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The First Gulf of Mexico Oilfield Diving Company

Discussion in 'History of Scuba Diving: Tales from the Abyss' started by Oceanaut, Jul 9, 2019.

  1. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Solo Diver

    Excerpted from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure
    by Christopher Swann (Oceanaut Press)​

    The first formal diving company in the Gulf of Mexico came into existence in September 1957 when Al Warriner, a native of Panama City, incorporated in New Orleans as Underwater Services.

    Warriner’s diving career began in 1938 when the W. Horace Williams Construction Company, which he joined after taking a degree in mechanical engineering, sent him and another diver to the Creole field to salvage a steam-powered construction barge that had sunk alongside a wooden drilling and production platform that was connected to shore by a mile-long bridge.

    The equipment Horace Williams provided consisted of a Morse helmet made in one piece with the breastplate, and a hand pump to supply the air. As long as the diving dress did not leak, the diver stayed in the gear all day, eating his lunch through the detachable faceplate. In summer Warriner dispensed with the dress and worked with the helmet resting on his shoulders.

    After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, Warriner returned to the shipyard work he had taken up after leaving Horace Williams. In 1946, he began making occasional trips to Louisiana to dive in the oilfields, first in the lagoons and waterways, then in the open Gulf. Warriner installed valves, connected pipelines to the small platform structures, and undertook the occasional salvage job. All the work was in water less than 30'/9M deep.

    In 1954, Warriner was working on the construction of a tunnel under the Harvey Canal, across the Mississippi from New Orleans. Unlike most diving contracts, which tended to be of short duration, the tunnel kept Warriner busy five days a week, month in and month out.

    As it happened, the office of McDermott’s offshore division was near the construction site. Every day at lunch time the McDermott engineers crossed the footbridge that ran over Warriner's head on their way to Phil's, the only restaurant in the area. From time to time Warriner also went to Phil's. One Saturday morning one of the engineers telephoned Warriner at home and told him they urgently needed a diver to cut the piles on a platform they were trying to remove. The tunnel superintendent had already given permission to borrow him.

    The platform was in about 90'/27M of water, an exceptional depth at the time, and it was on a dry hole. With mobile rigs limited to the shallows, in deep water oil companies had no choice but to continue to drill exploratory wells from a fixed platform. If the well was dry, or failed to produce in commercial quantities, they uprooted the platform and reused it.

    The standard method of removing a platform was to shear off the pilings below the seabed by dropping explosive charges down them. A derrick barge then picked up the platform, and it was towed to the next site. Generally, it was not that simple, however. Depending on the lifting capacity of the barge, it was often necessary first to pull out the piles which, being of much heavier steel than the platform, accounted for half the total weight. Usually the contractor attempted to extract them from the top; but frequently the explosives splayed the metal, making it impossible to get them out. The structure then had to be turned on its side and the piles pulled out horizontally from the bottom. If the piles refused to budge, or they were grouted in place, two derrick barges made the lift. When exploration moved into deeper water and the platforms got bigger, even two derrick barges could not always handle the load.

    At two o'clock on the Saturday afternoon Warriner and an ex-navy diver he recruited for the job stuffed their gear into a Widgeon amphibian at New Orleans airport and took off. The pilot, who had been given the wrong information, flew south to the west delta area at the mouth of the Mississippi, instead of heading west to Delcambre: a detour that cost them two refueling stops and a great deal of time. When they finally arrived at Delcambre they boarded the crewboat for the five hour run to the platform and went to sleep.

    On Sunday they sat and waited. McDermott had shot off the pilings and laid the platform on its side, but the pilings were stuck. McDermott's two 250-ton derrick barges, the only two of their size in the Gulf, were unable, together, to lift the combined weight of the structure and pilings. The only solution was to lighten the load by cutting off the protruding ends of the pilings.

    That evening at sunset Warriner and his partner got in the water with oxy-arc cutting torches to burn off the first of the 40"/101Cm-diameter piles. The depth was no more than 10'-12'/3M-3.6M but the swell made it difficult to hang on. Both divers were using light gear.

    Some time before, Warriner had bought a set of Scott scuba equipment for working on the Harvey tunnel. Until then, he had used nothing but heavy gear, but there were places on the tunnel where it was too restricting. Warriner converted the Scott mask to surface supply and put in a one-way telephone so he could talk to his tender.

    The telephone now proved its worth. Whereas the other diver had to rely on hose signals to get the current to his torch turned on and off, Warriner gave the word into his microphone. As a result, he cut much more steel than the ex-navy man. Furthermore, rather than hanging on to the outside of the piling and being buffeted by the swell, he climbed inside and cut from the inside out. At the time, burning in an enclosure was considered a dangerous practice—the US Navy prohibited it because of the risk of explosion—but Warriner found it worked.

    Warriner and his partner worked all Sunday night, then the derrick barge rolled the platform over and they cut the next set of piles: a procedure that was repeated until all the pilings had been cut. Late on Tuesday evening, Warriner left the barge to return to his job on the Harvey tunnel. By the time he got back to his apartment, with travel time he had made $3,000 in less than four days. On the Harvey tunnel, it took him a week to make $900.

    Continued in the next post

  2. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Solo Diver


    Continued from previous post

    Al Warriner on a McDermott derrick barge in the early 1960s. The photo was taken during the installation of the US Navy’s “Argus Island” off Bermuda. The purpose of the platform was to track the movement of Russian submarines in the Atlantic (Al Warriner)

    Perhaps because of numerous experiences of the bends on the Harvey tunnel, Warriner was the first person in the Gulf to design and build a decompression chamber to go offshore. It was a double-lock—two-compartment—unit mounted on trailer wheels, equipped with an air compressor and racks for oxygen cylinders. Eight feet/2.4M long and weighing 3.5–4 tons/3,550—4,000Kg, it was awkward to transport; and, according to Dick Evans, who worked for Underwater Services before going into business for himself, at less than 10'/3M of pressure the doors, which sealed by means of interrupted threads, leaked. Subsequently, Warriner built two smaller chambers from aluminum for transport by helicopter.

    Warriner also claimed another "first". At the beginning of 1958, he and two engineers from McDermott flew to Morgan City for a pre-bid conference with Gulf Oil on a platform removal. Warriner told Gulf that there was no need to cut the piles with explosives. He had developed a better method: go down inside the pilings and burn them off from the inside. That way the pilings could be extracted from the top and they could be used again. He and the divers who worked for him had already done such a job in shallow water. Warriner received the go-ahead; but not without reservations. To one of the oilmen, it seemed "kind of inhumane to put a person down inside a pile." To which Warriner replied: "The only thing inhumane about it is if I don't get paid!"

    Warriner took six divers on the job: one for each of the six legs, plus himself in reserve. Among the divers were Dick Evans and Dick Alba. Fortunately, as it turned out, Warriner had delayed the job a few days until his new decompression chamber was finished. It was so new, the inside still smelled of paint. The pilings were 30"/76Cm in diameter, with a wall-thickness of three-quarters of an inch. The divers were to cut them off at a depth of about 130'/40M.

    Initially all went well, but then the torch of one of the divers blew apart. The weather was cold and so was the water. Rather than leave the diver at the bottom of the piling while they rigged another torch, Warriner brought him up and then went down himself to finish the cut. As it happened, the welding machine to which his torch was connected stopped running. Since there were no more divers in reserve, he stayed in the water. By the time the tenders got the machine started again and he finished the cut, he had overstayed his time: which, as he well knew, meant a longer decompression.

    Warriner was wearing a Scott mask and a wet suit and he was very cold. The idea of decompressing in the water for several hours, his teeth chattering, did not appeal to him in the least—especially when the chamber was waiting on deck. He made a slow ascent up the piling and got out. There he found Alba who, also feeling the cold, had done the same thing. Neither diver, despite having failed to decompress, was in any hurry to get into the chamber. First they sat down and had a cup of coffee. As far as they were concerned, when they went in the chamber they were entering a physiological terra incognita where the only compass was the seat of their pants.

    Twelve hours later they emerged, tired but bends-free. More important to Warriner, Gulf Oil was delighted with the success of the job. From then on, he and his divers were rarely at home.

    One difficulty in cutting pilings from the inside was the tendency to cut in long spirals, which was costly in both time and materials. The solution was to use a guide. Warriner made up rings of steamed oak, similar to piston rings, which sprang open when the diver cut the lashings. The diver rested the ring on pieces of welding rod stuffed into holes punched around the inside of the piling with his cutting torch. Using a guide, the average time to cut a 30-inch piling dropped from 30–45 minutes to 20–25 minutes or less.

    There was also the consideration the piling might be under tension, in which case, when the diver came near the end of the cut, the piling would snap, possibly trapping him. Warriner always tried to make the cut a few inches above the bottom of the platform leg to avoid being "nipped"—although on occasion Underwater Services burnt off pilings as much as 100'/M below the bottom because the oil company wanted to salvage the extra length.

    At its height, Underwater Services was probably the largest diving company in the world, employing over 100 divers on oil company contracts in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf, Mexico and Lake Maracaibo, and on missile recovery work at Cape Canaveral. Eighty-five percent of the company's revenues came from offshore oil, a good part of it from McDermott. Subsequently McDermott tried to buy Underwater Services, but Warriner refused to sell, preferring to remain, as he put it, "a big frog in my own pond."

    Independence had its price, however. In 1963, a downturn in the offshore oil business prompted Warriner to bid on a contract to lay three five-foot diameter tubes across the Houston ship channel. The job was a disaster. The traffic in the channel made it impossible to keep to a reasonable schedule, and by the time the work was completed Warriner had lost three-quarters of a million dollars. From then on Underwater Services was a shadow of its former self, limping along for another six years until Warriner closed the doors in 1969, to go on to other things.

    End of Multipart post

  3. ibj40

    ibj40 Divemaster

    # of Dives: I just don't log dives
    Location: Texas
    I love stories like these, so much history from different perspectives.

  4. thaonhipili123

    thaonhipili123 Garibaldi

  5. Akimbo

    Akimbo Lift to Freedom Volunteer Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    Argus Island was also the site of the US Navy's Sealab I saturation diving experiment in 1964.
    Sam Miller III likes this.
  6. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Solo Diver

    Cutting pilings from the inside was certainly potentially dangerous, although I'm not aware of there having been any serious accidents or fatalities. It would not be an acceptable practice today.
  7. Oceanaut

    Oceanaut Solo Diver

    Thank you, I forgot to mention this.

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