CHAPTER 1 - Typical Topside Screw Up

    July 1986—South China Sea—somewhere off the coast of Balikpapan, Indonesia

    “Diver—what’s happening now?” The annoyed diving supervisor snapped into his headset microphone.

    “Come back?” (Diver breath-inhaling sound) “Come back, topside? What was that?” (Diver breath-inhaling sound) the diver said.

    Supervisor: “Chris, your time is running out. What’s your progress now?”

    “No, topside.” (Diver breath-inhaling sound) “I can’t even get the first bolt started yet.” (Diver breath-inhaling sound) “It’s nowhere even near close enough la,” (Diver breath-inhaling sound) was the Singaporean diver’s reply.

    “Do you think you will be able to get it?” asked the diving supervisor.

    Chris replied, “Don’t know la—but—” (Heavy breath-inhaling sound) “I’ll keep trying as long—” (Heavy breath-inhaling sound) “as still have bottom time.” (Heavy breath-inhaling sound).

    From where I was sitting I could hear the frustrated Singaporean diver, Chris, loud and clear over the communications (coms) box discussing his slow progress with the dive supervisor. He had already used forty-five minutes of his sixty minutes bottom time and hadn’t even managed to get a single bolt in place on either of the two flexible 24-inch-diameter SBM (Single Buoy Mooring) hoses we were installing. This disturbed me because I was the standby diver, meaning that I was next in line to dive.

    I felt for Chris because I could clearly also hear his exhaustion and frustration over the dive radio while talking to the supervisor. I also knew that if he couldn’t manage to get it that something with the rigging was definitely wrong and most probably I also wouldn’t be able to get it either. Chris, me, and also several other divers on this job knew each other well and had already worked together several times over the years.

    Two other divers before Chris—a Kiwi and an Aussie—had also both failed in their attempts to get the first bolts started in either of the two SBM hoses. By this time the barge superintendent and client representative had us divers and the barge crew running around in a state of near panic. They wanted those hoses hooked up, and they wanted it done now! No ifs, ands or buts about it, and they made this quite clear to us all too.

    We were working in the Santan Field, off the coast of Balikpapan, Indonesia, for the French oil company, Total (pronounced TOE-TELL). We were doing an SBM hose change-out and had already removed the two old 24-inch-diameter hoses. These hoses were connected on one end underneath the floating SBM while the other end was connected to the underwater plem located 100 feet below on the seabed.

    The easiest way to explain an SBM is to just say it’s an offshore oil-tanker filling station. Basically, an SBM is a huge floating buoy with a large floating hose connected to it, so when an oil tanker moors up to the SBM they hook up the floating hose and then fill their tanks up with oil.

    We were working on a crane barge named Sierra. The offshore hierarchy was like this; the company men or client representatives are basically God. They are paying the bills so what they say goes. The barge superintendent is second in command. He makes sure the work is getting done but also makes sure a certain number of safety rules are being followed.

    Then you have the diving superintendent. He’s overall in charge of all the divers. Some smaller jobs don’t have a diving superintendent, but most bigger jobs do. After that comes the diving supervisors. Normally we get all our instructions direct from them.

    The work barge, tug boats, cranes, equipment, and personnel were all costing big bucks to keep mobilized on the job. Until those two hoses were connected their oil production was shut down, and two oil tankers were already standing by for us to finish the hose hook ups so they could start taking on oil. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were being lost every day. This project remained incomplete, and the pressure was on everyone, especially the divers, because it was all up to us now to get those two underwater hoses connected ASAP.

    Once one hose was connected that would suck up the second hose close enough to get that started without any problems, but the problem was to get the first hose connected.

    I could still hear poor ole Chris dishing out instructions over the coms, “Up on crane one.” (Diver-breathing sound) “All stop.” (Diver-breathing sound) “Down on crane number two. All stop.” (Diver-breathing sound) “Slack on tugger two.” (Diver-breathing sound) “All stop.” (Diver-breathing sound).

    “Chris—how’s it looking now?” was the diving supervisor’s question again.

    “No good la.” (Diver-breathing sound) “Da thing is still too far to,” (Diverbreathing sound) “even get the draw bolts started.” (Diver-breathing sound).

    “I’m wasting time down here,” said a disappointed Chris.

    “Your time is up anyway, Chris. Just leave all your tools there for Tony and prepare to leave bottom,” replied the diving supervisor, looking up intently at the guys standing on deck. “Diver returning to the stage. Get ready to bring him up.”

    Everyone hustled to their known positions on deck, with one coming up on Chris’ air hose, one guy promptly coiling it, and another guy standing by with his hand on the stage tugger handle.

    (Diver-breathing sound) “Diver in the stage. Ready to leave bottom.” (Diver-breathing sound)

    Supervisor said: “Roger that.” Looks up at the deck crew and shouts, “Diver leaving bottom. Come up on the stage. Sixty foot per minute.” He looks at me. “Tony, you’re up next.”

Author sitting in as standby diver offshore

    By that time I was already in a world of my own—intently staring at the nearby white board. On it was a rough drawing showing the current underwater rigging of the hoses. It showed exactly where the two lifting cranes and two air tuggers were attached to the hoses, and after careful study I could clearly see something wasn’t right, and that the rigging needed to be changed if they wanted those hoses to be hooked up properly.

    There were crane wires and tugger wires drawn going every which way down to those two hoses and the plem, and to me it looked like a complete mess because the hookup points obviously weren’t right. The question was, Could I re-rig it all so the job could be done properly?

    Yes, I knew how I wanted the rigging changed, and I knew that if I didn’t change anything then my dive would just end in a big fat zero accomplishment, just like the previous three divers. Oh, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t manage to get the bolts started. It was a classic topside screw up, in which all the people on the surface are trying to tell the divers how to do their jobs. My three buddies had been unfairly rushed, and due to stress, were also under great mental pressure to hurry up and get in the water at the time.

    I went inside the dive shack and told the supervisor I wanted to have a quick chat with Chris. He was doing his in-water decompression, so we still had plenty of time to discuss things.

    “Chris, how you doin’?” I asked.

    “Tony? Is that you? (Diver-breathing sound).

    “Yea. Chris, what’s up?”

    (Laughter, Diver-breathing sound) “Not much, mate. What’s goin’ on up there?” (Diver-breathing sound).

    “How do you feel about the current rigging? I’m about to tell them it’s all screwed up and needs to be changed,” I said.

    Chris’ immediate reply was, “Yea. Definitely. (Diver-breathing sound) I think crane number one attachment should be moved back a bit.” (Diver-breathing sound) Chris went on to explain and confirm exactly what I already knew.

    The topside guys were ready for Chris as soon as he arrived in the diving stage back on the surface. They immediately removed his hat and stripped him of his bail-out bottle, coveralls, and wet suit while another diver hosed him down with fresh water as he was heading to get into the Deck Decompression Chamber (DDC). A diver has three minutes maximum from the time he leaves the last 40 foot decompression stop until he should be recompressed back down to a 40-foot depth inside the DDC.

    Inside the decompression chamber Chris was immediately blown back down to 40 feet and put on pure oxygen for the next 2 ½ hours while being slowly brought back to our normal surface pressure of one atmosphere, or, 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch).

All Stop! All Stop!

    At that moment the diving supervisor, barge superintendent, and French client representative came up and stood beside me. They were staring at me, wondering why I was standing there staring at the rigging drawing on the white board and not getting dressed in and ready to dive.

    Looking directly at the dive supervisor, the French client representative said to him, “Is zhere a problem? Get zour diver in zee water. Let us get dose hoses connected ASAP. Zee time is wasting!”

    “Tony, get dressed in, mate. We gotta get you in the water now. Pressure’s on, and everybody’s looking at us,” said the diving supervisor.
    Even the barge superintendent had to throw in his two cents and turned to everyone while shouting, “Okay, people. Diver’s going down. Let’s get this thing hooked up!”

    All along while all this ruckus was going on, I was still carefully studying the drawing on the white board. I knew that what I was about to do was going to cause some major havoc, but by this time I didn’t care anymore because I was there to do a job, and I knew what needed to be done now in order for me to get that job done properly.

    The consequences could be great, but none of that mattered anymore. The time for me to speak up was now or never. I couldn’t take it anymore and loudly retorted, “All Stop. All stop. Hang on a moment.”

    My dive supervisor, the barge superintendent, the client representative, and everyone else within hearing distance all stopped in their tracks, looking at me, half not believing the words that just came out of my mouth. No one, especially the French client representative, could believe that a low-life scum-bag diver could actually order an entire barge operation to shut down and come to a grinding halt.

    After all, divers are considered to be a bunch of thieving, crazed nutcases, right? Why would a diver feel that he has some kind of authority or say-so in any given situation? Offshore, even the guy downstairs cleaning the toilets sometimes got more respect then the divers did, but if I had anything to do with it that was all about to change now.

    Before my diving supervisor or any of them even said another word, I said, “Look, we’ve just finished burning out three good divers, and none of them were able to even get the first bolt into those hoses down there. I already know if we just leave all the rigging as is then I won’t be able to get any bolts in either.”

    By this time both the client representative and the barge superintendent both looked as if they were about ready to explode.

    Looking directly at the dive supervisor and the barge superintendent, the client representative said, “Get zis man in zee water!”

    Totally ignoring him and still looking and pointing at the white board drawings, I said to the diving supervisor, “Look, mate, three good men just spent over three hours bottom time trying to hook up those hoses, and if they couldn’t do it neither will I be able to. The rigging is all wrong. Here’s how I want it rigged up.”

    I went on to show him what I thought was wrong with the current rigging set up and to explain how I wanted it. He listened intently and slowly started to see my point.

    The client representative, a Frenchman with a thick accent, said, “What? Zour diver wants to re-rig zee entire operation? Zhat will mean recovering both hoses back to zee surface and changing all zee lifting points! Zhat will shut us down for over zan hour or more!”

    “Exactly. Changing all the lifting points is exactly what he wants to do,” said the dive supervisor. “Well, he does have a point. We’ve already burned out three good divers, and none one of them were even able to get the draw bolts started, so maybe he’s right. I do agree with Tony that something with the rigging must be wrong, so why not give it a try? Anyway, he’s the diver and the one who will be in the shit if his rigging method doesn’t work in the end.”

    “Yes, and he will be packing his bags if he causes us all zhis re-rigging and down time for nothing,” the client representative said. He nodded his unspoken consent to the barge superintendent for him to get on it and then walked away shaking his head as if totally disgusted.

    “Okay, then, show us how you want it hooked up,” said the barge superintendent.

    He, the diving supervisor and several of the main deck hands looked on intently as I drew on the white board and explained to them exactly how I wanted all the rigging re-arranged, and then they promptly started raising the two hoses back to the surface to get it all started.

    Once the two hoses were back on the surface I directed and watched closely to make sure that they did it exactly as I had explained to them, because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t going to be any screw ups this time. After all—now the pressure was really on me, and my ass was on the line. The French client representative had already made it pretty clear that if I went down and couldn’t do the job then afterwards I was going to be packing my bags and waiting for the next chopper ride back to shore. I had news for him. I didn’t plan on that happening at all.

    After it was all re-rigged and hooked up, the diving supervisor pulled me to the side and said, “Tony, are you happy with that now?”

    “Yea, it looks good. I think I’ll be able to get some bolts in now,” I replied.

    Looking dead at me he said, “I hope so, mate, cause your ass is on the line now. You’ve pissed off Frenchie over there, and he’s got it in for you. I think he’s just itching to put you on the next chopper and send you home now, mate.”

    Half laughing I replied, “Yea, I know, mate. To hell with him. I’m just going down and will give it my best shot,” I said.

    Supervisor: “Good on you, mate. Let’s get you dressed in now.”

    “Roger that!” was my prompt reply.

    Ten minutes later I was all dressed in, hanging on to the stage, and being lowered down 100 feet to the seabed. Other than getting in as many bolts as possible there was nothing else for me to think about. I was under some serious pressure, but I wasn’t going to let that have an effect on my work performance. I had a job to do, and I planned on doing it.

    The visibility was bad on the bottom due to the fine layer of silt which stirred up easily with any of my slightest moves. Due to this, I could only see about two to three feet at any given time while trying to get the hoses into position.

    After coming up and down on the hoses I could tell they were coming into position and that my new rigging was good. With that, I was now even more confident that I could get at least some of the draw bolts in the hose flanges during my dive.

    After ten minutes I had already managed to get the first draw bolt in place. The second draw bolt was in after fifteen minutes. By the end of my dive I had gotten a total of five regular bolts in place and the pipes were sucked up good and ready for the next diver to take over. Was I surprised? No. All it took was a bit of common sense and confidence.

    When I reached the surface my diving supervisor was smiling and gave me a big pat on the back as I was heading to the DDC to complete my surface decompression. This made me feel good but what made me even more satisfied was that I was able to prove and show the entire barge that they should take heed of a diver’s input instead of brushing us aside like they commonly do on many jobs.

    And, as for, Frenchie? Well, after that he never doubted anything that I or any of the other divers said.

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