The Ancient Art Of Helmet Diving Part 2

First posted August ’06

The Diving Course, taught by serving Petty and Chief Petty Officer Divers, was mostly practical, and had hairy moments. In fact they taught at such a rate one tended to forget all but the frightening bits. We were taught to signal with the air-line and lifeline, how to inflate the suit by reducing the escape of air from valve on the side of the helmet, but warned that too much air would blow us up like a balloon and our arms would be so stiffly outstretched by the air pressure in the suit, we would then not be able to open the vent with the result we would be blown to the surface, which I proved. They also said if this happened when we were diving deeply we could risk getting the bends – nitrogen bubbling out of the blood – a possible killer. They then cheered us up by saying that if the suit was damaged or the airline cut at depth, the pressure could force our bodies up into the helmet. Next they put us into great tanks of water and taught how to burn steel under water, with the warning that as the hands would be cold, and since we were not allowed gloves, we could cut our own fingers off with the acetylene cutter if we were not careful. They made us practice decompression stops on the way up from the dive, to equalise the suit and blood pressure to the water pressure in stages. We weren’t deep enough for it to matter, but in the compression chambers and on a deeper dive it would have been essential to avoid the bends

Just prior to our final test they taught us to measure in total darkness, using our hands and arms as measures – the width of a hand, 3.5 inches, a span, 8 inches, the 1st joint on a thumb, 1inch, elbow to wrist, a foot – the old haberdasher’s measure of a yard, chin to outstretched fingers, and width of two outstretched arms 2 yards, What they do now Imperial Measure has gone by the board is anybody’s guess. Then they threw different pieces of metal into the ooze without us seeing. We had to find them, directed by signals on the air-hose and line, measure them and return and make drawings with all measurements, from memory. We were not allowed a telephone in the helmet.

We were made to breath pure oxygen to see if we would develop oxygen sickness and then taught how to swim under water in a wet-suit with what is called ‘closed-circuit breathing’. This is the system Naval Commandos used in WW2, breathing only oxygen, which is circulated through a cleansing system. In this way there are no tell-tale bubbles rising to the surface as with Scuba diving. I suspected that we would never have done inspection work with oxygen, but we were now partially trained and so a possible source of underwater demolition recruits, should the need arise, or pressed men if you prefer, – after all that was a good Naval tradition once. Inspection divers check old underwater structures for deterioration, the installation of new works and under water surveys prior to design.

Now the sickening story related cynically but factually by one of the tutors. The story concerned a diver in a port who contracted to recover the body of a young girl who had drowned in a car she had driven off the pier into deep water. In those times pickings for the diver had been poor and seemingly were getting poorer, which one must assume prompted his heartlessness. While he searched, the father of the girl sat in a cafe near the harbour and looked into space, just waiting. It transpired that the diver knew pretty well where the body was, through knowledge of sand bars, currents and outfalls, but avoided that spot assiduously and carefully quartered the harbour every day leaving that part until last. He wanted to make the most from his contract and also the vital knowledge of the harbour he had gained over many years of diving there.

My short brush with helmet and oxygen scuba diving was a highlight in a varied career.

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