Almost contemporaneously with the re-instatement of my Professional Divers License, 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.
After our early morning call to Chevron, we drove to the dock to board our diving boat, at that time an anchor handler called the Sutton Tide, on to which the diving containers, compressors and diving gas were craned on and off as required.
As we steamed out of Malongo dock, Joe and Dave explained our daily dive routine.
Normally we would be engaged in an ongoing debris removal and inspection program on each one of the hundreds of Chevron jackets and platforms.
There were only three of us who dived, and repet diving was not allowed by Oceaneering, so that was three air dives a day, two in the morning and one after a pretty long, up to 3 hours, lunch from 11:30 AM. That was bronzing or sleeping, or both, time. n
‘Normally’ meant about 60% to 70 of the time, but as we were the only Chevron diving team, between Zaire and Ghana, there were times when we could be sent anywhere, do anything, underwater.
That first day, Sid excused me from diving, so that I could watch how Dave and Joe went about it. I would be standby diver for the day.
The water was warm down to 60 or 70 feet at that time of year so they wore coveralls instead of wetsuits, just making sure that gloves and cuffs were taped up, there was some nasty stinging beasts, jellyfish, bearded fireworms, stonefish, lionfish, cone snails and spiny sea urchins in these waters and ‘vis’ was not always something to be dependent upon.
The water was a dirty brown and seemed to be travelling very fast even when we were stopped and tied up to the first platform of the day.
Actually, the first time I saw platform in Angola, I thought that somehow it was moving because the current was so strong, it appeared that the structure had a bow wave.
I watched, aghast as Kenny first, Dave second and the Joe launched themselves, Mark Spitz like into the fast flowing soup. Each held tightly onto the brass handle on top of the helmet with their right hand, and the neck yoke with their left, and away they went.
I was assured that once you broke through that top 10 feet of Congo River water, that all will become clear. Once your initial dive was in the direction of the structure, then you would see it once you come into the calm water below.
Joe told me that he was horrified when he saw it first as well.
Okay I could see how it was done, grasp the mechanics of it, and I hoped that tomorrow I would be able to emulate my colleagues, choking down twelve years of doing it differently.
We did some mad stuff in Malongo, like diving in headfirst, so that your downward momentum would overcome the surface current from the Congo River, not far south of us.
Oceaneering regulations stipulated that divers use a work basket to travel to and from the job, but that was just not practicable in the waters around Cabinda.
Baskets and divers going in feet first were just washed away like a piece of flotsam. Headfirst was the only way stop
Once you burst through the top 10 feet, which was actually mostly freshwater skimming over the salt water beneath, you emerged into relatively clear, but dark and calm water below. With a hat light, there is wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t zero either.
Several times, while I worked there between 1992 and 1996, the Oceaneering safety guy came to visit, and wagged his head resignedly, when he witnessed our unique mode of entry.
In 1993, Oceaneering Aberdeen won a very large contract for inspection and MPI on a selection of jackets and platforms on the inshore fields operated by Chevron.
The contract was worth millions to Oceaneering, and despite us technically working for the same company, Aberdeen didn’t ask us about conditions.
They sent one of their all singing all dancing diving boats down from the North Sea, with the intention being that it would act as ‘Mother Ship’ to a fleet of smaller boats that would tie up to the platforms or jackets, and deploy their inspection divers from them.
Apparently, after overcoming some logistical problems tying up to the boat landings of the structures, the current was deemed as too strong to put divers in, so the job went into ‘Waiting for Current’ mode, as would be normal if the tide was lunar, it wasn’t.
After two days with no abatement, and no diving, Chevron demanded to know when they were going to start work; Oceaneering told them that they would start diving operations once the tide had slacked off. Chevron sacked them, and gave the job to a South African company, whose divers were even more cavalier than we were.
Aberdeen should have asked us, not everywhere is the North Sea.
That was the beginning of the end for our contract; once Chevron found that the South Africans would do anything, and for a fraction of what Oceaneering Houston were charging for us, the writing was on the wall.
It took Chevron a couple of years to end the longest running diving contract in the world, but September 1996, end it they did.
My four years there was nothing compared to Sid’s, Dave’s and Kenny Watts twenty-five years, Brian had nineteen years, Stuart fifteen, Joe ten, and Dave seven.
It didn’t take very long for me to settle in to life in Malongo.
I started to run up and down the hill after work on my second day there, but apart from that the schedule was as described earlier, always the same, familiar, comforting.
There was a surveyor; Tony who worked for Fugro in the next workshop to ours. He had a huge interest in football and ran irregular football matches on Sundays when he could form an ex-Patriot team to play the Angolan police based on the camp to protect us from FARC, the local rebels determined to achieve independence from Angola, for Cabinda, or a team of locals from those who worked on the camp.
Tony had, some years previously, convinced Chevron to build a floodlit football pitch down there the squash court and the police barracks.
He even got them to build bleachers.
When he heard that there was a new diver, he came into enquire whether I played football, and as football would be my preferred way of keeping fit, I signed up immediately.
He had organised a match for the coming Sunday at 3 PM and had printed off flyers which he distributed throughout the complex, seeking players and supporters.
There was a core of about six guys who played regularly, with me it was seven and hopefully three or four more would show on the day.
Saturday nights and all day Sunday marched to a different drumbeat in Malongo.
Chevron was unbelievably generous with prizes and beer for any social activity outside of work hours
Tennis, squash, darts, pool, baseball, cricket, basketball tournaments received the same largess as did our football, indeed any activity was generously bestowed with prizes and ice cold beer.
The last dive on Friday afternoon was usually to catch enough Atlantic crayfish to constitute a crayfish boil up at our workshop on Saturday night.
The company provided several cooler chests full of cold beer.
Sid would invite all his mates, and the Americans that we dealt with on a daily basis, all from Louisiana and all delighted to partake in pulling crayfish apart and sucking the meat from their legs and antennae.
Eight crayfish was enough to feed everyone likely to attend and fat Charlie.
Sid had this huge pot in the shop, which held enough water into which eight big crayfish could be comfortably immersed, once the water was boiling.
For this he employed the oxyacetylene torch. He would stand, army surplus shirt open to the navel, whitish grey body hair bristling out from his torso, army shorts bare legs similarly hirsute, beer in one hand, yarning to everyone, torch in the other, blazing away against the side of this stainless steel cauldron full of rapidly boiling water.
When boiling, the crayfish were unceremoniously tumbled in out of the ‘lobby bag’, the briefest hiss of escaping gas, the only indication that they had gone from living and inedible to dead and delicious.
Our Saturday evening soirée’s usually broke up around 10 PM.
Sunday started at the same time as every other day but when we went to the workshop shortly after 6:30 AM we stayed there until noon when we knocked off.
If there was something to do such as chip and paint a compressor (again) or carry out maintenance on diving equipment. Then Sunday morning was the time for it. Usually it was pretty relaxed and laid back.
Lunch on Sundays was served in a smaller mess hall and consisted mainly of salads and cold cuts of meat.
The jolly Lebanese barman acted as MC, announcing that the best Caesar salad this side of New York was being served.
On my first Sunday in Malongo, in blazing hot conditions I played three sets of tennis with Dave my fellow diver, and then another three sets as a doubles team against Kenny and Steve, Sparrows crane mechanics.
By the time we were finished tennis, it was time for football for Dave and I with a beer and a cigarette at half time and quite a few beers and more cigarettes after the final whistle. I was exhausted!
I went back to the room, had a shower and slept from 5 PM until Joe woke me up at 7:45 PM when he was going out to dinner.
Dinner on Sunday the barbecue, steaks and jacket potatoes, followed by a couple of beers in the bar and bed by 11 PM.
Chevron was unbelievably generous with beer for any social activity outside of work hours.
There was a nine-hole golf course for instance, where a golf tournament was held every Sunday afternoon sponsored by Chevron, who also donated two cooler chests of beer per hole for competitors.
Golf didn’t really interest me, but there was a set of clubs in the room left over from some previous occupant, and once or twice if there was no football, I did play nine holes and drank a great deal of beer.
The first time I played, I was dreadful, scuttering every drive and utterly hopeless from the fairway and on the green (although for the last four holes, I thought that I was getting better, but in fact I was just getting drunker)
The second time I was a bit better and I suppose in the four years I might have played eight or nine times, and I became, not too bad.
Whilst on the subject golf, there were two hazards on the course and I don’t mean golfing ones.
The first was a burning gas flare on the fairway, between the eighth and the ninth hole, which intermittently blazed an angry mix of flame, gas and oil.
When the flare was in blazing, it was necessary to play through it, blackening your ball and making it difficult to find on the other side.
The second hazard was snakes. West Africa has quite a few of the most venomous snakes on earth, Gabon vipers, black mamba and hooded Cobra, to mention just a few.
One time while playing late on Sunday afternoon, and raking through undergrowth looking for my ball, I hooked out a very angry serpent, its species I did not hang around to determine.