Becoming a ‘professional’ diver: a light-hearted look.

A Royl Engineer Diver using a rock drill underwater. An illustration of training undertaken at Marchwood Diver Training Centre, in 1979. Drawing by Colin Munro.
Using a rock drill underwater against a vertical face was back-breaking work.

In these times of volunteer projects to conserve reefs around the World, the boundaries between ‘professional’ and recreational divers has become somewhat blurred. The use of tools underwater, be it Broco cutting gear, bolt guns or high pressure water lances, is one measure of being a ‘proper’ diver rather than a ‘Scuby-doo’, at least on a psychological level.  Maybe for this reason, as much as any other, the use of underwater tools was a fundamental part of my army diver training many decades ago.  At first both tools and tasks were kept very simple lest we do too much damage, either to ourselves or to the lump of metal or concrete we were tasked to modify. As virtually all of our diving was conducted in zero visibility, the risk – of either unintended amputation of body parts or trashing some vital structural component – was not inconsiderable.  My first encounter with underwater tools is a good example of this.  It happened right at the very beginning of my diving career; following my application to train as a Royal Engineers Diver. I was required to undergo several days ‘aptitude test’ to assess whether I was suitable material to join this elite group, before the army wasted significant amounts of money on training me.  This took place in Kiel, North Germany, along the Baltic coast.  In January.  In summer the Baltic coast is beautiful, in the depths of winter, not so much. In Glaswegian parlance, the phrase ‘Jeez it’s Baltic oot there’, can be taken as a warning to put on your warmest coat before venturing outside.

After a 300 kilometre drive huddled in the open back of a Land Rover, we arrived at the British Army diving facility in Kiel, shook the ice off our uniforms and headed to the warmth of the barracks. The following morning, we were introduced to our diving equipment.

The diving suits we were given were (for the non-divers reading this) of the type known as drysuits. Unlike wetsuits these have enclosed boots and tight seals at the wrist and neck to (in theory) exclude water. Under these we wore old fashioned woollen vest and long johns, and what was essentially a thin corduroy onesie. Combined, they had thermal insulating properties of a wet tea towel. The drysuits themselves were rather different to modern diving dry suits, where one enters through a zip across the shoulders or diagonal length of the body. With these there was no zip, and one entered through the neck of the suit. The process resembled birth in reverse, and was something of an art, requiring an assistant, dexterity, brute strength and – above all – timing! Once inside, a thick aluminium collar was placed inside the neck of the suit (so resting painfully on your collar bones) and a latex neck seal placed on top. This join was then sealed by a brass ring firmly clamping all three together: there was now no unaided escape. The diving suits were made by Avon Rubber Company, from the same material as car tyre inner tubes. Presumably as a joke they termed them ‘dry suits’ for in reality they had more holes than Emmentaler cheese and leaked like sieves, as we were about to find out. Thus, attired, we plodded on down to the wooden, snow-covered jetty, pushing a small cart containing our lead weight-belts, diving cylinders, full-face diving regulator and lead diving boots. At the end of the jetty a jolly corporal, wearing what looked to me like an extremely warm fur lined parka, instructed me on how to put the equipment on. Once lead boots, weight belt, twin diving cylinders and ancillary equipment were on I warmed up considerably; largely because the equipment weighted around 60 kilos, and I was expending a not-insignificant amount of energy on simply remaining upright. My mask was then firmly clamped on to my face, the ‘spider’ of rubber retaining straps pulled tight to ensure no leaks, and my air turned on. My first underwater tools were then ceremoniously presented to me. They consisted of a large lump hammer and a cold chisel. My allotted task was to cut through the links of some old mooring chain I would find at the bottom of the metal ladder that descended from the jetty to the murky water below. Through the slowly fogging mask I looked at the thin layer of ice covering the sea below the jetty and began to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. To make the task a little more interesting, the clear Perspex of my full-face mask was completely taped over with black insulating tape, rendering me completely encased and in total darkness. I was then guided across the snow covered jetty to the edge of the metal ladder at the end of the wooden jetty, and I proceeded – gingerly – to climb down the slippery metal rungs to the freezing water below. As I descended beneath the surface I felt the chill of icy water slowly trickling into the suit, down my chest and back. In a few minutes I had reached the soft mud seabed and by feel located the length of chain. Each link was about eight inches long, composed of metal about two inches thick. By touch I tried to determine which end of the chisel was which. One end felt marginally less blunt than the other, so I placed it carefully against the metal of the nearest link and I proceeded to pound the other end with all my might for the next twenty-five minutes or so. Occasionally I would stop for a few seconds to catch my breath and to check with my fingers how deep a gouge I had dug into the link. This was always bitterly disappointing as the chisel – virtually flat at either end – was making not the slightest dent in the chain. After about twenty-five minutes I felt a sharp tug on my lifeline. I responded and was signalled to ascend. No chain was damaged during this exercise, but that was not the point. The point was firstly to check that I would not suffer a panic attack in the zero visibility of the blacked out mask, and possibly more importantly I was dumb enough to undertake completely pointless, physically exhausting tasks when told to, and to continue until told to stop. The latter at least, I passed with flying colours.

Fast forward several months and I was at Marchwood Diver Training Centre, near Southampton, England. My diver training had begun in earnest. Although the totally pointless, physically exhausting tasks continued unabated (in fact they increased in severity and duration) I was finally introduced to ‘proper’ power tools. These included pneumatic rock drills. These are essentially the same ‘road-breaker’s’ one sees workmen using to break up the tarmac at roadworks. Powered off a trailer low pressure generator, they are connected to the generator by long, thick rubber hoses. In order to give us something solid to work on, a large concrete block had been lowered onto the black primordial ooze that constitutes the seabed at Marchwood Docks. This was a cube, each side a little over a metre long, resembling a giant sugar cube sitting on the mud. Or at least I imagined it as such, for once again, the visibility underwater was non-existent; you could literally press the luminous face of your watch against your mask and still see nothing. Divers were deployed on this task in pairs. Connected to the surface by individual rope lifelines, each diver descended on opposite sides of the cube, following the hose of the rock drill that had been lowered to the seabed close to the cube. Now operating a pneumatic road breaker drill underwater is not an easy task. For one thing, the pressure differential between the compressed air (powering the drill) and the surrounding water lessens as one descends. This made the drills temperamental underwater. They tended to stop frequently; the drill bit then had to be banged hard against the side of the concrete cube to restart it. Once started the heavy drill had to be supported and pressed hard against the vertical side of the cube, all the time pulses of compressed air expelled from the drill were hammering your head and shoulders. This meant adopting semi-crouching position, cradling the drill and leaning forward pushing as hard as possible. Again lead boots were worn, otherwise the diver would simply be ‘blown away’ by the air pressure from the drill. Now the obvious, much easier way to conduct this operation was to climb on top of the cube and operate the drill downwards, in a similar fashion to navvies at work on roads. But that was a risky manoeuvre. To climb up required putting your hands on top of the cube and heaving until you could slide your belly and then one knee on to the upper surface. The problem was, you could hear the thunderous hammering of your fellow diver’s drill very near you, and you assumed he was working away on the opposite side of the cube. But there was also the possibility that he had had reached exactly the same conclusion as you, and was already standing on top of the cube, drilling downwards. In the total darkness, the possibility of having a rock drill remove all your fingers, or modify the shape of your cranium, was very real and singularly unappealing. An alternative strategy was called for. We developed what I like to think of as the ‘ten pin bowling strategy’. Picking up my drill and cradling it in my arms, I would step backwards, counting my steps. One, two, three, four … at ten steps I would halt. Breathing deeply, I would relax, then summoning all my energy, start to run. I say run, this was underwater, in lead boots, through soft mud, carrying a heavy drill, in pitch darkness, so it probably more resembled waddling through treacle. Six, seven, eight, nine… and then leap! If you timed it right your leading boot would land atop the concrete cube. In one mighty bound you were there. Secure on the desired location where your task became much easier. And if that spot was already occupied? This is where the ten pin analogy applies, for if your compatriot was already occupying that space you would smack into him without warning in the darkness, like an invisible bowling ball, sending him crashing to the mud below. And this became our routine. Ten or fifteen minutes of bone jarring drilling, then suddenly an apparent sledge hammer from nowhere would send you flying of the top of the block and leave you face down in the mud below, where you either accepted your demotion and worked the vertical face, or gathered your wits and breath, and plotted revenge.

Whether our instructors were aware this was happening I really don’t know. If they had I doubt they would have cared that much. The point of most of the training was not to refine your technique with the equipment at hand, nor to reshape our concrete or steel media for any particular purpose. The function of almost all tasks was to learn rudimentary skills and endurance, to work with, but compete against your fellow trainees … and still more endurance. So viewed from that perspective, our creative adaptation fitted perfectly. Our instructors would probably have approved.

Marine biologist Colin Munro using an underwater pneumatic drill to create piton holes for an underwater monitoring station, following the Sea Empress oil spill.
Power tools are used by marine biologists also. This was me, back in 1997, using a pneumatic rock drill to create piton holes (to mark underwater monitoring stations) in Milford Haven, following the Sea Empress oil spill. Photo by Sue Burton.

As it transpired, many years passed before I used pneumatic rock drills in earnest underwater. I had long since left the army and was now a working marine biologist. The drills has shrunk in size somewhat , but the task remained as energy-demanding and strength sapping as ever, though I assumed at the time, with rather more purpose to it. We were creating a series of underwater monitoring stations following a major oil spill. The plan was to record every year, monitoring changes in seabed communities over the years. So if any furture spill occurred the impacts could be differentiated from natural change. Alas, as is often the way of these things, after a pretty massive effort creating a series of such stations throughout the length of Milford Haven, the funding for subsequent monitoring never materialised, so maybe to no more purpose after all.