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Tuesday, 14 August 2001 00:00

When Frankie met Trevie

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

Frank Paulson is well known and respected in the world of Commercial Diving. To a lesser but more notorious extent he is also well known as a ******-stirring antagonist on the Diveoz discussion forums. But Frank (despite his shortcomings) comes with good credentials, and as young professional divers we shared many an adventure.

The first thing Frank ever said to me was, "Well that was a bloody stupid thing to do!" I had just hurled a $20,000 diving helmet onto the deck of a steel barge in sheer mind-numbing anger, smashing it to bits. The reasons for this action were as follows.

In 1987 as a relative newcomer to commercial diving I found myself on the deck of a 250 ft Steel workbarge laying waterpipes to some outlying Islands off the coast of [name of country deleted in order to protect the guilty]. The pipe was made of rubber, which had a slightly buoyant nature and therefore required weights to be attached in order to get it to stay on the seafloor. The weight took the form of some ships anchor chain, with each link weighing in at about 4 kg's. The barge had a continuous length of about 1000 meters flaked across its deck ready to be connected to the pipe and lowered off the stern. The chain was hauled to the stern of the ship by a giant gypsy, much the same as an anchor winch you might see on any dive boat, except 10 times bigger. The pipe was fed continuously through the front of the Barge by large tender vessels in sections about 100 metres long. The sections were clamped together on board; the chain bound to them and the lot was fed off the back and down to the seabed at a depth of between 50 and 100 metres. Surveyors on both the mainland and the island kept the barge exactly on track at all times using high-powered telescopic theodothingames. Another smaller barge was tied into the main workboat so geographical accuracy's of less than a few metres were possible. On the morning in question a voice crackled over the marine radio, "guys the pipe has floated to the surface about 500 meters behind you".

"******", everyone thought, "the chain has peeled off it". One of the tenders raced back and confirmed that the chain and pipe had in fact seperated and divers would have to go down to arrest the situation.

Slowly we began to reverse, painstakingly pulling in the pipe and re-flaking the massive chain back on deck. A few hours later we had gone back as far as we could and I was throwing the helmet on and going through some pre-dive checks. Two of us were going and Air would be supplied from 4 high-pressure banks via a surface panel into two umbilical cords. One measuring 150 meters, the other was [tragically] 90 meters. My good friend Steve Shepherd had the short hose.
We could see the parting between the pipe and the chain about 10 metres below the surface but the plan was to descend to 45 metres and fasten the two together using a specially constructed clamp.

Steve and I got the clamp down to the required depth easily enough. A few minutes later the job was done. We nodded at each other that everything was sweet. That was the last moment I ever saw Steve Shepherd alive.

In a spit milli-second all hell broke loose. The tension created on the chain by hauling it back up so high became too much for the Gypsy. The whole lot, Gypsy, Pipe, and hundreds of metres of ships anchor chain lept from the deck of the Barge in one continuous ominous motion. It collected our umbilicals and dragged both Steve and I at mind-altering speed to the muddy seabed at a depth of 82 metres.

When I hit the bottom I slammed into the soft mud. The chain just kept coming. To this day I can't recall if it stopped because it was all gone or if they managed to halt its progress topside. Visibility was absolutely nil and although I could still breathe through my helmet, I knew that there was no way on earth I would be able to free my umbilical from the chain, which had piled across it in unimaginable lengths. On the back of my helmet was a tiny 15 cubic foot bailout cylinder. To get out of the situation I would have to disconnect my surface supply, wriggle out from beneath the chain and do the proverbial bolt to the surface. The umbilical cord was attached to the helmet with a heavy gauge quick release connector, much the same as the low-pressure inflator on a modern BC. The tether and communication line would also have to be removed. I freed one arm from the chain and cracked open the bailout cylinder, then scrambled out from beneath the weight and took some deep breaths. I knew I was deep and the pain of two ruptured ears didnt help my concentration. I must admit it took a few seconds to work up the guts to pull the umbilical, I knew there would be virtually no gas in the bailout to do any proper deco stops so I had to get out of there fast. I settled, took some more deep breaths and pulled my surface supply and comms lines. On the way up the only thing I could think of was the length of those umbilicals. Whilst mine had been long enough for the drop, I had a gut wrenching feeling that Steve's had not. I stopped my ascent when I began to see light. I was unable to determine the depth; as such statistics were normally given to the diver via a radio in the helmet.

The current had me. It had been running at a constant 1 to 2 knots all week and it was doubtful if I would end up anywhere near the Barge when I got to the surface. After a few minutes the breaths became harder to draw, the bailout cylinder was almost empty, it was time to go.

On the surface no one from the Barge was even looking. All they knew from the gas panel was that both the divers had stopped breathing at least 10 minutes ago. I was scarcely a few hundred metres away but couldn't be heard because of the helmet I was wearing. Half an hour later the barge was a dot on the surface. I had the helmet off by now and was floating along looking around for Steve in vain hope. A small fishing dory came by and the guy casually asked something like, "Do you need a lift?"

Back on board the sight of me being dropped off at the Barges draw gate in a little tinny was met with open gobs. For reasons still inexplicable the dive supervisor stormed towards me screaming his stupid head off. I couldn't even hear what he was on about, probably just in a panic about his future career prospects I would suggest. His anger however, incited me, and I threw down the helmet. Frank stepped in and diffused the situation with his inimitable offhandedness. He then turned around and matter of factly suggested that a helicopter ride to the nearest chamber might be a more appropriate action than the two of us slugging it out in the midday sun. Although my ears were searing with pain and my shoulders had begun to ache, sensibility prevailed, and instead of arriving at the chamber black eyed and bent, I simply arrived bent.

A day or three later Frank came to visit me in the Hospital. He told me that both Steves and my umbilicals had been recovered intact but that a constant search for Steve had been unsuccessful. We discussed the accident and came up with the conclusion that although Steve must have disconnected his surface supply voluntarily, something had prevented him from making the watertop alive. Frank knew Steve better than I and was visibly shaken. The chain had been hauled back in on the afternoon of the accident and work was about to recommence, minus two divers. As Frank left the ward he turned to me and mumbled, 'Oh well, the show must go on'.

I got the sack for destroying the helmet. Nearly a year later, Frank punched the same dive supervisor on the nose, and as legend has it, mumbled something like, "That's for Steve". He got the sack too.