Barely a week after returning from my first offshore job, my boss Michel was already on the phone to tell me that I had to go back on JB4.
- What do you mean with I have to leave for the North Sea I told him, this is not what was agreed between us.
- You had told me that a month work equals two weeks on leave at home and today it's only a small week that I’m back, so sorry I do not move before a week.
Michel didn’t look too happy as he simply said ”well fuck it” then hanged up.
That’s it, it begins well I thought, I hope he will not punish me and leave me a few weeks at home. But there was no fear to have because in those days offshore was booming and demand for divers was such that companies did not hesitate to send anyone offshore as long as they had already put their head under water.
Result; a few days later in the morning of February 12, I again received a phone call from Fladas.
- Hi Francis, this is Michel.
- did you spend a good leave?
Then immediately he asked me if I had some English.
Ten years earlier during my military commitment I had been very fond of the little English girls who were coming in Ostend to have some fun and thanks to her had learned the rudiments of this beautiful language. But since then, the circumstances were that I had no more used it until the day where a few weeks earlier I had for the first time been approached by Fladas.
Since then I studied it again intensely and thanks to Assimil, I could say:
- Yes I do, I am defending myself, why?
- In this case, I have a project for you in Spain on a drillship where there is a team of French divers on board but none of them speak English properly and the client begins to be mad about it.
- So if you are interested you can leave tomorrow morning.
That’s so that the next day I found myself at the Barcelona Airport where I was assisted by a charming young girl who worked for the local representative of the client.
She was there to tell me that I had to pass the night in town and therefore led me to a nice little hotel located on the Rambla.
As one can imagine this didn’t bothered me at all and so in the evening I went looking for a little restaurant and quickly discovered that Barcelona was not a bad city.
The next day, at nine in the morning, Dolores was there again with her car to bring me with a concert of honks on the horn to the port.
There the Smit Lloyd a Dutch tug was waiting the staff for the changeover of a part of the barge crew. The Captain of the vessel was also Dutch and as I perfectly mastered this language the contact was fairly easy and very quickly I was entitled to a special treatment during the two hours that lasted the travel.
Around thirteen hours, the GLOMAR V was in sight.
It was a drillship with a large derrick at her center.
Once on board, I made acquaintance with the team that I had to strengthen.
There were, Raphael, the diving supervisor as well as Noel, Philippe and Serge the three young divers.
- Hi, the team leader said, it is true that you speak fluent English?
- UH yeah, my English is ok
- Phew! Happy that you’re here, we will finally be able to understand what they are asking us to do.
As I had not yet had dinner, the team invited me to follow them to the mess. In the queue as well as around the tables a lot of Drillers, Rough-Necks and American Roustabouts were speaking loudly.
Once served, I sat down at the table of my new colleagues and began to eat.
Yuck, what’s this strange taste?
Immediately, I seized my glass of artificial fruit juice and tried to rinse my mouth.
But, ugh, my drink had the same extremely unpleasant taste.
- What is this I asked wondering?
- That! Raphael replied smiling: its diesel.
- A few days ago these fools have done a big mistake during the refueling supply and have started to fill the water tanks with fuel oil.
- Once they realized their mistake, they have rinsed the tanks several times but nothing helped.
- Everything we swallow stinks to death.
- Even the water from the shower smell to fuel.
- In addition, you have no chance because here we cannot even have drinks in bottles; everything comes from the ship tanks.
Charming I thought, and say I'll have to undergo this for a month. Then Philippe one of the divers added:
- For the food, you can spice it abundantly, and for the water you add lots of sugar, you'll see that hides a little the bad taste.
I followed his advice but the result was not very convincing.
After this first shit meal, the team showed me where we had our quarters. There also, I was not lucky. The Americans had parked the divers into the bottom of the hold in a small cubbyhole near machines that never stopped turning.
There, in what they dared to call a cabin, they had installed four steel beds they had probably recovered in one or the other discharges. Frankly, apart from the team leader who was a little better installed than us, it was not really funny.
It was obvious that the Yankees did not like us.
In addition, this wasn’t going to improve with my arrival on board because unfortunately I wasn't the last one to do bullshit.
Indeed, the day after my arrival I had noticed that there was a toasting machine in the mess but unlike the classic machines that I knew, this was a rotating one which allowed to continuously roast a great number of bread slices.
To do this, it was enough to put the slice of bread on a vertical moving support where it was kept in place by a little clip. The slice then followed the convoy of the others, passed over the top of the machine and then stung at the back side where the electric grill stood, then, a few tens of seconds later reappeared on the front face where you could retrieve your bread well roasted.
For two or three minutes I study this machine and tell myself that thanks to her I’m going to make a tasty croquet-monsieur.
Neither one nor two, I am preparing my sandwich with a double slice of cheese and ham that I generously butter on both external sides, that I then gently place on the grill.
That’s it; my toast is gone and just passes on the invisible side of the toaster.
Already my mouth is watering at the thought of the feast that awaits me.
Strange, the toast of the guy who was behind me just arrived and not mine. As it could not pass in front of mine, I tell myself that I've certainly miscounted.
However, I do feel quite uncomfortable. I have the impression that something has messed up in the maneuver as a strange burning smell as well as some smoke starts to come out of the toaster. Shit what can I do? By reflex, I pull the plug from the electrical outlet, but it's too late, the damage is done.
The machine has not supported the weight of my huge sandwich which has fallen from its support and is now stuck against the red-hot grill.
The smoke in the mess becomes more and more important and the few people who are eating start to yell at me.
It is now the turn of the Cook to come and see what can be done. Not much if it is dropping the blocked slices with a long kitchen utensil.
Bang! The door of the refectory opens with a loud crash and a quite strong guy enters in shouting. It’s the Tool Pusher. I realize that I’ll get canned and I try to get tiny.
The guy starts yelling at me in a jargon which I didn’t understood except the last words that were YOU STUPID FROGGIE, NEXT TIME YOU GO! AND NOW EVERYBODY OUT OF HERE! Needless to say that this incident did not improved the relations between France and America.
In regards to the job, as I said, we were here on a drilling ship and the beginning of my stay on board, nearly coincided with the drilling of a new hole and therefore I could follow the various phases of work that would gradually bring the drill bit to a possible pocket of gas or crude oil.
For the time being, the temporary base plate had been installed and a drill was underway to drive the 30-inch casing.
On a drilling vessel, all these works are done diverless and the role of the diving team merely consisted to wait for any incident to happen on the wellhead. However, over the following days, or rather the nights we were repeatedly waked up by the Tool Pusher who loved to send us make observation dives with the bell in order to verify the good implementation of the different elements. In principle, these dives were not really necessary because the wellhead was equipped with an underwater camera that allowed to continuously monitor the installation.
But okay, probably that the client wanted to get his money’s worth and thus wanted to see the divers in the water.
For me, apart from having to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning, I was pleased to do this kind of atmospheric diving because once at the bottom of the Mediterranean, I had the impression of being in the midst of an aquarium in which evolved a multitude of fish attracted to the spotlights of our bell.
Then finally some bad weather arrived and a few days later a first series of problems appeared on the wellhead.
Firstly, one of the four guide wires serving to align the equipment during their descent had broken. Secondly, the underwater camera guide wires were tangled around the blowout preventer stack. Thirdly a seal on the kill line was leaking.
Result, the Pusher Tool gave us a briefing on what he wanted us to do at the bottom and then asked us to dive as quickly as possible to get order in all this mess.
As I had never done this type of intervention, I insisted to make this dive.
Raphael agreed but immediately added:
- You can do the dive but please do not lose time because here we are not in saturation and every minute spent at the bottom will extend your decompression time.
- No problem, I'll try to do it as quick as I can.
Then after this short briefing, Philippe my bellman and me went to equip ourselves rapidly.
Our diving suits were old Dunlop rubber suits, identical to those that I had used in the navy.
The suit entry had to be done by the neck, and then once fully dressed the seal was then made by a thin neck seal. As for the band mask it was the black MK1 equipped with a removable face glass, one of the first face masks manufactured by Comex.
Fifteen minutes later, we were both in the diving bell, ready to be send down.
- Ok guys are you ready?
- Ok surface it’s when you want.
Slowly, the winch begins to raise the bell for about half a meter which is enough to allow us to close the external bottom door. Then once this secured, the portico slowly resumes its failover and bring us over the water.
- Ok guys, Raphael said, I'm starting to bring you down, be sure to check the tightness of the door!
After a few meters Philippe announces:
- It's good for the door.
While my colleague is monitoring the external pressure gauge, I’m watching through one of the portholes from where I can now perfectly distinguish the six steel cables that plunge to the bottom of the sea.
A few tens of seconds later, we have reached the depth of 80 meters. Philippe stops the descent. Water is really clear and we can perfectly see the wellhead that’s located at a dozen meters from the bell. Through the comm’s, Raphael asks me if I spotted the new cable that I have to change?
- Affirmative, I see it well; the end of the cable is about two meters above the guidepost.
- Good in this case, you can equip yourself, everything here on the surface is ready.
I test my eardrums one last time by a Valsalva maneuver to make sure that they pass easily and then let the bellman equip me with the little bailout bottle, lead belt, fins, gloves and finally the band mask without his front glass.
One thing worries me a bit, my diving suit has neither inflator nor relief valve and so I hope that the lead belt will have the proper weight.
- Don't worry about it, my teammate says, it is just what you need, neither too much nor too little. Here it is! I'm ready. As last recommendation the supervisor reminds me to put three fingers in one of my cuffs to avoid the squeezing of my suit, but also with my other hand begin to balance my ears at the start of pressurization.
- Ok bellman I’m ready, when you want!
- Ok let’s go, five, four, three, two, one, go.
Philippe opens the high pressure quarter turn valve fully.
Immediately the air begins to be replaced by a mixture of heliox 16/84. The noise in the diving bell is deafening.
I already feel the effects of the pressure on my eardrums and immediately begin to blow heavily into my nostrils.
Very quickly also, under the effect of pressurization, the temperature in the bell begins to climb. Gosh! I never get down as quickly. The compression speed must not be far from sixty meters per minute and I don’t stop to balance.
Suddenly, the bellman strikes me on the shoulder.
I lift my head and see that he shows me the inner pressure gauge that comes just to pass the seventy meters then the bottom door.
I have understood the door will soon open. I have interest to not stay on it, otherwise I risk to immediately fall into the water.
Eighty meters, the door falls open under the effect of the equilibration. Philippe immediately closes the HP valve and then asks me with a voice of Donald Duck if I am alright.
Due to the rapid compression, the inside temperature must now exceed the 50 °c. It’s so hot in here that I have the impression of being in a sauna and I’m completely drenched in sweat.
But nevertheless I find that my mind his still clear and therefore make him an OK hand sign while telling him that he can fix the glass of my mask.
- Surface, how do you read me?
- Loud and clear Francis.
- Ok, I'm ready to go.
- Perfect let’s start.
Slowly, I let myself slide through the hatch. Immediately, I am surprised by the low temperature of the water that gradually enters into my gloves and neoprene hood.
Carefully, I grab one of the bell guide cables and begin to descend towards the counterweight. Once on it, I check my buoyancy because I do not want to do a blowup to the surface as it happened to another diver some years earlier with unfortunately the consequences that can be guessed.
It's perfect; I'm slightly too heavy so no risk. Within a few seconds, I am at the level of the camera cables.
Because of the swell, they get stuck under the BOP but their release presents no difficulty and in a few minutes they are cleared.
I now swim to the guide post above which the cable that I need to reinstall swings.
First thing to do, open the small door which is located in the upper part of the column.
- I listen Francis.
- come down two meters at the cable so that I can retrieve the hammer and spanner that are fixed on it.
- Understood, we come down two meters.
Strange, it’s barely twenty minutes that I am in the water, but already the cold begins to be felt. This is of course due to the helium present in my breathing mixture which has a high thermal conductivity and therefore tends to cool me from the inside but also the from fact that I started my dive with sweat soaked under garments and this of course isn’t helping the situation.
Due to the cold I already have to concentrate on what I have to do. I attack the loosening of two screws.
Shit! Why have these cons on the surface tight them so strongly.
Bang! Bang! Finally after a few more sledgehammer beats, the bolts become looser and looser. In my earphones I can hear the supervisor that reminds me to take care to not lose them.
Allright, the door is open and I can now go down to 86 meters, at the level of the base plate to pass the cable lug inside the guide post funnel, then while sliding the slack into the groove come back again to the top of the structure.
- Ok surface, the cable in position, I close the door.
My hands are shaking by the cold and my movements are becoming increasingly messy. I have to make several attempts to correctly adjust my Allen key. Still a few hammer beats on the key to tighten everything and I can announce:
- Surface, cable in position, door closed and tighten!
- Good Francis, take care we are going to set the cable under tension.
Hardly had Raphael said these words than suddenly the cable stretched violently and passed in front of me at lightning speed.
Shit! That was a close call. If I had been one foot more forward, for sure, I would have been cut in two.
- FUCK SURFACE! What is this for a lousy operation you have done?
- Euh! I believe that these fools have dropped the counterweight a little too fast, you have nothing?
- No I’m okay!
- Ok Francis, can you still go on the kill line and watch if you see a leak of oil at the level of the connection?
- Ok, I'll go. Give slack to the umbilical!
After a few tests on the line I can effectively confirm the leak but as I can do nothing to it the supervisor announces that my dive is over.
I don’t complain and I am eager to return to the bell to get warm.
As time continues to turn it is necessary to not lose time with my recovery. Therefore, the bellman has already filled the bottom of the bell with water to facilitate my entry.
Once inside, I makes myself quite small so that my colleague can immediately flush the water and close the internal door. Here it is, it's done. He announces:
- Surface, door closed I put a little pressure in the bell to have a seal.
No sooner said than done.
- Ok surface its tight; you can pick up the bell.
- All right guys we begin the ascent.
While the bell ascends to the surface, Philippe now hastens to remove my gear.
- So how was your dive?
- Good I said shivering, but I was really cold, nothing better than a hot water suit.
- Well that my friend I don’t think we are ready to have. We are here on a drilling support and as you’ve seen we have almost no material. A few months ago we have had the possibility to test a garment heated by electric resistances, but it was so under developed that the divers have had their balls burned up to the second degree.
Our little conversation was abruptly interrupted by the surface which announced that the bellman could start the decompression of the bell with the 87 meters decompression table and a bottom time of 80 minutes.
A quick glance at the table told us that we had some 12 hours of decompression. Apparently the bellman had a good experience with bounce diving as he immediately opened the bleed off valve that would allow us to go back in more or less three minutes to the depth of our first level which stood at 48 meters.
From there on, we had to put on the oral masks and breathe a mixture of 23/77.
The diving bell was now at the surface and ready to be connected to the decompression chamber. This maneuver was far from easy, because the hatch of the decompression chamber was on its upper part which meant that to position the clamp and tighten it; our outside colleagues had to lie down on their stomach.
This of course, was not the best of positions to give the vigorous sledgehammer beats that were needed for the proper closure of the clamp.
Jokingly, Philippe begged his colleagues to tight the clamp correctly because he said he didn’t want to be put in orbit after the pressure equalization.
Perhaps, did he had a premonition of what unfortunately was going to happen a few years later in Norway on the Byford Dolphin barge where 5 colleagues of the company lost their live instantly. Today, fortunately everything went well, the internal pressure of the bell and the access hatch were now equal to the pressure of the chamber and so we could finally make a TUP to pass into the DDC to complete the rest of our decompression more comfortably.
But despite this rudimentary comfort the decompression was not less stressful. This was of course due to the many breathing sequences of pure oxygen that at the end had a tendency to irritate our poor lungs.
Then finally some 12 hours later the door of the chamber opened.
The Tool Pusher was there at the entrance.
Shit! I thought what does he still wants?
But surprisingly the only words that came out of his big mouth were:
- Good work guys!
And then he immediately left for the drill floor.
Suddenly, he became a little nicer to me.
A few days later, it was the turn of our supply boat to have a problem and the captain asked us if we could come and do an inspection on one of its propellers. No problem and so an hour later the complete team was aboard the Smit Lloyd.
Under water, nothing serious, just a piece of polypropylene rope some 20 meters in length which was wrapped and jammed around the starboard propeller.
The hacksaw made the job easily and after a few minutes the end of mooring rope was risen on board to the great satisfaction of the captain who thanked us by inviting us to eat on board.
The meal was nothing exceptional, but for the first time for several days, we could finally eat and drink without having the infect diesel after-taste that was still present on the boat.
During the remainder of my stay, I still had the opportunity to make three more bounce dives all so icy, punctuated by periods of standby during which in addition to the maintenance of the equipment, we took the opportunity to every time make new diving gases with the mixing installation that was inside our workshop container.
Finally on 13 March, the last day of my trip arrived and I took leave of my colleagues.
At the port, Dolores was there again waiting for me. Ah! It was good to see a pretty girl after having lived between guys for several weeks.
Once more she was there to drive me to the hotel because my flight to Brussels was scheduled for the next day which allowed me to again spend a nice evening in city
Sometimes later while working on another project, I learned that a serious accident happened on my former drilling ship which had killed three of the colleagues I had worked with.
One day they had as usual prepared a new bank of heliox mixture but apparently during the night a valve had leaked and oxygen had spread into the container and had strongly increased the percentage of oxygen.
The next morning, when the team arrived, they opened the door of the container, entered in it, and then... turned on the light.
I hope that they have not suffered.