Diving Under the Dreadnought
A Diving Dit by : Bill Hyde
May I first say that I am sorry that I can't necessarily recall names after all these years so don't be offended and think why can't he remember that it was me he was writing about. My only excuse, if it is one, that after quite a number of years banging heads with some hard nuts in the front row of a rugby scrum it is bound to affect you in some way.
HMS Dreadnought or doughnut as she was affectionately known had just been floated in the dry dock after the first refit. Not long after the first inspection it was reported that we had a leak in one of the ship's pressure hull valves foreward. Whichever valve it was is lost in the mist of time to me but sufficient to say that the leak could not be stemmed. This was was a bit of a set back because this meant the dry dock would have to be drained and the boat would have to be settled back on the blocks again. She was already late to programme. After a lot of burning of the midnight oil, a cunning plan was concocted to to pump out the foreward ballast tank and lift the bows out of the water enough so that the said valve was above the waterline. I must say a this juncture that the cunning plan was nothing to do with me, my part of ship was the reactor but you will see that I was involved as I relate this dit.
It has just occurred to me that some of you had never seen the bottom of the Dreadnought even when it was dry and certainly less of you had seen underneath when she was afloat. To lift the bows out of the water would entail fitting blanks to the foreward ballast tank inlet grids. Obviously it was useless to try to pump out the any ballast tank without stopping water ingress which was done by fitting blanks. There are two tank inlets (guarded by grids) either side of the keel line. Each inlet is approximately 6ft long and approximately 20 inches wide and the grid spaces are approximately 2 inches wide. The flats attached to the spaces are angled at forty-five degrees which is not an ideal design to grip with any type of hook.. Sorry about the imperial measurements, I am that old and decrepit I still think in inches and feet even though I used the metric system on all those Nuclear Stations I worked on years ago. Anyway any sailor's wife/girlfriend etc. will know the difference between 10 inches and 255 millimetres wouldn't she.
Let me now come to the blanks that were required to be fitted. They were obviously designed by the dockyard and I can not say if these were a one off thing for this particular job or part of the boat's spares. They resembled a square end canoe with a bit of a curve to fit the curvature of the bottom of the boat with a free board of 4 inches and a rubber seal around the gun whale. There were two 18 inches long screwed rods with hooks angled at forty-five degrees to grip the grid slats at one end and two large wing nuts at the other. These screwed rods passed through holes in the blanks around four foot apart. They were made of fibreglass.
Bare with me folks because if I am to relate this dit so that it makes sense to you I must give you a quick run round on the type of diving gear Ron Prevett and I were using. We were using standard naval diving gear of the time (1970) which consisted of twin tanks on your back and quick release weight packs back and front operated by toggles. The face piece or mask as you would probably call it had a set of tits-should be that teats if you are in the wardroom-to grip with your teeth to hold your mouthpiece in and there by breathe. In theory if the diver fakes out and spits out his mouthpiece he should be able to breath from his face piece.
Having told you that, that takes me back to another another dit I must relate while I have the bit between my teeth so to speak. As part of the diving team I suggested we should get a good dive in the open sea where we could see what we were looking at and maybe get acquainted with the wild life i.e. little fishes and various incrustations that inhabited that domain. Cutting a long story short then we ended up in a Gemini on a sandy beach at a small harbour called Crail, farther north-east in the land of the midges, PJS and Jock McStrops. We cast off from a lovely beach on a sunny but windy day and there were plenty of white horses running. This was very far from my liking. A scourse killick stoker suggested to me one day that I would spew when they flooded the dry dock or as he put it I would spew on a wet tickler paper. Well that was true on that particular day. What with the motion of the Gemini and the white horses I was very green around the gills. Who wants to be first in the water was the question? Definitely me says I. When diving in the open sea away from culverts, docks and under vessels divers did not wear a safety line you were buddied up to your oppo with a line attached to each other's arm and one of you had a line attached to float which indicated where the divers were in the water. This day I was buddied up with a diver I had just met and knew nothing about. On entering the water we found that this was not the best place to dive simply because there was a forest of kelp. Kelp can grow thirty feet long and as we were in about forty foot of water we were swimming in only the ten or less feet of clear water. I tugged on the buddy line to indicate that we should dive down into the kelp. My oppo definitely consider this a no-no and tightened the buddy line to stop me doing this. So there was I wallowing about in a few feet of water and because of the swell was still affective at that depth my breakfast was rising up to my Adam's apple and down to my stomach every few minutes. I was trained as a diver in Plymouth Harbour and after a few weeks, dragging the trainee divers through kelp was a kind of initiation test so I could not see the problem with kelp. What's wrong with this twat I was buddied to, I thought? If I spew up in my mask and have to eat it all before I can breathe again I'll drowned the bastard myself. What use is a diver if he can't search for something on the bottom because he won't swim through kelp? If you are reading this tome buddy. you shouldn't have been wearing a diver's badge. What was it that that American politician said, 'If you can't stand the heat don't come in to the kitchen'.
But I digress so if you are still with me, I'll go back to diving under the Doughnut. Perhaps I should explain just a little bit more about the equipment we were using because it becomes highly relevant to the whole dit. When a diver is kitted up and attached to a lifeline with a competent diver at the other end and he is breathing freely, the last thing that is tested his equalisation valve. This valve (when open) allows air from the R/H side tank to equalise with the L/H tank which the diver is breathing from. The diving law says you are only allowed two equalisations before you must surface. All divers, quite rightly, are responsible to checking his equipment before he enters the water. The checking of the equalising valve is simply done by opening the valve listening to the faint hiss and shutting it again. Job done, all is ready to top up the tank you are going to breathe from when you need it. It is common practice for the standby diver to check the equalising valve opens and closes as he can put his lug right against the tank especially if the diver as only just started to breath his tanks down. Now we come to the part where theory and practise sometimes come a rye. This standby diver must of had muscles like Popeye when he closed my valve and the affect of that will come apparent as I tell the rest of my tale.
On the day of the dive and some days before the weather was brass monkey's. There were around two to three inches of snow on the cat that we were diving off but at least it was bright and sunny. This is of course important to a diver because it means you can see. Failing that it is feel and fumble which obviously makes things harder. On that day we could see possibly four to five feet but under the shadow of the boat we were down to one feet or possibly eighteen inches.
Prev and I swam over to one of the blanks that had just been thrown in the water and grabbed each square end, flipped up and swam like demented dolphins to keep it under the water. It appears that these blanks had a questionable complement of fibreglass i,e. they didn't want to float either did they want to sink. After struggling to keep them down the air entrapped in them was released like a soda syphon and now we were struggling to keep them off the bottom. Half dragging and half holding them up we searched the bottom of the boat to find the grids we wanted. The visibility now was 12-18inches and so it was done half by poor sight and feel. As I recall we did not have a great deal of difficulty on the first blank which was done by me holding it up from below and finning vigorously whilst Prev made sure the claws fitted the grids so that the screwed rods could be tightened straight with with the wing nuts. The second blank should have not presented any more problems than the first but by this time we were very cold. Perhaps only divers know the type of cold you get then your feet are white past your ankle and your hands are white past your wrists and you can't feel a thing. Using the same routine then I pushed and huffed and puffed like a steam train to hold up the blank against the grid and Prev fumbled and farted to get the screws aligned. I could see Prev's white hands struggling with the last screw and thought for Christ's sake Prev do it quick I'm struggling for air here. Now let my explain, when you have breathed down your tank it is not the end of the world. It is not pleasant but all divers are familiar with it. Apart from the difficultly of not getting any air and your face mask squashes hard against your face, it is easily alleviated by opening your equalisation valve. You can however, if your can rise another ten feet in depth you can get another gulp of something, possible not good air but maybe a cocktail of the last meal you had and bubbly snot. Remember your physics 33ft one atmosphere, 10 feet, a third of an atmosphere is better than nothing when your are desperate. Of course I know all this but we were nearly there with the the fitting of the last screw and tightening it and I needed to keep pushing the blank hard against the grid. On my last hard gasp now I decided it was imperative that I must equalise or flake out. All divers instinctual know where they equalising valve is. It's on the bottom of the R/H tank but my hands were that numb I could not feel it and I certainly couldn't open it. The last thing I remember was grabbing Prev and signalling to him where my equalising was. Everything from then on was purple and green swirls and spirals and then nothing, To quote my hero of the time, Dillon (you know him of the Magic Roundabout which was in vogue at the time) 'I was gone Man! Solid gone.' I learnt later that despite Prev's superhuman effort his fingers were as numb as mine and he couldn't open my valve either. Quite rightly he grab my harness and hauled me to the surface, flipped me over on my back and ripped off my face mask. Removing your face mask is a big no-no in any dive instructor's a manual and is very much frowned on. Did I care, certain not, what I wanted was fresh beautiful air and great lungs full of it. I was must certainly out of it, out cold. How long it took for me to recover from my trip to pastures unknown. I don't know. It was certainly something that a hot cup of kye would cure which was the usual reviver from a freezing dive like that.
If you ever read this Ron Prevett. 'Thanks a lot old shipmate.' If we ever meet again I'll buy you a pint or even a tot of Pusserr's rum. It could have been touch and go that day, it definitely felt like it. Perhaps it might have been the end of my farting in church entirely.
When I reflect on that whole episode and how much we save the navy/dockyard in money and programme time you would have thought the bear (Lt Com Rutherford) RIP, would have recommended us for a MEB each. He could have at least have said spice the mainbrace for Hyde and Prevett but we didn't. He didn't even give us a make and mend. Hey Ho! that's navy life ah! ah!
Note from the webmaster (Jan H) : The diving set Bill's referring to was the SABA set (Swimmers Air Breathing Apparatus) Twin bottles of compressed air with an enclosed mask. A ship's diver in the 70s was qualified to dive on compressed air down to 120 feet . I did my qualifying dive under the Forth road bridge at slack water in 1970.