December 1974, already three years now that I worked as a diver for the small diving company from Antwerp (see: Stupid Diver). We were only five divers there, boss included plus two tenders, which meant many dives a week during which I have learned quite a lot of things.
In those days, there were very few companies specialized in this type of activity, and only two or three of them had a staff of employees divers, the company from Brussels where I had started my commercial diver’s career and the one where I worked today.
These two companies were specialized in civil engineering works and most Belgian divers were very well used to this type of work. However, since two to three years, offshore divers demand kept growing and many divers were leaving the Brussels firm to try this adventure.
This situation made my boss smile, because indirectly, this brought us back a few contracts that our competitor could no longer honor due to lack of staff.
On Tuesday, December 25, Christmas day, I received a phone call around three o'clock in the afternoon from a guy who presented himself as the Director of a recruitment company which was looking for experienced commercial divers for offshore projects, and that as such, he absolutely wanted to see me the same day.
Kindly, I replied that today was a holiday, but it didn't cure and wanted to see me immediately. As a result, an hour later I was in his office on the ninth floor of a building on the Louise Avenue. There I fell nose to nose with René, one of my colleagues who was actually also working for the same company as me.
A few minutes later the office door opened and a guy around the forty made us enter in his office. He introduced himself as being Michel G. Director of the FLADAS Company.
After the usual banalities he entered immediately in the heart of the subject, and explained us that he had himself been diving for COMEX, but that he very quickly had discovered that the European offshore diving world sorely lacked experienced divers knowing how to work under water in difficult conditions. And thus he had made up his mind to rob maximum divers from the Belgian and French civil engineering diving companies, for which these working conditions were commonplace.
As a result in his quest for skilled workers he fell upon us through other co-workers.
During our interview, he explained us what offshore diving was.
Everything he told us about this job fascinated me because like many young diver, I was attracted by deep diving. On the other hand, what bothered me a bit in its description was the length of the projects which as Michel said was a month in the North Sea, and two months in the other parts of the world.
At the time I still was a relatively newlywed, and was therefore quite worried to leave my little young and pretty woman at the hands of all these males looking for a prey. Seeing my embarrassment, Michel trying to persuade me, started immediately on the financial aspect of this kind of work and asked me.
- How much do you win at the moment?
- So much! I replied.
He looked at me and said:
- Good for your first trip I offer so much, then a 50% increase over the three following jobs.
- Oops! I swallowed once because even for a first job the sum he proposed was more than threefold my current salary.
- In addition to this, he said you can still add saturation premiums plus some tax benefits if you spend more than six months of the year abroad.
- All this is obviously well tempting I told him, but I can't commit myself without first talking to my wife.
- No problem, do call me back in two hours, I’ll wait here.
Once home, the discussion was very lively. My wife knew I was attracted by this type of diving but she also was afraid that one sends me in Africa or elsewhere for two months and was afraid of not being able to withstand such a long absence.
- And one month I asked her?
- That, I should be able to support she said.
Ten minutes later, I had again Michel at the end of the line.
- Good I told him, I want to go for you, but only for periods not exceeding one month.
- Perfect, you'll turn in the North Sea, and then immediately added:
- Now you know what you have to do.
- Uh, what?
- Give your resignation and keep ready to go from January 5.
EH! Already, this left me less than ten days to prepare my mind and announce my decision to quit to my boss.
The next evening we just had our year-end meal in our little Chinese restaurant where all the staff of the company was happy to dine together once a year. That evening, everyone was seemingly happy and the atmosphere was warm. Only Rene and I were not really in the mood.
Of course, this was because we had decided to announce the news during the evening. The meal was excellent, and then came the time when our boss began his little speech to thank us for the quality of work we had provided during the year.
Now, he starts speaking of the future and begins to philosophize about the dedication of his men to be always available and to the great things that we will accomplish together next year.
Stealthily I give a glance at René. Here we go; it's time to tell him.
As René is more frank than me, he intervenes:
- Boss, I have something painful to announce.
Ouch! The head of the boss changes a little.
- Yes what is it René?
- Well, I have some bad news; I resigned because I go offshore.
Shit, the boss needs to sit. Big discussion between my colleague and him in an attempt to convince him to stay but nothing helped, René stayed on its decision.
Result, a few minutes later he is resigned to lose his best diver, but he immediately adds:
- OK my dear René, no problem it’s your choice and I can’t stop you but fortunately, I still have Francis who will now take your place.
Me, I knew no more where to put myself. And then shyly I said unto him:
- Boss, I too have bad news, I'm leaving with René and I too give my resignation.
That was too much, two back-to-back resignations, the party was fucked.
Over the next few days, I did some shopping because I was told that North Sea was very cold in the winter and so I needed some warm clothing.
Saturday 5 January eleven o'clock in the morning, the phone rings. At the other end of the line it’s my new boss Michel.
- Hi Francis, I call you to announce that you leave this afternoon, I have found you a job in the North Sea on the Jet barge 4.
- Be at the airport at three O’clock.
Shit, it let only four hours to spend with my family.
Fourteen hours, as my wife Michelle cannot yet drive, it’s my parents who take me to the airport. The small hall is crowded, but very quickly I spot Michel who is awaiting me anxiously.
- Hi! Here is your ticket to Aberdeen via London, quick go to register your luggage at counter n° 3. - UH! But it is that I have two large suitcases and one bag.
Michel looks at me in a dumbfounded manner:
- What do you all got in there?
- But Michel I was told that I had to equip myself against the cold.
- Quick! Open them we’ll make a selection.
Result, in the middle of the airport and under the anxious eyes of my family, my boss is throwing away all the cloves he judges unnecessary to take with me. Once this little technical detail set, I quickly went to register my luggage and finally was ready to move to the control desk.
So far, I had been so busy with my departure that I did not really realize what was happening but suddenly, seeing that the time of the separation had come, a ball of anxiety was felt at the back of my throat.
- It is time my loves, I must say goodbye.
Not easy all this, especially for my four-year-old kid who does not well understood why his dad is leaving him for so long.
Here I am on the plane to London. During my youth I had already done some flying in small aircraft, but had never taken a commercial plane and I must say that I enjoyed this first flight.
At the London terminal, I am a little bit confused. Knowing nothing about airports, I virtually stop at all the panels signaling messages to check if one of them does not apply to a flight towards Aberdeen.
Probably seeing that I was a little lost, a stewardess approached me and offered her help. Thus, thanks to her, I found myself quickly in the terminal where my next flight was due to leave.
Twenty hours fifteen, new departure for the Scottish city where I arrive an hour thirty later. For the umpteenth time I reread the roadmap that Michel had given me:
«At Aberdeen airport take a bus and go to the George Hotel on Union Street. ''
Take a bus alright, but which one amongst all those waiting on the parking? Nah, I will just ask a driver. As I had revised my English with the Assimil method during these last days, I proudly asked a first driver:
- Do you go center?
Nice, the guy seemed to have understood because he immediately replied:
- No, yourrrrr arrrrrrrre wrrrrrrong, you etc etc etc. In brief I could only hear a set of words only containing RRRRR consonants that I was not able to understand. Once again I asked him the same question with result the same incomprehensible response.
Odd I thought I've yet revised my English. In my opinion this must be an alien.
Unfortunately not, because apparently everyone here spoke this same strange language. Seeing that I did not understood, the driver showed me another bus telling me:
- Take that bus.
I followed his recommendation and an hour later I was at the front desk of the hotel. Apparently the room had been reserved because as soon as I gave my name, the receptionist handed me a key indicating that the room was on the 3rd floor plus a message telling me that someone would take contact with me during the morning.
Arrived at the door, I opened it, turned on the light and...
- Oh excuse me Sir.
There was a guy in the bed that turned himself grumbling. I quickly get back at the reception and told the lady that she had given me a wrong room because it was busy. Well no, the maid explained to me somehow that it was another diver and that we must share the room.
Result, back in the room, where I now try to carefully store my suitcase without disturbing my new colleague too much. In vain, because of all my racked he opened one eye, then the second.
- OK No. problem!
- Hello, I'm Francis and I come from Brussels.
- Hi, I'm John and I'm from London.
Phew, John spoke English that I could more or less understand and thus I could undertake a small conversation with him to explain what I came do here. From what I could understand, he also had just arrived and was in bed early because someone would pick him up early the next day. Indeed, on the stroke of five o'clock in the morning, I heard John leave the room in silence.
10 o’clock in the morning, I receive a phone call from a guy speaking French, it’s Yves. He tells me that my departure to the barge is only planned for the next day and then I can have my day. Result, I undertake to do a walk in the city.
But it's Sunday and Sunday’s in Aberdeen means that everything is closed, not a cat on the streets, a dead city and even to make the things worse, the weather is really bad.
- Damn, what am I doing here? I’m depressed and feeling blue thinking to the ones I have left behind me. So it’s better for me to return to the hotel, there at least it's warm.
Eighteen hours a new guy enters the room.
- Hello! I told him I thinking it was a new English diver. In response, I get a “Bonjour” with a strong accent coming from Marseille. It is Maurice, a French diver from Comex which tells me that he also goes on JB4. Suddenly my mood is much better.
Next morning after a hearty breakfast, departure by taxi to Peterhead, a small port located some 50 km north of Aberdeen where a supply boat awaits us together with a few other workers who have to go work at sea.
Mid-morning, the supply boat leaves its berth. It is barely out of the Harbor that it quickly starts to move in all directions by a severe gale.
Me, it's been eight years now that I no longer had set foot on a ship, but very quickly, I could feel the symptoms that I feared: seasickness. We are barely at sea for less than half an hour that my breakfast is already coming out.
In the galley, despite the fact that it is virtually impossible to stand, the Cook is preparing lunch for the crew and the few guys who remained in the lazarette. For me, it is no question to swallow anything because the single smell of the frying food makes me run to the toilets.
Due to this bad weather, the Captain had banned the access to the outside to avoid falling overboard, result not question to go get some fresh air. The only thing to do was to go and lock at best in the bunk.
The next hours, were among the most difficult of my life. The storm had get worse and I needed to wedge myself very strongly to not be ejected from my bed. I didn’t stop to drink and to vomit, I felled so bad that wanted to die.
I told myself that if THAT was offshore, then they could get fucked because I would not spend a month being as seasick as a dog.
The more the time passed and the more I was hamming it up telling myself that I would return ashore immediately.
Finally, after thirty six hours of an interminable trip during which the boat had supplied various oil platforms, Jet Barge 4 was in sight and the seaman on watch came to inform us that we had to prepare ourselves for the transfer.
As I was in agony, I told Maurice that I had decided to stay on board to return to Belgium and to never again in my life put my feet on a boat. Maurice replied with a smile that I would be wrong to do this, because on the barge it would move significantly less.
- I don't care, I don’t move from my bunk.
A ten minute later, the supply is alongside of the barge. To facilitate the transfer of the people, the boat is moored downwind thus reducing somewhat the pitching and rolling. Result, I decided anyway to get up to go and see to what this installation on which I would have to go looked like. What I saw there under my eyes, was a huge pontoon kept in position by a series of large cables that went to the bottom.
It was fully illuminated and a terrible noise came out of her. Yet, as my colleague had said, the barge didn’t seem to move so much. Maybe that after all it would be better to go there and so I immediately returned to the cabin to fetch my luggage.
Back on the afterdeck, I could see that the transfer had begun. The passage between the boat and the barge was made with a basket in which we had to throw our suitcases, and then somehow try to cling on his side and remain there until the moment that the crane operator estimates to be able to pick up the basket without too much risk.
It was now my turn to try my hand at this rodeo.
Due to the not synchronized movements of the boat and barge, it was not easy to get in position. Sometimes I fell in the basket, and then a few moments later, I returned back and fell outside.
A veritable obstacle course. Then without expecting it, the basket lifted off from the deck and I found myself quickly to ten meters in height.
Once landed on board of the barge, it didn’t take me long to feel that actually she moved far less than this fucking tub and I felt immediately better.
My mood also quickly returned when I saw Luc a colleague that I had already crossed on a project in Belgium. After rapid greetings, he told me that I looked like a death warmed up and had a complexion that looked pretty much like the green color of the barge.
No wonder I said with such an infernal trip I'd just suffered. Then after a few usual banalities, he grabbed my suitcase and led us Maurice and me to the stratif that had to register our arrival.
Once these formalities completed, he led us to our room to put our luggage, showed us the various locations of the barge that was important to identify immediately and then finally presented us to a few divers who were doing the night shift.
Me, it was now several tens of hours that I hadn’t swallowed anything and I suddenly felt hungry. Luc invited me to go to the mess where for the first time in my life I could taste some delicious pancakes with maple syrup. While I was eating, my buddy explained that because of the storm, the barge was in standby since several days and divers were free to do what they wanted.
Of course, very quickly I turned the chatting around life on board and the kind of work that was expecting me here.
- Bof, spirit here isn’t high because a few days ago we had a death and you are there to replace him.
Shit, it starts well my new work.
- Actually he said to continue, the barge on which we work is called a Jet barge.
- You should know that here in the North Sea as well as in many other parts of the world, nothing may exceed from the bottom of the sea and this means that all the pipelines that are currently posed must be buried before entering in production and this is where we come into action.
- As you can imagine, such kind of deep trenches are not dug with a Galeazzi water lance.
- Here on the barge we use a huge machine, you will see it tomorrow, which is pulled over the pipe.
- This engine is equipped at the front with a multitude of high pressure lances that disintegrate the soil during the progress, while at the rear of the machine; there is a huge pumping system that sends the sludge out of the trench.
- A few days ago, we did come at the end of a section where an 8 inch valve was installed and it was expected that the Yankees would stop the pulling of the jet at about five meters from this valve.
- Like usual we’ve started the inspection of the trench and the pipe.
- It was John our English diver who was in the water and everything was going well until the moment where he informed us that he passed to the other side of the tube.
- Then all of a sudden, we‘ve heard a horrible scream on the radio and then nothing, no sound of breathing, total silence.
- Immediately, the supervisor has sent the bellman to his rescue.
- The visibility was still extremely reduced and the bellman had the follow the diver’s umbilical to reach him.
- Once on him, he tried to take his colleague in his arms to bring him back to the bell, but the diver was stuck on the pipe and he couldn't remove him off.
- As time went on, the water has clear up and finally, the bellman was able to see that the diver’s arm was inside the tube.
- It’s there that one has understood that the claw had been pulled too far and thus snatched the small valve and a part of the pipeline on which it was welded.
- As the pipe was on air, the tearing off has create a strong delta P at the level of the opening and it's while passing over the pipe that the poor man had his arm sucked in.
- No need to say how difficult it was to take him away from there.
- As the bottom was only thirty-five meters deep, the recovery intervention has been made from the surface because the bellman was too shocked to continue.
- It took us not less than eight hours to free him and to be able to do it we were obliged to fill the pipe with water to get pressure equalization.
- When his arm was finally removed from the pipe, all that remained was the bone. All the rest from the shoulder to the hand had been sucked into the tube.
- It was not nice to see, so you understand why the guys on board feel a little depressed these last few days.
Obviously, there was something.
- And now, what will the next operation be, I asked him?
- For now we wait a lull because there still a dive to do on the pipe , then the barge will lift her anchors to go on another site where we have to dig a new 36 inches stretch of tube. Finally, after having chatted some 10 minutes more with my colleague, I left him and decided to go to bed for a few hours.
Despite the travel fatigue, I did not sleep much. It was probably due in part from the stress of this first mission, but also because of the infernal noise caused by the machinery of the barge that could be heard up to the inside of the cabins.
Result, I get up at the stroke of nine hours, dressed myself warmly and went out on the deck to look where I had landed.
Outside, it was broad daylight. It was bitterly cold and the wind was still blowing very hard.
After having wandered everywhere to discover the various parts of this huge floating pontoon, I then walked to the back of the barge where the commanding and diving post was established.
Luc was still there and was busy to adjust the regulator a diving helmet.
Another diver was putting a coat of paint to the ceiling of the room and two others had their nose stuck inside a playboy magazine.
- Hi, slept well?
- Bof not too well, I find there is quite a lot of noise.
- Don’t worry, you‘ll be used to it quickly.
- Come on, I'll introduce you to the superintendent; he is precisely in the chamber operator’s room. I followed him. On our way we are walking through a room where I can see a huge orange decompression chamber.
- That’s our 2500 chamber he told me it’s in there that we make our saturations, we will show you the installation later.
At the end of the local, a small staircase was climbing to the control room. There Yann the life support technician and Jacques the diving supt were busy to sum up the status of the diving gases.
- Hi, Francis, you’re the new one?
During our interview, he inquired a little about my diving experience, and then at the end he added:
- This afternoon, we will try a dive to sling the pipe, will you do it?
Of course, I was there to dive and thus accepted with enthusiasm.
- Well, it is foreseen around 2 o’clock the dive supervisor will tell you what there is to do.
- In the meantime you can already choose you a diving suit.
At shift change, I met the other members of the day’s dive team. Then the team leader which I forgot the name led me to the rear starboard side of the barge and began to brief me on my future dive.
- You see, here we have a downline that is still moored around the pipe at the level of the valve which has been teared off.
- So, you are going to follow it.
- Once on the bottom, you disconnect the line and you go to your left.
- Make sure that your umbilical is behind you; otherwise you'd go in the wrong direction.
- At approximately twenty meters from the valve you'll arrive at the end of the pipe on which there is a pulling head.
- There you fasten the guideline on the ring.
- After that we will send you a steel wire with a three pieces shackle.
- Once you have recovered it, do give enough slack to the cable to not be bothered by the swell, then you take away the axis of it and you put the shackle over the ring.
- After, you set the axis of the shackle in place, you tighten the nut very hard and you don't forget to put security pin in place.
- And please be careful to not lose the nut.
- Once this is done, you will have to pass on the equalization valve which is located on the other side of the pulling head and close it.
While he was describing what I would have to do, I thought that he was taking me for an idiot who had never slung anything in his life. But very quickly during my other offshore jobs I was going to realize that unlike civil engineering diving it was always like that in offshore: Divers can only take little initiative.
- Has you can see he continued; there is still too much swell to do the decompression stops in water so you'll do surface decompression.
- UH! What’s that I asked a little intrigued?
- It means that you will come up directly to the surface where we will rapidly take off your gear and then put you in the bin where you'll be recompressed to twelve meters while breathing pure oxygen.
- Be careful, because once you are out of the water, you will not have to hang around because you only have three minutes to return to the stop pressure.
Shortly after, the time of intervention has come. Maurice is going to be my standby diver.
Dutifully, I dress myself with an Unisuit dry suit and then for the first time in my life put a face mask on the head.
It’s an orange KMB 9 band mask equipped with communications with the surface.
This also changes me from my dives in the ports and channels where so far with the exception of some special works I only used traction signals to communicate.
Everything was ready. In the earphones I could hear the Chief tell me that I could go.
I went to the edge of the barge waited a few moments for the top of a wave and jumped.
Once in the water, I seized the down line and immediately began to heave myself towards the bottom. The band mask was equipped with a nose block device to facilitate the balancing of my ears but I didn't need it because since always I had learned to clear my ears swallowing.
The only thing I had to think about during the descent was to regularly send some air in my dry suit to prevent it to squeeze. In less than two minutes I was some thirty-five meters down.
There, the visibility was good and I could see that the down line was where the supervisor had said.
The dive took place without any difficulty, in accordance with the instructions I had received. Result, twenty minutes after my departure, I could announce:
- Surface work completed !
On the surface, the supervisor appears surprised because he asked me to confirm.
- Are you sure to have correctly put everything in place?
- Affirmative, everything is in place, tight and secured, and the valve is closed.
- Good in this case you can drop the guideline and come up slowly to the surface and be careful to not turn around the sling.
Slowly, I begin my ascent. Around twelve meters, the effects of swell can be felt strongly. The cable where I come up does not stop to tight and slack and when I look toward the surface, I can see the bottom of the diving ladder in the splash of the waves.
Fortunately I do not have to make my decompression in the water; otherwise I could again have the nausea.
I arrive at the bottom of the ladder which sometimes is at six meters, and then the next moment at three meters. I cling to the steps to remove my fins but it is really not easy.
Now, it's done. Immediately I climb on it to go up on deck. Once on it, three colleagues throw themselves upon me to remove my diving gear then promptly direct me to the DDC. Quickly, I settled down in the sas, seize the oxygen mask and begin to deeply breathe this pure gas that should prevent me to get bend.
A few seconds later the door of the chamber closes while that via the intercom the LST informs me that he will begin to pressurize. Immediately, the air starts to fuse in the sas and in less than a minute, the door of the main chamber opens by equilibration.
Whew !, my surface interval lasted less than three minutes. I am inside the procedure prescribed by the decompression table and can now enter into the chamber to lie down on the bunk while continuing to breathe O2. I am in for ten minutes.
Not bad at all this way of decompression I thought that allow me to decompressed in the dry and protected from the swell. But what I was unaware at the time, it is that this technique is not without risk for the diver because during the surface interval the tissues are in a state of supersaturation and the risk of a decompression accident is real.
Moreover it’s used to say that surface decompression procedures are semi-controlled decompression accidents which are treated immediately and even a study has proved that S.D tends to produce ten times more type II (neurological) DCS than in water decompression.
Beside at long term, this practice has also serious consequences on the health of divers who have during their career intensely done this type of decompression and many of them are today highly disabled or even invalid.
Fortunately, Comex is aware of these risks and practiced the surface decompression only in exceptional circumstances such as for instance today.
My dive had apparently met the requirements of the Supt because as soon as I stepped out of the chamber, he told me that I would be part of the next saturation which should take place in a few days if the weather calms down.
He then asked the dive supervisor to show me the complete deep diving installation during the next hours and brief me on the various ongoing work procedures for the setting of the jet and the inspections.
Super, my first project and I can already go into 'sat'. Other divers do not have this chance and many of them will sometimes have to wait long before living this experience.
As the work was entirely finished on this site two tugs had begun to recover the anchors.
This maneuver lasted a dozen hours during which we could hear the haunting sound of the twelve winches that were returning the kilometers of cable. Once the last anchor on board, the barge was taken in tow and moved to its new destination.
During the towing, at the exception of a few deck hands, the barge was living in idle. In the gangways, some Americans with a stinking cigar in their mouth had installed games tables around which they spent long hours playing poker accompanied by large glasses of whiskey.
Because of this, a thick smoke cloud and a smell of cold tobacco floated on the ceiling of the cabins and decayed the atmosphere.
Twenty-four hours later, we were on site but due to the bad weather, the barge still remained in standby for several days. I used this period to spend a maximum time to study all the facilities and equipment I didn't know.
Everything was looked at:
The diving bell in which I spent a few hours studying the various gas circuits that were in so that I get able to identify them in case of problems and isolate them in the dark.
The huge claw that was actually hanging at the surface and around which I shall have to move without any visibility.
The chamber, in which I was going to live in the next few days.
I also spent a lot of hours with chamber operators who taught me in the art of making breathing mixtures. In short everything I saw, passionate me.
Then finally, on January 17 the weather calmed and for the first time in my career I went into saturation.
The three colleagues who accompanied me were Maurice, the one with which I was going to do team, Alain the Tahitian and a Canadian diver which I have unfortunately forgotten the name. Fourteen hours, start of the pressurization.
The chamber is compressed with air up to ten meters to bring the partial pressure of oxygen to 420 mb.
- Everything Ok guys? Yann asked.
- Yes everything is alright.
- OK, I send the helium.
Slowly, pure helium sets out through the chamber atmosphere. Very quickly, my voice changes and I'm starting to talk like Donald Duck.
Tens of minutes later, we have reached the living depth of sixty five-meters.
The supervisor informs us that the deck crew is ready to lower the jet and that Maurice and I can start to prepare ourselves for the dive.
As I have never be in a diving bell, the diving Supt decided that for safety reasons Maurice had to be the bellman and therefore it’s to him to make the bell checklist.
I decided however to watch him so I would know how to do it for the next dive. Once in the bell, my colleague tided up a few things and then informed the surface:
- Surface I'm ready for the checklist.
- Ok Maurice, we start with the communications.
- Bell communication
- Diver helmet
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 how do you read me?
- Five on five
- Bellman Mask
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 how do you read me?
- Five on five
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 how do you read me?
- Five on five
- Let’s skip to the electricity.
- Inner light?
- Outdoor light?
- It's good Maurice, one passes to the valves
- Inflation by umbilical?
- Closed, I do a test
- Arrival bellman?
- Umbilical arrival?
………And so on
- Alright Maurice, checklist complete, you can call your diver in the bell.
Excitedly I went in the bell and settle on the small seat while the bellman closes the lateral door. The surface decompresses the hub then a moment later we can hear that one of the divers is disconnecting the bell with great blows of a hedge hammer. Here it is, the bell moves to the end of its portico, rises a little, and then slowly starts to descend.
Through the porthole one can see that the night has already fallen.
The passage through the splash zone is pretty hectic and the bell moves violently in all directions. Maurice tells me to hold on well.
Then very quickly the rodeo calms and the bell go down to the abyss.
Sixty five meters, the bottom door opens slightly under the effect of the pressure and a trickle of water fills the bottom of the bell.
Immediately, Maurice announces:
- Surface door open stop the descent.
Through the halo of light made by the external projectors I can now see the bottom of the sea where a lot of cods are swimming.
I dip my hand in water: Brrr! it’s cold. Fortunately, Maurice has already connect the hot water hose to my diving suit and so I will warm up a bit before I immerse.
The supervisor calls me:
- Ok Francis the jet is about five meters from the bottom.
- How is it going, not too nervous for this first?
- No problem I’m fine.
Here it is. I am now fully equipped and after a communication test with the surface, I do the OK sign to my colleague and let myself gently slide into the icy water.
Immediately I feel the pleasant warm water circulation in my suit. Super, I have the impression of being in a warm bath.
Slowly I go down on the bell counterweights and do a complete turn on myself to watch what is around me. It's dark and I can’t see anything beyond the beam of the projectors.
A little on the starboard side of the bell I can see the jet that dangles at a few meters over the bottom.
A call coming from the surface reminds me to order.
- Francis, are you ready?
- Yes surface , I’ve spot the jet.
- Okay, first thing to do is to search the pipe.
- In principle you should find it if you go at 3 O’clock.
- Understood surface.
I let myself fall on the bottom which is located some five metres below, and then displace myself in the said direction. I'm moving slowly on the sea floor. The more I go away from the bell the more it starts to get dark. But despite all the visibility remains good.
In the distance, I begin to see a dark mass. It must be the pipe. Actually, a few metres farther the 36-inch pipeline is there resting on the sandy bottom.
- Surface! That's it, I found it!
- Ok Francis, sits you on the pipe, I'll ask at the bellman to look of how far you’re out.
- Maurice, can you tell me how many meters the diver is out?
- More or less thirty meters.
- Thirty metres, thanks.
- Ok divers, we'll make a move of twenty meters to starboard with the barge.
- Maurice, you take care of the umbilical.
- Understood, you move the barge.
Slowly the barge winches start to turn on. Some give slack on the port cables while others pick up the slack on starboard. Slowly, the bell comes closer to me.
Here it is, I start to distinguish the claw.
- Yes Francis.
- Here it is I'm starting to see the Jet.
- Ok, we have nearly completed the move.
Some instant later, the supervisor Announces:
- Twenty meters, movement is finished.
- Can you tell me how far we are from the pipe?
I look a little upwards, and can now see this enormous mass of dozens of ton of steel swinging around in all directions at the discretion of the swell.
- The jet is about five to six meters on the port side of the pipe.
- Ok Francis, now it's up to you to play.
- You first bring the machine above the pipe.
- Ok well understood.
- You can still move the barge three meters to starboard.
- Let’s go for three meters.
At the end of two or three small additional displacement, the jet is finally over the pipeline. Still sitting on it, I take a few minutes to study its behaviour. It has a vertical movement of about two to three meters, while it oscillates laterally for a good meter. Result, I stress a little because with these random movements, I do not have much room for manoeuvre.
On the surface, the supervisor (probably pushed by the client) asks me to act.
- Yes, do not worry, it comes, I just do not want to crush the pipe.
Quick a last control to make sure that my umbilical runs well behind me and so doesn’t risk passing under the machine.
Ok let’s do it !
- Surface easy down on the jet until I say STOP
- Down to the stop.
The ramp with the injection nozzles are approaching dangerously from the pipe.
- STOP the descent.
- It is stopped.
Because of the swell, the huge mass of steel dances now up and down to a few inches from the top of the tube.
- OK, be ready to drop the jet.
I'm waiting for a few seconds then finding the right moment I shout:
- DOWN! DOWN! DOWN!
Immediately, the machine begins to descend quickly over the pipe until it’s stopping on the sea bed.
Moments later, the surface informs me that weight gauge indicates that the machine is standing. Phew !, I think that I haven’t broken anything.
The installation has generate a sand cloud but rapidly the small current sweeps the cloud away and I can now clearly see that the jet overlaps the pipeline. But because of the hardness of the soil, the two injection ramps are only buried to a few tens of centimetres.
- Yes Francis I listen.
- Good, the jet is standing correctly, but it should still come down for more than one meter until the sled touches the bottom.
- Well received, go and put yourself on the counterweight, we'll start the pump to let it go down.
- Maurice, pick up diver slack diver returns to the counterweight.
- Ok I do.
I'm now under the bell since two or three minutes, when all of a sudden a huge racket begins to be heard. These are the high pressure nozzles and pumps which are set in action. The acute wheezing becomes stronger and stronger, I feel as if I’m next to a jet plane that’s taking off.
The noise is so loud that all of a sudden I'm afraid that all explodes.
Around the claw a thick cloud of sand begins to reduce visibility. Then finally after a few minutes the noise decreases a little.
The supervisor calls me:
- Okay, Francis, we have ceased the jetting and pumping, and open the internal circuit.
- Can you go and look if the sleds are now resting properly on the bottom?
- Uh ! that’s all well and good but the jet is still running.
- Don’t be afraid it makes noise, but the pumps are shut down and you risk nothing.
- Ok, if you say so I’ll go.
On the bottom the visibility is nil. Fortunately the jet is only located a few metres from the bell and I find it easily.
The big machine has effectively come down and her two skates are now on the bottom.
- Surface the jet is in position.
- Perfect Francis, you worked well, you can go back to the bell, diving is complete.
I returned to the diving bell quite happy to have succeeded my first deep dive and once in it I comment it proudly with my colleague.
During the next two days, we could still perform some inspection dives. Then in the late afternoon Jacques came to the radio to inform us that a new storm was forecast and that the barge was lifting the anchors to go for shelter. Result, we had to be decompressed.
- What already! I said to my diving buddies.
- Well Yes, Alain tells me it's always like that in the North Sea during winter time, a few days work and then standby weather then continues by telling me that once he had spent a month at sea without making a single dive due to bad weather.
Our decompression lasted for nearly seventy hours.
As the barge was again in tow, we could feel that she was moving a lot. Maybe was it due to the pressure or because I got sea legs again, but I had not the slightest nausea.
Tuesday 21, the door of our recompression chamber opened in the early afternoon and I could again breathe the pure air of the North Sea.
The rest of the work took place as it had started by a long period of stand-by. Then at the end of the month the bad weather ceased and a new team could again enter in saturation.
For me the end of my first trip was close because my replacement was scheduled in the coming days. Finally, on 2 February, I did the opposite voyage and was back two days later within my small family and in the arms of my little Darling that had missed me so much.