Diving as a Factor in Offshore Oil and Gas Development (Part 2)

Outside the industry, the U.S. Navy was the principal source of technology and personnel. As

early as the 1930’s, the Navy began experimenting with gas mixtures that would allow divers to

go deeper and stay underwater longer. Diving was an important responsibility of the Navy in

WWII, and divers conducted salvage operations, helped construct ships, cleared ship channels,

and performed numerous other tasks. During the war, new techniques of underwater welding,

burning, and the use of explosives were advanced, and new tools and equipment were developed

for undersea construction and other work. Though Navy divers started several Gulf Coast diving

companies during the 1950’s, the attitudes, tasks, technologies, and forms of work organization

in the oilfield were markedly different from those of the Navy. The transition was difficult for

some divers. The following two career divers describe the same situation from two different

points of view:

After the war was over… life got boring. For some reason or other I decided it

would become more interesting if I would become a Navy diver. … I graduated

from the Navy Deep Sea Diving School…in 1946. I went on from there and was a

Navy Deep Sea Diver up until the time I retired from the Navy … in 1960…

Then, immediately, if I had never tasted boredom before, I got a hell of a taste of

it after retiring. I was not finding myself being very well adapted to most civilian

occupations so I quickly found myself down at the Gulf Coast - New Orleans -

and became a commercial, professional diver in the offshore oil fields… Most

divers on the Gulf Coast were not highly trained or highly experienced, either

one. They were just people who knew how to put on the diving gear and make an

effort. Yet, the Navy training had value because I knew a lot about decompression

and treating the bends that others did not know. On the other hand… even though

I was highly experienced, 15 years in the Navy, I began immediately a heavy-duty

learning curve figuring out how to do things in lightweight gear. The thing that

sticks in my mind as heavy duty is how hairy it was. As compared to Navy diving

where you always have a chamber setting topside, here you are doing it with

nothing. You got your tender, you got a little old compressor, your face mask,

your wet suit, your gear, and you are pretty much on your own. If you have a

diving accident then it is shame on you, especially if it requires decompression

because no chambers. Even if there were, nobody who knows how in the hell to

use it….Once I saw that I could do it, it was a horrendously nightmarish thing

psychologically. … But it was the hardest part, just getting used to the danger. It

was such a relief when I finally got to the west coast where decompression tables

and chambers were the norm (Taylor, G., personal communication, 2002).

I used to do a lot of experimental diving for the Navy, checking out different

equipment, showing them how it can work. The Navy divers wouldn’t do some

things, so we’d do it. …The Navy master divers would come out and see what we

were doing, shake their heads, and say, “No way we’d do this in the Navy.”

That’s what you had to do to get the job done. There were some innovations, like

the frying pan shaped O ring to use in the flange groove and help keep divers

from losing fingers. We got new wrenches. I was concerned about safety, but in

commercial diving if you are going to think about safety you are not going to get

anything done. Offshore, everything around you is dangerous; you’ve got to take

your chances there (Schouest, J., personal communication, 2002).

When the U.S. Merchant Marine began to decline (Gibson and Donovan 2000), some mariners

turned to the offshore oil and gas industry for work. The wages paid to offshore mariners were

far below those to which seamen had become accustomed, so some took up commercial diving

because it required many of the skills they had developed on ships and offered more lucrative

financial opportunities than work on oilfield vessels. Though some of the early divers enrolled in

commercial diving schools, formal training was not considered a necessity and some even argued

they could better prepare divers themselves. Walt Daspit, a career diver, describes his path

through the Merchant Marine:

I graduated from high school in ’45 and I joined the merchant marine when I was

17. In 1946, there was a general seaman’s strike. All seamen went out on

strike… When the seaman’s strike was over after about three or four months, I

went back to sea again. Somewhere around 1950, I was about to get drafted

during the Korean War so I joined the Air Force. Right before getting discharged

I came across a magazine that had schools for higher occupations and one was

Spalding School of Deep Sea Diving. It showed a picture of a diver wearing

heavy gear and it said that divers make as much as $200 a day. I said, “Well, that

is for me.” After I got out of the service about ’52, I went back to sea and got

enough money to go to diving school. I began diving school in the fall of ’53 and

got out in January of ’54 (Daspit, personal communication, 2002).

Communication problems between divers and those on the surface were significant. In most

early underwater jobs, especially those performed under conditions of no or low visibility, a

single diver worked alone. Many early divers argue that more than one diver would have

increased the danger because divers would then have had to worry about one another. Divers

communicated with the surface via hand signals on a rope, and they and their tenders worked out

complicated systems known only to themselves. Communication was necessary when a diver

required tools, wanted the people on the barge to raise or lower cables and equipment, and

needed to inform the tender that he was trapped or could not breathe. Loss of communication

required aborting the dive.

Though radios were customary within the Navy by WWII, they were large and bulky, and

commercial divers did not commonly use them. Diving helmets were equipped with telephones,

but hearing was often disrupted by the noise of breathing gas entering and exiting the helmet.

Fixing communication devices to masks proved a significant challenge. Divers experimented

with earphones, transceivers, and devices they could purchase at electronics stores, but they did

not forego the use of ropes and hand signals. William Brown began diving for his uncle in

California at age 16 during WWII when older divers were scarce:

We had what they called sound powered phones at that time [1945]. You didn’t

have any magnification or anything. It had two sticks and you wore a skull cap

and you put these things on each ear and you would tape it up. It was very

uncomfortable. [The diver] had a bull horn on his chest that you could talk into


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