Confessions of a Yahoo Diver

Commercial diving work is often executed by hard-hat divers using surface-supplied breathing air. Divers on scuba breathing compressed gas, however, can perform some underwater jobs. Regardless of the system the diver uses, the surface-support team is integral to the diver’s safety. CHRISTIAN VINCES/SHUTTERSTOCK

A COMMERCIAL DIVER FRIEND TOLD ME YEARS AGO that people like me — recreational divers who do commercial diving work — are often referred to as yahoos.

I was always comfortable underwater and, at 78 years old, still am. I’m familiar with the maxim, “There are old divers, and there are bold divers, but there are no old, bold divers.” During my scuba diving life I have fit the description of a yahoo, making some questionable decisions and managing to survive being too bold more than once.

Many years ago I chased a dream and became part of a startup underwater maintenance company in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Diving there was the love of my life; every moment I wasn’t working I spent diving for fun on St. Croix’s reefs. This was back in 1972, when staghorn and elkhorn corals were abundant and few other divers were on the island.

Our company was contracted to clean the sides of very large crude carriers (VLCCs). A fully laden VLCC draws as much as 90 feet of water and is about 1,000 feet long and fully 200 feet across at the beam. One afternoon I was operating a hydraulic-powered hand-held scrubbing unit designed for cleaning small areas such as propellors. The scrubbing head was covered with steel bristles and controlled with a twist-grip handle. After about 15 minutes of scrubbing just a few feet below the surface, I became a little tired and was ready to quit for a while. But when I tried to turn the twist-grip handle to disengage it, I could not make it budge. Its knurled surface was inadequate to effectively control the device, and my fatigued hands simply could not make it move.

We had no means of communication between the diver and the deckhand. The scrubber was revolving rapidly, and the effort to counteract its torque, along with my heavy breathing through an ancient Calypso second stage, was exhausting me. Letting go of the scrubber was not an option — I had a couple of wraps of hydraulic lines around my body, which could make for a hazardous situation.

I pushed away from the boat to try to get the deckhand’s attention. He shut off the power to the device not a moment too soon, and I was able to return to the surface. If he had not shut off the power at that time, the consequences could have been disastrous for me.

Lessons learned: Ensure a communications method is available, check critical equipment before using it, and don’t entangle yourself. We improved the twist-grip by whipping it with cord before using it again.

After a couple of years in St. Croix, I moved back to San Francisco, California. I had a few hundred dives under my belt at that point, so I became the unofficial company diver and did many dives on vessels of various sizes.

Diving on the VLCCs involved descending to 95 to 100 feet and consuming a full tank of air in a little more than 30 minutes. The visibility was typically poor, and we would navigate along the flat bottom by following the plate welds fore and aft, swimming with whatever current was present. After a half hour at 95 to 100 feet, we would surface at the bow or stern and make our way back to our support boat. Often I’d make the dive as much as 30 miles offshore, return to shore for lunch, and then head to the airport for a flight to San Francisco. As I said, I was very much a yahoo diver then, blissfully ignorant of safety procedures that are universally accepted today.

My second brush with death occurred in the Port of San Francisco. After using up almost an entire tank, I was on the pier and thought I’d take a quick look amidships to check the condition of the hull paint. I jumped in alone and swam past the turn of the bilge to check out the bottom — and promptly got turned around with no idea which way was forward, aft, or sideways.

Overhead on the ship’s bottom my bubbles were silvery pools in my flashlight, but I was far enough under the hull to see no ambient light. I had a few hundred pounds of air and knew there was not enough left for me to reach the bow or stern and likely not enough for me to cross to the other side. I stopped and as calmly as possible took stock of the situation.

Noticing that my bubbles on the hull were drifting off in one direction, I decided to follow them. Within a minute I could see a faint glow of green light in the direction I was swimming when I turned off my flashlight. Salvation! After another half minute I ascended beside the ship with an empty tank. That was a close call.

Lessons learned: Don’t dive alone, don’t dive with an empty tank, and don’t dive into an overhead environment without proper training.

Another day while working beneath a large vessel, my buddy and I were suddenly blasted by a torrent of water jetting under the hull. I was pitched across the hull, flipped upside down and around, and was completely disoriented until I shot out the other side among the pilings of the pier.

After extracting myself through the pilings, ending up between the ship’s hull and the pier, I found a ladder and managed to reach the pier, where my buddy was waiting. We soon discovered that a refueling barge had just pulled away from the dock nearby; the prop wash from its tug had blown us across the hull. This was another incident that could have been disastrous.

Lessons learned: Make sure that the surface support team warns other vessels coming alongside that divers are in the water.

Looking back, I was truly stupid on too many occasions. The best advice I can offer is to enjoy diving but also be thoughtful, proactive, and safe. It’s good to live to be my age and still be able to enjoy a few more dives. AD

© Alert Diver — Q4 2022