not enough time given on the in-water stops. We averaged a bend per week for the first season, with all the treatments being successful. However, we only had 1 chamber on board, and diving operations would have to be suspended while a diver was being treated, the treatment lasting from just a few hours up to 2 days, depending on the schedule used. We found that if we increased the decompression time or depth schedule, then these incidents were stopped; however this was lost time from the client’s point of view (even though it stopped more lost time through treatments) and the reps didn’t like it; they would send in reports to the beach blaming the supervisor for lost time, suggesting that the dive company should pay for these lost time incidents. At this time, dive crews hated reps. Their job was to get as much in water time as possible for the client. They would insist on a 10-minute turn around, i.e. 10 minutes from the time diver A arrived on surface after his dive, to the time diver B left surface on the next dive. This practice would be laughed off deck today, when operations are all about safety with a mass of HSE regulations governing procedures.
A complete sea change in reps responsibilities happened after Piper Alpha, which caught fire and burned out in 1988, killing 167 men. The fire was constantly fuelled by oil in the 120-mile pipeline, which had no shut off valve installed. After this disaster, all installations were required to install ESDV’s (Emergency Shut Down Valves) to stop a recurrence, and reps were given a new directive; stop counting diving minutes, and make sure that if there is an accident or incident, then it must not be the client who is to blame, and consequently pays out compensation. Occidental, (the client on Piper Alpha) or their insurers, had to pay out £1.4 billion in compensation. So the new job description meant that reps were to ensure there was no damage to people, property, or the environment. This coincided also with new government and IMCA regulations trying to improve matters in these areas. In general, now, the rep spends little time in dive control; he has his own tv screen in his office or his room, and watches and listens to the dive away from control, a much better arrangement, when he can’t interfere with diving operations. He makes his own report on diving operations, and tries to ensure that all relevant procedures are correctly followed. That way, if something goes wrong, it’s the Dive Company who has to pay. Reps are usually (but not always, unbelievably!) ex divers and supervisors, who are aware of most devices or short cuts that might be employed in order to either stretch out a contract, or shorten it, depending on the type of contract. If a contract is day-rate, then the longer the job can be made to last, the more money the dive company (and crew) make. If a job is a fixed price contract, say the divers complete a 20-day job in 15 days, then the company have 5 days when they can use their team on another job, therefore making more money, and sometimes paying the divers a bonus.
So, lots of bends in the early days, and the companies were looking for ways to reduce that, but fighting a constant battle with the clients who wanted as much water time and work done as possible for their money. After a few seasons with Oceantech, another company, Oceaneering, won 7 contracts in the Southern North Sea in 1983, including work out of Esberg. Oceaneering won the contract on the basis of getting more dive time by using a Nitrox breathing mixture. Robbie and I both went to work for Oceaneering as supervisors. They increased the oxygen percentage from roughly 21% up to, I think 40%. They claimed they were using Norwegian Navy tables, which had been proven, and we got lots more in-water time than Oceantech, who were still using air. The problem was that we got bends, lots of them, using their tables. 16 type-2 bends in 6 weeks, all serious, including one myself. It was a beauty. Immediately after a dive, and a proper decompression on deck according to the tables, I started to pass out. The guys got me into the pot quickly (they’d had lots of practice by now) and I had my first therapeutic treatment. Diving had again been suspended while I was being treated, but the boat, the MV BARRACUDA stayed on location. When I came out of the pot, I was unwell, definitely not right. Gas had escaped into my tissues, my waist measurement had gone from 32” to 45”, my chest had increased by 12” my skin was so tight, I felt like a ripe melon, ready to burst. I had bad headaches, and couldn’t think clearly. I had no feeling around my mid section. I felt as if I’d been severely beaten up. The only clothes I could get into were oversize overalls. The Superintendent, Graham M had a chat with me. He asked if I was prepared to stay on board, running dives, until they get a relief supervisor out, or the whole boat would be taken off hire. I said yes, but asked him to hurry it up, as I knew I wasn’t right. Really, I shouldn’t have agreed, and was running dives when I wasn’t fit to do so. However, the following night, while I was running a dive, I suddenly felt a sensation around my groin. I thought I might have pissed myself, and put my hand inside my overalls to check if that was the case. What I actually felt was something like a large grapefruit between my legs, where my balls should be. I had to get a mirror to inspect it, as my skin was so tight I couldn’t bend down, and there in the mirror, saw that my ballbag had inflated just like a football. As soon as the dive was over, I went and woke Graham up.
“What’s the problem?”
I unzipped my overalls, and showed him the problem. He reached for a radio and said:
“Get me a chopper out here immediately as a medevac.” Roughly an hour later, I was being flown in to Esbjerg wave-hopping, about 50 ft above sea level, straight to Esbjerg hospital. We went through the registering preliminaries, then a doctor got me laid out and started to inspect me.
MY God!” he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before!”
That reassured me, of course.
“Do you mind if I bring some other doctors and nurses in to see this?”
Soon I was surrounded by about a dozen hospital personnel, all scrutinising my tackle, and taking photographs. Besides my inflated balls, there were also a couple of pigeon egg size bubbles on my cock. Would I ever shag again? No one seemed to know what to do, except for one doctor, who claimed he’d seen something similar when a chest operation had gone wrong and gas had escaped from his chest cavity to his tissues, including his scrotum.
What happened?” I asked.
“Oh, he died, but the swelling went down and had disappeared the following morning.”
Well, that’s all right then..
At that time I was living in a flat in the middle of Esberg with a Danish girl, Liz. The hospital suggested I return to Gt Yarmouth as soon as possible, and get the North Sea Medical Centre to check me out. I phoned Liz, who came in a taxi to pick me up. The next day I took the ferry to Harwich, and then the train to Yarmouth, and went along to the North Sea Medical Centre. I was lucky enough that Dr Phillip James was working there, the worldwide premier expert on Diving problems. He recommended a series of daily treatments at 30ft in the chamber, and on the 3rd day, I felt a rush as gas left my tissues, and was immediately more comfortable, physically. I was sent home to Yorkshire, to stay with mum and dad, but I was still in a poor state, and mum was fussing round me, which I really didn’t want. I phoned a friend in Ireland, who invited me over to recuperate at his house. I stayed there 6 weeks, and most of the time slept. I’d sleep 12 hours, get up for something to eat, then fall asleep on the sofa until teatime. Eat a meal, then back to bed. I made a reasonable physical recovery, but was sure I’d had some brain damage. I couldn’t concentrate too well, and would forget what I was talking about half way through a sentence. Things improved a little over the next year, sufficiently to return to work. Some of the other bend cases had been taken home in wheelchairs. All in all, a bad experience for me, nitrox diving.
© mick binns 2018