Flying in a chopper to remote parts of the British Isles, boarding a dive boat and going 20m from the sea bed for 28 days is second nature to Sam Archer. He tells Esquire about the danger, dolphins and near misses.
Saturation diver Sam Archer spends one month out of every three 20m above the sea bed.
He installs underwater gas and oil wells, on rotation with eleven other divers to exit their 2.5m x 7m chamber for six hour shifts. Out there, he works in the pitch black, surrounded by marine life. It’s highly-skilled, technical work, and, if something goes wrong, the danger to his life is very real.
To mark the release of Pioneer, a film that dives into the world of deep-sea diving, he tells us what it’s like, what it takes, and why, after 22 years, he still loves it.
I got into diving when I fell in with a bunch of guys that did it in Scotland. I was looking for something different to do, so I wentfor it. After I finished my training, they hired me. That was luck, but you’ve got to keep the job.
Dive school is intense. You learn physics, maths, first aid and procedures. You go from no diving experience to being a qualified off-shore air diver within the space of 14 weeks. The course is about £18,000 now, and a lot of people who complete it never get work. There’s a further course if you want to be a saturation diver – it’s about £24,000. There’s a few who take it and realise they’re not cut out for it.
In the chamber, you don’t wind each other up – there’s no room for that. You learn very early on that you have to be tolerant, you have to keep your gob shut and you have to listen.
At the end of a shift, you just want to shower and eat and get to your bunk and watch a movie, before you’re back to it again, 12 hours later. It’s relentless. You’ve got to be physically fit, mentally tough and have a good sense of humour.
Have I ever had a near miss? One time when we were coming back to the chamber, one of the guide wires pulling us up snapped. And we were just dangling there. I had a copy of the Sunday Times, because I’d been supervising the shift. The two other lads said: “I’ll have the sports section” and “I’ll have the culture” – there’s no point worrying, there’s nothing we can do.
After 22 years, it’s still a rush to get on a helicopter and go out to a ship 300KM north of the Shetlands in the middle of nowhere. Anything could happen – you’re not safe until you get out at the end.
The first few days back on land are physically tough. Your body stops producing red blood cells, so when you come out, so for the first 24 hours you’re out you’re still full of 02 and bouncing around. Then it hits you. You feel lethargic, you can suffer massive headaches, your bones ache.
When you’re working on the sea bed, you see all sorts of marine life. Killer whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, They’re not interested in you. They come to have a look and piss off.
Back in the chamber, we have all the latest HBO boxsets, like Game of Thrones. There’s not that much time to kill – you’re always knackered, so if you’re not diving or eating, then you’re sleeping.
Working beneath the sea, you burn fat like nothing else. We get fed between five and ten thousand calories a day, and I still come out about a stone lighter then when I went down. We eat amazing quality stuff – lots of fish and steaks. You can’t smoke or drink obviously, so by the end you could really use a beer. We call it free-hab.
It’s important to keep fit the two months you’re at home. I do about four spinning classes a week, plus weights and other cardio. If anything were to go wrong, the fitter you are, the better chance you’ve got of surviving.
When you’re working, you’re often standing on parts of the earth that no man has ever been to. That’s pretty cool.