The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
Tales from nearly 50 years in the diving industry
My first diving job in the Middle East came about in a strange way and could nearly have been my last!
It was a strange start because I had actually accepted a job in the Far East that was to have a number of firsts in it for me, and that’s the sort of challenge I can’t refuse. I had never been to the Far East before and this job was in the exciting sounding South China Sea. Also firsts for me were the facts that it was a deep salvage job, it was to be dived on surface supplied mixed gas, and I had been given the choice of expenses and a day rate or a share of the job profits. As my new operations manager had waxed lyrical about the company’s expectations on the amount of silver bullion it expected to recover, it was with a head full of expectations and dreams of wealth that I bought an open return air ticket to Singapore. I was so naive in those days, I didn’t even ask for a contract and it didn’t occur to me that my new employer might have told me any porkies.
I arrived in Paya Lebar Airport (it would be another 10 years or so before Singapore’s new Changi Airport was opened) and headed straight to the company office to get my mobilisation instructions. I wasn’t too impressed by the shabby office and was even less impressed to be told that the job start had been delayed by a week. I was pointed towards a two-star hotel the company recommended in Siah Street, just around the corner from Raffles, and told to report again in seven days. I didn’t really have much choice, so set about enjoying my time in Singapore, which wasn’t hard at all because it was a great place for a run ashore and I soon discovered Bugis Street et al!
To cut a long story short, after three weeks of being told “it’ll be next week now, old boy”, I was getting close to my Amex credit limit and as I had also done the rounds of local dive companies and not landed an alternative job, I decided to cut my losses and head back to the UK. I booked a flight to London but before leaving my hotel decided to ring around the UK diving companies and on my second call was offered a job by a company I had worked for before. The problem was that the job started four days later and had to mobilise out of London because the client had insisted on meeting and briefing the dive crew on the work scope prior to embarking. Oh yes, and the job was offshore UAE in the Middle East!
So I flew all the way back to London, with about 18 hours to spare before I needed to report to the company offices to get briefed on the job and fly half-way back again. I called the Mk1 missus in Newcastle and told her she was booked on a flight to London for a shopping spree in the Kings Road, Chelsea, and one night in a five-star hotel as recompense for the fact that I was going straight out on another job. I didn’t let on I hadn’t been on pay for the past month.
I got through the client interview and briefing and was in the air enroute to Dubai less than 40 hours after leaving Paya Lebar Airport. Within two hours of clearing customs in Dubai I was on a supply boat on the way out to a platform in the Fateh (meaning ‘good fortune’ in Arabic) oilfield. The job was actually interesting and the diving was good fun, with the usual motley crew of mixed nationalities, most with ex-forces backgrounds. We bunked on the production platform about 60 miles offshore due east of Dubai, working mostly from our air dive equipped work boat and sometimes on the pipelay and crane barges in the field, which was still under construction. Seabed depth in the oilfield was around 165 feet and our usual dive method was Air SurDO2 (diving on air with surface decompression using oxygen) but we also regularly dived using scuba from a Zodiac.
One day there were four of us in our rubber boat doing a no-decompression dive, visual inspection swim of a small diameter infield pipeline. Modus operandi was for each of us to take turns swimming along the pipeline with one end of a polyprop downline looped around your arm, the other end terminated with a small Castro ribbed float on the surface which the Zodiac followed. When your air supply was about finished you tied the line off on the pipeline and followed it to the surface to the Zodiac and then the next guy went down. The visibility was usually fantastic at about 80 feet. On my dive I had swum a good length of the pipe, had no problem pushing the downline under the pipeline to tie it off and surfaced quite chuffed with myself. The next diver went down but came shooting to the surface about two minutes later with his hand covered in blood. Apparently, he had untied the downline from the pipe but when he tried to pull the end loop free it had got stuck and when he reached under the pipeline to free it, a huge moray eel had grabbed his hand. Whilst we abandoned the dive and got our colleague back to the platform for treatment to the gash, the three of us non-combatants couldn’t stop laughing all the way there.
Quite often when diving around the platforms, you would jump in onto the top of a school of shimmering, silver, three-feet long barracuda seemingly hovering about 10 feet below the surface and stretching as far as you could see in every direction. Dropping down through the shoal, they would open up as you descended and close back together over your head. If the dive was to the seabed, you would drop down through the shoal bottom about 20 feet above it. Looking up at the base of the shoal, every fish was the same size. It was always a mesmerising experience.
We sometimes joined up with other dive teams in the field if round-the-clock working was required. My dives were invariably in the dark and the first phenomenon to get accustomed to in warm water was the phosphorescence flashing off all around you. Another was getting used to the variety and numbers of fish and marine life living around the platforms and the huge size that some of the predator fish grew to. I think this experience was the catalyst for my lifetime marine aquarist hobby.
On one occasion we spent about four days on location removing a wellhead protection frame on the seabed inside a four-leg jacket structure. By design this should probably have been removed prior to the jacket being set over it, because it involved an inordinate amount of oxy arc burning and difficult to rig lift outs of the frame sections as we cut it up. The first divers in reported the visibility was excellent and that there were large numbers of reef fish living within the jacket area. As usual, my dive was in the middle of the night. I thought the supervisor was joshing me when, just as I was about to jump in, he told me to ignore the 20-foot hammerhead shark. I was a little apprehensive as I descended on that first dive and saw him when I was still only half way to the bottom. Over the next three night dives I learned to ignore him as he constantly circled about 15 feet above the seabed, sometimes coming nearly within touching distance. I even got confident enough to snooze on my in-water stops, although I didn’t the night that he followed me right up to my first stop at 40 feet, doing just a couple of 360s before dropping back down into his territory.
I had been offshore about three weeks when we were boated over to a pipelay barge one evening to supplement the onboard dive team who were making a crossover. This is a sort of mattress/bridge made from sandbags packed together over an existing pipeline or cable to protect it from a new pipeline or cable being laid over it. Crossovers are usually completed in advance of a lay-barge getting to the site, so that these expensive assets are not delayed. However, for some reason this had not happened and the lay-barge dive team were having to build the crossover but were running out of diving hours. The supervisor estimated that our team would need to do about four dives to finish it and he was under severe pressure from the barge superintendent because until we did that, the barge could not resume laying pipe. Our first two divers did a good job and as I jumped in, the supervisor told me he thought if I “put out” I could finish the job. The downline was attached to a heavy clump weight on the seabed about 20 feet away from the crossover and I got down there and across to the jobsite in less than a minute. I did not count how many sandbags I laid, but emptied two baskets full (lowered from the surface) and was utterly whacked by the time I told the supervisor that I had packed the last couple into place and heard him say “well done diver, leave bottom”.
Getting up the downline to the 40-foot knot and hang off loop was no problem and I remember my in-water stops seemed to pass by really quickly because at each level (40, 30 and 20 feet) I snoozed. However, I knew I had a problem when a throbbing pain started deep in my left shoulder just as I left the last water stop and kicked for the barge ladder to climb out. With SurDO2 you have 10 minutes from leaving the last in-water stop to get out of the water, get dressed out, into the DDC (deck decompression chamber) and blown down to 60 feet where you go onto breathing O2 from a BIBS (built-in breathing system) oral nasal mask. As I watched the depth gauge needle creep past the 30 feet depth mark I felt the pain ease, but still had a niggling heavy ache which I reported to the chamber operator. I was sure I had been ‘bent’.
The chamber operator told me to start gently moving and exercising the shoulder and said that he would advise the dive supervisor. The pain increased again as my depth reduced up past 20 feet on my way to the surface, so I asked to speak to the supervisor. He told me that he thought I had pulled a muscle humping the sandbags and that in any event, he needed to get me out of his DDC anyway as he wanted it available for his dive team because the barge was laying pipe again and he might need to dive at any time. I was instructed to go back to our accommodation platform, take a hot shower and hit the bunk and if I then still had a “niggle”, to tell my own dive supervisor.
It took a couple of hours to get back to our platform and about another hour to shower, eat and turn in. I tried to sleep but after about three hours gave up because my shoulder pain was agony. I got our supervisor out of his bunk and about an hour later was recompressed back to 60 feet in our DDC.
I say DDC, but it would not be recognised as such today. It had been fabricated out of a length of 60-inch diameter pipe. It was a twin lock, but the outer lock was only large enough for one person and the inner lock wasn’t much bigger, its one bunk needing to be folded up to get the inner door open. To say the DDC had life support systems was a joke too. It sat on the top deck of the platform in the crane cargo lay down area and only had a tarpaulin rigged over it as shade from the sun. The cooling mechanism was a fire hose constantly pumping seawater over it. Inside fittings consisted of one bulkhead light in each lock and a tiny medical lock, CO2 scrubber, depth gauge and comms speaker in the main lock. With the daytime deck temperature above 40 degrees Celsius, you can imagine the temperature and humidity inside the DDC!
I won’t go into detail on the decompression treatment I got, because to be honest I wasn’t in a fit state to follow what they were doing whilst I was in the DDC and when I got out I only wanted to get ashore. When I later asked the office for a copy of the treatment logs they pontificated and promised to send them on to me, but I never received anything. From what I have been able to piece together, I believe the following timeline tells the story:
I was taken ashore by crewboat. The company doctor said that he believed the decompression sickness had been treated and the residual pain I had was internal bruising from the bend and maybe the hard physical work of moving a few hundred sandbags. He prescribed some paracetamol and a couple of weeks recuperation.
I spent the next couple of weeks in the company apartment in Dubai, but when the company insisted that I had to go back offshore, even though I still couldn’t move my arm without pain, I quit and headed back home to the UK. It was another month before I had full mobility back and even to this day, I get a niggle in that shoulder when it’s really cold weather.
I am a great believer in “what goes around comes around”, and a few years ago I got to “repay” the dive supervisor who had left me on the bottom five minutes too long that night offshore Dubai. I had taken a one-trip job as offshore client representative on a barge in the Gulf of Bengal, offshore Bangladesh. When I arrived on board I was met by the dive supervisor, whose face hit the floor when he recognised me. Although our previous encounter was never mentioned during the next four weeks, both he and I knew exactly why I took every opportunity to make his life hell. They say revenge is a dish best served cold.
Another tale next edition.
Brian G. Redden