29 years old, miles from land on an oil drilling rig in the middle of the Philippine Sea with not much to do.
I was the supervisor of a diving crew of 5 that was assigned to be on 24-hour stand-by while living on board an offshore 200 foot-long drilling ship. We were to be on board for a month until our replacements would arrive.
The vessel was a self-propelled, floating exploratory drilling platform, going from spot to spot off the coast of the Philippines in 200 to 300 feet of water, looking to establish well-heads for future oil extraction. At each spot, the ship would be anchored securely where the geology team had previously indicated there might be oil found at so-many-feet down into the earth’s crust.
Diving teams were on board for occasional practical use and for emergencies. There were huge mixed gas banks of helium and oxygen on board for the deep bell dives that needed to reach a working depth of over 200 feet. About once or twice a month, the divers would inspect the well head, or test-turn a valve on the “Blow Out Preventer” (BOP), which keeps the well from exploding if there’s overwhelming geological pressure that forces pressure upwards. Each maintenance dive of that nature would last only a few minutes. We used a diving bell that would launch divers down to the well-head/BOP. A solo diver would “lock-out” of the bell while his diving partner tended his umbilical hose from inside the bell.
Because most of our time was spent standing by, every day I’d post a list of chores just to keep up morale and made us feel like we’ve earned our pay. We did an incredible amount of it’s-not-really-needed-but-let’s-do-it-anyway maintenance on all the steel structures of the diving bell, the steel deck and the ‘A’ frame that launches the bell, re-taping the umbilical supply hoses for the divers and the bell, chipping away rust anywhere we could find it bubbling up the old paint, and then painting everything with red primer and three topcoats of white or yellow…anything to keep us busy and at a maintenance task for at least a few hours a day.
A word about steel. Steel is the material that makes all mankind's industrial dreams come true. In our case offshore, steel is the hull and deck and ribs of a hugely laden floating ship that operates a steel drilling rig and drives steel pipe to bore more than a mile through the earth; plus the steel of the diving bell, the bell-launching ‘A’ frame, the dive shed with all the controls for the diving operations, the winches and thick wire rope and the racks of gas banks and all the other equipment on deck…everything made of steel.
And the supremely worst relationship that steel can have is with salt water. Oxygen (air) plus Salt Water plus Steel (Iron) = Rust.
This oxidation of unprotected steel starts within minutes. The only antidote to rust is painting. Chip away the rust with a sharp hammer then keep painting everything, often. This process never ends because salt water is an eternally determined suitor that will never rest, chemically dedicated to continually creating a destructive brown crust on steel structures.
A couple of times a week we’d launch the bell for a practice run down to 50 feet for a few minutes and then come back on board and rinse everything off with fresh water. Occasionally crew and supply boats would get large mooring lines wrapped around their props and a diver in a mask and SCUBA tank had to go over the side and slice away the fouled propeller with a ground-down hacksaw blade.
In our off time, which was many sultry afternoon hours every day, we read books, tanned, exercised, wrote letters and napped after the Filipino cooks had made us another fabulous native adobo-spiced lunch. Working on a drill ship was often the easiest diving job there was, but also the most boring. Eventually it’s like being a monkey in a cage surrounded by an infinity of ocean, you wanted to get out a little; or in my case, down a little.
One mid-afternoon in my third week of offshore life aboard the ship, the deck and air was at its tropical hottest and I was ready to take a dip into the clear, warm waters of the Philippine Sea. But instead of just swimming along the surface, I decided to strap on a SCUBA tank and go a little deeper. I decided, in fact, to go all the way down to the bottom.
As you may already know, breathing oxygen, and its major component of nitrogen, gives divers an incredible and increasing ‘stoned’ effect if breathed past 100 feet. The nitrogen hammer hits the brain-serotonin nail right on the head the deeper you go. Some people say the ‘Nitrogen Narcosis’ effect is like drinking alcohol and some say it’s closer to smoking marijuana. Either way, you are more altered mentally and emotionally the deeper you go and critical thinking is often the first casualty. I’d had several former quick air ‘bounce’ dives in my career on other jobs to as deep as 250 feet and I was aware of the effects. I knew, or at least thought, I could handle any disorientation.
I figured a quick bounce dive would be fine as long as I got to the bottom quickly. I could hang at the current 230 foot seabed depth for a minute, then ascend and still have enough air in the tank to breathe to get back to the surface. And because so little bottom time would transpire, I wouldn’t need to decompress. I figured that five minutes or less from the time I left the surface to the time I left the bottom would be my maximum ‘bottom time’ to make it a ‘no decompression’ dive. Any longer than that and I wouldn’t have the air reserves to do decompression water-stops.
I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing or leave a note.
The water is so warm in this balmy latitude…I’m only wearing white coveralls over my swim suit. The moment I jump into the water, I know why the Philippines are famous for clear visibility, I can see hundreds of feet in any direction, and down all the way to the distant well-head 230 feet below me. I swim over to the riser pipe that houses the drill string and use it to pull myself downward more quickly with one hand. I’m constantly clearing my ears and sinuses with my other hand by pinching my nose and pushing air against my closed nostrils, equalizing to the surrounding increasing pressure. I’m careful to not breathe too deeply and stay relaxed as I descend. I have very limited air supply, just what’s strapped to my back. Gotta make it last.
Colors from sunlight start to wash out starting with red past 20 feet, so by the time you go past 100 feet, everything you see is in shades of off-blue and increasing gray.
I’m quickly approaching the bottom and I see the whole sandy floor littered here and there with a discarded glove or piece of trash. Hey! Just below me is the shape of a rectangle, I swim to it, and see it’s a tool box! A workman topside must have accidentally kicked it over the side and now I can claim it for myself! Salvage rights have just been applied! I now own a tool box! Finder’s Keepers! I’ll take it on the plane with me back to my home in Singapore!
I am...so…stoned. I am euphoric in ways that only the drunken can understand. I’m lolly-gagging at the bottom of the sea, full of my sense of good fortune. I look up 230 feet to the surface to see the small silhouette of the ship far above me, as distant twinkling shimmers of sunlight dance upon the surface...
Not giving a thought to my air supply, I am jarred to my core when I next draw on my regulator; there is resistance, only half a breath coming from my mouth piece. My tank at this depth, is nearly out of air. If I take more than one more breath, I’m done. All my attention is now fixed to my need for air and how I am going to get my next breath.
I immediately left the bottom, clutching my toolbox.
My only chance for survival was the little air remaining in my SCUBA tank that would expand when it hit my regulator, allowing me to take a modest breath about every 10 to 15 feet as I rose. I couldn’t over-breathe my meager allotment so I had to stay right on the edge of staying cool, inhaling softly and ascending at the right rate…all the while, still clutching my tool box.
The cardinal rule of ascending from any depth is never rise at a faster rate than your exhaled bubbles. I was exhaling what was expanding in my lungs as the surrounding pressure decreased while swimming upwards. Never hold your breath when you rise after you’ve breathed compressed gas at depth. If you don’t allow exhalation, the gas will expand in your lungs and create an embolism that will puncture your lungs, creating massive hemorrhage, or expand the gas in your brain vessels and likely kill you, if not make you a mentally perforated vegetable by the time you hit the surface. Take your pick, there’s nothing attractive about massively expanding gases within the human body.
The surrounding filtered sunlight was getting brighter as I rose up to the last 40 feet under the ship. Believing that I might make it after all, I began to swim over to the side of the hull where the dive ladder was, only to encounter another obstacle. The ship had twin stabilizing fins (bilge keels) that stuck out at an angle from the opposite sides of the bottom of the hull. They were approximately 8 feet deep by about 80 feet long. Even though the sea surface was mild, the rolling of the ship side to side that created a surge that tossed and pushed me away from rounding the fin and getting to the surface. I swam and fought to clear the surge but it kept forcing me back. After my third attempt my air ran out completely.
Suddenly the ship stopped rolling and I had a brief moment of no resistance. I shot around the fin and seconds later broke the surface, loudly sucking in my first breath of real air while I hung onto the ladder’s bottom rung, exhausted. And still holding onto my tool box.
Never before or since have I had an all-brain headache of such massively throbbing proportions. I labored up the steel dive ladder hampered by pain, exhaustion, SCUBA tank, swim fins and my toolbox.
Up the 10 rungs to the deck and tossing my fins, releasing my grip on the toolbox and unstrapping the tank and regulator, dropping them to the deck.
I’d made it back.
I sat on the deck, collecting myself and nursing my head for over 10 minutes. Seriously reflecting on what I’d just done and gotten away with by a whisker, a whisper, the thinnest of margins. If I’d not made it back, no one on the entire ship would have known what had happened to me. My dive team would have eventually noticed that their supervisor hadn’t been showing up for meals and that one of the tanks and regulators was missing but by the time anyone put two and two together, my drowned body would have become food for the fish and the bottom-feeding crabs.
I looked at the tool box. It was bright red made of steel. I opened the lid. Nothing was there but a large hole, a nearly rusted-out bottom that wouldn’t hold anything ever again.
My headache was just starting to lessen as I went to the edge of the ship and tossed the toolbox over the side. The dive was officially over.