In the early 1990s my company had won a two years contract in Nigeria and the OPERATION SERVICE from Marseille had decided to send me there.
Personally I was not too pleased to return to this country because I had kept a fairly bad memory following a first trip carried out there 9 years earlier.
But now, the price of crude oil was low and work for offshore divers began to diminish so I accepted the mission.
On the other hand, this kind of long contract had the benefit to make you work on a regular schedule and so it was possible to plan a bit the family life.
The work that was given to me consisted to replace a lot of rusted risers on the platforms situated on the Escravos fields.
My rotation cycle work was 2 months on / 2 months off and to do help me I could rely on a team composed by a dozen local deck men plus 6 divers (2 ex pat and 4 local).
Our surface support was the Charlie Cob, a small motorized self-elevating platform that could move from one field to another without necessitating the services of a tugboat.
Unfortunately, this type of barge was not very big and therefore the space on board was relatively restricted. With the exception of the Captain, the client and me the rest of the crew was confined in 3 pretty cramped cabins.
Food also was not always very fresh, the meat was often thawed in the Sun on the deck and often cooks were unaware that the food could not be thawed and refrozen like that.
Of course, this had the advantage that we never suffered from constipation.
The menus were not very varied, but we knew in advance that each dish would be accompanied by a lot of delicious small little beast called "cockroaches".
Indeed, the barge was full of these charming insects and even regular decontaminations could not make them disappear.
At the beginning, this type of accompaniment was not very tempting, but very quickly I got used to it (grilled cockroach is not bad at all and I advise everyone to try).
But let's get back to work.
The methodology that we adopted for the change of the risers was well run and it generally took place in the following manner:
ü Positioning of the barge in parallel with the pipeline on which we needed to work.
ü Dredging and clearing of the pipeline over a length of 40 meters.
ü Cold cutting of the riser behind the elbow.
ü Slinging of the riser.
ü Opening of the maintaining clamps.
ü Lifting and removal of the riser.
ü Metrology pipe / jacket.
ü Installation of lifting bags on the pipe section that had to be relieved.
ü Slinging of the pipeline.
ü Lifting of the pipeline with the two cranes.
ü Fixing of the pipeline on the work table of the barge.
ü Preparation of a new riser.
ü Clamping of the new riser to the pipeline.
ü Welding of the joint.
ü Descent of the entire line.
ü Presentation of the riser into its clamps.
ü Closure of the clamps.
ü Removal of parachutes.
ü Removal of the lifting slings.
In short almost a routine work, except that it was sometimes necessary to keep an eye on some divers to make sure that they were not cutting the wrong pipeline.
We were now on Monday, September 7, 1992 and in this lovely afternoon everyone was attending to his occupations.
Divers repaired for the umpteenth time the zodiac that kept getting punched by the barnacles of the jackets.
Deckhands were presenting a new riser in its alignment clamp, the welder stood ready to intervene and I as usual watched the progression of the work.
Everything went well, until the crane operator made a false manoeuvre with the hanging riser and what had to happen, happened: splash! A MAN AT SEA.
Fortunately even here in the wild Africa, people were accustomed to wear a life jacket and immediately thanks to that the head of the guy reappeared immediately at the surface.
The great problem was that we were working in the mouth of Delta River and here the current was extremely strong and it prevented the workman to swim back to the ladder.
Despite his desperate efforts it did take only a few seconds to drift him away from the barge and so very quickly I realized that he had no chance to return.
Immediately I jumped on the only circular buoy of the barge and threw it to him with all my strength.
By chance, it landed next to him and he could grip it immediately.
Unfortunately has usual the rope of the buoy had once more be stolen by some fisherman during a previous night and therefore it was not possible to pull him back.
Very quickly, I realized that we were in the shit because:
1. It was impossible to put the zodiac in the water as both cranes were in operation.
2. The zodiac was out of service for the moment.
3. There was no other barge or supply boat in the vicinity that could rescue him.
4. The more the guy was drifting away, the more he began to panic and scream for HELP.
The only thing I had to do if later I didn’t want to get lynched was to go for him.
Rapidly, I put on my diving booties, my fins and jumped in the water.
Our guy was now at some 100 m from the barge but thanks to my crawl I was quickly on him.
He was desperately hanging on his buoy and was so frighten to death that it took me some minutes to calm him down by convincing him the help wouldn’t last long to come.
That help had been called, I was sure my colleagues and the Captain had done so, but what worried me more was the fact that although there were a lot of choppers turning on the field, none of them was equipped with a lifting winch and therefore the only way off rescue that we could hope was by sea.
We were a Monday and I knew that unfortunately on this day, the speedboat was making crew change on another site and it would probably take him quite some time to reach us.
It was now 15:30 which gave us 3 small hours left, after that it would be dark night and it would be very difficult to locate us.
A few miles downstream I could see a small jacket but it was not quite in the direction we were drifting.
To go to it I should have swim vigorously to that direction, but I didn’t want to do it for one simple but good reason: SHARKS.
Although they were not very numerous in the region we nevertheless had observed a few of them some days ago and thus as I didn’t want to inform them that fresh meat was hanging in the water I decided that we had to stay very still on our frail skiff.
About twenty minute after our fall, a first helicopter flew over us for a few minutes, and then went back on its road towards the base.
As time passed we could see that our barge was becoming smaller and smaller and finally disappeared completely below the horizon.
Fortunately, my black mate and I remained confident because a lot of choppers change their course to fly other us to give our position.
Let’s hope that the sharks forget us and all will be alright.
Then all of a sudden around 17h30 the silhouette of a small boat appeared on the horizon and from then on we knew that we were saved.
A quarter of an hour later, the boat was on us. It stopped his engines to come along us and after having thrown a rope to us we were hoisted on board under the ovations of the crew.
The Captain offered us some tea and gave us a blanket to warm up a bit because even being in warm waters we were already getting cold.
After having informed every authority that we were save, the boat set course to our barge and at 18 hour we were back aboard our Charlie Cob were everyone was delighted to see us back and in good health.
After a nice warm shower, a delicious cockroach’s meal and a good sleep we were ready the next day to resume work were we left it the day before.
Work safe and beware of rope thieves