I liked the nickname that had been given to me by Jean-Pierre I. one of the fathers of French professional dive tables, when he had come to visit us on jobsite. At the time, we were working on the DSV ORELIA in the waters of the Persian Gulf on the famous spool pieces installation project and apparently he was present in the dive control room on a day where I was doing some oxy-arc cutting at the bottom of the sea. Apparently my performance had impressed him although for me the cutting of that day represented nothing extraordinary.
I must say that at time I had already throughout my career cut more than 4000 meters of steel of all kinds under water.
Admittedly, as Obelix, I fell into it (the cutting) when I went on my first diving project.
Still half a kid, I had just been engaged by AD, a Brussels diving firm. It sent me on a demolition work in Ghent Rodenhuizen where we had to remove various reinforced concrete sections in a discharge channel in order to increase the throughput.
The first part of the work had been done a few weeks earlier with explosives, unfortunately, due to a miscalculation of the charge, not only the wall in question was gone, but the road above the work place as well as a side wall had also suffered heavy damage. Result, the use of explosives was forbidden and further works had to be done by hand.
Ah, what I have suffered during this first week.
Working horizontally with a 36 kg jackhammer during six hours a day in hot water and a strong current: phew! I was dead. My hands were bleeding and I could not feel my ribs anymore due to vibration and shock waves generated by the machine, but as I was on probation, I wanted to hold on.
Obviously, who said reinforced concrete, also said rebar’s reinforcement. Result; a few days after my arrival, the technical director brought us a submarine burning torch on site.
He quickly explained us how it was working and then up to us to cut all these steel bars.
The torch was the American Victor oxygen / hydrogen gas burner. It could burn under water thanks to a small cap located around the flame, in which compressed air was continuously sent.
I immediately loved this tool. It was enough to put the nozzle of the torch against the bar, count to three while verifying that the steel takes out a red cherry colour, then press a lever to permit a stream of oxygen to be drained on the metal and burn it in a wreath of sparks.
It was great and I had a hell of time.
A few months later, I had now to go in a factory in Vilvoorde to cut out a small UPN 80 frame.
This time my boss had given me a Pirocopt torch made to be used above water but that could also be used under water by screwing a special head on it. This second cutting job was not very convincing because it took me no less than 2 hours 30 minutes, a dozen yo-yo’s to come back to surface to relight my torch and 3 saw blades to end my work.
What they forgot to tell me that day, was that the oxygen / acetylene burning mixtures I was using became explosive from a certain pressure and as my depth was close to this limit, small explosions extinguished the flame nonstop.
1970 Félix C, King of Renault Gordini drivers and master in chicken breeding into an apartment, decides to take me with him to cut a ½ sheet pile into the river Sambre. He works for the famous SOGETRAM but is actually seconded to us as technical director and at the time, he's already a lot of years of experience behind him. I am very happy to be his tender, especially that this time he will use the famous Messer Griesheim gasoline torch.
On the surface, the installation of all this material is quite laborious because we need to install a dozen bottles of oxygen, connect the bottle of gasoline and nitrogen, but also to heat water in a tank in order to pass the gas pipes in it so they do not freeze.
After one hour, all the equipment is ready and now Felix explains me the adjustment of the valves positions on the torch.
We are ready for an ignition trial. To this end, he sets some rag on a piece of wood, soaks it with a few drops of gasoline and lit the whole.
- Baoum, the torch ignites with a deafening noise. It vibrates so much because of its 15 bars of pressure that I'm afraid it explodes in my hands.
- Well you saw how to do it Felix asks me?
Fifteen minutes later, my diver is ready in his in Spirotechnique constant volume suit.
While he’s holding himself at the small boat, I fearfully grab the burning gear and following the instructions start the ignition procedure.
- One, first opens the oxygen heating valve of a turn and a half.
- Two, open the gasoline supply valve half a turn.
- Three light.
I crack a match to ignite the end of the rag, but because of the wind it is extinguished immediately. New essay, new fail. Meanwhile, the gasoline continues to be sprayed out of the nozzle of the torch.
Third attempt, ditto, I tremble so much that this time I break the match.
Finally the fourth attempt will be the good one. The rag is burning; carefully I approach it from the nozzle.
That’s it the torch is lit, but just like the first time it makes so much noise that I’m afraid of it and therefore throw it immediately in water.
- SHIT, what happens? About thirty meters of the river is now burning because of all the gasoline that was spilled there during the ignition attempt.
Needless to say that I was bawling out copiously that day.
My next cutting lesson will be with Master Pierre, our oxy-arc cutting specialist. Together we go for Charleroi where a pile has to be cut against the concrete floor on the inclined wall of the bank.
The material used is somewhat similar to that used for arc welding, except that the electrodes are hollow to allow the passage of a jet of oxygen.
- Hey Pierre! Water and electricity do not mix very well do I not risk to be electrocuted?
- Do not worry young boy, we are using direct current, it is much less dangerous than the AC and with your rubber gloves you shouldn’t normally feel it much.
- Well, now take your rods and don’t come up before it is cut.
Sure enough, I am quickly reassured, off course in those days a knife switch is not yet known by the Belgian divers and as expected I receive a few electric shocks from time to time but nothing serious.
Because barges are passing continuously it’s not easy to keep my position on this slope but finally, about three hours later the piece of steel is cut and very proudly I can pick up a rope to bring it to the surface.
Obviously, three hours to cut one sheet pile is long, but at least this time I did not finish at the hacksaw. As I still wanted to cut more Pierre took me with him again a few days later to complete the cutting of a complete cofferdam consisting this time of a hundred piles.
As often in our waters, visibility was nil but despite that my performance went rapidly from 1.5 to 2 piles per hour to three to four piles which for a first real cutting job was not too bad following Mr. Pierre claims.
1972 I change from company and now work for BDC from Antwerp. There, the work is often more technical and more difficult than what I have experienced before and cutting works are much more common.
In this company, everything cutting is made with a gas burning torch but unfortunately for me this tool is currently only reserved at the elite divers, that is to say the two bosses.
Result at the beginning of my incorporation, I could help, but not cut. Then finally, due to insisting my boss decided some months later to give me a first cutting course in one of Antwerp docks.
The craft he put in my hands was nothing else than the PICARD P9 the famous French torch designed in the 30s who despite his advanced age, had if we except the gasoline torch no competitor capable to cut as well.
Once in the water, I was blown away to see what this torch could cut but mostly of all I could now realize by myself that this tool could cut much faster than any oxy-arc rod.
Over the following weeks, I waited impatiently for the next cutting project where the boss had promised me I could intervene.
Indeed, two months later the project in question arrived. Our boss had just gone on vacation at his villa in Spain, when a customer called to come and cut a long sheet pile curtain.
What to do call back our specialist? No way. René my colleague and I were going to do this job without bothering anyone.
Result; here we are both of us in the Ghent waters. The first day, the performance was not extraordinary because we had to find our marks, but it increased day by day and one week later the curtain had disappeared.
Apparently satisfied, the boss took me under his wing, and both of us worked regularly together to cut the numerous cofferdams who had served to the widening of the Albert Canal.
Result in a few months I became the King of the underwater cutters. On each job, Jaap (my boss) and myself did the race to see which of us manage to cut the extra length in an hour, but no luck for me as unquestionably had stayed the Emperor of this technique because every time he beat me by a few tens of centimetres.
Years passing, I had become a freelance diver and my log books already contained info about the cutting of the few kilometres of steel I had made underwater.
Personally, I was also very proud of some of my performance, because at a time, I even beat a speed record during the construction of the Van Damme lock at Zeebrugge, where I had still using the Picard torch, managed to make a 16.5 m vertical cut in pile in no less than 15 minutes.
Yet any king may one day waver from his throne.
Thus, in November 89 my colleague Rik who now had his business called me one day for the cutting of a twenty meters long curtain. To help me, he gave me a young and strong assistant. While he was preparing the cutting gear, I kept warm in the van because outside it was getting chilly.
While I was dressing, I made a quick estimate on how long it would take me to do the job and so know how many under garments I had to put on.
OK: more or less two hours, then three thermal underwear must suffice.
I’m ready. I test the torch, its good oxygen is coming well. My assistant put a packet of electrodes in my quiver, I can go. Again, the visibility is bad, but I can cut against the concrete slab which greatly facilitates my work.
As I did cut quite often this year, I have kept the "filling" and therefore move rather quickly and sure of me I do not waste time checking my kerf. As expected, two hours later I’m out of the water.
- Go ahead, you can start removing.
The crane operator installs its vibration pile driver on the first sheet pile and starts pulling. The entire curtain vibrates but the sheet pile remains.
Uh! Changes to the next.
Same! Nothing comes.
On the contrary, we can see that little by little it is the entire sheet pile that comes up and not the part that I cut. Immediately, I stop the manoeuvre.
- Herman, give me a saw blade, I'll go check.
Once back in the water, I gently pass the blade in the kerf my cup. Horror! None of the slots are fully cut. How is this possible? Yet I have not changed my technique. Sceptical, I go out of the water and immediately head to the oxygen rack to look at the pressure on the regulator.
Two bars, not enough pressure to chase the molten metal throughout its thickness. I usually, regulates everything myself and set up a pressure of 4 to 5 bar, but this time I preferred to stay warm and to trust my young assistant.
Result as punishment I find myself an extra hour in the water burning an extra electrode in each interlock and off course appear to be a poor cutter in the eyes of crane operator and my assistant.
Sometimes we can also seem to be bad cutter after the wickedness of some colleagues as happened to me on a cutting site in Dunkirk.
At the time, I had just quit the offshore recently to return in a diving company as an employee and so benefit from the whole system which later (that is to say now) would allow me to touch a retreat.
So there on this site, for I don’t know what obscure reason, a so-called "colleague" amused himself by deliberately sabotaging my work by reducing the needed cutting Amps so as to make me look like a "has been" in the customer's eyes.
Having had some doubts when I left the water, it did not take me long to get confirmation. Following this event, I immediately swung my resignation to the head of my recent boss while telling him the evil that I thought of his band of rednecks.
But finally this sabotage was a good thing for me because thanks to it, I quickly quit a company where a certain Mr. Ron Hubbard became too present for my taste.
Fortunately, this changing once more raises my reputation and I was again on the paths of glory.
In December 2000, my colleague Mark praised us, Thierry our young diver and myself to give him a hand on a cutting job he had win in France. And so here we are all three on the Champagne roads. The job consisted again in the cutting of a small cofferdam. As often, I proposed to make the first dive. Of course, like a real pro, I test myself all the cutting gear and set the correct cutting pressure as we remember they got me once but not twice.
It's good, everything works. In the water, the access to the cut line is difficult because the place is very small. Moreover, I have to start my cut in a corner where I can just pass my arm.
Never mind, I put myself in position and asks the juice. Immediately the arc strike is heard but strangely the oxygen does not reach to the end of my rod.
- Make it cold!
- It is cold!
I immediately check the torch, push the lever and the oxygen flows.
New try, but again nothing comes out. I unscrew the head of the torch, put a new electrode, but nothing happens. When I ask the current and I press my rod against the steel to start my cut the O² stops coming out.
- Surface, take the torch up and check the washer.
No sooner said than done.
- Francis, the washer has nothing but was nonetheless we have replaced it.
In water it is always the same but I begin to understand what is happening. I lose a bit the electrode and ask for the contact. This time it works. That's what I thought, when the electrode is fully inserted into the head it compresses the washer too much and the orifice of the latter closes, result no more oxygen passes.
- Tell me Mark, you have other washers?
- No they are all the same, why?
- They are too soft, fucking skinflint Dutchman, you again looked at three under.
- Never mind, I'll manage like this.
Result, during my three hours at the bottom, I manage to cut but with a lot of difficulty and I feel that I do bullshit.
Apart from the cold I cannot feel my fingers anymore and it’s therefore hard to feel the end of the kerf. At the surface, the foreman turns round because we made him understand that this would go a lot faster.
Fresh out of the water, here he slings immediately the first sheet pile and begins to pull.
Hey, nothing moves.
Mark asks him to try the next.
Willy-nilly the guy runs grumbling, but same result.
Unfortunately, the crane has not a high lifting capacity and the crane operator does not want to "break" the sheet piles by pulling them sideways as is sometimes done at home if they do not come. As expected, the tone rises quickly between the foreman and me.
- Damn, pull a little more with your bloody crane.
- No way, it's been 10 years that I remove sheet piling and I tell you that they are not cut.
- And me it’s 30 years that I cut them and I tell you they are cut.
Mark on his side saw that his job turned to shit and did not know what to think: trust his Emeritus cutter or give reason to the client.
- Ok Thierry, will you get dressed and check the cut.
15 minutes later, Thierry was in the water and called for the torch to cut the small hangers that I had left.
Shame on me, I did not know where to put myself; I had only one desire: throw myself into the water and never have to suffer this insult.
On the surface, the foreman was jubilant and shouted to anyone who would listen that he knew they were not cut.
For me, 30 years of glory came to fly in a dive. Like what, no one is infallible.
Following this failure, I thought my reputation forever damned. Fortunately, thanks to odd jobs like this, I regained confidence in me.
Then one day in March 2003, one of our French clients called me.
- Hi Francis, François from S..e here.
- Say I call you because we have a big problem in the port of Calais.
- We have driven a new 96” pile (Ø 240 cm) there but apparently it hinders the manoeuvres of the ferry at terminal 5.
- The problem is that it is 7 cm thick and should be cut as soon as possible.
- How long would it take you to cut it with the oxy - arc?
- Stand by, I do a quick calculation!
- So, 240 x 3.14 x 7/25 = 211 x 3 = 633 = 10:30 hours.
- Oh no, that's way too long.
- could you blow it?
I knew the port installations well and automatically thought it would not be easy, but when you talk to me of explosives, I never say no because it is another specialty that I like practicing.
- Good listen François, give me an hour and I'll call you back.
- OK hear you soon.
After hanging up, I began to calculate the amount of explosives that I would need to cut that pile if I used a plaster charge. Pfew! Almost 125 kilos of dynamite, that was too much, I would cut out the tube but the shock wave and the ground vibration would damage whatever is nearby.
So to forget. What I have left? Severing the tube with a shaped charge?
I grabbed my phone and called an acquaintance in Aberdeen who worked for a company specialized in the dismantling oil platform with explosives.
A few minutes later, I had the answer to my question.
As promised, less than an hour later, I recalled my client :
- François, I’ve a good and bad news, which you want to hear first?
- The bad.
- Good with a plaster charge it is impossible because it would demolish everything, but I made contact with a company that manufactures shaped charges.
- With that, we would use much less explosives and it would be feasible, the problem is that they need a minimum 5-6 weeks to make the charge and if I tell you the price charged for such manufacture without implementation, you'll make me a heart attack.
- OK go ahead.
The amount that I communicated to him left him speechless for several seconds.
- And what's the good news?
- If you were interested in a much more economical solution, I just cut your tube with a gas burning torch for so many euros.
Thus, a week later, I was there with my team.
As the client wanted a short intervention to avoid the closure of that terminal for many hours, we would show them what we, the little Belgians divers were able to do.
At 3:35 p.m. my old buddy Chris nicknamed Papy Two and myself descended inside the pipe with our torches and went down to the bottom at 18 meter deep.
Thirteen ( 13) minutes later, the 4900 cm² steel were cut.
Phew, I could now finish my cutting career on this beautiful performance and stay forever,
"The fastest cutter at the east of Marseille"