Chapter 13 Ras Lanuf

With hindsight, Ras Lanuf was a mistake; it was a cushy number – month on, month off, paid a salary (so paid even on time off) scheduled flights, reasonable expenses. We each had a private trailer, apparently designed by Next, complete with shower and toilet. There was now a full diving team. Willem the Dutchman was supervisor. His background was working in a Dutch shipyard, and he had no formal background in diving, consequently his diving procedures were quite shaky.


” great people in Tripoli, John Roger and Anna Marie.

All diving was done on SCUBA, which he was happy with, although he insisted on divers working singly, instead of in pairs, which would have been safer. He was already showing signss of permanent damage fromhis lack of correct decompression, and everyone else stuck to using tables they were confident in. Around this time, SCUBA was banned commercially in the UK for safety reasons – a limited supply of air, no communication with the surface, various other factors all combined to make SCUBA the most dangerous form of diving. However, Libya was not subject to UK diving regulations, and Willem’s lack ok knowledge ensured that this dangerous form of commercial diving was the only one used by Mobil in Ras Lanuf. This in spite of the fact that there was a very good surface supplied system in place on the barge. A French company, Comex, had been contracted to do a pipeline repair, but refused to use SCUBA, and insisted that a Surface Demand system conforming to British standards be in place for them to use. Willem had no idea what this entailed, and that was one of the reasons I’d been taken on, as I was au fait at that time with British standards, and was able to lay out an inventory of requirements. Once the gear was in place, Comex came out and did the pipeline repair. Once they’d left, I don’t think the system was ever used again. The main problem was, lack of work. The offshore facilities were 3 x conventional sea berths, and 1 SPM. The amount of maintenance required was minimal, and considering that when I first came out, all the diving was handled by 1 Mobil diver and 1 sub contractor, there was now a full team in place, and there simply wasn’t enough work for any kind of satisfaction. Dives were few and far between, and mainly repetitive inspection. Our working day was from 0700- 1700, with a 2 hour lunchbreak. There were virtually no recreation facilities. The harbour was around 1 mile from the camp (this was for safety in case a tanker ever came ashore at full speed – it would take nearly a mile before it stopped, we were told). I would have toast for breakfast around 0600, and, although we had a car, I’d jog down to the harbour, put the kettle on for coffee, and then spend most of the day drinki9ng it. There simply wasn’t enough work for everyone. At lunchtime I’d jog back up to the camp for salad and corned beef, usually, then jog back down to the harbour. After shift, I’d have a more extended run, sometimes out of the camp and up to the tank farm and back, around 10 miles. Once back at the camp, I had an exercise routine I’d worked out for myself which took ariound half an hour to complete. I’m not a good runner, but enjoyed the running and exercise, and became very fit, and bronzed, which always helped to pull girls when on leave. Practically everyone put a brew of beer down in their trailer, so evenings were spent drinking. Alcohol was forbidden in Libya, of course. There were only around 20 ex-pats in Ras Lanuf, all good quality tradesmen, so when you arrived, they would help you set up brewery. First a “mash” would be put down, using a 5 gallon container, water, sugar and cans of Bio-malt, (which could be bought locally as it was used for feeding childre). The mash would be put inside the cupboard which housed the hot water cylinder, and after around 3 days would be checked with a hydrometer, once the brew had stopped working. A couple of crates of empty pint bottles was kept under most beds, and these would be filled using a tube to syphon from the 5 gall container. A spoonful of sugar would be added to each bottle, and then the bottles would be capped, using a manual capping machine brought in from the UK. If you didn’t do this right, the bottles would sometimes explode under your bed during the night, so you took great care to cap the bottles properly.
I was lucky to lay my hands on 2 x stainless steel fire extinguishers, and the engineer, Derick V-S set these up in my fridge. he drilled through the side of the fridge, and fixed a tap to the outside. Inside, a hose went from the tap to a regulator, a small bottle of carbon dioxide pressured up the beer filled extinguisher, and I had cold pressurised beer on tap, brilliant.

This was all well before things like laptop computers and mobile phones, so drinking was almost the only outlet. There was a film projector in the communal room of 1 of the 3 bungalows, but this was dominated by the 4 German Mooring Masters, and there were only about 5 films, all in poor shape, so used very infrequently. Until some bright spark managed to get hold of a copy of “The Battle of the River Plate” We showed it 1 evening to the dismay of the Germans. The film is about the sinking of the German Pocket Battleship “GRAF SPEE” during the 2nd world war, in Brazil. The Brits were cheering like mad, the Germans were very pissed off, esspecially Klaus, the chief mooring master, whose ship had been sunk during the war, and although he managed to get on a lifeboat and survive, he’d been shot in the arse during the action. The projector mysteriously broke down after the first showing of the film, and was unrepairable.

Of course, computers had been invented by then, but home computers were only just beginning to appear on the market. Mobil had a team of 3 American computer engineers, who had all worked on the Polaris programme, so they were top of the tree experts, before being lured to Mobil by big money. I could see the potential of home computers, and realised it wouldn’t be long before we would have laptops which could be taken offshore. In order to find out more about them, I bought a Sinclair Spectrum, and took it out to Ras Lanuf. To get it to work, you had to hook it up to a small TV and a cassette recorder. One of the computer engineers used to come up to my trailer most evenings, where we’d drink beer, and he’d show me how to set up small programmes. 1 of the first things I did was set up a programme which worked out complicated bets for horse racing. My father wwas a bookmaker, and he and my mother had to work for hours every day, working out the profit and loss on individual bets. He couldn’t believe it when I turned up with a machine which did it all for him.

The onsite electrician was a Scotsman called Bob, and he was good mates with 1 of the divers, Harry W. Harry was a real character who had learned his diving in the Royal Navy. He was a big strong bloke with a great sense of humour, very popular with everyone. When I went on leave, Bob asked if he could borrow the Spectrum set-up until I got back. This was round about July, and was the time when people were trying to book , well in advance, their Christmas flights. The problem was that big companies would block book lots of seats every day, in order to make sure their employees would get in and out of the country ok on their due dates. As these dates were presented and confirmed, then the remaining bookings would be cancelled. So we, as individuals, would phone British Caledonia in Tripoli, to book a seat for, say the 20th December, return on 15th January. We’d do this in July, only to be told there was a waiting list. Harry had been telling Bob that he’d booked his xmas leave with Mobil, and wanted to take his wife to Spain on holiday once he got home. He phoned his wife from the office phone the following day, to give her the dates, and told her to book the holiday. That evening, he went to Bob’s trailer for a few beers, and when he arrived, Bob had a surprise for him. He told Harry he’d been able to link the little ZX Spectrum up to Tripoli airport’s computer, and told him he could check the status of any flight, and would he like to see how his xmas flight was progressing? Harry couldn’t wait. Earlier that day, Bob had rescued a broken telephone from the tip, and placed it on his desk next to the computer. He’d designed a flight board which was shown on the TV screen and then set up a response to the only question he would ask. Harry asked him to check the status of his xmas flight, and when Bob typed in the flight number, the answer came back – Harry was 238th on the wait list! Harry didn’t know anything about computers, and hadn’t noticed there wasn’t even a power cord to the phone. He was devastated, and phoned his wife again the following day to tell her to cancel the holiday, that he probably wouldn’t even be able to get home for xmas. Bob hadn’t realised how seriously Harry would take his little joke, and so invited Harry back for beers again that evening, when they would check again his staus on the miraculous computer. Thise time he was up to 27th on the wait-list. Harry was cheering, got very drunk, and phoned again the following day, telling his wife things were looking good, and to re-instate the holiday. Bob kept this going for another few days, before telling Harry that the computer had crashed, and he’d have to check it himself later.

Harry was the diver I got on with best; There were a lot of in-house politics at Ras Lanuf, and I found in general there was not the same sense of cameraderie in the place. I’d been lucky on most of my previous jobs, where esprit de corps and morale were usually very strong.There was very little work to give satisfaction, or a feeling of being part of a team, and very few laughs. In my previous visits to Ras Lanuf, Brega, And Zavia, there was a good crack with the lads, and something always going on.

In Brega, which was a big ex-pat (2000 strong) community working for Shell, I was once called into the Shell diving managers office. He told me there was a sensitive situation. The previous day, he’d had a visit from the Libyan Secret Service, telling him that all Shell personnel had to leave the harbour until a boat had finished unloading. This meant arms and munitions were on the boat, and it had to be kept secret from the ex pats. When Terry asked who was doing the unloading, the SS man said that a band of Tuaregs had been co-opted from the desert, and they would do all the work. They had all been given Shell overalls, and brand new Redwing working boots, which even in the 1970’s were about £70 per pair. They had set up tents for the Tuaregs, but unfortunately 1 of their number had gone missing during the night, and the SS man wanted the divers to check if he’d fallen into the harbour.
I got 2 of the divers, Graham G and Billy B to take the Zodiac round from our barge to the private jetty where the boat was being unloaded, while I was stood on the dock, about 10 ft above sea-level. Graham dressed in in SCUBA, and rolled off the Zodiac into the water, and disappeared, searching the seabed about 40 ft down. He returned shortly, and said, “yes he’s down there.” In the meantime a band of Tuategs had gathered on the dock watching proceedings. I told Graham to take a rope so that he could be pulled up into the Zodiac. Graham returned to the seabed, secured the poor chap, then returned to the surface and climbed back into the boat. He helped Billy pull up the drowned man, and they then manhandled him into the boat. By this time all the Tuaregs had started wailing and crying, and they threw down another rope so that his body could be recovered to the dock. Rigor mortis had set in, and the man’s right arm was sticking out at an angle of 90 deg from the elbow. When the Tuaregs started to pull him up to the dock, his arm caught in the boats lifting harness, and the more they pulled, the nearer the boat came to capsizing, and the harder they pulled. Graham thought the best solution was to cut the harness and free the man’s arm. He took out his trusty Buck knife, and started cutting, but unfortunately his knife went straight into the belly of the dead man. The Tuaregs now started screaming that Grahamk had killed their friend, who was now dangling against the seawall with a knife wound through his brand new overalls, and, I noticed, no boots on his sockless feet. I told Graham & Billy to fuck off back to the barge as fast as they could, and wait there until I got back. The Tuaregs got their mate up onto the dockside, the military and dock police turned up, along with a doctor, and the whole thing calmed down a bit when the Doctor confirmed he’d died from drowning, not from being stabbed. It looked like Graham wasn’t going to be shot or deported, so I went back to the barge to give him the good news. I found him drying out the Redwing boots he’d salvaged from the dead man, pleased as punch they were his size.

Graham was also involved in a previous incident at Ras Lanuf; we were involved in a floating hose chain replacement. The string of about 20 hoses had been removed from the manifold of the SBM, the ends had been capped, then a tug had towed them to the barge. The next part of the procedure was to drag the hoses over a roller onto the barge, where each hose would be disconnected from the string, and then lifted off the barge to be taken to the dump. Charlie Borg, the Maltese diver, had done the disconnection, and was still in his wet-suit and neoprene bootees, stood on the edge of the barge next to the roller, watching the string as it was towed up the deck. When the first flange arrived at the roller, it jumped, and about 5 ton of steel landed squarely on Charlie’s neoprene-clad foot. He fell to the deck screaming, while the capstan pulled the hose off him. Charlie was in agony. Graham ran up to him, and gently cut off the neoprene bootee to assess the damage. When he got it off, 2 squashed toes fell out. Others were putting a compress on his foot, ready to take him up to the Doctor. Graham looked at the toes, and said “Looks like you won’t be needing your flip-flops any more Charlie. Can I have 1st dibs?”
© mick binns 2018