Divers who insist on learning lessons the hard way often pay the ultimate price. I was fortunate. My mistakes and ‘gung-ho’ attitude only cost me the price of a weight-belt.
The Tale (Part One)
(In which I meet new friends and learn the meaning of, “Act … don’t get caught Reacting.”)
In the early ‘seventies the heavy demand for divers to work on the North Sea gas and oil platforms exceeded supply. Wages were high. So was the diver mortality rate.
Confronted by a harsh environment and difficulties not previously encountered elsewhere in the world, many diving contractors found it more expedient to employ people with military diving experience. Their training would, it was believed, give the divers a survival edge.
As one of a consortium of eight divers, I joined a group of ex-military personnel with the contract to service all of one large oil company’s offshore platforms and rigs. Based on a roster system of two weeks on the rig and one week ashore there were always five divers on call.
In the northern winter of ’71, we were employed in fitting anti-scouring devices to the legs of a fixed rig platform almost midway between the UK and Holland, an area subject to strong tidal currents. Surface Demand Diving Equipment was not – at that time – mandatory and it was standard practice to choose equipment based on the job in hand.
On this occasion our equipment consisted of twin or triple tanks; single-hose, up-stream regulators with an SPG, (no Alternate Air Sources.); No BCD’s – in any event our collective ‘wisdom’ suggested that they would only prove a bloody nuisance. And for thermal protection we wore 6.5 mm wetsuits.
Normal practice was to dive in two separate sticks. The first three divers – standing in a purpose built steel basket – would be lowered into the water by crane from the platform’s deck. After decompressing on a buoyed line, the divers would return to this basket and be hauled back up to the platform deck. The remaining two divers were quickly briefed on the work status and the process was then repeated.
On a Sunday morning, my buddy and I – already dressed in wetsuits – looked down from the platform’s deck as the first three divers left the basket. A short while later one of the three – a former SBS Royal Marine – surfaced.
Struggling to reach to reach the safety line that trailed from the basket he appeared to be in distress and losing headway. Reacting to the situation, I grabbed a mask, weight belt and fins, slid down the ladders to the lower catwalk – about 3-metres above the waves – donned the gear and launched myself into the water with the intention of assisting him to safety. After several minutes of furious swimming, I paused to check my position. My enthusiasm had carried beyond the distressed diver – whose efforts to reach safety had finally been rewarded. – and it was now my turn to be swept away from the platform.
Finally giving up the attempt to fight against the current and breaking waves, I turned my back on the weather and drifted, secure in the knowledge that my predicament was known to those on-board the platform and that help – in the form of a stand-by vessel tasked among other things with picking up survivors in the event of a disaster – would soon arrive.
After thirty-minutes – with my weight-belt still in place to provide stability and offset the buoyancy provided by the thick neoprene – a trawler, the ‘MARGARET CHRISTINA’, hove alongside, a scrambling net was lowered and I was quickly on deck.
Cold rather than exhausted, I was asked how I took my tea. “Black without sugar” I replied. A crew-member handed me a large mug of thick, hot tea. I greedily drank it and was handed another.
My transfer back to the platform should have been a simple exercise. Because of the rising sea state, it wasn’t. The plan involved lowering a personnel transfer basket – rather like a large lifebuoy with a rope cage – from the platform down to the water’s surface. With a lifeline secured about my waist, I was to leap from the trawler and swim towards it.
Wearing weight belt, mask and fins – and trailing a lifeline paid out by one of the crew-members – I leaped into the sea and swam towards the floating basket. As my fingertips touched its side the line tautened. (To avoid collision with the rig, the ‘MARGARET CHRISTINA’ had quickly turned away from the structure. Conscientiously following orders the crewman tasked with holding the rope refused to release his hold.) Dragged backwards through the water, I managed a piercing scream, “Let – gluuurg. – go – gluurg. – of the – glurg. – @.#$*&% rope.”. He did. And I was hoisted back on to the platform with my dignity bruised – but with my weight-belt still firmly in place.
Continued in Part Two – when I meet up with old friends, lose a ‘new’ one, and learn some valuable lessons about diving, dive planning, dive equipment – and the meaning of life.