Chapter 7 More from Denmark.
I spent the best part of 3 or 4 years in Denmark. I was living with Liz, a beautiful blonde who worked in one of the local nightclubs. She was good fun, about 10 years younger than me. When we met she was living with her mother, in a small village about 6 miles outside Esbjerg. When our relationship started, I’d meet her up at the club, and then she’d come back to the boat with me. A few other divers had this kind of casual relationship with the local girls, and it wasn’t uncommon to bring girls on board while we were in port. We now had an on-going contract for work, and as our relationship got stronger, we decided to get a flat together. Liz found an empty office, on the 1st floor of an office block, overlooking the main square, right in the middle of Esbjerg. It was huge, and had about 20 points in the ceiling from which telephones had been connected. It was reasonably cheap, and I gave her money to furnish it with 2nd hand furniture, acquired locally. She did a great job, and it was a lovely pad; I enjoyed the new lifestyle, particularly a new style of food, all except for fish, which I don’t eat. Denmark was quite a liberated country, and Liz was heavily into Marijuana, and later coke. I’m not into drugs at all, having become easily addicted to both alcohol and cigarettes, so I deliberately avoided drugs, fearing I’d get drawn in. We invited other divers up sometimes, most of who would smoke with her, and her friends did the same when they came round. I was never too comfortable with this scene, but was away working, or visiting England for most of the time.
Even when working, the boat would often go into Esbjerg, usually for at least 1 night, if we had any equipment or provisions to collect, or if the weather was extreme. The biggest storm I ever experienced was in Denmark. It lasted for about 5 days. We heard later that 19 boats had been sunk or destroyed, and there were certainly a number of deaths. The storm was so fierce that buildings in the harbour were demolished, and a number of small boats from the harbour were washed up into the town.
We were 3 days just heading into the storm in 60ft plus waves. Even the huge ferry between Esbjerg and Newcastle could only do the same thing, unable to turn in the huge seas. So an overnight ferry trip ended up as a 3 day cruise for the passengers, somewhere off Germany. Our contract at that time was on a converted trawler, the KOMMANDER THERESE. For 3 days we ran into the storm, the whole ship shuddering every time we crested a massive wave, then running down and smashing into the bottom of the trough, and starting the whole cycle again.
Everything that could be was tied down or locked up. There was no hot food, impossible to cook, so only sandwiches or stuff from the fridge. There was a real danger of sinking, so in order to sleep, we strapped ourselves into bunks fully dressed, ready to abandon ship if necessary. When not trying to sleep, we’d be either in the galley, or on the bridge. Sitting down in the galley was truly exhausting, like living on a bucking bronco trying to throw you off all the time. The scene from the bridge was spectacular. The bridge was 60 ft above the mean waterline, but at the bottom of a trough, the next wave would be towering above us. Looking astern, the seas were swamping the back deck on a regular basis, something I‘d never seen before, and when some of the lashings broke, the items bounced around the back deck, then just swept over the side. We heard a number of distress calls on the radio, but no one was in a position to help. When we finally got back to Esbjerg, the devastation in the harbour was quite incredible, and the sight, walking into town, of smashed boats 500 yards from the harbour, was quite surreal.
My time in Esbjerg ended as a consequence of the nitrox bend. After a couple of weeks of recovery in Ireland, I returned to Esbjerg, where I had a further 4 weeks lay off. Physically, I was reasonably fit. I’d resumed running (really just gentle jogging at this time), about 5 miles on a daily run, and I had worked out a 30 minute exercise routine of press-ups, sit ups and steps that I’d do after a run, and could also do offshore in my cabin. I phoned Oceaneering, and told them I was ready to return to work, so after 6 weeks without pay or compensation, returned to work on the MV BARRACUDA. There were no diving unions in those days, and most divers wouldn’t have joined anyway. The atmosphere on there was dreadful. I was told that in the 6 weeks I’d been off, including mine, there had been 16 type 2 bends. The guys were now so nervous about using nitrox, that they were finding lots of different ways to abort dives to the 140 ft level. They would lose a fin, or some piece of equipment, and the dive would have to be aborted. Or they would get “sticky ears”, unable to equalise pressure in the middle ear, and have to abort the dive before reaching bottom. An air of gloom and depression descended on the boat before every planned bottom dive, and there was precious little work being done. I was so disillusioned with nitrox after my own experience, that I decided I’d go back to the tried and tested surface O2 tables used previously with Oceantech. I told the Superintendent, Graham M, who relayed it to Oceaneering, who insisted I continue using nitrox tables. I refused, and asked them to find a replacement for me at the next opportunity. For the next 3 or 4 days I used the O2 tables without incident, getting plenty of work done, with the big plus of a huge rise in morale. However, the boat was recalled to Esbjerg, for a meeting with Oceaneering staff, including the ops manager for Denmark, and the safety officer. The ops manager was an officious, self-important little prick, with no diving background, whose name maybe was Neil, but in truth I’ve forgotten (he was that kind of a man, forgettable). He told me that I had to return to work, and run nitrox dives. I told him I wasn’t prepared to do that, and had they found a replacement for me as supervisor yet? He said that unless I worked as instructed, “you’ll never work in the North Sea again”. I started laughing at that, there were so many stories about that famous line, and I couldn’t believe he’d actually used it. I said, OK, that’s fine, now you’d better make sure you have a replacement for me when the boat sails, or you’ll find the boat’s off hire.” The Safety Officer came to see me next, after having been brought up to speed by the ops manager. He at least had a diving background, and listened to what I had to say, about my reservations using nitrox. However he was in that well known territory, between a rock and a hard place; the contract had been awarded on the grounds of more in-water time due to using nitrox, but he now had a supervisor saying he wasn’t prepared to use it for safety reasons, and no other supervisor available to replace him with. He offered a compromise. If I would run the nitrox dives, from leaving surface to leaving bottom, he would stay on board and run and also take responsibility for the decompression, using the same nitrox tables which had resulted in 16 bends. I said that I’d agree to it on condition that the divers agreed, and he was to ask them in my presence, so that I could be sure there would be no undue pressure, or “You’ll never work in the North Sea again” nonsense. I was certain they would all refuse. He called a meeting of all diving personnel in the mess after he’d spoken on the radio to his boss on the beach. He explained to the divers that the contract had been awarded on condition that nitrox was used. He said that he was aware of the divers’ reluctance to use it, but Oceaneering were prepared to offer an extra 10% on the day rate, with a promise that if anyone succumbed to decompression sickness, then they would remain on full offshore pay until they were fit to return. If any diver didn’t want to continue on the nitrox contract, he would do his best to find them a place on another, air based contract. I asked about my 6-week lay-off, and he said he’d arrange for me to be paid in full for my period off work. He asked for a show of hands for who was prepared to stay, and every single diver put his hand up. I couldn’t believe it. I think there were 12 divers on that contract, and it felt like 12 knives in my back.
We sailed that night, arriving on site the following day. I was supervisor on night shift, and so got my head down. I got up about 23:15, and wandered out on deck to see what happening. One of the day shift divers was walking down the deck towards me, when he suddenly wobbled, went down on his knees, and then collapsed. I called for help, another diver turned up, and I said, looks like a bend, we need to get him in the pot. He said “There’s someone already in the pot, being treated”
Fucking nightmare! Only 1 pot, 1 man already being given a therapeutic at (to me) an unknown depth, and stage of treatment, another unconscious man who now has to go in the pot and also do a therapeutic. It really couldn’t have been worse.
We got the unconscious diver to the dive shack, where the safety officer was running the current therapeutic, along with the day shift supervisor. I told him what had just occurred, and left the 2 of them to try and sort out the current situation, saying I was going to get my breakfast, and would be back for my shift hand-over at midnight. This situation was now so serious that we had no option but to stop work and head for port, and try to sort out the different treatments for the 2 divers. The safety officer had control of the therapeutic, so I just hung around during my shift. Oceaneering were informed, along with the client, and we sailed back to Esbjerg. En route, a chopper dropped 2 personnel from the Danish authorities. They requisitioned all the diving records from the contract, and suspended Oceaneering’s permit to work. By this time, I’d made up my mind that I wanted nothing more to do with this contract, and told Graham, the superintendent that once ashore, I would not be returning.
I was glad to get off the boat, and back to the flat, although I’d decided to end my affair with Liz, make a break and find a new job, leaving her to keep or get rid of the flat as she wished. It was an amicable parting. She had decided she wanted to go and live in Amsterdam for a while, and I was thinking about moving out to the Far East. A couple of days after our return, we were sat in the flat having coffee, when the door opened – no knock – and who walked in, as if he owned the place, but the Oceaneering ops manager. Liz and I were sat about 20 yards away in the huge flat, and as he walked towards us, he was saying “Good news! The Danish authorities have been through all the dive records, and as long as we run dives the way you were doing, we can keep the contract! So you’re still in work!!!!”
I was furious that this little prick had walked into my flat without ringing the bell, or knocking, and jumped out of my seat and went for him. He was smaller than me, I turned him round, grabbed his trouser belt and gave him a wedgie, then ran him back to the door, which he’d left opened, and pushed him down the first flight of stairs. He’d been squealing all the way, but I’ve no idea what he what saying – probably something like “you’ll never work in the North Sea again!!!” Wanker. Needless to say, I never got my back pay or compensation from Oceaneering. I left Liz with a month’s rent paid on the flat, and we parted friends. I received a postcard from her about a year later, saying she was working at the Cuckoo’s Nest in Amsterdam, having the time of her life. And good luck to her. From my point of view, what next? I decided to return to UK, and try to work out a plan.
© mick binns 2018