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Home Page  •  Rete Civica di Milano  •  Palazzo dello Sport  •  Atmosfere Subacquee  •  AS Rassegna Stampa  •  Message
  Thursday 31 January 2002 19:28:17  
Roberto Demergazzi   Roberto Demergazzi

Fwd: Le origini delle grandi compagnie di lavori subacquei

Atmosfere Subacquee   Atmosfere Subacquee
Cari amici,
vi giro un brano di un articolo di carattere storico-subacqueo.
L'intero articolo lo trovate al sito
Mi è sembrato molto interessante perchè ripropone esperienze vissute da
uomini del passato che possono tornare utili anche a noi.
Alle volte, se solo si conoscesse la storia, si eviterebbero errori che
altri hanno già fatto in passato e superato ormai da decenni. Oggi infatti
accade ancora che il mondo della subacquea sportiva sia lacerato da dubbi e
perplessità che appartennero a professionisti di 50 anni fa e che furono poi
ampiamente superati in quell'ambito.
E' accaduto, per esempio, che anche il mondo della subacquea professionale
sia passato attraverso il deep air e ne abbia sperimentato tutti i limiti
operativi ed economici abbandonandolo definitivamente nel volgere di breve

UnderWater Magazine Article reprint: May/June 2000
"Where Did the Major Diving Companies of Today Originate? Part 1"
By: Lad Handelman


Today's major diving contractors have watery roots that go back to the late
1950s and 1960s. Those were exciting times to be in the business, and Lad
Handelman was lucky enough to have been there. In this first part of a
multi-part story, Lad shares his observations, and in the process, the
guiding principles and internal dynamics that enabled survival and market
When the California abalone diving business and the burgeoning offshore oil
production business crossed paths in the late 1950s, a revolution started
that led to the mercurial development of commercial diving as a technology
and an industry. The trail leads directly to the major commercial diving
companies of today. When it comes to Global Industries and Stolt Offshore,
others can tell those companies' histories far better than I. Some mighty
giants have risen and fallen in the time since those early days. Taylor
Diving's contribution to the industry is immeasurable and yet, except for
the impact of its existence, Taylor no longer exists. That is unfortunate.
Another great story is that of Andre Galerne, who started IUC "at the
beginning" and today, although not huge in size, is still a force to be
reckoned with. Most incredible to me is that Andre didn't have to sell
company shares - what he did he did alone.

I was originally an abalone diver. My area of "expertise," or firsthand
experience, involves the Oceaneering story, and later the Cal Dive story.
Oceaneering of today is the end product of the amalgamation of many diving
companies, including the original Cal Dive, Can Dive, World Wide Divers,
Divcon, Active Divers of Alaska and Solus-Ocean Systems. The beginning of
that story, covered in this issue, is the product of my first-hand
observations, and includes some conclusions I have drawn along the way.

Each of these two groups, Oceaneering and Cal Dive, were started with
virtually nothing and were confronted by entrenched and seemingly
unassailable competition. Yet Oceaneering and Cal Dive not only survived but
have also been victorious in their respective arenas. I wish this article
could properly convey all of the lessons learned, but perhaps my personal
view of the larger chronology will provide a few insights for the smaller
entrepreneurial groups of today. As best I can, I'll tell you how it
happened... and remember, divers never lie.

The Early Days
Until the late 1950s, virtually all non-military diving used only air and
was involved almost entirely with construction and civil engineering
projects. California uniquely included another diving category, underwater
fishermen called "abalone divers."

Offshore oil development was in its beginning stages, stepping out from
shore on piers, man-made islands, bottom supported barges, and jack-up rigs.
The dive companies of today had not yet emerged. In the late 1950's, West
Coast exploration accelerated to deep waters from floating barges, and a
group of the top deep air divers organized themselves into one Santa Barbara
firm called Associated Divers. This group had a virtual monopoly when it
came to projects below 200 feet. West Coast union scale prevailed, and all
of the founding Associated Divers earned upwards of $100,000 a year (big
money in those days).

We other divers wanted in on this new challenge and large paycheck, but the
doors were closed. Associated had it all. At best, however, even the
strongest air divers struggled and found themselves limited when it came
time for the extensive subsea construction efforts necessary to produce
these new fields 250 feet below the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
California's ocean topography drops straight off from shore, unlike the Gulf
of Mexico, which has a 200 mile shelf. This explains the difference in early
offshore developments.

Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the
subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn drill bit had to
be replaced, a diver had to be called. The hard hat diver effected the
"stab-in" by straddling the top of the 24 inch hole-opening between his
legs, physically pulling the 2-7/8 inch drill string over the target and at
just the right moment instructing the drill floor, 250 feet overhead, to
"let go." In order not to lose his pride, not to mention his manhood, the
diver had to be very, very careful. Harsh working conditions demanded the
oilfield diver of that day be rugged and focused on the job at hand - much
like today, although technology and working conditions have changed for the

As much as the oil companies respected these deep air divers, they also
realized that their growing needs could not be met based on what they could
readily see from this air diving limitation. Shell Oil attempted to solve
its expected deep water needs by introducing the MOBOT, the forerunner of
all work-class ROVs. Shell's new subsea production systems were designed and
configured for MOBOT installation and operation. The one-ton MOBOT had to be
lowered, "flown in" and landed onto a circular "MOBOT track." Once rotated
and locked into position opposite the connector (or valve operator), large
hydraulic powered arms used socket wrenches to tighten or loosen rows of
1-1/4 inch set screws. The MOBOT was a good idea but failed miserably,
breaking more things than it fixed. (Clearly the popular name, "a diver's
best friend" fit the MOBOT.) The progression of subsea production system
planning had come to a standstill.

A New Technology Enters: Helium
The stage was set for a new and better idea: oxy-helium. Utilizing the U.S.
Navy oxy-helium concepts and Dan Wilson's "regulator-in-a helmet," an
upstart company was formed, General Offshore Divers Inc. (Founders were
ex-abalone men Dan Wilson, Whitey Stefens, and I, along with
financial/business partner Ken Elmes.) General Offshore redefined Navy
oxy-helium equipment, tables and procedures. Instead of a "narked" 22 minute
bottom-time at 250 feet on air, we offered clear-headed one hour
bottom-times by replacing nitrogen with helium.

I remember when our first call-out came; it was "the" virgin commercial
helium experience: It was a late December night, 1962, when the phone rang.
Global Marine's drillship, the Cuss 1, off Santa Barbara, was in trouble.
Phillips Petroleum, like all the other oil companies, had Associated
Divers's equipment onboard and ready for the Associated brand of deep air
diving. Phillips had stuck its neck out, however, making the grand decision
to give this helium diving a go. The result was that General Offshore's
helium gear was put onboard just the other side of the moon-pool from
Associated's gear. Philips wasn't about to let Associated Divers go without
first finding out if this helium stuff worked. When Dan and I arrived this
December night, we were confronted by Associated's Bob Rude. Rude's words
were "I'll be back in the morning to bring up your dead bodies". It never
happened. The industry would never be the same again.

Those first dives on helium were memorable. Would our yet unproved
equipment, gas mixtures, and decompression tables actually work? What if
they didn't? It was near midnight. (Abalone divers were not used to working
in the dark.) The ship had a big hole in the center through which it seemed
mountains of water gushed up and down as the ship rose and fell on each
swell. Worst of all, at least to my tender ears, was the incredible noise
level. Six air tuggers simultaneously chugged down-lines up and down, eight
anchor winches strained against the weather. A million pounds of force, it
seemed, wrenched the drill bit deep into the rock formation down below. This
was downright scary!

Dan made the first jump. Instead of nice warm woolies beneath his canvas
Suit, Dan's idea was to wear a neoprene wetsuit. Bad idea. The wetsuit
immediately compressed, leaving Dan no insulation whatsoever against the
near-freezing seawater. Almost immediately he began shivering, and it got
worse and worse during his 42 minute bottom-time. He had no lights to guide
him to the specific row of set screws he was to loosen in order for the
30-inch riser to be released. Understandably the task must not have been
completed, because when it came time to "pull the riser," it wouldn't budge.

When finally, after a long water decompression, he made it to the chamber,
frozen as he was, he was prepared to call the whole dive off (and perhaps
call the whole oxy-helium diving concept off, such was his disappointment in
this first experience). But before he could warm up enough to communicate
clearly, they ordered me down to the moon-pool, and I went at the job. Dan
had paved the way. He showed that our entire helium scheme worked! Global
Marine had stationed a thousand watts of TV lighting right within a few feet
of the targeted row of set screws. My jump was only 12 minutes. I was out of
there with not near the bottom-time or decompression penalty that Dan had
endured. Besides that, I wore a thick set of diver's woolies. The riser
released as it was supposed to and off went the Cuss 1 and the successful
beginning for General Offshore Divers.

Given the tremendous advantage helium provided, more than twice the
bottom-time, and being able to stay clear-headed, with critical
decision-making ability unimpaired, while physically going
"balls-to-the-wall," it was no wonder that instead of taking more than 40
air dives to complete a single subsea pipeline-to-wellhead tie-in, General
Offshore soon became able to complete tie-ins on a regular "10 dive per
tie-in" basis.

Yet, the learning curve, by any standard, was "extreme." For example, Dan,
Whitey and I did virtually all the diving ourselves (back-to-back every 24
hours) the first months. The Navy helium tables were not commercially
sufficient. All three of us experienced minor bends - "niggles" - after just
about every dive. Each new day it would be a fight to see who could get
"first-dive," obtaining relief after a painful night. (Once on bottom and
under pressure again, bubble-caused pain would disappear.) When the diving
day was done, before departing the barge to go home, my personal
decompression "test" was to hop around the chamber on one foot. If I
couldn't make it, I would climb back in the chamber for more oxygen, prior
to getting on a crew boat. (Fortunately today's approach is more cautious
and scientific.)

After each one-hour dive, decompression tables called for the diver to
"hang-off" in the water column for two and one-half hours before making his
ascent to the deck chamber. Channel water temperatures at depth were often
47-52 degrees. Low density helium gas conducts cold seven times more rapidly
than air, which contains nitrogen and which acts as an insulator. The diver
had the heat sucked out of him on helium and would literally freeze. This
was grueling and unacceptable. So at night at the shop, in order to survive,
Dan, Whitey and I made experimental tank dives, trial and error, and
eventually figured out how to eliminate the helium from the decompression
mix and also how to avoid pure oxygen in the water altogether. Much safer
and much warmer!

Changing how deep dives were made was one thing our group achieved. Equally
important, thanks to Whitey Stefens, was the introduction of a new working
philosophy. Instead of "how many dives can we justify to get the job done?",
General Offshore's style of pre-job and contingency planning radically
reduced the number of dives and client costs. Whitey's demanding style
spared no one: dive crews, construction superintendents, not even clients.
Whitey set a new standard for all West Coast work. Within one year, the
group captured the major share of the West Coast market, putting Associated
virtually out of business and disproving Associated's claim to the world
that commercial oxy-helium diving was unsafe. Technology had prevailed.

Subsequently, several of Associated's "king pins" split off, forming their
own new companies: Bob Rude left town and formed Associated of Alaska,
Murray Black formed Divcon and Woody Treen and Peter Blommers formed
International Divers. Jerry Todd, Associated's president, was later to
represent Ocean Systems, opening a Morgan City division. The original Santa
Barbara Associated was reduced to just Ted Benton and Pete Brumis, two
legendary divers with nowhere to go. All this occurred between 1962 and
1964. (In 1968, Associated of Alaska dissolved directly following a snow
mobile accident which killed Bob Rude.) Divcon, following a brief start off
California, was called to Libya and the North Sea, and once having
established headquarters in London, launched an unchallenged expansion
campaign, being pulled along right behind each new foreign region's
exploration or construction project. There was virtually no competition and
almost overnight, Divcon was operating in almost a dozen locales, from
Ireland to the west, Africa throughout the Mideast, and through
Australia/Asia to the east. For its many deeper contracts, Divcon supplied
huge eight-ton double compartment dive systems along with the necessary
gargantuan handling systems. In no time at all, Divcon achieved dominance of
the international market.

General Offshore Purchased by Union Carbide
In early 1964, within a three-week period, both Dan Wilson and I were hit
with convulsing and hallucinating oxygen poisoning while smack in the middle
of deep hardhat dives, each of us surviving only through miraculous escapes.
Even Whitey, uglier and meaner than any moray eel, chose not to go on. The
partners elected to curtail all further helium dives.

Wilson was never to dive again. Only much later was it discovered that
improperly mixed and wrongly labeled gas cylinders from now extinct Victor
Equipment Company were the cause. This was a harrowing time, and the effects
were far-reaching.

Soon after, Union Carbide, with its promise of unlimited research and
engineering resources, made Dan Wilson an offer to buy out General Offshore
Divers. The vote to accept the offer was unanimous, even though the
partners' reasons for accepting were quite different. And so it was that
General Offshore, the world's first commercial helium diving company, was
renamed Ocean Systems, and became a part of Union Carbide (one of America's
largest corporations). For my supposed "equal share," I, who knew nothing of
the negotiations, received a check for $25,000.

Concurrent with the Union Carbide/Ocean Systems deal, several other American
corporate giants and conglomerates decided to add sizzle to their stock
multiples or simply to achieve vertical control of their offshore operations
by forming/acquiring diving or "oceanographic" divisions. McDermott acquired
Dick Evans, Brown & Root (Haliburton) acquired Taylor Divers, Westinghouse
acquired Sanford Brothers, Smit International acquired Michelle Le Cler,
International Utilities acquired Divcon, and in 1969, Odoco backed Dan
Wilson's newest creation, Subsea International.

Others also jumped in. Lockheed and SEAL Petroleum took a different
approach. Their strategy was to remove the diver from the equation
altogether. They introduced diverless trees encapsulated in atmospheric
domes. Transferring by capsule, shirt sleeved technicians were supposed to
manage the production system in pressure-free habitats. Ahead of its time,
perhaps, but it turned out to be another non-practical MOBOT idea. The Avco
Corp. in Tulsa formed a subsea division that designed and manufactured
diving bells and dry habitats for underwater welding. Soon thereafter, in
1966, Avco sold this division to Reading and Bates Drilling Company. Much
later, in about 1972, the entire inventory was traded for unlisted stock in

The Conception of Cal Dive
Flash back to the Ocean Systems Division of Union Carbide in 1964. I, as a
former partner in General Offshore, along with several of my closest
diver-friends, found ourselves like fish out of water, in a whole new world.
Instead of being a full-on part of the decision-making process of General
Offshore, an entrepreneurial group, we were receiving orders from "the
boss," Wilson, who in turn was receiving orders from Union Carbide's
Navy-recruited Admiral Stefan, back in New York.

One Friday afternoon, after a long day at the shop (unpaid), our group of
divers was told "If you don't like it, you can leave." Needless to say,
divers that we were, the place quickly emptied out. And so it was, that the
seeds of Cal Dive were sown. But for the moment, these four divers were to
return to the abalone patch where at least we could put food on the table
and run our own show.

We four rebels had already tasted the fruits of offshore oil. With not much
ado, and with no plan at all, we decided to form a company of our own that
only we ourselves would control. In 1965, with $5,000 from each of us,
California Divers, Inc., was formed. I was President and Salesman and my
brother, Gene Handelman, was Operations Chief. Our group included Bob
Ratcliffe (Topside Supervision, Equipment Builder and Inventor of the Rat
Hat) and Kevin Lengyel (Super-Diver and VP of Girl-Chasing). Little did they
know it would be 14 months before Star Salesman Lad would be able to get the
company's first contract.

In the larger picture, to meet ever increasing world demand, the search for
oil blanketed nearly the entire globe, probing farther and deeper off
continental shelves. Conglomerate sharks with some kind of underwater or
diving division were everywhere. The stakes were high, and competition was

In the meantime, the tiny band of abalone divers, Cal Dive, with no business
experience and zero resources, struggled, not even qualifying for bid lists.
The best we could manage was to supply helium equipment and our home-grown
technology to anyone who didn't have their own helium capability, such as
World Wide Divers in Louisiana (repairing the damage from Hurricane Betsy in
1965) and Submarinos de Mexico for Pemex.

It was in late 1965 that young Phil Nuytten, a construction diver in
Vancouver, had learned about an upcoming opportunity, an important contract,
the first Canadian offshore oil project. Optimistic Phil thought that with
his Vancouver presence, if he could only qualify, he could win the contract.
He tried to interest Ocean Systems. That company wanted the contract for
itself and didn't need any unknown partner. According to Phil, it was Whitey
Stefens who nevertheless referred him to also unknown Cal Dive. So, at
Phil's request, I flew to Vancouver and together we formed Can Dive. A year
later, offering a "free" diving bell, (made available to us by Reading &
Bates) Can Dive, against all odds, was awarded the three-year Shell Canada
contract. That same year Cal Dive was awarded its first real offshore
contract, stealing the work for Humble Oil (later Exxon).

While Divcon was capturing the lion's share of the international drilling
market, a formidable new contender, Comex, exploded onto the scene. Whenever
an Exploration Consortium included a French component, invariably Comex got
the diving contract. As Divcon, Ocean Systems, and now Comex fought for
international market share, there were as many types of diving bell systems
as there were divers, and there was a total absence of uniformity in size
and qualifications of diving crews and of any other operational standards.
The work was there, but competition got crazy.

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