Bottom Time

Bookshelf: Bottom Time

Bottom Time: The Adventures of a Commercial Diver – Norbert Weissinger

Bottom Time
Bottom Time

Since before I started diving I’ve had a fascination with commercial divers – perhaps because they work in the industrial places of the world – harbours, oil fields – that also fascinate me.

Norbert Weissinger worked as a commercial diver for a couple of years in the early 1980s, mainly in the oil fields of the American South. His book is a strange mixture of reminiscences about specific characters he worked with, travelogue, and musing on Buddhism, which he seems to have embraced in later life. The majority, however deals, with his activities as a commercial diver, and it is these sections that hold the most interest.

The work of commercial divers seems fraught with monotony (is that possible?) while they wait for conditions to be right for them to work on their assigned task. They wrangle huge pipes and bolts and flanges while underwater, issue instructions to crane operators, and risk losing fingers and limbs (many do) and getting the bends on a daily basis. Crush injuries are common, and ten years is considered a very long career in the field.

Weissinger talks a lot about the effects of nitrogen narcosis – much of his work was conducted at depths exceeding 20 metres, and he describes how difficult narcosis made it to make decisions while working – sometimes he would have to go through a specific sequence of events, deciding which way to move the crane, and keeping himself out of trouble. I do not envy commercial divers having to think about work as well as act on those thoughts underwater!

Because the divers conducted so many dives in a day – six being a common number – and many of them at depth – decompression sickness was a constant danger. Instead of doing safety stops in the water (they did after very long or deep dives), most of the time the divers were bundled straight out of the water into a decompression chamber located on the barge. There they spent intervals breathing pure oxygen (15 minutes at a time followed by 5 minutes of air) and decompressing. The presence of the chamber on the barge also meant that should a diver emerge from the water with symptoms of the bends, he could be placed into the chamber immediately. The dive tables used by the commercial diving companies were more conservative than the navy-developed ones, because of the intensity of the work and number of dives conducted.

Weissinger didn’t do it himself, but he does talk to a colleague who had participated in saturation diving. The tissues of the human body become saturated with gas after a certain time (say 24 hours) at depth, and the decompression time is the same whether you spend an hour, a day or a week at that particular pressure. Divers lived in pressurised environments for weeks on end, shuttling between a chamber and the bottom until it was time to decompress. The diver Weissinger talked to spent his time at about 300 metres’ equivalent pressure, and said the atmosphere was so thick that things didn’t fall straight down but wafted back and forth. He was breathing over 99% helium and 1% oxygen. They spent 10 days returning to normal atmospheric pressure afterwards. This has gone out of vogue, apparently, but researchers and scientists who spend long periods in undersea residences are essentially doing the same thing.

The divers worked alone most of the time, wearing jeans, booties and fins, cotton gloves, and a wetsuit top – the water was warm. They used either scuba or more commonly, an air supply from the surface, tended by junior staff called, appropriately, tenders.

Much of the time the water was dark or extremely murky. The work was often performed around the large oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, which attract large numbers and variety of fish who shelter between the platform legs. Weissinger describes grouper and other fish watching them while they worked, but most of the time he only experienced the local marine life when he and his colleagues dived on scuba during their downtime.

Buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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