Some fifty-years ago, we were out in the North Sea working on a production platform built alongside the drill platform, the two being connected by a narrow catwalk between the drill deck and production deck of the two platforms, at a height of some 20+ metres above the sea’s surface.
This particular production platform – being next to the ‘parent’ drill rig – was un-manned and had elementary processing facilities for the recovered natural gas that was then pumped through a sub-sea pipeline to the shore-side plant. (One of the reasons that oil companies employed ‘stand-by’ boats was to warn vessels – particularly dredgers and fishing trawlers towing a bottom-trawl along the sea floor – away from the partially buried pipeline. A fracture in the pipeline would cause a release of gas that, being lighter than water would not only cause any vessel above to immediately sink, but would also impact on the oil company’s profit margin.)
Working on depth statistics provided by the diving supervisor, our immediate task was to carry out a visual survey of each of the platform’s legs and surrounding areas prior to fitting ant-scouring carpets around each leg. These carpets would help prevent sediment erosion and the stability of the platform when exposed to heavy seas and tides.
A few minutes after surfacing from our first dive, my buddy – a former Navy Diver known as B.J. – suddenly started to stagger, before collapsing onto the deck of the Production platform in pain and unable to stand.
Our collective wisdom immediately recognised what we assumed was the onset of a spinal ‘bend’. Fortunately, we had, at the start of work on this platform, arranged for our Draeger one-man portable decompression chamber – essentially a narrow, steel coffin – to be placed by crane on the production platform deck, where we’d be working. Immediately sliding, the victim into the chamber and attaching an air cylinder to pressurise it down to the level advised by the Workman Tables, we contacted the radio room to call for an evacuation chopper to carry him to shore, and treatment in the hyperbaric chamber geared up to treat North Sea decompression injuries.
With an evacuation chopper on its way, our task was to man-handle the chamber to the heli-deck – on top of the drill rig’s accommodation facilities – the other side of the connecting, narrow catwalk.
Three of us, struggling to keep our balance while also ensuring that the cylinder supplying pressure and air to B.J. didn’t slip out of our grasp and haul the entire chamber into the ocean below, shuffled slowly across the narrow catwalk while B. J. – immobilised in the narrow confines of the chamber – looked out of the small porthole at the blue sky above and, presumably, prayed to all of the Gods that he’d never worshipped that none of us slipped or fell.
We made it safely across the catwalk, to where other willing hands helped haul the chamber up several flights to the heli-deck. Evacuated to shore, and into the main chamber for treatment, John eventually emerged. His main concern being the wisdom of the day that suggested a spinal bend may have rendered him impotent and unable to maintain an erection. By the time we all returned ashore and caught up with him again in our ‘stand-by’ pub, he had, so he confessed, proven that he was completely cured to the satisfaction of one of the local ladies.
The thought of being locked inside the chamber and being carried across that catwalk by somebody like me, has never filled me with joy. And since that time, I have never, looked at a one-man-pot without shivering and thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
(The image now sits on my bookshelf where I see it everyday, and where it acts as a constant reminder of the meaning of teamwork and comradeship.)