Working at 180m in The North Sea 2013

Working at 180m in The North Sea 2013

I’ve been laying fairly low the last couple of months. I’ve travelled heaps and I’ve been working on getting my fitness back to good levels since a bunch of time off after Xmas. I was busy doing many talks around Ireland, it’s something I’ve really enjoyed especially giving talks to School kids. 

I’ve also been waiting around for a call to Dive which came last week from my old company Technip. I was asked to attend an extensive diving medical in Aberdeen for a deep diving job currently ongoing in Libya. So I jumped at it. 

The job is heavy construction work at 200m depth in low visibility water. The medical involved a Bruce Protocol V02 max test which I had not done before but after looking up what it entailed I was fairly confident of passing it. It differs from a normal V02 max in that the incline  increases every 3 minutes. Also if a candidate hits their theoretical Maximum Heart Rate (220 bpm minus age) before they can achieve 44ml/kg/Min then it’s a fail. 

A lot of guys have been failing it, I’m sure that most experienced blokes I know are fit and capable of diving at those depths without issue but if you don’t run hills at all, you’re in for a rude awakening when the treadmill hits 16% incline. Luckily for me a little hill suffering is one of my favourite things to do and probably one of the most beneficial forms of cardiovascular fitness I’ve found. 

I stopped the test at 22:19 at a 24% incline and my HR had hit 182 just shy of my 183 max and a score of 58.5ml/kg/Min. Pretty happy with that. The rest of the medical was 7 point drug test, ECG, hearing, eye, urine and all the regular diving checks like neurological assessments.

So I’ll be shipping out to Libya next week via Malta. 

I recently did a Q&A for the print magazine Avaunt. So I’ve added it below. It can give anyone a good insight to what my job entails. 

DSV Deep Arctic 

DSV Deep Arctic 

Can you explain what Saturation Diving is and what different components are there to the equipment and different chambers? 

Saturation Diving or Sat Diving for short is a special protocol used to enable divers to go deeper for longer. Regular diving involves going off the side of a boat and coming back to it usually not more than a few hours later, to come back some times divers have to decompress which is allowing the compressed gas within the tissues to diffuse out through the lungs. Depending on how long a diver has spent at the deepest depth of the dive, determines how long that decompression is. Usually a scuba diver will have in water stops on the way up to allow time for the compressed gas to come out of solution, much like the bubbles on the side of a glass of Champagne. Sometimes this could take hours.

If you come up too quick these bubbles form in your blood vessels in the same way they appear on the walls of the glass of champagne, this is called the bends and the biggest danger to a diver.

With Sat Diving the dive begins by compressing inside a cylindrical chamber which is inside the hull of a large boat called a DSV (Diving Support Vessel) These are ships up to 160m in length with over 100 people working onboard. They move around to different oil and gas fields throughout the world performing construction and maintenance tasks on the platforms.

The Sat Diving complex is housed deep inside the DSV usually made up for multiple chambers. Each chamber sleeps 3 or 6 divers, the teams are made up for 3 men and at one time there could 4 teams working around the clock on different rotations.

Depending on the depth the team of 3 is compressed to a storage depth within the chamber, anything from 30m-200m usually. It takes up to 4 hours to reach depth. Being compressed is usually an uncomfortable process, it heats up a lot and you can feel your large joints becoming tighter as the bigger tissues take longer to ‘Saturate’ 

Living on dry land you are at 1 atmosphere of pressure, at a depth of 170m we are at 18 atmospheres of pressure. Being at this 1 atmosphere you are saturated to that amount of gas, meaning your body cannot take on anymore gas. We do the same by becoming saturated to whatever depth we are working at, once saturated we can stay there indefinitely until time to decompress.

So we stay in this small chamber no bigger than the back section of a bus! For up to 28 days at a time! Everyday we go from the living chamber via a string of tunnels called trunking, much like a hamster tube into whats known as the TUP (Transfer Under Pressure) where we climb up into another small chamber called a “Diving Bell’ from here the bell detaches from the main system and is winched down through the bottom of the ship via a ‘Moon Pool’ or hole in the boat. The bell stops about 10m from the sea floor.

From there 2 of the divers get out and go to work on the bottom for 6 hours. 1 man stays in the bell and monitors gas mixes and valves.

He also tends the divers hoses, these umbilicals tether the diver back to the bell and is our lifeline. It contains our gas mixture which is a Heliox mixture (Helium and Oxygen, yes we sound like chipmunks) It also contains hot water, comms and lights. We wear large fully enclosed diving helmets, we can talk to each other and the supervisor on the surface who runs the dive. We also have a camera and light on our heads.

We are usually doing such things as pipe hook ups - putting sections of pipe together that can be up to 60 inches in diameter, we work with big cranes and remote operated vehicles. It is varied and sometimes interesting work. After our stint on the seafloor we return to the bell and then the main living chamber. Here we sleep and eat, food comes in via the sidewall of the chamber in a hatch called the ‘Medical Lock’ we eat off a menu from the main galley of the ship and sometimes the food is pretty good. We repeat this daily process for about 21 days then spend the last week decompressing, slowly we return to atmospheric pressure. We don’t move from the chamber this entire time and yes sometimes it really drags on! 

After we’re out we have a bend watch for 24 hours and then we are free to get off the vessel for our time off!

Saturation Diving System onboard Skandi Achiever 2014

Saturation Diving System onboard Skandi Achiever 2014

What sort of training and over what time length does it require to qualify? 

To qualify as a basic Air Diver takes 3 months, from there you need to work in onshore projects gaining enough experience to get a start offshore on the rigs where most people want to end up. After a certain amount of dives at certain depths, you can qualify to take the Saturation Diving course which is about 5 weeks long. The process can take anything from 2-6 years.

What sort of people are attracted to saturation diving as a career? 

Diving attracts a very varied bunch of people and is one of the reasons I love it, guys from all over the world usually with colourful back grounds! Naturally a lot of ex forces guys end up diving, it’s sort of run in that manner as well as it is a dangerous job. But anyone can be a diver, some of most unsuspecting guys make the best divers.

What are the pros and cons?

Sat Diving really isn’t for everyone, many guys don’t enjoy the living in the chamber part, you can’t just get out and go home, decompression takes up to 7 days and it’s quicker to get back from the moon than it is the depths we work at. You have to have a certain mindset to be able to live in a small chamber for sometimes 120 days in a year.

The Pros are obviously the money which is important, but the time off as well is great as I can take months off and do alot of the things I want to in life without feeling tied to the job. Also some of the things I’ve seen subsea and locations I’ve been in have been amazing. To be stood on the side of a oil rig member 120m below surrounded by every fish imaginable is fantastic.

What does it feel like living in a tiny pressured environment under the sea?

The biggest misconception with Sat Diving is that we live under the sea, we spend our working day down there, the Bellman which is a job you have every 3rd day or your day off from diving, is when you spend the most time there, otherwise you’re living inside the boat like everyone else but you can’t go outside and get some air or walk around much! 

Diving Bell 

Diving Bell 

What do you do for entertainment?

We get TV & WiFi in the chambers, I also read and listen to podcasts, but usually I’m day dreaming and planning my next adventure!

What are the scariest moments you’ve ever had?

I’ve had a few moments when I’ve come close to being squashed by large sections of pipe or big tools, equipment is usually lowered down by crane to us, but often we work in zero visibility due to the bottom being muddy, we can sink into it up to our waist feeling around for things. Its the other side to the job. If the tide is running and the seas are a bit rough a load coming down can be all over the place, not being able to see it and having to manage your diving hose also makes it very hazardous. Many divers have lost the ends of their fingers. I’ve had my diving hosed pinched by a crane load and my gas started to run out, we have a spare bottle on our backs as back up, I turned that on and quickly went about finding my hose caught under a 3 ton concrete mattress , luckily I was able to free it before my bottle ran out, otherwise I would not have being able to get back to the diving bell!

Do you feel like a mercenary working for short periods of time around the world in a potentially dangerous environments for good/great money? 

Yes totally, I’ve worked some wild places including Nigeria, Iran, Azerbaijan but always love going to different places, my next job is in Libya. It’s a hard crazy lifestyle, you can get called in the middle of the night to go on job half way around the world and ben gone for 3 months.

Do you enjoy it or is it a means to an end? 

I’m still on the fence after 14 years! There are aspects to it I really enjoy like the guys I work with, the diving can be amazing. I really enjoy manual labour, I still treat every bell run like a sporting competition, I get nerves beforehand and always want to perform well, if you're busy the time flies and there is a sense of completion when you get a job done.

But it can be very grim at times, spending too many days in a chamber can really mess with your head, also not knowing how long you’ll be gone for, where the next job is coming from and so on, but it really suits me and my lifestyle to be in it.


What can’t you live without down there? 

I’ve arrived on a job where my bags never made the flight, so I’ve gone in with next to nothing. But I do need a good book for the days that I am bellman as it can be a long 6 hours sat in the diving bell while the other 2 divers are out working. 

What do you miss most on land? 

Just the simplest of things like a normal toilet instead of sharing the same stainless steel one with a bunch of blokes that is very uncomfortable to sit on!