Saudi Arabia, Bend and Two Years out of Diving.
The neurologist showed me the scans and the lesions, and for the first time I fully understood what a bend was, there were physiological consequences!
The gas forced into solution in the tissue of my spinal-cord during the dive, had not been given time to come out in decompression, so it expanded where it was, forming tiny bubbles, which caused lesions in my central nervous system (CNS) and some reduction in faculty, even though that reduction was so tiny as to go completely unnoticed.
There were two lesions in the base of my spine which had affected sensation in my lower legs and to in my occipital lobe which was affecting my eyesight to a tiny extent.
He explained that over time, the tissue would scar over, and any blood flow affected, would find a new route. However, until then, there could be no diving.
He would review my case in one year, but he was pretty sure it would take two years at least for things to get back to normal.
Luckily I could fall back on my shipping experience and I very quickly got job in Kertsten Hunik, a shipping company very similar to the one that I had left to switch careers, Reindear Shipping.
After about six months, the Neurologist gave Algosaibi the final report on my injuries,
and very soon after that, I was contacted by a firm of solicitors in Rathgar, telling me that they had been authorised to make a settlement on behalf of Algosaibi, once I signed a contract indemnifying them against any further claim arising from the incident.
I had expected to go back to work with them after two years, and to be honest I hadn’t even considered legal action or compensation. Obviously they had had other ideas.
I signed the paper and took the cheque.
So ended my association with Algosaibi and Saudi Arabia, mostly it had been a reasonably pleasant experience. Certainly underwater, I saw things there that other places in the world would struggle to compete with.
They had been very fair with me, there was even a clause in the termination contract which stated, that they would pay for the MRI scan in two years time, and that they would contact me to arrange it.
They paid all the medical expenses, and MRI scans in those days were expensive, very expensive. They even kept me on salary for all the time that I was home, up to the final neurology report.
I would certainly have gone back after my time off.
Some of their methods were amateurish, and quite a few of their personnel were incompetent.
I was at leading driver/supervisor rank, so pretty soon; I would have gotten my own inspection crew and boat, which I would have run professionally.
Of course it was a very long time away from home, but decent money and for every year you spent working in Saudi Arabia, the government gave you five thousand dollars, payable when you’ve finished your last contract, so it could build up into a sizeable pot over the years.
It didn’t happen though.
Towards the end of the two years, Algosaibi true to their word, arranged another MRI scan, which conclusively showed the lesions as having scarred over, and my Divers Medical was reinstated.
Almost contemporaneously an acquaintance of mine asked me if I would be interested in working for Oceaneering International in Houston, on a Chevron installation in Angola, where he worked.
The timing could not have been more opportune, I told him yes, very much so, and lickety-split, in August 1992 I was off to Malongo in the Cabinda province of Angola, in deepest darkest sub-Saharan Africa.
In those days Sabena, Belgium’s state airline, flew daily to Luanda, the old capital of the Portuguese colony. My erstwhile colleague told me where I might meet the crowd (none of them divers) of Irish mechanics, air-conditioning and electrical technicians in Brussels airport.
It was at a bar of course, and a more convivial group one could not meet.
By the time we boarded the Sabena flight to Luanda, I knew most of the ins and outs of the camp where I would be working.
It was important that one did not check ones bags through in the normal way because nobody went into the arrivals building in Luanda.
Chevron had their own Fokker fifty or Learjet sitting on the runway, waiting for the international flight to arrive.
Oh fuck how hot it was in Luanda, it was the middle of the night but it felt like precipitation of 200%, and the mosquitoes.
Cabinda bound passengers transferred from one flight directly to the other; there were no customs or immigration formalities.
Oh fuck, fuck, how hot it was in Luanda, was not anything to how hot it was in Cabinda. There it was early morning, the mosquitoes were still on shift and precipitation felt something around 800%.
It was a different heat to Saudi Arabia; this was full of water.
The airport, what I saw that on my first arrival, looked like an abandoned building surrounded by jungle and the huge palm fronds that one sees; in jungles.
There were two, Vietnam era helicopters sitting on the tarmac.
They weren’t painted in camouflage colors, they were painted yellow which was the color for the company, I think it was northern helicopters, Canadian.
The pilots were Vietnam era, and no question!
Mike, one of the pilots recognized me as a new body and welcomed me with a hearty handshake.
Our gear went into one of the choppers, and bodies into the other, and In what seemed a whirlwind time, the helicopters took off for the fifteen minute ride to the camp in Malongo.
I had no seniority whatsoever, so I was in the middle, barely able to see anything of the countryside over which we flew.
I did see a broad horseshoe Bay flanked with jungle on one side and dirty Brown Ocean on the other, and then as the helicopters banked to make their approach, I could see something of the tidy arrangement of Chevron’s installation, but mostly more jungle dense and green as far as the eye could see.
As we came in to land it was hard not to make a direct comparison to Vietnam.
With the chopping sound of the rotors and the flattening of those green jungle fronds by their down draft, we could have been landing on a, coolish LZ.
Listening closely, one could almost make out the strains Die Valkyrie.
Both helicopters landed together, and while we disembarked from ours, the bags were being thrown out of the other.
Aussie Michael, a diesel mechanic from Australia and Naas, my guide thus far, told me that my ‘back to back; will collect me from the heliport. True enough, a mullet-haired, unbelievably freckly, taciturn and sloppily dressed diver sat in a Ford double cabbed V something ridiculous, making no effort to identify himself, or me.
By process of elimination, I worked out that he was there for me.
I introduced myself and my hand, which he limply took in his.
I found out later that he was a bad humor, because he had been expecting another week on over time (time and ½) The fact that I was recruited and dispatched so quickly did not suit his plans.
He brought me to the mess hall for lunch, after which we drove down to the dock from where I would pick up the rest of the team when the boat came in at 4:30 PM.
He then showed me where I would live for the next six weeks.
Chalet 15A, each cabin divided into two one-man berths, sharing a bathroom, not too shabby at all.
The air-conditioning unit worked very well, and there was a fridge.
The only criticism that I could find was that it was plastered in motorcycle photographs.
I just could not understand the obsession that many of the men offshore had with cars and motorcycles. I made a mental note they had to be either taken down or covered up, maybe not this trip that would be a bit pushy, but soon.
He instructed me, that once I was appropriately dressed in shorts, T-shirt and the safety shoes that had been sent me at home. We will then drive to the workshop. Then I will drop in back here to make ready to go home, and then at 3:30 PM come back and pick him up to drop in to the heliport.
Then back to the workshop, to wait until 4:27 PM when I should go and pick up the rest of the team from the port.
I dropped Stuart to the heliport, just as the helicopters were loading for the return trip to Cabinda.
Then I went to the workshop, most importantly made a pot of Kona coffee, and had a mooch around for an hour.
At 4:30 PM I was waiting at the dock when the diving boat came in and I met for the first time the diving crew. All nut brown and dressed as I was, in shorts, T-shirts and safety shoes.
It was like meeting old friends, there was much backslapping and handshaking.
It didn’t take me long to fit in, first I had to get a tan.
They were great guys, very friendly and welcoming.
Back in the workshop on that day one, we drank coffee and ate Saltine crackers and tinned sardines from the store in the huge American refrigerator, which was crowned full of food and fruit drinks.
At 6 PM, the superintendent, stuck his head around the door and said “Right lads” at which point we all rose, took our shoulder bags and tripped out to the Ford pickup by the drive up to our rooms.
My roommate was Spanish, and we shared chalet fifteen, me in A and he in B.
There was now a two hour wait for dinner, during which time the personnel went to the gym, played tennis, ran or walked the road down the steep hill to the port and back up, played squash or just chilled.
That first evening I chose just to chill.
My roomie explained that it was normal for the outgoing person to leave a few beers in the fridge, but mine never did, so he, who didn’t drink or smoke, had bought some for me.
After my shower, I sipped a cold Carlsberg beer, listened to some music on old Maxell magnetic tapes, a shopping bag of which, I had brought out with me, and wrote a letter home.
At 8 o’clock, we went to the big Mess Hall, where dinner and breakfast was served and it was big!
Dinner was served from eight until ten and the hall could accommodate a hundred people, maybe even more.
All the different groups tended to eat at different times so there was never a huge congestion.
There was always a menu on the entrance door, and there was always three choices of three course dinners every day, plus a huge salad bar. The food was wonderful.
The divers, the Irish mechanics and techs and the crane mechanics always ate together, so again another round of introductions to people whose name I immediately forgot.
After dinner, we all repaired to the bar, adjacent to the Mess Hall where four beers per person, per evening was available for two dollars, from the ever jolly Lebanese man who tended bar. As many cartons as you wished, of American cigarettes were sold there, for a few dollars, also.
Darts and pool were available for those who wished to partake. And there was a piano at which Sparky, an American Chevron electrician and excellent honky-tonk piano player, gave impromptu recitals.
Mostly we all sat around in the comfortable chairs and chatted.
That pretty much was the day time drill for every day but Sunday.
Tuesday was the arrival day so I had another four days to find out what happened then.
Breakfast was served between 4:30 AM and 6:30 AM.
We were expected at the truck with our day gear, ready to go offshore at 6:30 AM, so that first morning, I ate breakfast at 5 AM, when nobody that I knew was in the mess.
The breakfast menu was again, vast. From full English, American, Mexican to European, it was all there.
I went back to the room, where Joe was just getting up and heading out for his breakfast. I was a bit early, but it was my first full day.
6:30 AM at the truck, 6:32 AM at the workshop, another pot of Kona coffee, not much chatter, sit quietly drinking and smoking until the boss stuck his head around the door and said “right lads” at which time we all trooped out to the truck for the drive down to the port.
Cabinda is just 5° south of the equator so there’s no change in the length of day and night, year-round.
When we trooped out to the truck, it was always dark, and by the time we would get to the Chevron operations office, three or four minutes later, it was always bright, and, when it wasn’t the rainy season, the big orange orb of the sun would have popped up above the horizon behind us.
The Chevron office was where the superintendent received his orders of the day from ‘Fat Charlie Wampaugh’ or ‘Hank Yagger’ two of the most Louisiana, coon assed, tobacco chewing, disgustingly spitting, good old boys, imaginable.
As well as orders of the day, the boss would pick up any mail for the team that had come in from London.
My head was swimming just a little. After all that I had experienced (mostly unbelievably good) in my new environment that I had experienced since leaving home two days ago.
Everyone I met, with the exception of my back-to-back, whom I would not have to interact with, apart from the couple of hours on crew change days, was so friendly and welcoming.
The living conditions in the camp were almost too good to believe, it’s like I had died and gone to offshore heaven.