Cobra at workshop & Wamba A Blowout Cabinda, Angola, West Africa

One morning at 6:32 AM as we pulled up outside the workshop, Kenny was gone home so Al, his back to back, had replaced him.

We exited the truck every morning in the same way, almost like zombies.

Al got out of the front passenger side, Joe got out of the rear passenger side, Dave got out of the rear driver-side and as I was the junior, I sat between Joe and Dave on the back seat, exited through the driver-side rear door.

It was a well rehearsed morning routine.

As I walked around the front of the truck, I saw something very large travelling backwards through the air towards Joe and the vehicle.

Sid had walked past our workshop to his office door 10 feet further on as he did every morning.   Al would be the first to reach the workshop entrance.

He landed on top and Joe and both went stumbling backwards off the porch stoop until they collided violently with the side of the car.

What on earth had just happened? The ordinary routine of the morning disrupted, that was extraordinary.

Sid turned back and exclaimed “what the fuck?”

My eyes were dragged to the workshop door where an eight-foot, at least, King Cobra stood on its tail, in full hood and hissing furiously at our intrusion into its snooze.

Of course we all backed off and gave it plenty of room to retreat with honor.

Sid had other ideas, he had just walked by the thing “I just walked by that fucking bastard” as he disappeared around the side of our workshop towards Fugro’s office.

The snake finally came down off its tail and was busy snaking its way, away when Sid returned with four local Angola men armed with rakes and clubs. It was almost like the mob scene in a Frankenstein movie.

Locals do not like snakes, many of their compatriots, their wives and their children die from snakebite every year, so it was payback time.

They beat the living shit out of the Cobra, cut its head off and then danced around with the headless corpse in a victory celebration over an ancient enemy.

We got the head for cautious examination as the venom sacs and viciously pointed fangs were still intact and capable of killing.

That excitement caused our morning coffee to be ten minutes late, but we soon made up the lateness and we were down at the dock bang on time.

Between venomous snakes, spiders and millipedes, just going to work in Malongo could be deadly.

The head first entry was strange for me, but as I had been assured, it worked every time.

The job could become repetitious, day in day out clearing jackets of metallic debris, which had been discarded during installation or any maintenance carried out since.

We found it and winched it back to the deck of our boat, displacing all sorts of marine creatures in the process.

Those Atlantic crayfish that I mentioned earlier, when not fished for around Cabinda, so there were millions of them are practically every nook and cranny on subsea structures.

I watched them abandon their homes like paratroopers leaving their aero plane as we winched it back to the boat. Some didn’t let go in time and they were given to Jake our Malaysian cookie (that’s so colonial) for the crew.

We only harvested them on Friday afternoons.

It was my turn with the ‘lobby bag’ one particular Friday afternoon. It was perfectly routine; the last diver went to the bottom of whatever jacket we happened to be working on and collected the eight crayfish needed for that nights ‘crayfish boil’.

On this occasion the second or third fish that I grabbed from his hiding hole in the angle of the leg and the seabed, seemed to have a moray eel buddy, who launched aggressively at me as I took his pal and then followed me around the rest of the legs as I went about my business, apparently wanting his friend back.

Despite what you may have seen in the movie of Peter Benchley’s book, The Deep, moray eels do not bite the faceplate of diver’s helmets, killing them. But they do have teeth, two very sharp fangs, and I had seen the result of a bite on one of my colleagues in Saudi Arabia ,who had stupidly encouraged and allowed an eel to swim around inside his coveralls, resulting in a painful and subsequently infected bite on his shoulder, could have been worse I hear you say.

This member of a symbiotic relationship between it and a crayfish, was getting on my nerves, and I consider giving him the other member back, but I had four or five by that stage and I certainly couldn’t tell them apart, so I kept an eye on him, chipping hammer in hand in case he had seen the movie, and once I had my eight, I left him to find another crustacean to marry.

Seventy percent of the time, life in Malongo plodded along following its own sweet rhythm. I became as dark as my fellows after one or two weeks under the tropical sun.

There was nobody to oversee us at work, so standby diver and diver tenders, attended to their duties in swimming trunks, and then there was those three hour lunch breaks.

I alternated running the hill, and going to the gym every second evening ,after work except Sunday, when I played football and tennis.

The food was amazing everywhere including on the boat, Jake was a great cookie, so I was well fed, and as fit and muscled as I had ever been in my life.

Life was good, I loved working there.

Of course there was that thirty percent when All hell could break loose.

Wamba A,  High Island VI ‘Wild Well’

In February 1994, things were plodding along as they usually did, when a high pressure blowout occurred on the Wamba A well in the Takula field, which was the deepest Chevron field at that time. It was an average of 150 feet to the bottom.

A Jack Up rig was working over the well, which simply means that the Jack Up floating beside the platform over the well and takes production from the platform, so that maintenance can be carried out on the production facility, pumps, gas generators and wellhead machinery.

On this occasion things did not go according to plan, and the well ‘blew out’, or as the Americans say ‘Went Wild’.

Overnight, was sent out to the field to act as one fire tender and we were dispatched by early helicopter out to Takula.

We knew that things were rather grim because everyone we spoke to was rather grim.

Fat Charlie was particularly as were the helicopter pilots were looking at us like we were Special Forces or something; called in ‘to fix the problem’.

 It seemed to me to be a lot like the scene in The Abyss, where the, ‘actual’ special forces guys are called in to deal with the nuclear warhead.

Obviously, we couldn’t walk in slow motion out to the helicopter or across the Heli Deck on Takula, but the comparison was obvious…. to me, and everyone was waiting for us, actually for me, because I was next diver, eeeek!

Going in on the helicopter, we could see Wamba and the High Island V, surrounded by supply boats, including our Sutton Tide all with their firefighting monitors trained on the platforms conductors. There was a gas, water and what look like rocks being spewed hundred feet into the sky and the sea around the jacket boiled as if a volcano has erupted just below the surface.

Even at more than a mile distant, as soon as the helicopter turned off its rotors, the noise coming from over there was insane.

It was like the noise coming from hell, I wondered what it must sound like at close quarters.

We had a briefing in the control room from a very concerned looking Chevron engineer. The shit had hit the fan at 3 AM, and the well was well and truly ‘Wild’.

He had come out overnight to assess the situation, and make a call on the rig.

If it was going to fall into a massive hole in the seabed, then they had to make sure that it was not going to take the jacket with it, and that’s where we came in.

We had to get eyes on the legs of the rig, and determine if the two closest to the jacket were still firmly on the seabed.

We also had to determine whether the platform was in any danger of subsiding.

We would be man- lifted down to our boat, and then we would assess the best to tie up to the platform and put a diver in. He pronounced diver,

He asked who the lucky ‘dahiver’ was. The suddenly pale and weak one, me, was identified. It gave me special briefing and then wished me luck, which filled me full of confidence.

I remember kind of hoping that it would take a while for our boat to get over here, time during which I could find my courage.

While the briefing was going on the boat came over and was currently below Takula and the crane driver with the witches hat man lift was standing by. Suddenly things that normally would have guaranteed an hour’s delay was being done in minutes, everything was happening really quickly.

One thing diver cannot do is exhibit cowardice, to do so is to dishonor the profession, and that is why divers often find themselves in very dangerous situations and sometimes get themselves badly injured or even killed.

There was no way that I was not going to do that dive, but I was not going to let Sid get carried away with his ‘army barmyness’ and put me in unnecessary danger, so before we were craned down to the boat we went through the dive, 150 feet so mixed gas, extremely noisy so keep the radio chatter and a minimum and very simple instructions over the comms for me et cetera et cetera.

As we descended on the witch’s hat man basket, I could see the faces of Kenny Dave and Joe, Sid was fucking mad, so relishing us being delivered into the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno.

The crane driver was a bit gung ho and he swung it over the side of the platform way too fast ,and we started to swing back and forward 90 feet above our boat.

Gene (the Queen) made a huge effort to keep the boat under the basket as we pendulumed through the air, as we waved frantically at him to get away. If we were going to fall, hitting the sea from 90 feet is far preferable to hitting the hard steel deck of a supply boat.

As it was the swing lessened, we held on for dear life, and soon we were delivered in a controlled manner to the deck.

As soon as the basket was clear, Gene was away at full speed back to Wamba.

Everyone was in a mad hurry, everyone but me.

The noise as we approached was incredible and became more so, the closer we got.

Was it the harpies screamed Odysseus and his crew, driving them mad?

The noise was the sound of uncontrolled elemental energy, escaping from deep down in the Earth’s crust.

It’s all very classical and philosophical as I write now, removed from the chaos that was happening all around me twenty-five years ago, in the tool shack on the deck of the Sutton Tide, as I continued to get  ‘dressed in’, as we steamed pell-mell into havoc.

The closer we got, quite apart from the staggering noise, rock sized pieces of hardened grout from the conductors began hitting the deck. Blown out the hole, shot high into the sky to rain down upon us like Vesuvius raining burning rocks down on Pompeii, except ours were actually burning………. Yet!.

Sid came running across from the control shack to tell us that, it was actually too dangerous to do a mixed gas dive, because of the volatile conditions. It was usually 150 feet to the bottom on Wamba A, so technically, just inside the air range.

I did not fancy getting stuck in the water, doing mixed gas decompression stops, if everything went west up here, so I agreed.

He also needed Joe to swim across, and get a mooring rope over one of the horizontal members in the splash zone. Joe went a bit pale upon hearing that and enquired of Sid if the gas gushing up from below, was safe to breathe.

The fact that we were all still alive was test enough. We had rushed over here and been the first people to be exposed directly, without anybody checking to see if the gas was toxic or not.

The crew of the boats that were here on fire control and those on the jacket and the rig quickly evacuated open space into pressurized personnel modules.

We could have already been dead.

Sid was full of adrenaline, “Right Jimbo, down the leg closest to us to the bottom as quickly as possible and report on the condition of the seabed around that leg.

The leg of the Jack up will be within 10 feet of you, report on the seabed around that leg, and that will be you, done!”

As he prepared to dash back to his control shack, he mentioned something about my deep dive pay, Joe didn’t even have that chrome of comfort and I had sort of forgotten about it,  if I were to be killed, Elaine stood to collect a tidy sum from my last dive.

I jokingly offered to split with Joe, I didn’t mean it.

Gallows humor was widespread, in the moments before I went for it.

Joe pulled his wetsuit long John on as we backed in towards the platform, with as much enthusiasm as I had, but we both had a job to do and no matter what, we would do it.

When Gene had the boat in position, he tooted on the klaxon and Joe swam over through the with a heaving line, which he passed over the member and somehow pulled the eye of a mooring line, fed to him by three, Portuguese deckhands, over and back under. He then swam back with a heaving line and everyone pulled like hell and got that mooring line back to the boat and secured.

To avoid standing around on the open deck for too long, I put my fins and gloves on  before leaving the tool shack.

For the first time in whenever, Dave and Joe wore hardhats without it being insisted upon, purely functional, to protect them from the raining rocks.

They half carried, while I hooshed myself along in my fins.

The diving helmet was plopped onto my head hurriedly, snapped into place and the umbilical secured to a D-ring on my vest, thumbs up in the visor and I was gone,

head first into the maelstrom.

As soon as I leveled out I saw the leg and just beyond it the roiling mass of bubbles coming up from below.

I put the leg between me and the eruption and I began my descent.

The deeper I got the narrower the column of bubbles became.

Simply put Boyle’s law states: As the pressure on a gas increases, the volume of the gas decreases. So as I descended the pressure of the water increased on me and so on the gas.

Down I went, down, down, down. I vaguely recall noticing that the marine growth on the leg disappeared and then the leg became shiny.

I was nitrogen narcosisized out of my head, there was too much umbilical in the water so I was plummeting down a big hole in the seabed.

The shiny steel and the leg that I could see was where it had once been buried in the seabed.

Even if I had realized the danger, I was in no fit state to stop myself.

My vision narrowed into a terribly long tunnel and I must have been just about to pass out when I hit the bottom.

I heard Sid way, way, way in the distance, urgently asking me to stop.

Then I felt myself being pulled back up the leg two I regained my senses.

I could see the plume of gas, very narrow at this depth which had excavated a hole around this leg only, about 10 feet diameter.

I could see the rigs nearest leg, solidly embedded in the bottom.

I gave my report and began my ascent.

Things went at quite as bad as they look on the surface.

At the moment most of the pressure was going up the conductor casing, the structures appeared safe.

Sid had the depth of the hole from my pneumofathometer (depth gauge) I had given him the diameter and confirmed that both the jacket and Jack up legs were secure.

Despite the danger to me, we had done our job and managed to get the information needed for Chevron to make their decisions.

There never was hero worship in the diving industry, but I was thanked by several Chevron luminaries for my efforts.

We stayed on Takula for a week while arrangements were made to deal with their ‘Wild Well.  ’

Boots and Coots was run by the famous Red Adair’s son in law. It did pretty much the same thing that Red Adair did when he was alive, taming wild wells.

They arrived in snow-white coveralls and silver, Fred Flintstone hardhats.

We met them at the Saturday night Takula barbecue. This guy with burn scars down one side of his face came over and asked if we were the Dahivers?

They looked something else in their white and silver, like saving angels.

He told us that they would directionally drill into the well and divert the pressure that way.

He congratulated us on getting such important information back to Chevron and then we were dismissed.

We left the following day by helicopter to rejoin the Sutton Tide in Malongo.

About six months later I received a padded package addressed directly To Me. It contained a smudged, unsigned mimeographed letter from the president of Chevron thanking me for my selfless dedication and courage yadda, yadda.

The package also contained an A. T Cross, Chevron presentation pen and pencil set.

They obviously put great value on this gift because I was the only one in the dive team who got one, my selfless devotion to the company was obviously unique, and much appreciated.

I may have got the data using unorthodox and downright dangerous methods, however get it I did and it was upon those data that Chevron and Boots and Coots were able to save both the rig and the jacket.

Periodically we were called to inspect the SPM (Single Point Mooring) at Banana Base in Zaire.

At that time one part of the Congo was called Zaire and the river itself was called the Zaire River.

Right at the mouth of the Zaire River there was an SPM which required periodic maintenance and inspection.

Zaire was the totalitarian dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seku with its capital at Kinshasa. Previously it had been the Belgian Congo and nowadays it’s known as the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC.

There is also the Republic of Congo, with its outlet to the sea at Pointe Noire.

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