First posted August ’06
Today professional diving is sophisticated and technical. My training by comparison is like that with halberds compared to AK47 assault rifles. From what I read, it would seem I am one of the very few left who have been a professional helmet diver. I thought the experience might be of interest. Part 2 deals with the course exams, closed circuit diving, and an unpleasant diving story.
In the early 50’s I worked for the Admiralty and one condition was that I qualified as a helmet diver for inspection work. The thought raised youthful visions embedded from my reading ‘The Adventure’ and general comics with a torch under the bed clothes.. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t a bit like that. . I am convinced the whole course at the Diving school at Chatham was intended to put the fear of God into us which it nearly did. We had to learn to dive in those old fashioned helmets and canvas and rubber suits which were so popular in the black and white films. Were put in decompression chambers with the pressures increased to simulate depths we would never reach – our speech sounded like Pinky and Perky.
Chatham is at the mouth of the Medway estuary. The water consists of black impenetrable silt. We went out in a barge, with hand operated air pumps and everything else we needed on board. We dressed into the smelly suit, which, I’m absolutely sure, was as clean as they could make it, but if you can’t scratch your nose when the helmet is on, and almost immediately everyone unconsciously tries to and is then driven mad, because the urge becomes obsessive, think how much more difficult it is if you are taken short – enough said. The belt was put on, the weights tied on the chest, the heavy brass boots were next, and then the helmet was bolted to the heavy collar. When I staggered to my feet they threaded the lifeline and the air-line through the belt and then I had to climb slowly and ponderously over the side of the boat and stand on a ladder while the face piece, the glass, was screwed in place. With a tap on the helmet which sounded like thunder inside, and now breathing the fetid, oil and rubber, smelling air being pumped through the air-line, I slowly descended the last three steps on the ladder before launching into nothing but water and a steadily increasing darkness.
I never noticed when I reached the bottom, it rose round me as I sank into it. We had been told relatively little of what to expect. I think the idea was to give us a shock to start with and then anything later would be easy. I tried to move my feet and nothing happened, I was stuck. I tried to feel with my hands because any light there might have been had been obscured by the rising silt as my feet struggled in the mud. I did the only thing I could do, I stopped, I told myself not to panic and I just stood, slowly sinking, controlling myself and taking stock. It was then I remembered about shutting off the air release valve so I could rise. This I did and kicked my feet at the same time. The suit which had been grasping me like a cold second skin with the pressure of the water swelled away from me, and I was on my way up like a cork. As I rose the external pressure steadily decreased and correspondingly the internal pressure was increasing. Suddenly it happened, my arms were pulled inexorably out straight from my side and like a cruciform, I floated to the surface, there to lie like a dead sea-elephant, to be pulled ignominiously to the boat by the lifeline. It was only then they told me that in that type of ground-conditions the diver had to kick his legs out backwards and get on his face, propelling himself along by digging his arms into the mud. When one considered what might be lying on the bottom of an old harbour like Chatham, the prospect was not enticing, to say the least. I had other opportunities to practice my new found equanimity in the face of near panic, like the time, again in total darkness, I became entangled in the piles of a jetty