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Commercial Diving – Pipe Dreams

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By Mark Norder

Out running some errands when my phone rings and I see my boss’s name on the display.

“Hey Mark, you at Alaska Ship?”

“Ya, Dan,” I reply, “Need something?”

“Pick me up eight feet of six-inch PVC pipe, two six-inch elbows, and a six-inch to four-inch reducer. Also need a three-eighths quick disconnect and a couple close nipples.”

“Sure. No problem.”

“Oh, and four hundred feet of three-eighths air hose.”

“Uh, okay.” I answer as he’s hanging up.

Returning to the shop, I find Dan taking a cutting torch to a (hopefully) purged five-gallon propane tank. I leave his stuff on the workbench and hustle back out the door, looking around as I go, making sure there’s fire extinguishers close by.

About a half mile up the road from Magone and three hundred feet offshore, is a small cement gazebo that marks the inlet for the 36-inch diameter, 300 foot-long cooling shaft feeding the island’s power plant. It’s been about 30 years since the intake’s been cleaned and a diminished flow rate hints at the need for some maintenance.

The plan is to remove the inlet screen and send a diver in to knock out a clump of coral and shellfish blocking the first few feet of the opening. We’ll then shoot our new custom-made air propelled “pig” through the pipe, dragging a wire cable from one end to the other. This cable will then be used to pull a sharpened, 33-inch diameter steel ring thru the 36-inch diameter pipe to scrape the weeds free. Back flushing the intake will blow the bio clutter out into the bay. The cable will then be secured inside the pipe for the next time and we’ll be done. Looked good on paper, anyway.

With our salvage tug Mac Bay tied alongside the gazebo and a big noisy air compressor to propel the pig sharing space with our dive spread on the back deck, we get ready to jump the first diver. “Dan says there’s probably a chunk of coral blocking the opening,” I tell Ben just before they hat him. “We’ll need to get that out first, so the pig can pull the line through.”

“OK. No problem,” he replies

“After that we’ll hand you the pig so you can get it started.”

The tender hats Ben and guides him over to the ramp. “How you read me?” I ask.

“Load and clear.”

“OK. Let’s get this done,” I say. Ben steps off the boat.

After struggling in the cold water with a chunk of coral directly in the pipe opening, Ben shoves our junkyard torpedo into the pipe, then moves off to the side. On deck, Dan opens the air valve, the compressor throttles up, a storm of bubbles boils out the end of the nozzle, and the pig doesn’t move. Ben removes the pig, crawls a bit deeper into the black tube, finds another clump of incrustation, breaks it off and drags it out. The pig replaces Ben, the throttle opens, and the pig goes just about as far as it did the first time.

This goes on for a day or so with consistently frustrating results. Eventually, believing the pipe is too dark for the coral to have grown so far inside, Dan blames a weak pig for this lack of progress. The Mac Bay returns to the dock and Dan to the drawing board.

Roger, my paramedic friend from the fire department and an avid recreational diver, has a torpedo shaped diver propulsion vehicle that he happily loans us for “plan B”. But this isn’t enough for Dan, and with Roger’s enthusiastic approval, goes out and buys a more powerful motor and bigger prop.

By now things are getting a little crazy and it’s turning into a “If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention” kinda job. Everything’s either full throttle or full stop and I’m starting to wonder what the hell I’m missing. But the new pig, with the trigger wired closed and a towline tied to the handles, brings a new confidence and energy that has us almost believing we know what we’re doing. That doesn’t last. The new pig doesn’t do any better than the old, and when Ben crawls a bit deeper into the pipe, he finds another clump of coral. It shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t be growing this deep in the darkness. Shouldn’t but is.

Karl is Russian and in his late 40s. Some say he’s ex-Spetsnaz; special forces. He’ll only say he was a paratrooper in Afghanistan during their war. With no body fat, his squared off muscles has me thinking about all those rumors we heard during the Cold War about genetically modified Soviet athletes. He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and one of my divers. He is also plan “C”.

We tie an aluminum skiff alongside the Mac Bay in line with the pipe opening, giving the umbilical a shallower run and easier pull for the two tenders choking Karl’s hose. He then crawls up the pipe, hacks the next blockage loose with a hammer and small pry bar, wraps his arms around this lump of concretion and tells me he’s ready. I shout at the two guys in the skiff and they drag him out of the pipe and onto the mud. After dropping the chunk off to the side, he crawls back in and does it again and again and again.

This is a typical Magone solution and I should be used to it, but there are too many things that can go wrong and very little we can do if it does. The diver is far inside this cold, black, three-foot diameter iron tube, has no way to turn around and no bailout. We do have two compressors and two K-bottles connected and charged to the rack box backup line, and there is always a diver on standby, dressed out and ready to jump in on the second hose. We’ve done all we can, all potential blockages are ahead of them, nothing obstructs their egress, and these are two good, levelheaded divers. Still, I won’t be happy until this job is just another story for the crowd at the Unisea bar.

For the first time we make progress, Karl and Ben switch off from time to time and we keep this routine going for a couple of pleasantly boring days. From my station on the deck of the Mac Bay I can look over the side and see bright white shapes on the dark bottom. This growing pile of coral defines the progress of the diver who is now over two hundred feet up the pipe.

Even Dan’s happy and leaves the boat one morning to stage some equipment in the caisson at the power plant parking lot. Karl’s working on what he believes is one of the last clumps and I’m thinking about all those other responsibilities piling up on my desk. The edge is gone, and we’re all relaxed, a nice change. Then Karl starts screaming into his helmet. I grab the mic. “Karl, what’s wrong? What’s happening! Karl, talk to me!”

I resist the urge to start yanking on his hose. I need to find out what’s going on before I drag him into a bigger problem, but his accent overcomes his english and I need to make a decision. The gages show plenty of pressure and I can hear air flowing through his hat, but he’s definitely in trouble and we need to act.

“Up on the diver!” I shout and the two tenders lay back on his umbilical. Cookie’s already zipping up Ben’s drysuit and Jeff, the engineer, is ready with his hat.

“Stop it! Stop it! Turn it off! Turn the damn thing off!”

“Turn what off, Karl? What!”

But his response is garbled, and the tenders are making slow progress. Ben’s ready to go, but we don’t know where or why. I grab the two-way radio that connects me to Dan on the beach.

“Dan, what’s going on? What you guys doing up there? Karl’s in the water! You running the pump? STOPIT!”

“Oh no!” is all I hear. The radio goes dead, then Karl’s screaming stops.

“Get me out of here.” Comes softly across the com. Suddenly it’s an easy pull for the tenders and soon Karl’s out of the pipe, out of the water and out of his hat. Saying nothing to me, he jumps in the small skiff tied to the stern. Racing across the cove, he runs it hard up on the rocky beach by the power plant, jumps out and crosses the parking lot to talk to Dan.

Thanks to that last clump of coral blocking the way, Karl didn’t get sucked to his death deep inside that pipe when Dan fired up the pump, and thanks to Karl’s self control, Dan didn’t get his butt kicked when Karl got out of the skiff.