Early in 1976 Richard Walker was in Santa Barbara and Skip Guiel was in dive school in Wilmington, California. The Wildrake accident was three years away and already contractors were taking advantage of an oversight agency that was staffed by the wrong people and unable to cope with problems created by imperfect laws. And while the UK Diving Inspectorate professed a desire to “learn from the lessons of the past and not repeat the errors,”1 it failed to ban a practice that accounted for more than one third of all fatalities within the first ten year period of its tenure because it was more interested in accommodating industry than raising standards of safety.
In some areas of the world, where sea conditions are less severe, the use of SCUBA in commercial operations is routine. But SCUBA is arguably the most dangerous form of diving there is, and the North Sea no place to be risking the lives of divers to test the soundness of that argument. The whole purpose for employing surface‑supplied diving techniques is to give the diver the added advantage of topside support. Diving on SCUBA removes that advantage. The diver has a limited air supply, no communications, and typically no hot water. And without communications, the diver cannot talk to topside during an emergency, nor can the supervisor monitor the diver’s breathing or receive information on his activities underwater. Complications can occur if the diver exhausts his air supply, and because he is not tethered to the vessel, he can fall prey to tidal flows which have been known to wash men away before help arrives. And without the use of a full‑faced mask, if the diver becomes unconscious, he will drown if his regulator drops out of his mouth. In short, the number of things that can go wrong on SCUBA extends well beyond the argument that would justify its use. That SCUBA carried a host of increased risks was not unknown to the Diving Inspectorate. And yet, the watchdog agency stood strangely silent while a pattern of fatalities developed before its very eyes.
This pattern began on October 14, 1974, when Comex diver John Clarke was thrown against an anchor bolster of a drill rig, fracturing five of his ribs.2 Dressed in SCUBA gear, he had no lifeline, and no communications with his supervisor.3 His regulator subsequently dropped out of his mouth, and by the time he was recovered onto the deck of the rig, he was dead from drowning.
At the time of the accident, SCUBA was an unregulated activity in the North Sea. Commander Warner had only been appointed Chief Diving Inspector earlier that year and he was still adding finishing touches to a new set of regulations that were due out in a few months. Whether Clarke’s death caused any alarm in his office is not known. But if it had, and even if Warner wanted to ban SCUBA outright, by law he was not allowed to do so without first consulting with the people who would be affected by the regulation which were the diving contractors, or in practical terms, their lobbying arm, the Association of Offshore Diving Contractors (AODC).4 Indeed, as one former AODC Chairman recalls, regulations did not come into effect without heavy input from their organization:
Nearly all the legislation—the initial drafting—was done within the AODC, and then Jackie’s Department would modify slightly and put a stamp of approval on it, then it would be imposed on us.
And in late 1974, the AODC did not want to see SCUBA eliminated from the North Sea. According to the former Chairman, the pretext for this position was that there were always going to be some jobs where the use of surface‑supplied diving gear presented a greater hazard to the diver than SCUBA:
...if Jackie had come along and said, ‘We want to ban SCUBA totally,’ we’d have been saying, ‘Yeah, we agree, it’s less safe than other methods, but there are certain specific jobs where the job cannot be done unless you use SCUBA; there is just no alternative. So if you ban SCUBA totally, then the oil company’s got a major problem, and the diving industry has got a problem because it’s our job to do the work underwater.’
But what jobs are these? Surface diving in the North Sea involves a wide range of tasks and challenges, but nothing that would absolutely demand the use of SCUBA. Clarke could have easily accomplished his mission by using surface gear. The truth is, underlying SCUBA’s tenuous link to safety were other motivating factors that drove the AODC to push for its continued use. SCUBA offered powerful economic and logistical advantages that surface gear lacked. It reduced the equipment requirement for topside support; it was easier to transport, and setting up to dive took less time—no humping 600‑foot surface umbilicals around on deck. These incentives had nothing to do with safety, yet produced irresistible inducements to ambitious contractors, particularly when attempting to undercut competitors during contract negotiations. To critics, the AODC position was really just a “head fake” to allow its members to continue conducting diving operations on the cheap.
While the AODC saw “no alternative” to using SCUBA, there was in fact another option open to the Diving Inspectorate, namely, the dispensation. It could have banned SCUBA for safety reasons, then relaxed that ban on those rare occasions when the contractor justified its use and guaranteed additional safeguards to make up for the increased risk. This approach, however, was never adopted. In the end, the Inspectorate cut a deal with the AODC, and when the new regulations debuted at the beginning of 1975, the fruit of that deal was revealed.
On the plus side, free swimming was banned in the UK sector of the North Sea. The diver now had to be “securely connected to a lifeline” which was attached to either a person on the surface, or to another diver in the water who was connected to a person on the surface.5 In addition, he had to be provided with “an effective means of communication,”6 and could not go underwater unless he had a means of communicating “with the diving supervisor.”7
At first glance, these provisions appear to have shut the door on the use of SCUBA. But on closer examination, under the sections headed by “Prohibited Diving Operations” and “Restrictions on Diving,” SCUBA was not listed. What’s more, the legislation left unclear other key issues. For example, it did not specify the nature of the diver’s lifeline, which might be interpreted as nothing more than a piece of rope; nor did the uncertain phrase “effective means of communication” necessarily translate to radio communications in the minds of some diving contractors. Again, the DOE left these definitions open to shrewd interpretation, and as a consequence, Clarke’s death would have a number of unfortunate sequels to it.
Of the 25 divers who died on the UK Continental Shelf between 1974 and 1983 (excluding territorial waters), seven, or 28 percent, were using SCUBA. And if one includes the names of the divers killed while working on oil and gas projects inside territorial waters (that the Diving Inspectorate either co-investigated or was aware of), that figure jumps to 36.6 percent. Statistically, SCUBA added far more names to the obituary column than any other type of accident in the history of North Sea diving.
• the accident occurred in territorial waters, but was investigated by the DOE.
UK SCUBA Fatalities
||Cause of death
|Oct. 14, 1974
|July 16, 1975
||Underwater Security Ltd.
||sudden acute decompression of the head
|July 16, 1975
||Underwater Security Ltd.
|May 12, 1976
|May 13, 1976
|July 14, 1976
|Nov. 4, 1976
|Nov. 4, 1976
|Dec. 24, 1976
|Aug 20, 1977
||Sub Sea Services
|June 2, 1983
||R. M. Wallace
As the table shows, eight of these men drowned which would have been unlikely had they been using full-faced masks. Two accidents involved the practice of “daisy-chaining” divers, where the first diver was tethered to the dive station by a lifeline, while the second diver was merely connected to the first with a five-foot buddy line which he held in his hand.8
This buddy‑line system was a Royal Navy diving technique,9 and was employed ostensibly to comply with the regulations. In some settings it might be suitable, but to use it for commercial operations in the unpredictable waters of the North Sea was asking for trouble. If the line connecting the two divers parted, it would leave the second diver at the mercy of the elements. What’s more, diving contractors apparently believed that the rope the second diver clutched in his hand satisfied the legal obligation “to provide an effective means of communication with every diver.” It certainly did not satisfy the more specific requirement that the diver be able to communicate with his supervisor.10
Of the nine recorded fatalities in 1976,a six occurred on SCUBA. Nine deaths within a twelve-month period was considered unacceptable, but to have two thirds of them associated with a method of diving known for its increased risk should have set off alarm bells all the way from Aberdeen to London. What’s more, none of these incidents involved a situation where the job would have been more hazardous using surface-supplied diving gear. If anything, jumping these men on SCUBA in marginal sea conditions was the more dangerous course of action. While using surface gear cannot eliminate all risk, it is unlikely that these men would have drowned had they been using full‑faced masks. And if Meehan and Moore had been equipped with communications, at the very least they would have been able to tell their supervisors what to do to assist them; certainly Moore would not have been lost in a drifting sea.
At this juncture, taking some form of action to stem the unprecedented tide of SCUBA deaths would have been a refreshing change in policy and consistent with the DOE’s line that prevention of accidents was a serious priority. But nothing seemed to compel the agency to stop a practice which clearly had no business being used in the North Sea, so the deaths continued.
Eight months after Michael Moore disappeared, an Italian diver by the name of Sansalone joined the growing gallery of SCUBA victims when he drowned while diving from a pipelay barge. Again, he was using air tanks and a free mouthpiece. More than a decade later, Commander Warner opined about the equipment the young Italian was using that day:
This, in my opinion, was quite the wrong equipment to be used by a man required to actually carry out work underwater.11
One more SCUBA death was recorded during the summer of 1983 off the coast of England, and then 11 years later, long after the oil rush was over, the AODC finally issued this statement:
SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) has inherent limitations and it is strongly recommended that it should NOT be used for offshore diving operations in support of: oil/gas projects; marine construction; civil engineering or salvage.12
Thus, in 1994, the practice of using SCUBA was voluntarily stopped, but by then the damage had been done.
a) This includes the two territorial water fatalities that the Diving Inspectorate commented on.
1 Jackie Warner, “Diving Bell Design: Safe deployment, operation and recovery,” Underwater Systems Design, April/May 1981, p. 11.
2 Clarke FAI, p. 46.
3 Clarke FAI, p. 31, 34, 35, 65, 66, 110, 130.
4 Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971, Section 7 (1).
5 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 6 (1) (b) (i), (iii).
6 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 16 2 (d).
7 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 19 (a).
8 Meehan/Spensley FAI, p. 7, 15, 24.
9 Moore FAI, p. 70-71.
10 The Offshore Installations (Diving Operations) Regulations 1974, Regulation 19 (a).
11 Jackie Warner, and Fred Park, Requiem for a Diver, p. 51.