Early Oilfield Diving in the Gulf of Mexico

An excerpt from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure

By Christopher Swann

With few exceptions, virtually all the divers working in the Gulf of Mexico oilfields in the early years were freelancers. Before 1957, diving companies devoted primarily to oil work—as distinct from traditional salvage companies who employed divers—did not exist. Almost anyone with a few hundred dollars and an inclination to try something new could set himself up as an oilfield diver. A diving mask cost about $90, an air compressor, $110. Surplus hose cost ten cents a foot. A rudimentary telephone, if the diver bothered to install one, added a further $100. A diver who preferred heavy gear could buy a Mark V helmet for $50. So many had been manufactured during the war that they were worth more as scrap copper than as helmets. Insurance was cheap, too.

Typical ‘live-boat’ diver and tender. The term referred to the fact that the boat followed the diver as he walked along the bottom (Jack D. Smith).

To be successful, a diver had to be rigger, plumber, pipe fitter and seaman. He had to be able to cut steel under water, and weld a little. He had to keep abreast of technical developments. If a new valve came out, he had to get hold of all the literature he could, and read up on it so he knew how the new valve operated and how to repair it. Above all, he had to have a strong mechanical aptitude; and whatever the job, he had to be able to do it by feel. Conditions and time of day were of little concern to the client.

In the 1950s, a freelance oilfield diver made $125–150 a day plus mileage, out of which he had to pay his tender. He would be lucky to work offshore for three days at a stretch, although if he was at a platform and other platforms were calling for a diver, he might hop from one job to the next and the three days could turn into three weeks. Typically, though, according to Roy Smith, a former construction worker who had served in the US Coast Guard, he would be lucky to get in more than ten days a month: A client would call and say, ‘Go down to Grand Isle in the morning and take the anchor chain out of a tugboat wheel.’ You got up at three or four o’clock and drove down there and worked four or five hours—or however long it took. By the time you billed them and came home, it was too late to get a job for the next day, so you cleaned up your gear. It took you three days to make one day’s pay.

Along with his diving gear, the freelance oilfield diver needed a tender. The tender might be someone who worked with the diver routinely, or he might be hired by the job. Often he was whoever the diver had been drinking with the night before. James Dean, who came to the Gulf in 1957, frequently drove down to catch the crewboat from Venice in the Mississippi delta without a tender, knowing he could always recruit from the ranks of the unemployed who frequented the small cafe in Buras.

Typically, the individual had never seen a diving hose before. Sometimes he enlisted a deckhand when he got to the job. If a diver kept a tender for any length of time, the tender picked up the basics as he went along. But the casual tender recruited on the spot could be a menace. More than once, Dean was forced to surface, his air cut off, to find that his tender had wandered off for a cup of coffee, leaving the compressor to run out of fuel. To add insult to injury, he then had to climb aboard and refuel it himself. That such negligence so rarely resulted in accidents in the early years is largely explained by the fact that nearly all the work was in less than 50 feet of water.

Clearly, a tender who worked exclusively for one diver was likely to take the job more seriously than someone recruited on a casual basis, but in either case he occupied a position at the bottom of the offshore hierarchy. Many divers treated their tenders like servants, expecting them to be ready with a towel, a cup of coffee and a cigarette when they got out of the water. Lolling in their bunks between dives, with a paperback or the latest Playboy, they would summon their lackey with a cry of Boy!—or even Worm!—and send him on some trivial errand.

Faced with such abuse, the more ambitious tenders bit their lip and waited for an opportunity to start diving themselves. Even a competent tender was forced to live on a fraction of what a diver made, although once the work moved to deeper water, a diver who had a good tender would give him part of his depth pay to hold onto him.

In the early years, few Gulf Coast oilfield divers knew anything about decompression. A diver stayed down until he finished what he had been called out to do, which could be four or five hours or more. There was no such thing as a time limit. The only reason there were few cases of bends was that the oilfields were in such shallow water. If a diver did get a hit he rubbed the afflicted part, generally a knee or shoulder, and hoped the pain would go away.

By the beginning of the 1960s divers were starting to work at 60 feet and more, where they could no longer simply jump in without thought to their bottom time. A diver who assumed he could put in several hours at 60 feet and come straight to the surface was obviously in for a rude awakening. Divers had to determine their decompression.

The US Navy Diving Manual, which contained the air decompression tables and much valuable material on diving physiology, was the only readily available source of information. Although the Navy Manual was by no means new not all divers in the Gulf had seen it, or even heard of it. Most relied on a slotted plastic disc, best described as a circular slide rule, whose dials the diver rotated, lining up depth and bottom time to arrive at his decompression. One of the first such discs, based on the then current version of the US Navy tables, was produced by E. R. Cross in the early 1950s. The often-rudimentary state of knowledge in applying the tables, however, combined with a general lack of discipline and frequent pressure from clients, all too often resulted in divers getting the bends.

slotted disc decompression calculator produced by e.r. cross
the teacup chamber
The teacup chamber (A.D. Stone).

In 1960, Bill Cunningham, an ex-US Navy diver who came to the Gulf in 1958, designed an upright chamber, sometimes referred to as a teacup chamber, which was just large enough for one man to sit up in. Like many divers, he was often called out to walk locations: inspect the seabed for obstructions before a mobile rig was set on the bottom. When the rigs moved into deeper water a chamber became a necessity. No doubt with incompetent tenders in mind, he designed the chamber so that it could be operated from the inside. With the compressor running, the diver got in and closed the door, opened the supply valve to pressurize to the prescribed depth, and then ran his own decompression. To arrive at the optimum size for the door Cunningham cut a hole in a large cardboard box, which he enlarged until he could get in and out with relative ease.

The chamber weighed some 350–400 pounds and was fitted with a ring at either end so that two men could turn it on its side and roll it like a barrel onto the back of a truck. The disadvantages were firstly that it was cramped and secondly that, because there was no entrance lock, it was impossible to assist a diver in an emergency. Nevertheless, these were minor drawbacks when set against the need for something that was lightweight and easily transportable, and the upright one-man chamber soon became popular. As Mike Hughes observed: As Mickey Mouse as those chambers seem today, they probably saved a lot of lives because they were compact enough, light enough and cheap enough that they allowed you to put chambers on jobs where otherwise you probably would not have had one at all.