The Commercial Diver Network
The following article was written by Stephen Harrigan and appeared in the May 1981 issue of Texas Monthly Magazine. It gives a the newbie dive school grads a peek at what Ace, Flynn, Chuck, Bill, etc. are talking about when they refer to "old school." I especially like the comment about a "good tender." Enjoy ~ Diva.
DIVING FOR DOLLARS
Just off the Loop in Southwest Houston stands an immense steel water tank, forth feet high, crowned with a narrow catwalk where human forms hunch in constrictive suits and teethered helmets. This is where the education of a deep-sea diver begins.
The place is called the Ocean Corporation. Of the twelve commercial diving schools in the country, it is the only one located on the Gulf Coast, where most divers are hired and where most of the offshore rigs that need their services are located. In Houston alone, there are eleven commercial diving companies in which the graduates of the school may reasonably expect to find jobs.
The offshore technology boom of the last twenty years has completely changed the role of the commercial diver. He no longer spends his entire career trudging about the bottom of a muddy harbor in a canvas suit, scraping hulls or blowing up obstructions. Most of the business is now offshore, helping to build or maintain drilling rigs and other oil production equipment. In the Gulf alone there are 248 rigs requiring constant inspection and frequent repair of stressed or corroded parts.
When a graduate of the Ocean Corporation gets a job with a diving company, he usually works for two years maintaining equipment in the company shop or serving as a tender to other divers. Once he has "broken out" as a diver, though, he is on his way to acc**ulating his own little stash of petro-dollars. The pay scale for commercial divers is complex and variable, taking into account the depth at which work is performed and the amount of time spent in various pressure chambers. The average diver plying his trade on an offshore rig makes $30,000 to $40,000 a year (given the rate of inflation that would be $70K to $94K today). The real money, though, is in saturation diving, a technique in which divers in order to avoid the pressure differentials that can give rise to such maladies as the bends, live for up to thirty days in a pressurized habitat about the size of a pickup camper that has the same atmospheric pressure as their working depth. For this they earn as much as $22 ($52 today given the rate of inflation) an hour in "sat" pay (that's $528 a day) above their base salary.
The admission director of the Ocean Corporation is Fred Tourtel, a stocky man wiht a trim gray beard and a gold chain around his neck, When I stopped by his office Tourtel was interviewing a prospective student, a scholarly-looking roofer from Prairieview, Illinois, named Glen Wedding.
Wedding is 34, a year younger than the school's cutoff age. He is single, with a useless graduate degree and some experience as a welder. It was while taking the welding course at a local technical college that he had noticed some literature from the Ocean Corporation. He was here now, he said, because of "monetary logistics." It had occurred to him that he could make a lot more money performing saturation dives on a North Sea wellhead than he could trying to affix cedar shakes to a roof during an Illinois winter.
"He'll do all right," Tourtel told me later, as we were taking a tour of the school's facilities. "He's overqualified in a couple of areas, He's got a college education, and he's ten years older than most of the guys here. But he's made up of things that commercial divers are made of. His head's in the right place. He's mature. He likes to work with his hands. He's a big guy."
Behind the single-corridor classroom building, we climbed a little stairway to the top of one of the school's four small tanks, which sat beside the forty-foot monster. It was set into a wooden frame like one of those old Esther Williams swimming pools. The water was the color of chocolate milk. In this tank divers learn the principles of NDT, or nondestructive testing, which is a way of determining the thickness and condition of a piece of metal using a tool known as an ultrasonic flaw detector. The student is wearing an air hat, a rigid helmet with a full faceplate that was held in place by a collar ring and a crotch strap. The hat was connected to an air hose and a communication line, as well as a safety line, and the wh*** thing was managed by a tender.
"A good tender," Tourtel said, "can tell what the diver's doing down there. If a guy takes a step forward, a good tender can tell if he led off with his left foot or his right foot."
When the diver climbed down into the tank and disappeared, we turned our attention to the nearby diving bell in which Ocean Corporation divers take simulated trips into the gloom. Diving bells these days are a standard tool of the industry. They are a kind of portable womb that maintains the atmospheric pressure of the surface. The divers ride down to the job site in the bell, exit through an air lock, do their work, and then swim back inside. The object is to keep their exposure to the increased pressures - which determines the amount of time they will have to spend in a decompression chamber - to a minimum.
The use of diving bells had made the profession safer, but a diver can still get the bends, and the long-term effects of living for prolonged periods under pressures greater than one atmosphere have not yet been determined. Along with these specialized dangers, divers are prone to the same sorts of accidents as other industrial workers who work with heavy machinery and volatile elements.
We walked up a winding, slippery stairway to the top of the forty-foot tank and looked down into the water. It was clearer than the other tank, but it was impossible to make out what the students were doing down there. Their assignment today, said their instructor, a former Navy diver named Dee Clark, was to "flange up," or connect, two huge pieces of pipe that were lying in the tank at unweilding angles.
"Doing this in water is a lot different from doing it on land," Clark said. "On land you have gravity. In the water it's just pure muscle power. They do have the pleasure of visibility, which in uncommon. Later on I'll have them do it with masking tape over their faceplates."
"If you pay attention to any part of the program," I heard Larry Cushman, the president of the Ocean Corporation, explain to an introductory class later that day, "pay attention to rigging. Rigging is a diver's primary skill. Everything is bigger than you are. Everything needs to be pushed or slid."
From time to time Cushman would draw a diagram on a jack-up rig or a lockout sub on the blackboard. He had the cultivated, man-to-man demeanor of a high school football coach, and his students were hulking, sleepy types who reminded me of players lazing about in the skull-session interval of a two-a-day practice.
As Cushman showed them the slides of JIM suits and semisubmersible rigs, of SDVs and ROVs, he kept returning to the subject of money, talking about guys who were making ninety and a hundred K a year doing saturation dives, welders who did hot taps on pipelines and were the "highest-paid craftsmen in the world. These guys warm up at eight hundred dollares a day."
No one in the class took notes, but they asked intelligent questions and seemed to regard everything Cushman said with great sobriety. This was, after all, their career. They were investing a minimum of five months and $3395 into an ambition to become a deep-sea diver, to roam all over the world, performing intricate, dangerous, and mysterious tasks,
"You can see how all the money is related," Cushman told them. "Here's this diver underwater, watching an eighty million dollar platform being lowered and he's saying to the crane operator, "Move it over to the left about three inches."
"And then," Cushman went on, "the diver goes into the decompression chamber for some sat time. He's in there doing nothing but reading Playboy and adding up his money."