View Full Version : Saturation Diving

Michael Smart
10-12-2013, 04:51 AM
Tomorrow, I go into saturation—the work here has become heavy.

—— Richard Walker, 1974

In early 1974 Richard was sent back to the Cherokee in the Ekofisk Field where there was more pipe to bury. But Phillips Petroleum was also keen on clearing the seabed of the thirty sections of pipe that Richard spoke of in his letter to Mary Ellen. Unlike the inspection of the jet sled, this recovery operation was going to take considerable time, certainly weeks if the weather kicked up. Bell bounce techniques therefore were out of the question. Instead, Richard was going into saturation, and “sat” was what divers strived for, where the money was, and where Richard wanted to be. At $500 per day, it was The Promised Land.

Saturation diving was also relatively new. It was only in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties when men like George Bond, Edwin Link, Jacques Cousteau and others began working independently to discover if it was even possible for human beings to live and work underwater for long periods of time. From that desire emerged the underwater experiments of Genesis (1957-1963), Man in the Sea (1962-1963), Conshelf (1962-1963, 1965), and Sealab (1964-1965, 1969) which proved that it was. Instead of bringing divers back to surface pressure after every dive, it made more sense—from the standpoint of decompression time and safety—to simply keep the divers under pressure. Once their bodies became saturated with the gas they breathed, no more decompression penalty would be incurred. They could spend days, weeks, or even months at the working depth until the superintendent wanted them out. Then, on a one‑time basis, their bodies would give back the inert gas during a single, long and slow decompression to the surface.

And this is what Richard experienced that spring. He would lock out of the bell and swim to the job site as he normally did. But unlike his previous bounce dives, there was no stopwatch ticking in the dive shack, no pell‑mell rush to get the job done, no decompression appointment to meet. He simply worked on the bottom and paced himself until the supervisor ordered him back to bell, usually after about four or five hours. Then he traded places with his bell partner who worked for the same amount of time. When the dive was completed, the two men sealed the bell which was brought out of the water and locked onto a multi‑chamber complex pressurized close to the working depth. There, Richard remained cocooned until his next dive, in about a day’s time.

Meanwhile, as he and his partner were cleaning themselves up, two other divers in sat had already climbed into the bell for the next “bell run.” A new set of external and internal bell checks were performed and then the bell was away again with the fresh team continuing the work program. This “bell turnaround” process usually took about thirty to forty minutes and provided round-the-clock diving, stopping only for maintenance or if the weather blew up.

Inside the system, space was scarce. Ocean Systems normally employed small saturation chambers which stood in the vertical position and were easy to transport and set up on barges and rigs. These “verticals” measured only about eight feet in diameter and ten feet tall and accommodations within them were Spartan. Living in one was like camping out in an elevator. Everything was made of cold steel and aluminum, which sucked the heat out of the atmosphere and intensified the whirling noise of the CO2 scrubbers. Hearing them for the first time made you wonder, How am I going to live with that?

Dividing the chamber were four half-moon shaped bunks attached to the bulkhead which forced even a medium‑sized diver to sleep in the fetal position. Light penetrated through six-inch portholes which were scattered about and covered over with cardboard and duct tape during periods of rest.


When Richard went into sat there were no regulations specifying the size, shape, or level of comfort for these steel igloos; and the helium used to pressurize them was expensive. To keep costs down, it was routine for diving contractors to economize the job wherever they could, and in the Ekofisk Field, Ocean Systems did just that. That spring, Richard spent his first sat in a deck chamber shaped like a large cigar tube not normally used for saturation. It measured nine feet long, and like the company diving bell, prevented him from standing up. “The work is dangerous,” he later wrote to Mary Ellen, “and the living situation slightly better than staying in a cold, rusty sardine can.”1

But even when new regulations came into effect at the beginning of 1975, the living standard in sat was only mildly improved due in part to the way in which the law had been written. Diving contractors were only required to provide a diving plant that was of “sound construction and suitable material,” “in good working order,” and adequate for the purpose for which it was intended. The allocation of space was never mentioned. Chambers merely had to enable the diver to lie down “without difficulty,” and if he was going to remain inside for more than twelve hours, then by law, he had to be able to stand upright “without difficulty.”2 And throughout much of the 1970s, that was about all the space that was afforded the men who lived in them.

Stationed at the edge of the barge or beside a hole in the rig’s deck called the moonpool, sat systems were exposed to the elements, and sometimes connected together in odd configurations which forced other divers to trespass through “your chamber” to get to the entrance lock for the next dive. The space between opposing bunks was merely two feet wide so elbows and knees had to be minded. The incessant noise of the scrubbers, the close quarters—it all made for a scenario of disorder and quarrel. And yet, even under these depressing conditions, tempers rarely flared. On the contrary, divers in sat were generally in good humor because there was nothing like a snootful of cash to clear the sinuses and make one forget the tiny box he was living in. Sat also got the diver off a cold windblown deck and down onto the seabed where he wanted to be. Claustrophobic bells and cramped chambers therefore were just accepted as part of the job description.

Pressurized to three or four hundred feet, of course, was no place for Richard to find out that he didn’t like confined spaces. Once the chamber hatches clanged shut and the body saturated, there was nothing topside could do for him if he suddenly wanted out; the laws of physics prevented that. He could scream, holler, pull on the doors, but they were not going to budge. Not because they had locks on them, which they didn’t, but because even at ten feet the amount of pressure against a typical two‑foot diameter hatch was more than 2,000 pounds, at 560 feet, more than 112,000 pounds!

But Richard had long ago come to terms with the confinement. He knew he was expected to remain inside for the time the superintendent decided, which depended upon the workload and how well he performed. Moreover, Richard wouldn’t have been told the number of days or weeks he could expect to be in sat, nor would he have foolishly asked. The whole purpose for going offshore was to get into sat where the money was, and it didn’t improve his chances if he began asking such silly questions. As a matter of fact, once divers got into sat with the dollar signs dancing in front of their eyes, it was difficult to get them to come out voluntarily. In any case, the customary duration was thirty days, although forty‑ to fifty‑day saturations were not unheard of.

One thing Richard noticed about sat diving was that he had to learn to pace himself on these heavy construction projects because sat lock-outs were long and exhausting; and if he made the mistake of blowing all of his stamina during the first hour of the dive, then he’d very quickly find his arms dangling down like blocks of stone, numb and completely useless. The image of a diver on the seabed muscling the job with gloved hands was a myth, especially in the North Sea. Water resistance, cold, and the sheer size of some of the objects he had to move made that impossible. So Richard had to use his ingenuity and resourcefulness (and the barge crane) to shift things around on the seabed. And the strange and wonderful thing was, he always found a way to do it because deep‑sea diving was really a thinking man’s game.

One other thing kept Richard working comfortably for hours in these frigid waters, and that was the use of hot water. The barge had a hot‑water machine which pumped superheated saltwater down to the bell and out to Richard through a hose in his umbilical. The end of the hose plugged into a brass fitting mounted on the right hip of his hot‑water suit, a kind of heavy duty neoprene rubber coverall that zipped up the front. From the hip connection the hot water flowed to different parts of his body through small distribution tubes embedded in the suit. This was an open‑circuit suit so the water eventually flushed itself into open water through the hands, feet and neck area.

And when this water came down to Richard it was hot, so hot that he wore “woolly bears” underneath as insulation to protect himself from being scalded. Mixed with the surrounding ice water, the marinade kept Richard warm. But there were problems with these early hot‑water machines, and divers were notorious for tinkering with them. Some caught fire or flamed out during the bell run. And when Richard lost his supply he usually knew about it before his supervisor because the change was almost immediate, and without hot water in the North Sea, he was cold, and he was cold right now, not tomorrow or the next day. Sometimes the situation was the reverse: the water flooding his suit would be boiling hot. In that event, he would simply turn a bypass valve on his hip which dumped the blistering flow into the surrounding sea, then order topside to come down on the temperature one or two degrees. But when the temperature was just right, it was like taking a warm bath. Without question, the use of hot water was perhaps the greatest technological advancement ever made in deep‑sea diving, and without it saturation diving in the North Sea would have been impossible.

For Richard, the first couple of weeks in saturation tended to drag by. The physical adjustment was quick—the walls of his universe were right there, just three feet away—but the mental adjustment took time. Not yet settled, and hermetically sealed, his mind naturally bounced between the world of freedom and the world of voluntary internment which forced him to depend upon topside for everything—towels, sheets, food, soap, books, mail, newspapers, everything. If he wanted the light turned on, he had to ask topside to do it. If he wanted the toilet flushed, topside was involved. If the temperature in the chamber was too cold, Richard would shout into the speaker: “Topside.”


“Come up on the temperature two degrees.”

“Roger, up two degrees.”

Even the act of eating involved the outside crew. The daily menu was announced over the horn speaker. Richard placed his order, and then someone on the outside went to the galley, served up the food, brought it back and loaded it into a small, one‑foot diameter “medical lock” mounted on the side of the chamber which had a door on either end.


Once the food was in the lock, the attendant closed the outside door and clamped it shut. Then he took a metal object (usually a wrench) and rapped twice on the side of the lock. This “take‑the‑lock” signal told the divers inside that the outside door was secure. One of the divers on the inside would then s-l-o-w-l-y open a small valve to pressurize the lock. Open it too fast and dinner would end up looking like it had been through a garbage disposal. Closed containers such as bottles of catsup and steak sauce had to be opened before being compressed, otherwise the divers would never be able to unscrew the tops. Sometimes the bottles simply imploded during pressurization, leaving a huge mess. Compressible items such as Styrofoam cups were useless because, by the time they reached storage depth, they were the size of a shot glass which made for amusing moments when someone actually made tea in one and blew it down to you.

Gradually, life in sat became routine for Richard. He would leave on his bell runs, come back, and fall exhausted into a deep dreamless sleep. Fourteen hours later he’d wake up still feeling bone‑tired, muscles aching, and glance at his watch. Then he’d pull the cardboard back from a porthole to see if it was night or day. Outside, the other members of the crew were running around freezing their buns off for one-fifth the pay, while inside Richard was warm and dry, earning serious money, and giving the guys on the outside the thumbs up and that wish‑you‑were‑here look.

And then one day Richard woke up and discovered that the walls of his chamber had stretched like taffy and that his brain had somehow disconnected itself from the outside world. Fresh air, freedom, time—their glorious essence had subconsciously slipped away. That annoying scrubber hum was gone, too. His voice on helium was the way it had always been. Food was now a form of entertainment and work on the seabed even more spectacular than ever. From the bell stage, he would glide down to the seabed through the watery darkness like a night owl descending on its prey, then trudge across the barren landscape, cut up his fill of pipe, and send it to the surface by crane. Hours later he was back inside his steel cocoon. This new world was strange and wonderful and oddly turned inside out. He was now operating from inside a transitional bubble, moving from barge to sea floor, then back again, day after day. It was as though he were being transported to work in some dust‑filled mine on Pluto. The other world, the one that he had come from, didn’t exist anymore.

There was no outside.

Day after day, this routine went on for Richard. Dive, eat, sleep. Dive, eat, sleep. Dive, eat, sleep. His hands, bathed in saltwater for hours, became rough and callous. He slathered antiseptic ointment on them like hand cream to keep the infections down. When the weather turned foul, operations were suspended. Storms lasted anywhere from several days to several weeks, so Richard slept and read and told funny stories, and spent a goodly amount of time thinking about his future while he waited on the weather. Sat was a state of mind, and it was where Richard discovered his inner strengths and weaknesses.

And on it went—dive, eat, sleep—dive, eat, sleep. Each day dissolved effortlessly into the next. Words like Monday and Tuesday became irrelevant. Under the yellow glare of incandescent light, Richard devoured newspapers and magazines from cover to cover; even the most innocuous advertisements seemed interesting. In his diary he drew cartoons and little sketches and wrote to everyone—friends, family, even “old flames,” drinking in the words they mailed back as so much luscious poetry, causing him to laugh and cry, always breaking the lonely spell he was in and reminding him that the other life, the one he dearly loved, “in the land of the lotus,” was sadly passing him by.

And then one day the speaker blared out an order for Richard and his partner to get their gear into the chamber used for decompression; they were coming out. Richard’s mood suddenly shifted. His trips to Pluto were over. Unlike bounce decompression, sat decompression was a snail ride in diminishing stages: six-feet per hour, then five, then four, and finally the excruciating pace of three feet per hour during the last 50 feet to the surface. Richard’s voice along the way got deeper, more resonant. He didn’t have to try as hard to speak clearly to his partner, and as the days dragged on, he began to feel weaker and weaker as though vampires had been sucking the blood out of his veins.

Finally, just when he thought it would never end, he heard a thunk, like a can of coffee getting punctured. The chamber door popped open. His yellow canvas duffel bag was already packed and waiting on his bunk. He crammed one leg through the hatch, and then his head. A blast of frigid air smacked his face and suddenly his mind warped forward into the cold outside world where everything seemed strangely quiet—the whirling scrubbers weren’t with him anymore. He was free.

It had been a long sat. He’d lost weight and his face was white as a ghost. He made a lot of money, but he’d earned it the hard way. Gaunt‑faced, Richard walked to the edge of the barge and stood under an alabaster sky with his eyes closed and sucked the cold wind into his lungs, certain that the North Sea was where God made fresh air.

1 Undated letter from Richard Walker to Mary Ellen Fletcher. Burt Davis says Richard’s first sat came in the spring of 1974.
2 SI 1229, The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 16(5) Schedule 2.