Chapter 14 Freelance

Back home from Ras Lanuf, I had a decision to make; I was sufficiently experienced that I would be able to work for any of the North Sea companies. That would also give me the opportunity to sign up for a sat course, and move into a substantially higher pay bracket. Saturation, or sat diving was developed as a means of working much deeper than the 50 mtr (165 feet) limitation for air diving. The majority of North Sea jobs were now saturation, and were extremely well paid. £1000 per day plus was not unusual, compared with around £90 per day for surface supplied air divers. Saturation diving involved a bunch of divers, typically 6, entering a steel chamber, which would then be pressured to a working depth, eg 450 ft, using different gas mixes to avoid the known perils of breathing air at extreme depths. This would usually be a mixture of helium and a small percentage of oxygen.

SAT CHAMBER

The divers bodies would become “saturated ” with this mixture of gas. For work, a diving bell would be attached to the main chamber, and 2 divers would transfer through, a transfer-under-pressure (TUP). The bell would be detatched from the main chamber, and lowered into the water. At the working depth, the water pressure would be the same as the pressure inside the bell, and the door in the floor would drop open. 1 diver would act as tender, help the other to dress in, and then tend his umbilical as he lowered himself into the water, and swam to the job. After a few hours, (eg half of an 8 hour shift) he would return to the bell, where they would change roles, and diver 2 would swim out to continue the work. After the allotted time for the dive, diver 2 would return to the bell, the bottom door would be closed and sealed, and the bell returned to the surface, where another TUP would enable the 2 divers to transfer back through to the main chamber. Sleeping, toilet and shower facilities were inside, and meals would be transferred through. The divers would be sealed in there in spartan conditions, usually for 4 weeks. At the end of their tour, they would transfer to surface, and the next bunch of divers would be pressured up. Decompression for the divers to get back to surface would usually take around 3 days, depending on the working depth of their trip.

This is why wages were so high, competition to get into sat was fierce, but I never really fancied it. From a safety point of view, you were completely dependant on the team of divers and technicians operating the system. If you had any kind of problem either in the water, or the system, you could not just head for the surface. Even if you managed to sever your umbilical, and swim to the surface using your bale-out bottle, the compressed gas in your system would expand so fast, and so much, that a horrible death would be the only possible outcome. Gas bubbles would stop circulation of the blood, gas in the body tissues would expand massively, and would also get trapped in every joint in the body. Your Central nervous system would be crippled instantly, and there would be no blood flow to the brain. With air diving you were more in control of your own fate. There had been many fatalities in sat diving, the technology was still comparatively new, and the long term effects of sat diving were only just emerging, and seemed to show that bone necrosis and short term memory loss were fairly common as well as other medical conditions possibly related to the regime of sat diving.

Besides this, working in sat seemed too regimented a routine for me, after 5 years of month on/month off, I wanted something different. I decided to go freelance, doing 1-off jobs with different companies as they arose. I knew my way around the different networks by now, and registered myself with as many agencies as I could find. This resulted in a series of jobs to Indonesia, Borneo, India, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Qatar, Tunisia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jamaica, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Norway, as well as the UK.

some of the lads in Dubai

I usually went as Supervisor, sometimes diver, and I did my first trip as a Dive Rep in this period. The diving industry in general had become much more sophisticated than when I first started; it wasn’t sufficient now just to be a diver. You had to have certification to show that you were a supervisor, diver/medic, an inspection diver of various grades, with different inspection bodies *CSWIP, Lloyds, DNV and various others) a dive technician, a sat technician. All of these qualifications had to be renewed at various times, plus your diving medical, and offshore survival, so just to remain qualified was tremendously expensive and time consuming. The UK was at the forefront of the safety and improvement of the industry, but other parts of the world were not so stringent in the requirements for certification. Also, work abroad did not come in for the same tax as working in the UK. I enjoyed travel, I was happy with the lack of routine, I enjoyed most of the work and jobs that I went on, although overseas work had the disadvantage of having more dick-heads in the industry than you would find working in the UK. You were only paid when you worked, no unemployment benefit, no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension plan, no accident insurance – I loved it! You were more or less left to your own devices to take on and complete a job, with virtually no bullshit, and a minimum of politics. I’ve had numerous accidents and injuries on the job, and never once thought about compensation – I knew what the risks were when I signed up, and always had the chance to say “No” to anything that was asked of me – and did, occasionally, say No. A few (not many) divers were addicted to dangerous jobs. John P was an OTS diver who was first to volunteer for anything remotelydangerous. In Germany (Bremen or Bremmerhaven) a burning job came up on the inside of a steel pile. A cage was built to fit inside the pile with minimum clearance – there wasn’t even room for the diver to wear a bale-out bottle, so they secured one to the top of the cage, with an extended whip going to his helmet. John couldn’t wait to do this; (I wouldn’t have done it it for any amount of money) He climbed into the tiny cage, to which burning equipment had been secured, which was then lifted by crane and lowered into the steel pile. The other end of the pile was in the seabed. He was lowered to the correct depth, and manoevered himself in the tight confines to a position where he could begin burning. The burning equipment was basically hollow steel tubes (Broco rods) fitted into a pistol grip torch, and oxygen would be forced through the steel tube. The oxygen would be ignited by completing an electrical circuit on the steel pile. You’d say “make it hot”, the supervisor would close the knife switch on the surface to make a circuit, the diver would press the trigger for oxygen, then strike the rod on the pile, creating a spark which lit the oxygen, which then burned both the rod, and a hole through the pile. One of the problems with this system was that lots of oxygen would escape unburned. If it collected into an enclosed space, there could be a “blow-back” if it was ignited later. This is what happened to John. There was an explosion which shattered his face glass, and burned his face quite badly. The supervisor heard this, and quickly recovered him to surface. He was transferred to the local hospital, where he spent 6 weeks, I think, having plastic surgery. A typical Scotsman, next time I saw him in Yarmouth, his face was still recovering from all the surgery. He told me about the accident, and said that when he left hospital he went to the airport for his flight home, and was approached by a Lufthansa stewardess in the waiting area, who asked him to come with her. She took him to a small VIP room, where there was free food and drink, newspapers etc. He thanked her, said he was impressed by Lufthansa’s service for injured passengers. She said “That’s ok – your face was frightening the other passengers!”

At some point during this phase of work, I got the urge to improve myself. I still don’t know what came over me. I should have remembered Churchill’s adice -“Whenever I feel the need for exercise, I lie down until the feeling goes away” Another bloody mistake! I signed up for a 3 year BSc course in Offshore Engineering at the Robert Gordon Institute in Aberdeen, and somehow, secured a grant. By this time I was around 40 years old, and went from earning a very comfortable wage, to living as a mature (?) student, on a £40 per week grant. Recipe for disaster!!.By the end of the first term, I’d spent my grant for the whole year! I was living in student accommodation on the docks in Aberdeen.By ironic chance, the “Kommander Therese” was moored alongside the day I moved up there. I had been diver and supervisor on the Therese in Denmark for 2 years, and had good memories of it. The boat was owned by a Danish ex-trawlerman, who had saved his money, and taken a gamble by buying his own trawler, and renaming it after his daughter, Therese. His gamble paid off. This was around the time the Danish oil was in it’s infancy, but like everywhere else in the North Sea, expanding rapidly.Instead of using the boat for fishing, he signed a contract for it to be used as a dive boat, with OTS. This was far more lucrative than fishing, and he was paid for every single day in the year. He earned enough money in that year to buy a hotel on the Danish island of Romo, and at the end of the season, when the boat crewed down to a skeleton crew of 5 divers, he arranged for the whole ship’s crew to have a week-end in his hotel, free of charge, as much as you could eat or drink, and free phone calls to anywhere in the world. This last was a great bonus, in the years before mobile phones had been invented. I was quite concerned that drunken divers were going to wreck the place,and was amazed that, by the end of the long week-end, only 2 things had happened; 1 whisky glass had been broken; and someone had decided to have a shit in the swimming pool. Our ship’s owner, a real gentleman, was not in the least concerned, and made enough money to buy another ex-trawler, which he named after his son, and rented this one out also as a dive boat. Working on the structures, the boat would lay out 3 or 4 anchors, and then tighten the anchors until the boat was as close as safely possible to the structure. This was before dynamic positioning had come into general practice. Both boats had a large roller over the stern, and you entered the water by leaping off the roller into the sea, and swimming to the structure, then climbing down the leg to the work site. The first diver in would take with him a “down-line”, which he’d attach to the structure at the work site. When it was time to leave, he return to the boat by coming up the down line. His decompression scedule had to be carefully monitored by the supervisor, and this included his ascent time, from leaving bottom, to arriving surface. If he’d been working shallow, he might have no decompression stops, and could climb straight up the dive ladder onto the back deck. If he’d been working deeper, then he would have either in-water decompression stops, or surface decompression in the Deck Decompression Chamber (DDC). If it was in-water stops, the supervisor would monitor his time and depth as he ascended, and at some point, he would be told to let go of the down line, and swim over to the stops line, hung off the end of the boat, with a heavy weight to keep it reasonably tight. The stops line would be marked with tape at 30ft, 20ft, and 10ft, and the supervisor would then monitor his decompression stops on the rope, before bringing him up onto deck. If it was surface decompression in the DDC, the diver may first of all have 1 in water stop at 30ft. When it was time to go to surface, he had only 5 minutes from leaving 30ft, to being repressurised at 40ft in the DDC. So, the first minute wastravel from 30ft to the surface. The diver would already have taken off his fins, and now had to climb the ladder onto the deck, where 2 other divers would strip him ofhis dive helmet, his bale out bottle, his harness, his dive suit, and now either naked or dessed in trunke, he would be escorted to the DDC. He’d climg through the circular opening into the entry lock, a small compartment about 5ft long, and would immediately put on an oxygen mask. The outer door would be closed by the dive tenders, and locked into place with “dogs”, at which point the diver running the DDC would start to pressurise the DDC entry lock, as quickly as possible, to stay within the decompression schedule. When the entry lock reached a depth of 40ft, it would equalise withe pressure already in the main chamber, and the door to that chamber would open automatically. The diver would take off his oxygen mask, transfer to the main chamber, immediately don another oxgen mask,and was then free to don warm clothing which had been put in there earlier. There was a bunk and blankets inside, warmth was the biggest problem.The diver would have a series of perhaps 20 min breathing oxygen, separated by 5 minute air-breaks, and hot tea or coffee would be sent into him in the air breaks, via the medical lock. When his decompression was complete, he’d be brought back to surface. In the meantime, his dive equipment and suit would have been washed off and serviced by the other dive crew, who’d prepare for the next dive, to begin when the DDC was. Our diver would exit the DDC, then go for a shower, dress, and return to deck as part of the deck crew. Each shift was 12 hours, in those days with no lunch break – each man ate individually, when it was convenient. At the end of the 12 hour shift, the whole crew would be relieved by the oncoming crew, so the boat operated 24 hours, with as little down time as possible.The crew going off shift would all head for the galley, stuff themselves with the (usually) wonderful food, then retreat to their cabins, shower, change, and either read or watch a movie before going to bed. This routine continued with monotonous regularity for usually 4 weeks, after which a crew change would send you home for your leave period, usually 2 or 4 weeks. When going on leave, you’d either be transferred to another boat going ashore, or take a helicopter if available, or the boat itself might go ashore for provisions, or spares. Once ashore, someone from the company would pick you up, and either take you to the airport, or a hotel for the night. If hotel, then accommodation and meals would be paid for, but no alcohol. The same with travelling expenses home, flights, taxis/trains and meals were on expenses.

I’d enjoyed the short time I had at Robert Gordon, and was also happy that I was capable of doing the work, but I wasn’t prepared to live such a spartan existence for 3 years, and emerge up to my ears in debt, so I quit.

However, here I was, back in debt, and having to repay my grant as well. I needed a steady income to do this, so instead of going back to freelancing, I contacted my old friend Dave Atkin, who was by now the general manager at Algosaibi Diving in Saudi Arabia, and asked him for a job.