For saturation diver Sam Archer, exploring the world’s oceans is a childhood dream come true. He reveals the perks and perils of working in the deep end.
We’re the guys who live in a chamber for a month at a time and go to work in a diving bell. Saturation divers work deep underwater undertaking tasks like oil well intervention, installation and decommissioning. I work predominantly in the North Sea, but we can work all over the world. We live under pressure in a 12-man cistern for a 28-day period, which enables us to do back-to-back runs. You work in teams of three with a total of four teams diving over a 12-hour period. When you do your first bell run, which by law can only last eight hours, two of you will be out in the water with you and the other one of your team will stay in the bell – we call that person the rescue diver. When you finish your working day, you will have a shower and a meal. All your food is sent in and cooked to order. Then you will generally go to bed because you are so knackered. After a trip, by law, you need to have a minimum of a month off before you can go back. But most people take five to seven weeks.
It was my childhood dream to explore the briny blue sea. My uncle’s company was in the oil industry and they manufactured a lot of parts for the off-shore refiners. So I knew about the industry from an early age. The old Jacque Cousteau documentaries always fascinated me as a kid. Whenever we were on holiday I would be out spear fishing or snorkelling. I was always in the sea and wanted to be a diver from the age of seven or eight. I had no idea if I could make money from it.
It takes brains and braun to do the job. You definitely need a good understanding of maths and physics. And you need to be fit. Don’t get me wrong, I smoke and drink, but there is certainly no room for drug use because you will be tested at work. I train four times a day, with lots of cardio and weights. It’s a physically exhausting role. What we do is heavy construction and a lot of the work is putting pipes together. You might have a 20 kilometre pipe and the divers will physically bolt the last 100 metres together. The bolts can be 90 kilos each, so it’s heavy gear. The fitter you are, the better chance you have of surviving an accident. Bravery also helps. It’s quite something to get out of a diving bell underwater in the pitch black. It’s not for everyone.
Deep sea diving is as close as you can get to outer space on Earth. You’re walking on parts of the world that man has never set foot on and seeing things few people have before. It’s just a rush. It’s as close to being an astronaut as you can get. You’re also working with a great bunch of lads and there is good camaraderie within the team. You’re working with people at the absolute top of their game. It would be very easy to get big headed about it all, but because you all do the same thing, everyone keeps level-headed.
There’s no room for tension when you’re working in such close quarters. The best piece of advice I got was to always remember that there are 11 other personalities down there with you. You’ve got to get on with each other and avoid any tension. You need to be pretty tolerant. You’ve got to have quite a rounded personality and it’s not about being big, loud and tough. It’s about being professional. It pays a lot of money and there is such competition for the work that you don’t want to create any waves. You need to be good at what you do to justify your position. The company doesn’t want any trouble.
It’s a dangerous job and you can be killed. It’s very easy to lose your life, because of the environment you are working in. I have lost some really good friends so I don’t want to glamourise that side of it. But you’re forever doing drills. If you’ve ever got 10 minutes to wait down there, whether it’s for an engineer’s decision or for the vessel to make a movement, there are protocols which need to be followed. They are constantly running you through safety drills. Diving has come an awful long way and it is as safe as it has ever been.
It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it. Most of the divers are doing it not because it’s a great chat up line, but because it’s exciting and very rewarding work. There’s incredible competition to do it, with only 10% of those who do their initial air diving course renewing their medical after the first year. Most don’t pursue it as a career because they can’t get work or they go off it. It’s a huge investment as well. To do the air diving course, which lasts for about 16 weeks, costs about £20,000. Without experience you can’t get a job. You can soon tell who is cut out for it or not.
It’s a hell of a career if you can get into it and it’s not just about diving. There are all sorts of roles in the industry. There are usually 120 people on the ship and only 12 are divers. The rest are there to keep you alive, keep you fed and safe. It’s a big machine. It’s a great career for a lot of people but I don’t think I’d want a son of mine to do it.