85% of the time on the job in Angola, life plodded along with each day the same as the previous and most likely the same as the one following.
However, there was that 15% of the time when all hell could break loose.
In February 1994, things were plodding along as they usually did, when without warning a high-pressure blowout occurred on the Wamba A well in the Takula field, which was the deepest working field at that time, where the water depth was a pretty standard 150 feet.
Wamba A was a production platform, which was at that time was having ‘a work over’ carried out by the Jack- up Rig High Island V.
The Jack-Up Rig had been towed into position beside the platform and over the well, it had then jacked down its legs into the seabed and lifted its deck clear of the surface, after that it takes production from the platform so that maintenance can be carried out on the production facilities 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, our diving boat, the Sutton Tide was sent out to the field to act as one of the fire tenders and we were dispatched by early – and exclusive to us -helicopter out to the Takula personnel module.
We knew that things were rather grim, because everyone we spoke to, was rather grim.
Fat Charlie (he called himself that) -our company watcher, the guy who gave us our work every day and who sometimes came to watch us do it – was particularly grim and sweating heavily though the sun was barely up, as were the helicopter pilots who looked 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.
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 anyway, and everyone was waiting for us.
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 fire fighting monitors trained on the platforms conductors. There was gas, water, and what looked like rocks being spewed a hundred feet into the sky, and the sea around the jacket boiled as if a volcano has erupted just below the surface. Fire was a real consideration it seemed.
When the helicopter rotors stopped, even at more than a mile distance 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 from a very concerned-looking oil company engineer in the Takula control room. The shit had hit the fan at 3 AM, and the Wamba A 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 legs 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 way to tie up to the platform and put a diver in. He pronounced diver “daahver”
He asked who the lucky ‘daahver’ was. The suddenly pale and weak one, me; was identified. He gave me a special short 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.
But while the briefings were going on, our boat had come over and was currently below Takula waiting for us to be craned down in the ‘witch’s hat’ man lifting basket, the only semi-reliable method of transferring personnel by crane at sea available at that time.
Even before I had finished the diving part of my career in the late 90s, witch’s hats had been banned in most parts of the world because they were so dangerous. However, in this instance, they were the only mode available to us and the Takula crane driver was standing by.
Suddenly things that normally would have guaranteed an hour’s delay or more were being done in minutes, and there appeared to be a high level of coordination normally absent in the usual day-to-day stuff that we did, everything was happening really quickly.
One thing a 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 the boss get carried away with his ‘army barmy gung – ho-ness’ and put me in unnecessary danger. So before we were craned down to the boat we went quickly through the dive. I would be diving to 150 feet of water depth so I would be breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen. It was going to be extremely noisy ,so we should keep the radio chatter to a minimum and use very simple instructions over the comms for me et cetera et cetera.
As we stood on the witch’s hat man basket waiting for the slack to be taken up on the lifting wire, I could see the faces of my colleagues; I believe that they were relieved that I was the next diver.
The boss was fucking mad, so relishing us being delivered into the ninth circle of hell.
The crane driver was a bit gung- ho himself, he snatched us off the deck and swung us out over the side with dangerous haste so that we started to swing back and forward perilously 90 feet above our boat.
Our skipper made a huge effort to keep the boat under the basket as we pendulumed through the air, and as we held on for grim life we screamed frantically and ineffectually at him to get out of the way. 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 grimly, and after a white knuckle ride, we were delivered in a reasonably controlled manner to the deck of the Sutton tide.
As soon as the basket was clear, our Captain who was caught up in all the enthusiastic haste had us away at full speed back to Wamba A.
Everyone was in a mad hurry, everyone but me.
The noise as we approached was incredible and became more so, the closer we got.
It was the sound of uncontrolled elemental energy, escaping from deep down in the Earth’s crust.
It was simply indescribable, rendering ordinary conversation impossible. Every word of instruction had to be shouted and there was a further danger for us apart from simply having our eardrums burst.
What we had seen exiting violently from the wild well as viewed from Takula, was seawater gas and lumps of hardened grout being spewed out of the conductor high into the air with much of it then landing explosively on the steel deck of our boat.
As soon as we arrived under Wamba A, we divers made a run for it to the tool shack while the boss disappeared into the control van.
My suit, weight vest, knife, and fins were stored with the tools, so I started to get dressed in for the dive, while the lumps of grout beat a loud tattoo on the roof of the container.
After a few minutes, our boss came running across from the control shack to shout at us that because of the volatile conditions it was too dangerous to do a mixed gas dive, It was usually 150 feet to the bottom on Wamba A, so technically, just inside the air range. He actually asked me if I was agreeable.
I did not fancy getting stuck in the water, doing mixed gas decompression stops, or even worse in the chamber if the boat was shallow gas immersed (if the boat was sunk due to a giant gas bubble coming up from the blowout) or if things went west in some other way I did not want to be stuck somewhere decompressing and unable to escape or not, with everyone else, so I agreed.
He also shouted that he needed J, my colleague, to swim across, and get a mooring rope over one of the horizontal members in the splash zone. J 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 to the site of the blowout and been the first people to be exposed directly to the gas, without anybody checking to see if it 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, so they had never been exposed dangerously.
We could have already been dead, but we weren’t so the gas was obviously not toxic.
The boss 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 crumb 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 J but I didn’t mean it! A little gallows humour to see me off
J pulled his wetsuit long John on as the boat 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 the boat was in position, the captain tooted on the klaxon and J dived into the maelstrom and swam over through it with a heaving line.
When he reached the braces in the splash zone, he passed the line over a diagonal member and somehow pulled the eye of a mooring line over, fed to him by three, Portuguese deckhands. As J maneuvered the mooring line around the brace, the deckhands pushed the thick rope until J could swim back with a heaving line and then everyone pulled like hell and got the eye of the mooring line back to the boat and secured, all the while avoiding the falling grout bombs raining down upon them.
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, D and J wore hardhats without being compelled to do so, it was purely functional, offering minimal protection for them from the raining rocks.
They half carried me, while I hooshed myself along in my fins.
The diving helmet was plopped onto my head hurriedly, snapped into place, locked down and the umbilical secured to a D-ring on my vest. I got the customary thumbs up in the visor and I was gone headfirst into the angry water.
As soon as I levelled out I saw the leg and just beyond it the mass of bubbles coming up from below.
I put the platformleg between me and the eruption and I began my descent.
The deeper I got the narrower the column of bubbles became.
That was Boyle’s law in action: 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 had disappeared and then the leg became shiny.
There is a reason that air diving in the commercial world is not permitted below 150 feet.
Air is a mixture of mainly nitrogen 80% and oxygen 20%, and as gas is exerted upon by ambient pressure, so the air is reduced in volume but increased in pressure and the constituent gases are exerted upon individually.
Nitrogen, which is an inert gas at sea level, becomes toxic and narcotic at a pressure of roughly 160 feet of seawater.
Very quickly below that depth the diver will experience what’s known as Nitrogen Narcosis, which will soon render them unconscious and dead.
When I started seeing shiny silver metal on the leg, I was ‘nitrogen narcosisized’ out of my head, too much of my umbilical had been fed in and down to me 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.
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 the supervisor, way, way, way off in the distance, urgently shouting at me to stop.
Then I felt myself being pulled back up the leg until 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 weren’t quite as bad down at seabed level as they looked to be on the surface.
At that moment most of the high-pressure gas was going up the conductor casing, the structures appeared safe.
We had the depth of the hole from my pneumofathometer (depth gauge) I had descended to just under 200 feet, so there was a hole about 50 feet deep and 10 feet in diameter
I had reported the diameter of the hole 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 the company to make its decisions.
There never was hero-worship in the diving industry, but I was thanked by several oil-company luminaries for my efforts following my dive and decompression.
We stayed on Takula for a week while arrangements were made to deal with the ‘Wild Well’
Boots and Coots was a company 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 out to Takula after a day or two, all of them dressed in snow-white coveralls and wearing silver American-style hardhats, ones like Fred Flintstone wore.
We saw them around the place but we met them officially 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 Daahvers?
They looked something else in their white and silver, like saving angels.
He told us that as a result of our report, they would directionally drill into the well and divert the pressure that way.
Both the Jack up rig and the Wamba A platform could be saved.
He congratulated us on getting such important information back to the company and then we were kind of dismissed.
And so we left the following day by helicopter to rejoin the Sutton Tide in Malongo and we went back to what we did 85% of the time.
About six months later I received a padded package addressed directly to me. It contained a smudged, unsigned mimeographed letter from the president of the oil company thanking me for my selfless dedication and courage yadda, yadda.
The package also contained an A. T Cross, company 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 unique, and much appreciated, yeah right!
We may have got the data using unorthodox and downright dangerous methods, however, get it we did and it was upon those data that the oil company and Boots and Coots were able to save both the rig and the jacket, saving hundreds of millions of dollars I’m sure.
Would it have broken the bank to give each one of us a cheapo pen and pencil set?