Algoaisaibi Diving and Marine Services, in Dhahran Saudi Arabia, were at that time running the biggest diving project in the world.
An Irish accountant, who worked for them, recruited me in April 1986. He got my name from Pro Dive Ltd in Falmouth, where I had done my diving training, and telephoned to offer me a job based on their recommendation.
The starting day rate was $350 per day; and he would expect me to do at least 110 days. Well it didn’t take a genius to work out that I would earn a lot more money doing 110 days in Saudi Arabia, than I would in Dublin doing 10 or 15 in the same time frame.
I headed out to the Persian Gulf in April of 1986, not really knowing what to expect, but keen to go, and excited at the prospect of working in such an exotic place.
I flew Aer Lingus to London and then Gulf air from Heathrow to Dhahran Saudi Arabia, on what was my first long haul flight.
Free alcohol was available throughout most of the journey, and while I was not intending to overindulge, I noticed that some other passengers were rather put out when the crew locked up the booze as soon as we crossed into Saudi Arabian airspace.
We touched down at around 3 AM, and when it came my turn to exit the aircraft and I stepped outside, I thought for a moment that I had walked straight into the hot exhaust of one of the jet engines, but I had not, I had walked into the heat of the Middle Eastern summer. Even in the small hours of the morning the heat was incredible; it felt like a palpable weight of hotness.
I had been on a couple of Spanish package deal holidays, where the temperature gets up to the high 20s centigrade and the air feels soft, but that initial experience of Saudi Arabian heat was in a whole different domain.
The excessive heat took a bit of a shine off the exotic nature of Saudi Arabia, and a good deal more of the exotic allure was knocked off at customs in the arrivals terminal in the airport.
Saudi Arabian customs officials it seemed are interested in blocking the importation of three things. Alcohol, drugs and what they perceive as being pornographic items, and to this end they like to empty the contents of the arriving passenger’s luggage out on the floor, and then invite said passenger to re-pack their bags, assuming they haven’t found any contraband, in which case you are in deep shit.
I went through this ritual humiliation, without really understanding what was going on, but I was ushered on to passport control, where I offered my Irish Seaman’s Book, still pushing my belongings back into my case. From there I followed the queue outside to arrivals
In the itinerary provided to me by the travel company, I had been instructed to seek out an agent holding up a notice with my name on it, so I walked along the line of possible agents holding up name signs until I found my guy.
It was a taciturn Filipino, who took my passport my seaman’s book and my airline ticket stubs and indicated that I should follow him.
The interior of the air port was air-conditioned, so as soon as I stepped outside lugging my heavy bag I was again assaulted by the incredible heat of Saudi Arabia, and by the time we made it to the agents pickup truck, I was soaked with sweat.
We drove for a while through the khaki coloured streets of Dhahran, until we reached a khaki coloured building, outside of which we came to a halt.
I was directed inside with my bag, where I met a maitre-d, another Filipino man who further directed me to a dormitory and an empty bed. This building was not air-conditioned, but a few ceiling fans rotated desultorily above my head, making in my opinion not a whit of difference.
I did not know where I was, or who the other people here were, so I just lay down on the bed in the heat, and fell asleep.
The following morning I was awakened early to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, and while I lay there with sweat trickling out of my hair and down my chest, I fully realised that I was not in Ireland.
There were other young men rising from sleep, and we were informed by the Maitre D man, that we, so we should have breakfast after which we would all be going to somewhere called West Pier in about an hour we. So after a quick wash and a brushing of teeth, I followed my nose to the canteen where I had fried eggs, beef bacon, and Nescafé café for breakfast, before being whisked away in a pickup truck, with a few other bemused British people to the port.
The sun which had just risen, hung in a cloudless greyish, not yet blue sky, a bright orange ball hanging just above the roofs of the houses. As the morning wore on I would find that the orange ball would become a yellow broiling mass of merciless heat, and it didn’t take long. It took no longer than a half hour to get to the port entrance, and by then it had already become a heat source that could not be ignored.
At the port entrance there was a police or army checkpoint. We were ordered out of the shaded interior of the pickup, and instructed to carry our bags to a long table behind which three or four guys in uniform with guns waited to search them. Again, my belongings were thrown all over the place, but this time my clothes were rummaged through with the muzzle of an AK-47 rifle. When my soldier was satisfied he shrugged at me that I should repack my bag.
When everyone was cleared to enter the port we re-boarded the pickup, happy to be in the semi-shade again, and off we went, driving along the waterfront towards our destination.
Even though the heat had become almost unbearable, I found myself distracted by the beautifully turquoise colour and clarity of the water, even so close to an industrial port. As we drove, a pod of dolphins swam leisurely alongside us, now that’s not something you would see in Dublin port very often I thought.
After another 15 minutes we arrived at a small jetty where a barge like boat, painted in the blue and white livery of Algosaibi, with Algosaibi 2 painted on its stern, awaited us.
We were gestured on board and greeted by a skipper ,who told us gruffly that we would set sail for ‘the Trestle’ shortly, and in the meantime we each should draw a wetsuit, a fenzy, a weight belt and weights, a mask, fins, a knife, work boots and four pairs of coveralls from a big pile of equipment, supervised by a Filipino clerk, in the open plan and thankfully air-conditioned rec room, and pack it all into one of the canvas dive bags issued to us at the same time. The transit time to ‘the Trestle’ would be about eight hours, so food and sleeping accommodation would be provided in the interior of the barge.
In those days smoking indoors was quite accepted, so I actually had no other reason apart from my inquisitiveness, to go outside in the blazing heat. I just had to see what this Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf looked like in daylight, so I threw my gear on a spare bed, and went out on deck. It was not yet 11 AM but that yellow orb was blazing down in all its fury.
Touching a bollard or a rail, in fact anything metal exposed to the sun was impossible, they were so hot as to burn unprotected skin. I had read stories about soldiers in the Libyan Desert during the Second World War, frying eggs on their tanks, and there had been an advertising campaign at home for something or other, where the protagonist worked in the Middle East, and he said “you could fry eggs on the rocks here, if you had an egg”. Well it was true, the sun was a beast!
The crew who all seemed to be Indian, were casting off the ropes, while the skipper roared instructions in his thick Hull accent from the bridge wing, and the engines turned noisily churning the aquamarine water into white foam.
West pier, as we pulled away, appeared to be a large port with cranes, ships at berth and oil storage facilities, while out to sea was a vast expanse of azure water and now blue sky. I smoked a cigarette while taking in the view, and I was pleasantly surprised at the slight cooling breeze generated by the movement of the vessel, however it didn’t last long, so flicking my cigarette but into the Gulf, I retreated to the air-conditioned but now quite noisy dormitory below deck.
Lunch was served at midday, an Indian cook laid out a fine repast of chicken curry with rice and naan bread, and or fish fingers and chips. I went with the curry and it was delicious.
After lunch I lay on the bed smoking, dozing and listening to music on my Walkman. Interested but not too grossed out by the cockroaches scuttling around the floor and walls of the dormitory. I had never actually seen a cockroach before in my life.
We left West pier at about 11 AM and I was rudely awakened by shouts of “get to the bow with your gear, the zodiacs are there” for a moment, groggy from sleep I forgot what the bow on a boat was, and where the bow was on that particular boat, so struggling under the weight of my personal luggage and the gear that I had accumulated, I blundered around in the semidarkness until somebody directed me in the direction of the front of the boat, where awaited three Zodiac inflatable rubber boats manned by three impossibly tanned divers dressed in shorts, vests and work boots.
The gruff skipper, reading from a list called out gruffly, names and destination, and following the calling of each name and destination one of the Zodiac boat drivers would call out here or here or here. My name was followed by “Norris Tide” after which a boat driver called out “here” as he reached up to take my gear and help me aboard.
“How is it going mate?” “Welcome to Juaymah Trestle” he added. “I’m Steve” he said to which I responded “I’m Jim”.
We took on two more divers, and then we were away, headed to a lighted line of six boats, and ‘the Trestle’.
Juaymah Trestle is four and a half kilometres of suspended gas pipeline, running straight out to sea from a gas refinery on the coast, and held up by thousands of concrete piles, which were crumbling away with so-called ‘concrete cancer’, after twenty years submerged in water.
To save the structure from collapsing into the sea eventually, it had been decided that each pile needed to be wrapped , from a meter above high water mark to 500 mil below sea bed, in Denzo tape and then completely covered in rubber jacketing , a very, very diver intensive contract.
The system had been developed by a Japanese company, who were specialists in heavy duty rubber products.
With literally thousands of 36 inch piles to be cleaned and then treated, Algoaisaibi needed hundreds of divers, to complete the job between April and October 1986.
Each pile had to be cleaned right down to the concrete, and then wrapped in foot wide Denzo tape from just below the seabed, up to just above the splash zone. The whole pile then had to be wrapped in 1 m wide hard rubber jackets; this could entail the fitting of three or four jackets in the very shallow water at the start of the Trestle, right out to 30 jackets at its deepest.
There were two divers allocated to each pile in the cluster of piles adjacent to which our workboat was moored.
I was paired with Steve the rubber boat driver from Algosaibi 2, who had been on the job since it started, so he was pretty good, and well used to the peculiar techniques needed to get each pile kitted out in its protective coating in a timely manner. He also had the patience to show me, and in truth do the heavy lifting for the first few days that I was his partner.
Initially my efforts were nightmarish. Working in the unrelenting heat (even the water was warm down to about 30 feet) and harder than I had ever worked in my life previously, I needed time to acclimatise and master the various techniques which had been developed on site for swimming round and round while spiralling down or up the pile being worked on, and riding an eight-foot long by 3 foot wide stiff rubber jacket as if it were a magic carpet, down to where we were working. That sounds ridiculous, but we did it. No doubt the crystal clear water helped, I could not conceive in my wildest imaginations of carrying out such a manoeuvre in Dublin docks or even in the North Sea.
However after a week or so I had gotten somewhat used to the heat, and was on my way to mastering the various manoeuvres being used on the job.
We worked from 6 AM to 6 PM, seven days a week and after work each day the 30 or so twinset scuba bottles had to be filled from the boats two compressors, in readiness for the following day. That duty was carried out by two divers and allocated by roster, so between 20 divers on board your turn came around every 10 days.
Because there were so many divers coming and going for the 12 hours of daylight, decompression was left up to the individual, we did our in water stops and then after waiting for a sufficient surface interval to allow a repeat dive, we worked on deck getting jackets, and Denso tape ready, stringing nuts and bolts in lengths of polypropylene rope, and taking tools up and sending them down for maintenance, all of which was slid down a work line to the depth where the divers were working.
That on deck time was when we got tanned, or burned or both depending on skin type. I was lucky, I burnt a bit earlier on but I soon went brown, and I could not believe how quickly I acclimatised to that malevolent heat.
After two weeks I was darkly tanned and fighting fit, able to pull my weight, and while not taking the sun’s heat for granted, I could work hard on deck, just being careful to drink plenty of water.
After a month, a vacancy came up on my boat for a Quality Control diver, with responsibility for inspecting each phase of the wrapping process to ensure that all works were carried out within the specification for the job. I had done a C Swip inspection course and passed the exam as part of my diver training, so I was accredited as an underwater inspector, and that was exactly what was required.
Overnight I got my own half of a Portacabin cabin with darkroom attached, and a few hours tuition on the filling out of the many inspection forms required by the client, to assure them that the job was being carried out correctly.
I was given use of the Norris Tides zodiac rubber boat, and I pretty much worked alone, following the work crew along photographing the cleaning, the wrapping, the jacketing and the final ‘as left’ condition when the work was complete.
Each of the six boats had a QC diver, but with the thousands of piles involved, we were very far behind the work crews
The diving on Juaymah was hard physical work but the water was crystal clear, and despite all the work going on, six diving vessels disgorging diver after diver and jacket after jacket, with tools going up and down all day, the local marine life seemed not to be a bit put out.
In the twenty years since the trestle had been built, each pile had been colonized by coral and all the other hard and soft marine growth which goes to make up a reef. Mussels were not common in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, but their absence was more than made up for by the profusion of goose barnacles and oysters.
From the condition of the piles as we found them in April 1986, cleaning had not been a huge maintenance priority. There must have been thousands of tonnes of marine growth dragging the structure down; it was no wonder that this huge diving contract had been needed.
Each pile in effect had become its own coral reef, inhabited by all the reef dwellers one would expect in a warm water environment.
There were moray eels, clownfish, parrotfish and octopus, which we had to render homeless, but which quickly adapted and found homes in the debris that we left on the seabed, such as empty paint and epoxy tins, off cuts from jackets and the hard plastic centre cores of the hessian wrapping. All became new colonies of coral, and homes for the displaced.
As we ‘mussel bashed’ our way through that forest of piles with water jets, hand scrapers and hydraulic brushes. We provided a banquet for the marine life the like of which they will have probably never seen before, Oysters, clams and barnacles, hard shelled molluscs that would rarely be on the menu for crabs, crayfish, octopuses, clownfish, parrotfish, stingray, moray, crayfish and you name it fish, were smashed open, and their tasty flesh made available for all, causing a feeding frenzy as every creature strove to get its share of the bounty.
Of course, all of this activity at the reef level attracted the bigger predators, who it seemed were never far from the source of any action.
Every day we had shoals of big barracuda, watching us closely, manta ray were regular visitors, expertly flying between the closely packed piles, hoovering up whatever nutritious bits were left floating in the water. Whale sharks and real sharks, bull and white tip, sea snakes, flying fish, octopuses and the full variety of those multi-colored coral reef inhabitants.
Many times during that job we were machine-gunned by shoals of the most silvery of fish, the flying variety.
Suddenly out of the water would come hundreds, driving themselves on their elongated lower tailfin, whilst flying with their oversized ventral fins.
Unfortunately for many of them, they didn’t quite acquire the necessary height to clear the boats, so they would clatter into the side and fall back in the sea.
It was an amazing spectacle, just one of the amazing spectacles provided by the Persian Gulf.
Diving in those conditions, I started to see all the things that up to now only Jacque Cousteau had been a witness too.
All of those exotic species and more were my companions, every time I got into the bath warm, crystal clear water.
Based on the advice from divers who had worked there for a while, big predators like sharks and barracuda, despite the latter’s evil look and the former’s silhouette to be feared from my TV show ‘Flipper’ experience, did not pose the immediate threat to us as divers.
The well camouflaged Stonefish, the exquisitely beautiful Lionfish, the ubiquitous Sea Snakes and the gorgeous cone snail shell were the ever present dangers. However they were passive threats and only a very careless diver would poke around under pipelines, off cuts, abandoned pile guides or any debris left over from the construction or our intervention where stonefish and lionfish were likely to have taken up residence.
Or pick up a shell (no matter how beautiful) that looked like a cone.
A sting from stone or lion fishes venomous spines could certainly result in death by drowning, and a sting from a cone snail can be fatal, even on land.
The deadly venomous sea snakes might appear aggressive because they will mob anything that disturbs the seabed or the reef, kicking up the tiny crustaceans that are their staple diet.
Quite why they carry such deadly venom has never been adequately explained. However, unlike venomous land snakes they cannot dislocate their lower jaw to bite an almost flat surface, and they do not prey upon anything bigger than polyps.
There were two old wives tales circulated among divers working in the warm oceans of the world.
Number one: A commercial diver wearing a helmet, a waistcoat with lead in the pockets and tools hanging from carabiners, appeared as a metal object to sharks, and so inedible.
Number two: Sea snakes could only bite on the ear or in the web between your fingers, so wearing a helmet a hood or even a T-shirt wrapped around your head in very warm climates, and gloves, would nullify that particular threat.
The real danger in the Persian Gulf was jellyfish. Portuguese man-of-war and box jellyfish were common and required vigilance on behalf of the diver to avoid the odd stings which were very painful, and many stings which were excruciatingly so, and could be even more serious.
It seems that it was mostly always summer in Saudi Arabia; it was certainly always pretty hot.
But when it was really hot, from April until October, that’s when the jellyfish came. I guess they hatched in some river estuary and were washed into the Persian Gulf as a consequence.
On certain days when we came on deck to go to work, the surface would be literally covered with them, and in order to get divers in, the deck crew would use sweeping brushes to open a hole to let the diver through.
Beneath these jellyfish was the business end of the animal, long tendrils of stinging cells hung below, they were beautiful but nobody wanted to get too close.
Everybody got stung to a greater or lesser extent, usually on the wrist between gloves and cuff of coveralls or neoprene suit, or on the chin below the mask.
The stings were like an electric shock!
There was one young lad who got very badly stung around his face and in trying to disentangle himself from the stinging tendrils, his hands also.
When we got him back on deck we tried the acid and alkali test, lemon juice for acid and baking powder for alkali, and through that we found that these particular stings were acidic, because baking powder eased the pain. That was all we could do, apply baking powder to help him with the pain.
He became very ill and the stinging sites rapidly became infected.
The severe pain lasted for a week or so and it being Saudi Arabia, there was no question of the boat going into port except in the direst of emergencies, and this didn’t qualify.
His face and forearms became covered with puss-filled abscesses and we were worried, not for his life, but for potential scarring. We treated the infections by regularly cleaning them with TCP.
The captain, an ex-Hull trawler skipper was supposed to be the medic on board, but he never even enquired as to how the diver was. I doubt that he had any antibiotics but if he had he didn’t offer them.
After about three weeks the sores had scabbed over and things looked pretty good no real danger of serious scarring, but even when he had fully recovered, it was obvious that his face and hands had suffered some damage. It looked like he had been whipped with searingly hot wire.
They were serious jellyfish there is no doubt that when they stung an animal, it was staying stung. The strange thing is that they prey on small fish only, but are preyed upon in turn by large turtles, tuna, and sharks, so I suppose the stings go some way to discouraging them.
There were always sharks in the water but they seldom bothered us, except in a psychological way.
The main varieties were Bull sharks and White and Black tipped reef sharks, there were also tiger sharks and hammerheads but not in the same numbers.
As it turned out, when my hundred and 10 days were over and I could have gone home, I was asked to finish out my QC duties, so that Algosaibi could conceivably present the closed out file to the client in September. So I ended up working for 150 days, and demobilised the Norris tide with the crew and the diving supervisor.
When I eventually left the boat to go home, I stopped at the Algosaibi office Dhahran to collect my nearly 5 months wages; I was handed a box of Saudi riyals by the accountant who hired me back in April, explaining that he had made arrangements with a bank around the corner to change the riyals to dollars, and that one of the Filipino guys from the office would accompany me going both ways.
I finally went home with fifty-eight thousand dollars in cash, fifty-two thousand five hundred in wages, and five thousand as a bonus for staying so long.
I hope that I didn’t break any currency laws in Ireland, because I had dollars in every one of my pockets, and quite a few thousand in my backpack when I travelled home and I didn’t declare any of it.
That first job in terms of remuneration was a fantastic stroke of luck, and went a long way towards buying a house.