Towards the end of 2012 I was contacted by a former Royal Navy Clearance Diver. About ten years earlier I had purchased one of the earliest military-issued Rolex 5513s from him, and shortly after that a later 5513 mil sub, which he was selling for one of his old buddies. We had stayed in touch regularly thereafter and I had occasionally sponsored him on fund-raising swimming events, advised him if a watch was offered to him, and so on.
He now had another friend with a “plain old, plastic glass Sea-Dweller” as he massively under-described it. A month of emails and telephone calls found me befriending his pal, too. He did his homework, we agreed on a deal and set a date to meet for lunch. We had a fantastic day as he recounted his Boys’ Own tales from the Royal Navy, the commercial diving company Comex etc, and he admitted it was a joy to relive times he had not revisited for many years.
Here is the watch :
and here is the document he wrote over a couple of nights to put it in context…
“Re: My Rolex Sea-Dweller Submariner No 529xxxx model No 1665
I am xxxx xxxxxxx, a retired professional deep sea diver, and I would like to give you a brief insight of the professional world which drove and inspired me throughout my diving career. I was one of the few who did it all achieving what many divers only dreamt of.
My diving career started in 1965 when I joined the Royal Navy. Only ever wishing to become a diver, I initially qualified as a Ships Diver at the Royal Navy Diving School in HMS Drake Plymouth, this enabled me to work as a part time diver throughout my naval service, with a restriction to breathe air to a depth of 120ft. On finishing top of my course my instructor CD1Petty Officer Mxxx xxxxx recommended that I apply to join the Clearance Diving Branch. This was and still is the only Special Forces branch in the Royal Navy. Joining the Clearance Diving branch was known to all as impossible odds of achieving, as normally 36 Ships Divers would start the course which lasts for 6 months, and maybe 4 to 6 divers would complete the course and qualify Clearance Diver Second Class, the remainder would fall by the wayside throughout the course which was no disgrace, albeit the instructors took great delight in sadistically trying to crack the divers on course into giving up.
There were only ever 200 to 250 CDs serving at one time within the Royal Navy, and to become a member of their ranks was a massive achievement, and when I did qualify again top of my course I felt that I had at last arrived. We were qualified to breathe air or mixed gases to 160ft or mixed gases to hundreds of feet when working in the trials team. It was notable that the US Navy fashioned their Seal Teams on the CDs Branch.
However before going on CDs course, I had to complete the commission I had been drafted to onboard the frigate HMS Naiad when I would be over 18 years of age, and able to apply. Wherein and luckily I travelled around the world twice, diving in some exotic and unusual places such as the volcanic island of Tristan Du Chuna in the mid Southern Atlantic. Where we witnessed two Blue Whales mating or sperming, and I made a friend of a King Penguin for four days whilst blowing out the harbour bottom of volcanic ash to deepen their harbour. Whilst in Madera, xxxxxx xxxx had charged my twin bottled SABRE set. We were diving off a small rock which rose to a point and conical shaped, 1 mile off the main Island. Myself and xxxx xxxx descended down this 45 degree rock to the seabed at 75 ft. All the way down were holes with Morey eels, xxxx was doing a good job of annoying them. We made bottom when my air ceased to flow, I was amazed as the dive had only just began. I reached to my right where the equalisation valve would have supplied air when opening the valve. As I opened the valve there was no familiar sound of equalisation, I was out of air. Attracting xxxxs attention, I signalled No air. He unclipped me from the buddy line and waved me goodbye. I struck out for the surface, fining like an airborne ballet dancer. Arriving on the surface the rock looked half a mile away. I swam for our boat which was tethered to the rock, I was struggling to remain afloat as I was weighted heavier than I should have been. Now being the new diver I did not want to ditch any weights as the equipment was required for the remainder of the afternoon, so I swam for all I was worth. I later learnt that we were diving one of the largest sharking grounds in the world, hmm!. Getting back to the boat the diving officer Lt xxxxxxx xxxx enquired how I had managed to use all of the air in such a short time. Well its like this Sir, it wasnt there in the first place, you would have noticed had you bothered to check me properly. He was also my Divisional Officer, and x xxx xxxxxxx xx xxxx x xxx xxx. Years later after I had left the navy I was fortunate enough to come across him in civilian life, needless to say I read his horoscope, educating him in the error of his ways.
In those early diving days I learned important things which not only stood me in good stead throughout my diving carrier but also occasionally saved both my life and others. The most important being; never allow anyone to charge or check your equipment, and always keep your eye on members of the team you are working with. That draft on board HMS Naiad although enjoyable was also frustrating, as any potential CD would confirm. The truth of it was that this was wasted time for me, I did not want to be there I wanted to get on CDs course where the real diving was to be had. Potential CD students often said Im going to give it my best shot, I had heard this said on many occasions. Me, I knew I was a CD in waiting, but for an injury I was going to qualify Clearance Diver. I felt very at home whilst in the water, there was never a dive that had me concerned, I would be in there doing it, achieving what was required and always getting the most out of the dive. Where others may give up and declare Let someone else try Ive had enough I would never give up and always out thought any problems which presented themselves, or using my rigging skills to overcome problems. Often remaining on the job for hours, but eventually achieving the required outcome. I was occasionally asked if I wanted to change over, No was always my stern reply.
In those days I used my very trusted Rolex Submariner, which I purchased in Singapore, with money I had saved whilst travelling around the world, I was proud to be wearing it and if anyone had tried to relieve me of it, they had better have been a better boxer than I was. The length of dives and decompressions were rigidly monitored by the CD 1 in charge. However a CD was qualified to swim or dive free,meaning they were not marked or seen by the surface. This meant we had to take care of our own dive time, if you got it wrong it held severe implications. Hence I always used a Rolex.
To actually get on a CDs course was a problem in its self. As I was already qualified as a Leading Seaman and a torpedo, mortar bomb & demolition expert, the navy wanted my knowledge and experience in other places. In the General Service side of the navy, some of my bosses and divisional officers tried to block my way to becoming a Clearance Diver, I was frequently told, Do you know how difficult it is to become a Clearance Diver, you have no chance. It was only because I worked in the Chatham Diving Team amongst very respected CDs and got to know certain CD officers and senior rates who saw my potential, that a place on CDs course was provided for me. They actually monitored my progress whilst I was on course, so all eyes were upon me. My course instructor Petty Officer CD1 xxxx xxxx who was the fittest CD in the branch and very respected told me at the end of my course when I qualified that he had been continually telephoned throughout the course asked how I was doing. Having qualified CD, I departed from the general service side of the navy, joining the élite special forces. I could never return to the Old Grey Funnel Line, my future was now mapped out. I soon began to hate Fridays and love Mondays, I lived for the job.
I served in several teams during my naval service, carrying out mainly bomb & mine disposal on and below the high water line, which was an everyday occurrence travelling from one bomb to the next for days on end. They were usually found by fishing vessels who would take us out onto their fishing grounds to render them safe. On one of those jobs off Bridlington in North Yorkshire was a German D type ground mine we worked in a force six sea state out of a small rubber Gemini inflatable with our boss Lt xxxx xxxxxxx, for which xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx and I were mentioned in dispatches, fame at last !. It was a pity when we detonated it out in Bridlington Bay that the shock wave broke most of a villages windows 22 miles inland from the coast We encountered our first IRA letter bomb whilst in a South coast town, there had been no courses attended for such devises as they were a relatively new item. We were all gathered around the letter wondering how to gain entry when one of our members suggested we take it to the local hospital, what for the boss enquired, We could put it in the foot x-ray machine to look into it, of course, in those days such machines were common place, parents would check if their childs shoes fitted correctly, so off we went, but we did not tell the hospital staff what we were looking at.
There were normal port diving operations where we were tasked to change ships propellers and asdic dome outfits, or supporting the fleet around the world. There were the occasional body jobs, such as the one where we assisted the Regional Crime Squad from xxxxxxxxxx to find a body where foul play was suspected in a deep reservoir at xxxx xxxxxx in xxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx. We spent a week searching the middle whilst the Police searched the shallows. A strange feeling wondering around a sunken village at a depth of 120ft with zero visibility and could not see your hand on your face mask, breathing a 40/60 mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, feeling familiar things like a roof top or guttering, garden gates and road side kerb stones. Where people once lived, before the valley was flooded to form a reservoir. The strange thing in jobs like these, one is always expecting to find The body in the next foot or so. On the last day there, myself and xxxxxx xxxx swam the bottom of the dam wall, starting from opposite sides. We were to meet in the middle move up 10 ft then swim back to the bank at the end of the wall. xxxxxx and I actually bumped into each other head first. He put his face mask against mine and said You scared the hell out of me He thought he had found stiff. There was another at xxxxxx xxxx in xxxxxxxxxxxxxx. A diver had surfaced to proclaim his buddy to which he had been attached was unconscious on the bottom, he had not carried out the buddy drill assisting him to the surface, he had just left him there at 140ft. Our team was called in after they had searched for a whole week. This old quarry workings was a poor place for new divers to train, it was full of hazards, and well before reaching the bottom there was no visibility, pitch black. We grid searched the bottom eventually finding him on the last dive of the last day.
I was the only Royal Navy diver to dive from a hover craft. One sunny bright Autumn morning our assistance was required. The navy was trying to use hover crafts for various tasks and had lost some equipment out between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. We climbed onboard and floated over the road, down the beach and over the water. Arriving on location, I got dressed, and putting on my CDBA with a 40/60 nitrox mix, I asked how they were going to get me back in-board Oh! dont worry about that the chief CD1 said. I just imagined they would lower the height of the hover craft and I recall thinking at worst it was only around 2 miles, I would swim it, no problem ?. Well having completed the dive which was around 100 ft deep, I arrived back on the surface. The deck was about 6ft off the water, each time I got near the craft I was blown away, and the noise was horrendous. I undid my CDBA set closed my lung clearing cock and removed my mask, allowing my team to pull my set up on my marker line. Now it was my turn again, they did not have ladders. One of the guys hung over whilst the other held his legs and grabbed my both wrists, and I grabbed his. Those magnificent men on their flying trapeze, as they hauled me in-board. xxxx xxxx said I looked like a flag all frayed at the fins !. Some people couldnt plan a dive, could they.
Whilst serving my time in HMS Hubberston a mine hunter, we were searching for mines in The Channel off France. It was the last dive of the day, a calm summers evening. The Hubby had coned our deablo hung beneath our rubber Gemini to where they thought the mine lay. I followed the deablo line to the seabed at a depth of 100 ft, I was breathing a 40/60 mix in my re-breather CDBA set. Making bottom I could see the object was a round steel object, however not the mine we were looking for. Not far away was a large rock rising from the sea bed, not one to lose an opportunity, I made my way towards the rock in search of supper, and the CDs favourite a lobster. I noticed a movement to my right about 5ft off the seabed, following the body to the seafloor and panning my head left, the other end was up off the seabed about 8ft and looking down at me, the biggest conger I had ever seen. Needless to say I was out of there. Arriving on the surface it was the first time I had ever sat on the side of a Gemini without help from my team mates.
Many divers collect trophies from their dives, for my part I have been fortunate to see some amazing sights whilst diving. My saying was take nothing just memories, and they are priceless. I have often pondered out there in the North Sea whist at incredible depths, musing that no one has been here where I stand for thousands of years, and they were probably prehistoric. I have seen some incredible marine life, and swam with dolphins, whales, and sharks. There is no myth to them, respect them and their space and they will respect you. Once whist Diving with xxxxx xxxxxxx I tried to hand spear a 6ft shark, after it whacked me with its tail I decided not to attempt that again. Whist on CDs course, my buddy xxx xxxxxxxxxxx and I were descending to 160ft following a rope which was tied to a sinker which is a large weight. We were about 30ft from bottom, as the sinker came into view, hanging arched over the sinker and still was a 15ft Thresher Shark distinguishable by its tall tail fin. We calmly stopped our descent, as we looked at each other and probably thinking now what ?, xxx took out his small diving knife which we were issued in those days, well I started laughing, I nearly coughed my mask off. Arriving back on the surface, neither of us mentioned a word about the shark, although xxx and I have mentioned it to each other since then.
There were many covert operations, normally in places where we would not normally be allowed. These were always real ops, and always under the cover of darkness, normally breathing pure oxygen, in the same CDBA set, and occasionally we wore this set without the aid of a regulator, which we termed On demand. This was to remain acoustically silent, gently putting oxygen into the set when the counter lung was empty. The training for such operations was to swim for hours following a compass bearing and depth gauge, remaining at 30ft and breathing pure oxygen.
Also whilst on CDs course 1Ib explosives charges were dropped up to 30 ft from us, just to introduce us to what it felt like when you have been rumbled and your target is trying to slot you. Then the escape and evasion training provided by the SAS kicked in, to return home without getting caught or even know that we were there was the object. Unlike other famous regiments SAS and SBS, the CDs have remained virtually unknown to the public. I recently read a book written by a Faulklands veteran, where he mentions the CDs were by far the best special forces of the conflict. My mate xxxxx xxxxxxx who was my working buddy when I qualified CD was awarded the DSM. I believe only 2 have been awarded since the World War 2. He was the boss of the xxxxx xxxx which comprised of the 3 special forces, they were on the Falklands covertly six weeks before the campaign began, gathering all the required information. They were Collected and conveyed by submarine to The Assention Isles for the debriefing.
One unusual job which we were stood by for whilst I was serving in The Portsmouth & Medway Bomb & Mine Disposal Clearance Diving Team was when we were summoned to the aid of the QE2 which was found to have 4 large mines in oil barrels positioned in the engine room, whilst crossing and in mid Atlantic. The SBS had to go instead of us, because in those days CD,s did not parachute. Later there was a film made called Juggernauts staring Richard Harris which was a true story of this incident. Our normal transport to targets which were a long way from home was by way of submarine. We would leave the boat through the conning tower and our canoe and equipment went out through the torpedo tube. We would then follow it to the surface, where a 10 mile paddle to shore or to our target would ensue. The return journey was the reverse, a shock when in the middle of nowhere a bloody sub surfaces unexpectedly right by the side of you.
I have several photographs adorning my study wall, one of the then Minister of Defence to whom we were demonstrating an updated version of our CDBA diving set, a re-breather apparatus. They dressed him in a wet suit and hosed him down for the photo call, he is seen here sharing a joke with me after I had got out of the 100ft deep tank in HMS Vernon which was the diving base in Portsmouth. Another photograph was taken onboard the fishing vessel in Bridlington harbour having completed the German D Type ground mine which had been caught in the fishermans net. Thats me and the xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx one of the best CDs I had the pleasure to work with. There are 2 photographs attached to this document.
Eventually I left The Branch for the North Sea in 1974. This was at the time when the North Sea oil companies started the installation of oil field platforms. This was also the start of new technology in the diving industry. Diving companies were trying to persuade CDs to leave the navy, to come and join them. There were two companies offering me employment when I left.
I joined Comex Diving first in Great Yarmouth for the winter and spring of 1974, working in the Gas Fields off Great Yarmouth. In those days we wore scuba sets breathing air in those shallow depths to 150ft with no communications to the surface, in the Southern North Sea. Our jobs normally involved inspection and light construction work. The first job I was sent to was supervised by an ex Petty Officer I had worked with whilst in the Bomb Team, one Mr xxxxx xxxxx, he was always known as a joker. The rig was called the Orion a four legged jack up rig, meaning it stood on 4 massive legs, it was operating off the Dutch coast. We had to dive down to the sea bed to inspect for scouring under each leg encase it fell over !. Myself and xxx xxxxxxx were lowered by a large steel basket over the side of the rig towards the surface around 80 ft below the deck. Because of the sea state which was rather large waves we agreed to jump out of the basket some 15ft above the surface and meet on the first leg 30 ft below the surface. As I jumped a large wave hit me whilst I was in mid flight, knocking my mask clean off. I carried on to the agreed meeting place, not overly concerned as I still had my demand valve in my mouth and able to breath, xxx pointed to my face in question, I signalled to him to carry on down and held his harness at his shoulder as we descended to 140ft, wearing a scuba set on air. We completed the 2 legs which we were tasked to do, on return to the deck in the basket he asked why I did not ask for another mask, I replied What with xxxxx xxxxx up there, no way, I would never hear the last of it. He proclaimed me mad. xxxxx jokingly still made much of it, but with a glint in his eye. It was he who had originally recommended me to Comex for employment. When we got back to the base we frequented The South Star public house a divers pub. xxxxx informed my manager xxxxx xxxxx saying He loses kit xxxxx, for all to hear, xxxxx looked at me with an enquiring look, and I replied Yes but it didnt stop me from doing the job though.xxxxxx used to come off shore with the team, we often dived together, being an ex CD he was a dam good diver.
I was sent North to work from Comex in Aberdeen where I was to join the Thor Team. This was Comexs number one team and it was the biggest prestigious job that Comex had ever undertook to build the Forties Field Plarforms. Even in those distant days Comex was a large international company, and had most of the deep diving work in the North Sea, all due to xxxx xxxxxxx a brilliant MD. Here we dived from the surface using umbilicals to a depth of 150ft breathing air, or when diving deeper would employ the Saturation Diving technique from a bell, breathing mixed gases of normally Oxygen & Helium. Divers who were deemed to be in saturation, meaning saturated in the gas one was breathing did not surface for the duration, they were stored in large decompression chambers just above their working depth, going to work by way of a diving bell. The chambers were on the deck of the vessel and the bell travelled down over the side or through a moon pool in the centre of the vessel. The divers were life supported from the surface control rooms. All communications, gases and atmosphere scrubbers were operated from them. All food, equipment, mail, or hygiene requirements were passed through a special chamber lock. Divers could be serviced and pampered whilst in saturation for days or weeks, even surgically operated on if necessary or stitched by their team mates. In the early days a 30 day saturation dive was quite normal, and I had done my fair share of long saturation dives. The two bosses of Comex Aberdeen were xxxx xxxxxxx and xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx, years later they were involved with the famous 40 million gold job recovered from HMS Edinburgh in the Barents Sea at 850ft. All the diving team were close mates of mine and had often worked for me. xxxx xxxxxx an ex CD was the Diving Superintendent, a good friend of mine, we still meet up at the re-unions.
All of this continual deep gas diving called for an update of my Rolex Submariner wrist watch, a gas relief valve was required. In 1976 I changed to a model 1665 Rolex Sea-Dweller number 529xxxx.
From that day forth the only time it was off my wrist was whilst it was away for service back at Rolex. I felt undressed without it.
[ HM addendum : This watch has rather a few service numbers inside the case-back ! ]
I was issued with a Comex Rolex for around 1 year whilst I worked on the Blue Whale derrick barge. This however had the flat crystal glass and I preferred my own Double Red Sea-Dweller, so I handed my Comex Sea-Dweller back to the manager xxxx xxxxxxx, as I did so his first words were Youre not leaving are you Mike. In hind sight I should have kept it as all others did, but in those days one did not think of those things, one just got on with the contract in which we were tasked to complete.
The Thor Team congregated in Peterhead to train in Oxyark Burning. As the first two years would be mainly cutting thick steel such as pile columns which were 54 inch diameter and 2 ¾ inch thick. I spent around 6 weeks there at Peterhead diving most days with the team and eventually getting a 54inch pile cut in 20 minutes, prior to this there was not much burning or cutting done, and divers were not so proficient at this art. Comex brought in xxxxxx xxxxxxx the worlds best burner from the States, he was an excellent chap and willing to share his experience and information with us. The British divers did not part with such information, they believed they were indispensible. Whilst there at Peterhead with this team full of Pre-Madonnas, I was cutting away one morning in the harbour at about 30ft, when suddenly my air stopped flowing to my Kirby Morgan helmet. My first reaction was to call Surface no air, there was no answer. I called out twice more only louder, still no answer. With somewhat urgency and wearing heavy lead boots, I walked towards where my umbilical was being tendered from, there was no reply to the hand signals I tried by tugging my umbilical, so I climbed up my umbilical to the surface to see my umbilical secured to the guardrail 10ft above the water line. There I held on to a steel riser pipe which was secured to the concrete harbour wall, and holding my head above the water I put my hand in my neck dam so I could breath the air, which by now was most welcome. I had hung there for perhaps 5 to 10 minutes continually calling Surface !, and wondering if they had gone to lunch and forgot about me. I did not panic, the years of training takes over, I stayed in my kit and remained calm. Eventually I heard someone above saying Hes here on the surface, when xxxx my Superintendent in charge of the dives came on to the radio. Whats up xxxx, why are you hanging there. To the man who was supposed to be looking after my well being I calmly said Well actually xxxx I do not have any air. I could hear the panic from where I was whilst they gave me the emergency backup supply and air was restored to my Hat. The fool who had secured my umbilical to the guardrail untied me, allowing me to walk the 80ft back along the wall to the steps. I was assisted out of the water and undressed. One could feel the tension whilst they enquired if I was okay fully expecting me to explode. I calmly said Comex number one team of divers, Ive xxxx them. I think they all got the message. As I learnt early in my career, to keep my eye on the team I was working with, as they may not be as professional as they think they are.
As that contract moved along, I was highly thought of and entrusted with the more difficult work, and I never disappointed. Later in my diving career when I was still a diver, supervisor or a superintendent, divers often remarked that I was a stickler for correctness, never letting up, but they all said that they always felt safe in my hands. Comparing some dive supervisors it amazed me how laid back they were, and not in total control of the job. I always made it my business to know exactly what was going on around my dive site at every second of every day. Out there on a rig or construction barge there was so much going on with heavy construction that it was a dangerous environment to work in. One need to present a presence and take charge, be very clear not only to your team but to other heads of department as well. Accidents were normally the result of poor planning or other happenings outside your control, my way was never to let accidents happen, by thinking of what was going on around or outside the site. Always ensuring whoever was operating cranes or winches for us were paying attention and continually keeping them up to date with progress, so they felt a part of the operation.
We eventually flew to Holland where we joined the Derrick Barge Thor a Dutch construction barge one of the modern types. This massive barge was liking to an aircraft carrier with a derrick crane onboard which could lift 3000 tons, the main deck was bigger than a football pitch. This was to be my work station for the next 2 years whilst we set and built the 4 Forties Field platforms, they were Graythorpe 1 & 2 and Highlander 1 & 2, built in Tyneside, so large that laid on their side when the dock was flooded the architect did not know if they would float out, they only just cleared the dock bottom. The platforms were positioned in the Forties Field in 450 ft of water. Over the proceeding 2 years we were tasked with cutting piles and removing pile guide conglomerates of 12 pile sleeves on each leg , constructing pipeline risers with massive flange works. Everything we did was a new type of work and very exciting. When that first tube of oil was extracted by one of our divers in a large hypodermic tube with a valve one end and a short hose the other, it was like we had just landed on the moon. We actually won the race to extract the first oil from the North Sea, history in its self.
Comex had their own equipment manufacturing facility in Marseille in the South of France. I have to say they produced the best diving equipment available, only everything was labelled in French and all gauges and company tables were metric, I had to forget imperial that I used since 4 years of age and become metric. Our chambers were larger than any other companies and fitted out like a hotel inside, just as well we spent a long time in them, pressured up to a depth of 450ft. There were 4 chambers all liked together, it looked like a space station compared to what we had been used of. Where diving bells remained submerged for up to 2 hours in the past, because of extreme cold and electrically heated suits which normally gave divers severe burns. We now had a new invention of hot water suits, where hot water was pumped from the surface to the bell and out along the umbilical to the divers suit. From here on we carried out long excursions, often 16 hour bell runs before they changed divers for the next two in the chamber. I have to admit we were never cold only extremely tired at the end of each excursion. I often locked off the chamber in a bell early morning in the dark, not returning to the surface inside the bell until it was dark again. Remaining under pressure we would shower, eat and sleep then back to work again.
During a contract for Comex on the Derrick Barge Blue Whale, my duties were surface air and saturation gas diver, at this time I was one of the more senior divers within Comex and amongst the highest paid, having a wealth of experience and one of their star oxy ark cutters, known as an underwater burner. I was generally sent where the cutting was happening. I had a diving tender, which is a person who holds my umbilical when working from the surface breathing air normally to depths of around 100ft. They also dress the diver and cater for their needs on the outside whilst the diver is engaged in a saturation dive, inside a chamber system under pressure. My tender was a xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxx, he wanted to become a professional diver. Nothing was too much for him, he never moaned and was always in a good mood. We would give him short shallow dives to do occasionally as we were breaking him into the professional world gently. Our team on board Blue Whale had installed a saturation diving system and bell, we took perhaps 3 months to complete, whilst carrying out other surface diving operations, cutting piles off and other burning tasks. There were six of us onboard and all got along really well. xxxx normally shared a cabin with myself and the late xxxx xxxxxx another good mate and a top diver. Unbeknown to me xxxx repeated my sayings when home, which were normally blue rude jokes. When the team came off the Blue Whale during one winter, I went into the base in Aberdeen to teach underwater cutting to other divers, whilst xxxx joined a diving team on a vessel called Smitt Lloyd 112, this was a supply boat with a Comex diving system on the stern of the vessel. Their first contract was in relatively shallow water for the North Sea at 250ft on the Argyle Field, I had worked their often. However when saturated you may as well be in any depth of water or pressure in a chamber, the implications are the same.
xxxx was taking part in the first saturation dive, his superintendent whom I will not name, as I always had little time for him. However xxxxs bell partner xxxxx xxxxxxxx was a good mate of mine, we both joined Comex at the same time back in good old Great Yarmouth. He was very professional and well thought of, normally working on NDT work for Comex. Their diving bell left surface descending to the sea bed. When a system is installed on the rear of a vessel and the vessel positioned with the bow pointing towards the wave action, which is how most captains position their ships not understanding what the wave action is doing to the bell, it is most uncomfortable for the bell crew travelling up and down continually. Once the diver is out of the bell he no longer feels the action, but the bell mans ears are being tested nonstop with the pressure changing relentlessly. Here it is dangerous to position your bell too close to the seabed, whatever the heave of the ship is the bell should be at least double that height off the seabed. When I lowered my bells, the bell man would always ask me to lower them within 5ft of the seabed, I would not allow this, my bells were always 1 atmosphere = 33ft above the sea bed. Well xxxx was out of the bell working when the vessel took a heave, rising and falling. The bell hit the seabed, and the massive bell weight slung under the bell stuck into the muddy seabed. When the stern of the vessel travelled back up, it ripped the weights clean off the bell. The bell took off to the surface dragging poor xxxx with it. xxxxx was shouting to the surface on the bell communication speaker to the control room What the hells happening !, he was shouting continually, that is the only reason he did not suffer an embolism and die right there. However xxxx did suffer from embolism and died immediately from the explosive decompression.
At this time I was working in the training department for xxxx xxxxx in the Comex base. As we were the boffins on gas and bend treatment immediately at hand, the treating of xxxxx became our responsibility. When the Smitt Lloyd got back to Aberdeen, we took over the treatment of xxxxx. We were treating him with a higher oxygen gas content mixture to what he would normally breath at the storage depth. This treatment went on for around 1 week without affect. He was lucky enough to be alive, albeit his head functioned normal, but from his neck down he was paralysed. We were all distraught, two absolutely lovely guys, one dead and the other may as well have been. Every time I think of them I choke up.
As I was in xxxxxxxx I attended xxxxx funeral at xxxxxxxxx. When I arrived at his parents house it was crammed full of diving folk and family xxxx xxxxxs family were xxxxxxxx. I knocked the door, xxxxx brother opened it, he was xxxxs double. I almost said I have come to your funeral xxxx, and just stopped myself. Explaining I was a friend of xxxxs, his brother asked my name, xxxx xxxxxxx I replied. Do you mind just waiting here a moment he said and closed the door. All sorts of wonderings were going on in my head, had I offended ?. xxxxs Mum opened the door, coming outside she pulled the door to behind her. xxxx I just wanted a moment alone with you was how she began. xxxx came home here from the Blue Whale after every trip he spent with you, he would repeat your sayings I began to turn red. He continually talked of you with so much respect and love for you, and he only ever wanted to emulate you, he was desperate to be what you are, and he absorbed everything you taught him. She had tears in her eyes as she put her arms around me. Would you like to go in and see xxxx, he is in the front room. I replied to her No I would prefer to remember xxxx as he was if you do not mind.
xxxx was planning his wedding, and his future wife was such a beautiful person in every way. When it was time to take xxxx to his funeral service just up the hill where the church and grave yard stood, xxxxs girlfriend was too upset to attend, she was distraught and unable stand. Around xxxxs grave must have been 100 mourners. During the service I looked around and could not see 1 dry eye, I looked to my left where xxxx xxxxxxx was standing by my side. He was the MD of Comex. Even he had tears rolling down his face. Following the service, I drove back to Aberdeen. I had said goodbye to the finest young man I had ever met his whole life awaited him, but this was not to be. I made a vow to myself that I would not attend another divers funeral, this one had really upset me. I still think of xxxx he made a lifelong impression to all who knew him. God bless you xxxx. His mother lost her husband and her other son to the North Sea, how incredibly sad. They were a lovely family who came to Briton to work in the oil industry, words cannot describe the pain Mrs xxxxx must be feeling.
We had an ex welder who became a diver called xxxx xxxxx, a great guy and a good burner.. He was petrified of night dives, so we would do these for him. He finally decided to stop diving realising he was not cut out for the job. After the Thor contract finished he was sent by Comex to a drilling rig, this was to be his last trip after which he was to retire. He was called to do a night dive, lowered to the water line by basket, when he left the basket, he suffered a fatal heart attack. What a waste of a great man, it should not have happened.
After working on several different work sites for Comex over 5 years, I was head hunted to join Ocean Systems Diving Company. Predominantly an American company operating out of Aberdeen. I was to join the largest diving support vessel in the world, named the Samson Diver, my job was to be the Diving Supervisor on board there. The company and equipment was American, I had to revert back to imperial measurements. Eventually we began to change over to metric and I found myself teaching my work colleagues the metric system of dive tables in depth, gas formulas, and pressure.
The Samson Diver was an ex tanker which had been cut in half and the bow had been attached to the back half, now the vessel was 450ft in length. It had 2 large moon pools one outside in the centre of the vessel and one inside with the control rooms above overseeing diving operations we had a1500 ft diving bell and chamber system.
This was where a reliable watch comes into its own. Every watch and clock in the system was set to my Rolex Sea-Dweller time, which I would monitor every day. All dives were directed to my time. From this we never encountered any decompression sickness, otherwise known as The Bends. This was actually more judgement than luck.
I worked on the Samson Diver project for 2 years, we were involved with construction diving throughout various North Sea oil fields at depths ranging from 250ft to 500ft. I deployed to the Ivory Coast West Africa for 6 months directing diving operations on the Sedco K Drilling Rig.
The majority of my work took place from either Dutch or American barges. I spent time working from the Hermod and later her sister barge the Bolder. Things had moved on somewhat, these two barges were the largest in the world, they both sported 2 lifting cranes each, they were both capable of lifting a massive 10,000 ton. There were 3 lifting hook of different sizes on each crane, the large hook was as big as a semi dethatched house with 4 flukes or hooks in a cross formation, most impressive. The freeboard from the water line when they rose up on their semi submersible floatation pontoons was 80ft, when in work mode the deck was around 40ft from the water line. We would lift a platform off the material barge then lower it into position on the seabed, before piling it to the seabed with the massive vibrating pile hammers, not the old steam driven piling hammers.
My fondest work site was the good old Choctaw 2 an Americam pipe laying barge. Everyone onboard got on whether they were an American welder, a Geordie Stores man, a Spanish cleaner, cook, or a British diver. It was one big family, no one ever fell out. I have always believed if there is good management, then there is generally a good crew or work force. xxx xxxxx was the man in overall charge of the barge a dam good man. It was a pipe lay barge, and we had some hairy moments onboard. One stormy night a 70ft wave came over the backend where the diving system was. We had men in the chambers under pressure at 500ft. The wave struck the regeneration gas containers where 3inch pipe generated the chamber atmosphere in where it was cleaned and out of the container to each end of the main living chamber. The 3inch pipe was sheered by the force of the wave and the chambers started an explosive decompression to the surface. There were 4 men inside the chamber all mates of mine, luckily the very knowledgeable xxxx xxxxx our chamber operator knew which valves to close on the outside of the chamber. The chamber had lost around 200ft before xxxx had it under control and started to blow down again using helium. To surface that fast from saturation is curtains for any diver. I knew of accidents which had happened over the years, involving close mates of mine and others who died instantly from the massive trauma of embolism, where the gas in their bodies and blood steam explodes like a shook up bottle of champagne. The remains of their body would be like one massive bruise.
From Ocean Systems I went to work for KD Marine which became British Underwater Engineers. As diving superintendent I directed dives onboard various vessels. Including the Stavanerterm which was the dive vessel used to lift the 40 million gold bullion from HMS Edinburgh. Not a large vessel but one of the best around. It did not require to lay anchors having dynamic positioning, we could arrive on site and have the bell in the water within 30 minutes. All the old style barges and ships took a day to lay out their anchors and required a supply boat to tend them constantly.
I was requested to rejoin Ocean Systems for a diving contract in 950ft of water off the Ivory Coast, we could not reach an amicable remuneration agreement so I declined the offer remaining at British Underwater Engineers. Not for long though, this company was going nowhere fast, it lacked the experience which the large oil companies required in the Habitat Welding arena. This company did not employ the right experienced personel so it failed to secure the prestigious contracts. I was contemplating a move when I bumped into a manager for whom I once worked for in Comex, xxxx xxxxx. We were both using the same hotel in Aberdeen. He now worked for the Norwegian government as a diving consultant. As we collected our keys from the reception, he suggested we meet in the bar in 10 minutes. After a bit of catching up on old times, he enquired what I was doing, I explained that I was running welding trials for BUE. xxxx asked if I fancied running welding operations in a depth of 1200ft of water, he was looking for a Diving Superintendent as apparently Norway only had one with sufficient experience however he was unavailable. We agreed that I should forward my CV before the end of November 1985 to be considered for the job.
My CV had not been submitted by the agreed time. I drove home from Aberdeen for Christmas via the Solway Firth, where I could watch the geese at first light to judge if it was worth a trip wildfowling. I sat on the sea wall, whilst watching sunrise over this beautiful bay and landscape and the geese flying in from their roosting rafts out there on the Solway Firth. The thing which had been nagging my mind since leaving Aberdeen was do I stay or do I go, knowing that we had no decent contracts for the following year. My decision was made right there on that glorious morning, I would pply for the job in Bergen Norway just as soon as I get home. Arriving home much later that day I telephoned xxxx who urged me to submit my CV promptly.
In February 1986 I received the news that I was selected to join Nutec in Bergen Norway for a 4 year diving operation contract on the Norwegian Trench in the North Sea. My position was Operations Diving Superintendent. This work was in 1200ft of water, to lay a pipe across the Norwegian trench bringing oil directly into Norway. If I thought I knew something about deep diving, I spent the following 3 months during the preparation of the first dive program learning new things. I had 40 diving doctors from around the world who had arrived in Bergen, all interested in what we were about to undertake.
There were divers to select for the welding operations and a new piece of equipment called an IMT. This was a new invention by Comex which was basically strapped around the pipe required to be joined together, it had 2 welding nozzles one at 3 oclock and one at 9 oclock. As the collar rotated on the pipe the weld was managed by the surface control team. It had cameras at a quarter of one inch from the weld allowing the surface to monitor the weld and adjust it from the surface. The aim of welding pipe on the seabed or any diving operation is never to hold the barge or vessel on station over the program time. The costs of which are horrendous, and can lose a contracting company the contract. This was going to be some contract to manage, let alone the well being of my divers which would always remain my highest priority. The budget I was given for the gas alone for each dive which lasted around one month was 9 million pounds. I had vessels sailing from everywhere supplying gas which I had purchased. The gas mixture my divers were breathing at 1200ft was 2 percent oxygen and 98 percent helium, this is the surface equivalent.
During the dive training which we held in the chamber system in Nutec Bergen, we were reclaiming the gas in a massive bag which laid on top of the offices in the main chamber house, from there it was pumped back into the steel bottle racks. I was off shift, with my head buried in paper work and gas formulas planning the schedule ahead, when suddenly there was an almighty explosion. I rushed to the chamber house hoping that nothing had happened to my divers. It transpired that the Norwegian operators had neglected to watch the rise of the reclaim bag, it had exploded and torn allowing a massive escape of 2/98 oxy helium. I enquired with the Norwegian supervisor what action he had taken, shrugging his shoulder he said there was nothing he could do and we have lost the gas. I immediately sent men in fire fighting breathing apparatus to search the offices and evacuate the building of allstaff. I fully expected the secretaries to be laying on the floor unconscious upstairs. It did not occur to him that filling the building with an inert gas of such quantity would not support life very well. I suggested he phone the staff upstairs to see if they were talking with a Donald Duck accent, common when breathing helium. The clients representative xxxx xxxxx was not amused, because of operator error we had lost millions of pounds worth of gas. This gas would have been scrubbed, a correction formula applied, with some remixing the gas would be used again continually. These gas correction formulas I applied and pumped quantities of gas into other gases to mix the required blend which was an every day job for mixed gas divers such as myself.
When I had arrived in Bergen I had looked at past deep diving decompression profiles where they had always encountered decompression sickness, known as bends, I could not work out why this was happening with proven decompression tables.
The first dive took place, it took us two and one half days to pressure the team down to 1200 ft. They spent two week at depth working after which it took 13 and one half days to decompress the team to the surface. During the decompression stage it quickly became apparent why bends were occurring. The Norwegian chamber operators were not producing a linier bleed to the surface. Injecting helium and bleeding off the pressure was happening in great guffs, and oxygen to support life the same. Then they wanted to go outside for a smoke. With my trusted dive supervisors leading both shifts, the chamber operators were kept at their station until relieved for meals only. At the end of the first dive the Norwegian staff thought it a fluke that we had not encountered a bend during decompression as it was a common occurrence in the past. Fortunately, every dive we completed from there on throughout the contract was bends free. It just took some concentration to look after and support the diving team.
At the end of this contract I took a year off contemplating what I should do. Everything from then on could not match up to what we had achieved there in Norway and would be mundane. So considering the program had finished on a good note, I finally retired from diving in 1990.
I was approached to carry out a civil engineering diving job near Derby not too far from the River Trent. They required two RSJ beams cutting out of a culvert which it a round tower sunk into the ground like a large well. This one was 20ft diameter with an inlet and outlet tunnel coming from and returning to the River Trent half of one mile away. The beams were a considerable size and had supported a large pump which fed the water station in which grounds we were assembled. The dive contractor had hired a scrap yard dealer with his truck that had a highab to lift out the beams and drive them away, he was parked alongside the culvert. I had dressed and was using a surface umbilical and Kerby Morgan Band Mask with communications and breathing air. I had asked the contractor if the gates were closed on the bottom where the inlet and outlet from the river were situated. He informed me that they did not work because of the build up of silts from the river. He also requested I go to these inlet and outlet to check the silt level when I finished cutting out the beams. I told him that I have been a diver for 25 years because of not doing stupid things like that and there was no way I was going near them. I could just imagine my epitaph. If a person got sucked into one of these tunnels they would never get out alive. Now there was a relatively new diver who worked for this contractor, he was supposed to be my standby diver, a safety measure if anything went wrong. I explained to him that once I was on the beams which I was to cut, to tend me without slack in my umbilical and constantly hold my umbilical, do not put it down to help anyone for any reason. He understood and promised to do so. When I started cutting the beams with oxyark, the flame was coloured green, something I had never witnessed before. I took out my knife and scratched the metal, it was phosphor bronze, of course it was I thought, its in a water station and they did not want to be changing the beams every 20 years because of rust. Well it cut like butter, and when I completed the first beam, I came to the surface and started climbing out. You can stay in xxxx, we wont be too long loading this onto the truck said the contractor. I replied No I want to see your face. What do you mean said the contractor who was giving these beams to the scrap dealer for supplying the truck and highab. I reached the top of the ladder and sat on the culvert side then handed him my knife. Scratch that RSJ I said, which he did. What is that then he enquired, Phosphor Bronze and have to be worth five thousand pounds each said I. Oh, well Ive promised them to the scrap dealer now. I could see the excitement in the scrap dealers face, as he rubbed his hands like Fagan in Oliver. The diving contractor had talked the young diver into inspecting the inlet and outlet at the bottom of the culvert when I completed the burning job. I told the young diver he is mad and if he gets sucked in, I will not be coming for him. Albeit I tendered the diver and held him as firm as I could allowing him no slack and I insisted that the communications was by my side where I could hear him.
I have often reflected that everything I had done since then could not compare to the professional life I once proudly enjoyed, there is a massive professional vacuum in my life. I still attend the CDs reunions every year and keep in touch with my old buddies. They are true mates that would not let you down, who wear an old school tie unlike any other. My Rolex Sea-Dweller Number 529xxxx is still on my wrist today, this old friend has never let me down and a badge I have been proud to wear.
Clearance Diving Team preparing for a night attack. Check, check and check again our sets and equipment concentrates the mind on what lays ahead.
On board the fishing vessel in Bridlington Harbour holding the net in which they lifted the German D type ground mine inboard. Leading Clearance Diver xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx left, Leading Clearance Diver xxxx xxxxxxx right.
Myself, Leading Clearance Diver xxxx xxxxxxx with the Minister of Defence stood to my left shearing a joke. They dressed him in a wet suit and hosed him down for the photo call. I had just got out of the 100ft tank in HMS Vernon have demonstrated the newly modified CDBA set (Clearance Divers Breathing Apparatus) to him. [ HM addendum — this is my favourite photograph which, unedited, shows my friend clearly having a very good time with the Minister ! ]
Onboard the Derrick Barge Thor. Showing the Comex saturation diving chamber system and bell, surrounded by control rooms and life support equipment.
Graythorpe 1 platform arriving in position in the BP Forties Field North Sea in 1975. Taken just as we commenced the tipping up from its side and sinking procedure to the 450ft seabed.
On board Derek Barge Thor. The Comex diving, bell going to work.
My Joe Savoey Air Diving Helmet. One of the finest helmets produced at that time in 1975.
Onboard Derrek Barge Thor 1976. Undressing me to my right, the late xxxx xxxxxx to my left the late xxxx xxxxx. Both excellent mates.
Onboard Derrick Barge Blue Whale. To my right my diving tender the late xxxx xxxxx, to my left my diving supervisor the late xxxx xxxxx.
My letter of appointment at Ocean Systems who eventually amalgamated with Solus Shell.
My letter of appointment whilst at KD Marine brought out by British Underwater Engineers.
My letter of appointment whilst with NUTEC in Norway, preparation for the 1200ft diving program across the Norwegian Trench in the North Sea.”
[ That is the end of his memoir, so far. ]
It gives me great pleasure to think that with the sale of his watch the retired diver came to record some of his memories both for posterity and for his family. These divers were truly a different breed from the rest of us and, for me, he personified why we value their watches so highly.
When our joyous day together ended, I reverted to the FIRST ex-diver, and we agreed that a suitable remuneration for his delightful introduction was for me to make a donation to a Clearance Diver related project in hand on the south coast. It was an absolute pleasure to sign that cheque.
While the watch is indeed just a “plain old, plastic glass sea-dweller,” I hope you will agree that the life story behind it in fact makes it rather special after all.
For now, it can retire with some old dive buddies of its own, and ( like its former owner ) only occasionally recognised by a few for the incomparable life it has led.
Meeting this gentleman was truly inspirational, a highlight in my watch-collecting career. It gives me great pride that I may, to this day, refer to him as a friend.
Were you provided with a Rolex watch when serving in the armed forces, or perhaps as a commercial diver? We’d love to hear from you, even if only to share information about the watches.