Pioneering commercial mixed-gas diver, Co-Founder CAL Dive and Oceaneering International, Commercial Diving Hall of Fame Inductee, HDS USA Advisory Board member, and the “High Boat” of the Morro Bay abalone divers in his last season.
Departed in search of deeper seas October 26, 2020
Lad Handelman came to California in 1953 to tend for his uncle on his abalone boat. About a month and a half after he began tending, Lad got a chance to dive. Unfortunately, nobody told him to close his inlet valve when he dropped beneath the surface and, in no time, he was upside-down, ten feet above the bottom, with water coming into his helmet, after which he shot to the surface.
Despite this discouraging start, little by little, Lad became a productive diver. He did not pick abalone as fast as the top divers, but what he lacked in speed, he made up for with the punishing number of hours he put in on the bottom. Eventually, Lad got to the point where he could hold his own with the rest of the fleet.
In November 1962, Dan Wilson recruited Lad and Whitey Stefens as partners into his newly-formed company, General Offshore Divers. Only a week or so before, at a time when all deep diving outside the U.S. Navy was done on air, Wilson had made a demonstration dive to 400 feet in the Santa Barbara Channel breathing helium-oxygen from a scuba regulator mounted in a converted Japanese abalone helmet. This dive opened the door to Phillips Petroleum, which gave him a work order to put a set of helium equipment on the drilling vessel, CUSS I.
The first dive came on December 9. The depth was 233 feet. The task was to disconnect the blowout preventer stack by backing out a series of large-diameter setscrews. Wilson managed to back out the screws the requisite number of turns, but when the rig took up the load, it refused to budge – the tips of the screws were in just far enough to hold it. All eyes now turned to Lad, the stand-by diver. It was a do-or-die situation. Lad knew nothing about drilling, but he knew that if he failed to finish the job, General Offshore would not get another chance—with anyone. With the Phillips people watching on the television monitor, he backed out the screws the rest of the way. The dive lasted 13 minutes. Everything Phillips wanted done had been accomplished, and Lad’s future was set.
In the late summer of 1964, with the urging of Wilson, the partners sold General Offshore Divers to Union Carbide, at which point it became the West Coast Division of Ocean Systems.
A year later, disillusioned with the way things had turned out, Lad, with his brother, Gene, Bob Ratcliffe and Kevin Lengyel, broke away from General Offshore and set up as California Divers, or Cal Dive for short.
In the first year, they did not get a single contract. The first opportunity came about through a chance meeting in Long Beach, California, in February 1966 between Lad and Mike Hughes of World Wide Divers in Louisiana. Thanks to Hurricane Betsy, World Wide had plenty of business, including a sizable contract to inspect a toppled platform. What it lacked was the helium equipment and the deep-water experience to carry out the job. Cal Dive could provide both, and not long after the meeting, Hughes called Cal Dive for assistance. Delighted to have some paying work at last, Lad and his partners loaded their gear onto their pickup trucks and drove to Morgan City. Cal Dive returned to the Gulf several times to dive under the World Wide Divers’ umbrella. Overall, however, work was scarce. Then, at the end of the year, Lad landed a contract with Humble Oil in California on the CUSS I off Point Conception, where Lad, Gene, and Kevin worked at close to 300 feet.
In April 1968, with the prospect of oil exploration in the Santa Barbara Channel moving out to 600 feet and beyond, Cal Dive, in conjunction with Can Dive (Canadian Divers), Cal Dive’s sister company owned by Phil Nuytten, put on a demonstration for the oil companies using a Reading & Bates bell system, starting at 180 feet and ending at just short of 600 feet. All they got out of it, however, was a report in the Santa Barbara News-Press and an article by Lad in Offshore magazine.
Then, on January 28, 1969, oil and gas erupted from the seafloor 190 feet beneath Union Oil’s Platform A, spilling 4.2 million gallons of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel. Although the oil spill dashed Cal Dive’s hopes of expanding locally, Lad knew that on the national and international level his company was in a growth market.
Lad attended a seminar on mergers and acquisitions in Palm Springs in April 1969, which led to an agreement whereby Cal Dive and Can Dive joined forces to become a new company, Oceaneering International. At the end of December, Mike Hughes and Johnny Johnson merged World Wide Divers into Oceaneering.
The offshore oil industry experienced a sharp downturn in 1977. Oceaneering, in common with most major oil service firms, was caught short, having already placed orders for millions of dollars’ worth of new equipment to retain their market share. Then, in 1978, the company reported a net loss of $2.1 million. The result was a long and bruising boardroom battle, which ended in Lad being forced out. Undeterred, with John Swinden, Don Sites and Rick Foreman, all of whom had resigned from senior positions at Oceaneering, Lad started a new company, Cal Dive International.
Within four years, the company was operating in five countries and doing $11 million in sales. By then, however, the oil industry was going downhill again and the partners were squabbling. Instead of waiting another year to sell as planned, they sold Cal Dive to Diversified Energies, a large public utility in Minneapolis. After the sale in 1983, the former owners stayed on in various capacities.
In January 1985, Lad had a devastating skiing accident, which put him permanently in a wheelchair and ended his involvement with Cal Dive. Nonetheless, his drive and determination remained undiminished. In 1990, Lad co-founded the Marine Mammal Consulting Group, with Peter Howorth, another former abalone diver. The company became nationally recognized as an environmental leader specializing in marine mammal mitigation efforts, overseeing that aspect of various industrial, governmental and military projects.
When HDS sponsor-company Aqueos merged with Lad’s former company, Underwater Technology Services (UTS) in 2001, he became a shareholder and also joined the Aqueos Board of Directors, a position he held until his death.
With Bruce Allen, Lad co-founded the SOS (Stop Oil Seeps) environmental group and used his vast knowledge of the maritime oil field industry to educate the public about the pollutive effects of California’s vast natural oil seepage. This pollution does not come from offshore oil platforms and SOS’s goal was to form a bridge between energy and environment.
Lad also founded two hospital-based hyperbaric contract services companies, Clinical Hyperbaric Technologies, Inc. and Oxycare, Inc., and became the chairman of the Outlook (Wheelchair) Group of Santa Barbara. He also served as an Advisory Board member to Santa Barbara City College Marine Diving Technology program and the Historical Diving Society USA.
Mindful of his youth in the Bronx and the impact the Boys Club had had on him, Lad also became a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara.
In 2018, retaining Lad’s sense of adventure, his son, Jimmy, and friend Sergio Ibarra, accompanied him in his wheelchair from Santa Barbara to the Bahamas on scheduled airlines, where Lad and Sergio completed a dive to around 3,000 feet, in a three-seat Triton submersible, with Lad’s long-time friend, Patrick Lahey. Lad credited the critical home-support infrastructure that allowed him to undertake the adventure to his wife, Linda Seals, and “partner in crime of 47 years, Patricia Putnam.”
Lad received multiple awards for his work in the sea and on dry land, including induction into the Offshore Energy Hall of Fame as an Industry Pioneer, the Historical Diver Magazine Pioneer Award, AUAS NOGI Award for Distinguished Service, and induction into the Association of Diving Contractors International’s Commercial Diving Hall of Fame. In 2018 he received Santa Barbara’s Distinguished Patriot Award.
As impressive as these awards are, Lad said his most prized accolade had come during his last season as an abalone diver, six decades ago. Working as a young man for Barney Clancy’s Black Fleet out of Morro Bay, Lad landed more abalone than any other diver in the fishery during the last week of the season. He said that being the “high boat” was more important to him than anything he did in the oilfield diving business.
Lad died on October 26 at his home overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel.
— Christopher Swann and Leslie Leaney