How a Boy Scout caving group became a commercial diving company

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Santa Barbara, California, USA
Excerpted from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure

by Christopher Swann (Oceanaut Press)​

Towards the end of the 1970s, before they bought Ocean Systems, the Dallas-based energy concern Ensearch approached André Galerne about buying his company, International Underwater Contractors (IUC). Galerne, one of the “Fabulous Frogmen” of the title of the 1959 Reader's Digest article and a co-founder of Sogetram, told the Ensearch executives they would be wasting their time.

“I am not capable of working in a big organization with a lot of politics. I came out of that with Sogetram and I am not interested in that kind of thing. If you buy IUC you will have to fire me or put me in research and development. Don't expect me to be the president of the organization. In my way of doing jobs, I am the commando type: hit and run, that's my training in the Second World War. I am not the army regular who plays from the book.”

Sogetram had their roots in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Nazi occupation and the deportations had led to serious difficulties with France’s youth, in particular those who joined the resistance. Teenagers and young adults who had been taught to kill had trouble adjusting to peacetime society. Many were Boy Scouts. To channel their energies in a positive direction the Scouts instituted special activities such as river canoeing, mountain climbing and cave exploration.

Galerne was one of the Scouts who fought in the resistance, for which service he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. After the war, he served briefly in the French air force (he studied aeronautical engineering during the war but was unable to finish his degree when he fled Paris to avoid arrest) and it was then that he became closely involved with the Boy Scout caving group. Before long, the group had broken several world records for cave penetration. Often subterranean lakes and rivers blocked the way. The Scouts tried passing through these water barriers by holding their breath, and in many cases they succeeded; but it was manifestly too dangerous. Diving equipment became a necessity. The group’s first dive was with a carburettor regulator from a truck. The membrane, made of fabric, was not made to go under water, so the Scouts waterproofed it with aluminium paint. With such primitive equipment they explored caves and siphons never entered before, gaining a reputation for audacity in the process.

In France, and the rest of occupied Europe during the war, there was a severe shortage of gasoline. To keep cars and trucks running, the French used gasogène, a gas extracted from wood at high temperature, supplied from cylinders mounted on the vehicle. The difficulty was delivering the gas at the correct pressure: if the driver set the carburettor for sea level he could not go to a higher elevation without readjusting it. In response, Emile Gagnan, an engineer at Air Liquide in Paris, devised a large rectangular regulator which adjusted the pressure of the gas as a function of the atmospheric pressure. This “demand regulator” could just as well be used for supplying air to a diver’s lungs. The result was the Cousteau-Gagnan aqualung.

In 1952, encouraged by the success of a project for Electricité de France (EDF) done in exchange for two aqualungs, Galerne and seven friends started a co-operative company, in which everyone was a shareholder. They called themselves Société Générale de Travaux Maritimes et Fluviaux, using the acronym SOGETRAM for short.

The co-operative got under way with the two aqualungs from EDF and a capital of 21,000 francs, about $60 at the time. For an office, the friends bought a sunken barge, raised it, tied it to a Paris quay and slowly rebuilt it. The first six months they got not one customer, despite Galerne’s enthusiastic promotion of the speed and flexibility of frogmen over heavy gear divers, whom he described as being about as manoeuvrable as elephants in quicksand.

Then, little by little, work began to trickle in. There was an urgent call from a gasworks near Paris to unclog some pipes in a vat of hot water, a job that turned Galerne as red as a lobster. Lloyd’s had the company recover a client’s diamond and platinum earring from the Grand Canal at Versailles. A textile mill in Alsace discovered tiny fissures in its dam. Instead of draining the reservoir and shutting down the looms, the mill got in touch with Sogetram, who filled the cracks under water.

In the main, the co-operative’s shareholders made no distinction between going under water to explore a cave or going under water to work. They did whatever was needed, often in atrocious conditions. If the job required the diver to move about much, he used bottles; otherwise, the demand regulator was supplied by a lightweight hose from the surface: what is known as hookah gear, or narguilé in French. For protection from the cold, the divers wore the constant-volume suit developed by Spirotechnique. Early versions, made of rubberised canvas, were horribly prone to abrasion and therefore leaks, which meant that Sogetram spent a good deal of time daubing the suits with rubberised paint to make them waterproof. Wet suits of neoprene had only just been introduced in the United States for surfers and were unknown in France. All that was available were suits of thick foam rubber. They were stiff, not particularly warm and tended to give the wearer a squeeze.

As word of Sogetram spread, business mushroomed. Faithful to its motto “We will do anything under water,” the company inspected mountain dams for EDF, inspected and repaired bridges and docks, maintained inland waterways, cleaned pumping stations of silt and debris, inspected ships’ hulls and spliced submarine cables.

Among the more nerve-racking assignments was the repair of a utility tunnel under the Seine at Rouen that caved in and flooded part way through construction. The night he signed the contract Galerne was so scared he was unable to sleep. Not only was the tunnel filled with mud, it was littered with abandoned dump trucks, buckets, rails and pickaxes. Working blind in water that had the consistency of thick soup, the divers had first to clear the debris, swimming in and out as big chunks of earth rained down on them, then plug the leak with sandbags and concrete. Five of the divers almost died when their hoses parted, saved only by the bail-out bottles Galerne had ordered.

With little or no specialised equipment available, Sogetram had to adapt terrestrial tools and techniques for use under water, or devise entirely new ones: telephones for the hookah gear, cutting and welding torches, pneumatic hammers, high-speed grinders, trenching machines, pumps and emulsifiers for ridding harbours and canals of silt. To his great surprise, Galerne even found that concrete would dry under water, a discovery the company was quick to put to use.

As the number of jobs increased, so did the need for additional manpower. Divers being hard to find, in 1957 Galerne set up a school in an old mill at Garennes-sur-Eure, about 100 kilometres from Paris. The first civilian diving school in France, it also provided Sogetram with a convenient place to develop new working methods. The aim of the school was not to turn out ready-made professional divers—an impossibility now as then—but to teach the rudiments of industrial diving, after which the trainees learned on the job.

By the end of the 1950s there was a sufficient pool of ex-servicemen who had dived in the French forces, as well as sport divers looking to turn professional, that Sogetram was able to exert some measure of selectivity, opting as far as possible for candidates with a background in an applicable trade. At the same time, the geographic expansion of the company meant that the school also trained divers from other countries within and outside Europe.

During the latter part of the 1950s, Sogetram’s business expanded rapidly around the world, particularly to the French possessions in Africa and the Far East. However, the French surrender at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, leading to the division of Vietnam and the French withdrawal from Indochina, convinced Galerne that France would abandon her empire. To compensate for the expected loss of business, the company had to seek new markets. Observing that economic growth tended to alternate from one side of the Atlantic to the other, Galerne concluded that Sogetram should gain a foothold in North America.

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In 1958, Galerne set up a new branch, International Underwater Contractors (IUC), in Montreal: the logical place, he thought, for someone who did not speak English to develop a North American business and learn about the United States market. He soon discovered that Quebec was as different from the United States as it was from France, so in 1962 he moved to New York, taking with him a French Canadian who spoke English. A protracted fight with the union ensued. Aware from the 1959 Reader's Digest article that Galerne and Sogetram had devised tools and techniques that the New York divers did not have, the union feared IUC would take over all the work. They were right, at least, to worry about Galerne’s flair for technical innovation. In 1964, to protect the White House lighthouse in the St Lawrence river, IUC developed the first air hammer for driving sheet piling under water.

Galerne was already president of Sogetram and IUC Canada, as well as IUC Venezuela, a branch he had started to keep his Canadian divers employed during the long winters. Now he was president of IUC America as well. This was too much. Sogetram and its offshoots employed about 140 divers worldwide. At the close of the 1950s, according to the Reader's Digest article, the former Boy Scout group was a $600,000-a-year business, with offices in Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, in addition to those outside Europe.

Galerne was living on aeroplanes and spending one week of every month in France. At the next meeting of the co-operative in Paris he tried to persuade his fellow shareholders that the time had come to invest all the profits in deep diving equipment. Thirty percent agreed; the others, who wanted to put the money in their pockets, did not. Out-voted, Galerne was obliged to resign. With his resignation went the responsibility for IUC Canada and IUC Venezuela.

Galerne, reflecting that democracy—in which he believed passionately—did not work very well when it came to business, returned to New York. The French partners in IUC America—Sogetram and Air Liquide, the parent company of Spirotechnique—decided to pull out. With the union people sabotaging the equipment and threatening the divers, they thought it was not worth the risk to continue; besides, Sogetram had just kicked Galerne out. By then Galerne had been in America for two years, he was starting to speak English and he and his family were putting down roots. He decided to stay. Convinced the potential market for sophisticated diving services in America was enormous, Galerne bought out the partners and continued alone.

In 1962, Sogetram started a programme of deep diving research, an idea Galerne had put forward before leaving for Canada in 1958. The primary motivation was offshore oil, a market that barely existed outside America but whose potential was already a topic of discussion. To head the programme, Sogetram secured the services of Dr Pierre Cabarrou, former medical officer at GERS, the French navy undersea research and development group. From his work with GERS, Cabarrou was well acquainted with the physiological challenges of deep diving. He had also been instrumental in the development of the navy’s semi-closed oxygen-nitrogen rebreather, the DC-55, a piece of equipment many other countries adopted for both military and commercial purposes.

The French navy would not let Sogetram use the GERS chambers unless they turned over all their scientific results, so Cabarrou went to the DVLR research facility at Bad Godesberg in West Germany which was equipped for altitude and high pressure studies. There, in April 1963, six subjects—one of them Georges Koskas who joined Sogetram in 1953 from the Boy Scouts, then did his military service at GERS—dived to 100M/328’, 150M/490’,200M/656’ and 250M/820’ in the chambers.

The first phase, which followed tests in a small 100M/328’ navy chamber at Brest, consisted of drawing up a set of tables, an onerous process without the number-crunching assistance of a computer. In making the calculations, Cabarrou and his team allowed for a generous safety margin. The objective was to demonstrate that divers could reach great depths with their faculties intact. How long it took them to return to the surface was of secondary concern. Three divers participated in each dive. Compression was fast. On the 250M/820’ dives, the subjects remained at bottom pressure for approximately five minutes, having switched to a leaner oxygen mixture during descent. There were no tests and no simulated work; the divers simply noted their condition. Being used to deep diving on air, the most striking aspect was the complete absence of narcosis, although on the 250M/820’dives all six subjects experienced trembling of the hands: a manifestation of the then unrecognised High Pressure Nervous Syndrome that Koskas not surprisingly ascribed to the jitters.

The dives at DVLR went off with some bends but no serious incidents. They were followed by a series of tests at GERS to prepare for the next stage, a demonstration dive in which, for the first time, a diver was to work for one hour at 100M/328’in the sea. The dive, which took place in the Bay of Villefranche on November 22 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, was carried out with the diver in an electrically heated constant-volume suit and final decompression in a Davis SDC. Present as observers, were 50 representatives from various international oil companies.

Sogetram was the first company to confront the difficulties of deep diving on an industrial scale, preceding even Ocean Systems. Nonetheless, despite the research programme and the demonstration at Villefranche, as well as a 100-hour saturation dive to 240M/787’ that Cabarrou described in a paper in 1966, they never managed to penetrate the offshore oil market. (Cabarrou left Sogetram at the end of the 1960s; he then joined DVLR.) The only use the company made of their knowledge of mixed-gas diving, acquired at their own expense without any outside financial assistance, was in civil engineering: mixtures for working on high mountain dams in the 50M/164’-60M/197’range and extending the no-decompression limit in shallow water. But why did Sogetram fail to break into the offshore market? Looking back, Koskas cited a shortage of funds as a result of the experimental work but more critically, their outlook:

“The mentality of the civil engineering world is completely different from that of the oil business. The people in charge are very pragmatic types. Contact is straightforward and direct and problems are resolved quickly. In offshore oil, at any rate in France in those days, it was not at all like that. It was not that we lacked the technology or the technical personnel; it was more that the oil companies regarded civil engineering work as somehow unscientific, and for that reason we were never able to make a go of it. I don’t think it’s possible to pursue civil engineering diving and oilfield diving at the same time, and as far as I know no one has ever done that.

“Delauze, who did succeed in the offshore business, completely abandoned the civil engineering side once Comex got into the offshore business. I’ve always said they’re two different professions: the only similarity is that they both go on under water. We, in civil engineering, never managed to communicate—there’s no other word for it—with the oilfield people, and as a result we never got anywhere. We did a few things, but we failed to develop that market.”

Delauze ascribed Sogetram’s lack of success in the offshore business to a somewhat different cause. The company, he said, did not have anyone with an engineering degree:

“As an engineer, I will not pretend that engineers can solve all problems, but by 1964– 65 Comex already had six or seven good engineers, whereas Sogetram stuck to the philosophy of a club. In my opinion, the reason Sogetram, although probably strong technically, was not able to break into the oilfield market was because they were not able to break into the equipment market. They did not even have a draughtsman, and at that time you weren’t able to buy even a bounce-diving system off the shelf. They did some publicity but they had nothing to propose. That’s why they weren’t able to break into the offshore market.”

IUC, on the other hand, did break into offshore oil. In 1969, Galerne signed a contract with Conoco for the new drilling vessel Discoverer III, in Singapore. Until then all the company’s revenues had come from construction or engineering. From 1972 to 1982, 90% came from the oil industry and only 10% from construction. Still, conservative by nature, Galerne never completely withdrew from the civil engineering side. When the price of oil collapsed, IUC regrouped and went back to civil engineering, although by then their competitors in the construction business, ironically mostly divers trained at the IUC diving school (in 1976 Galerne set up the Professional Diving School of New York as a wholly owned subsidiary), were well placed to give the company a run for their money.

Construction and oil, said Galerne in 1989, were like a seesaw: “The profit in the oil business was much more substantial than in construction. In construction, you have very high wages and you have a union, and a big percentage of it is lump sum work. You make a guess and you win or lose. So you sometimes generate a lot of sales, but the profit is not there. On the other hand, in the oil industry the physical risks are greater because the work is generally in deep water and it’s often in a strange part of the world where sometimes you don’t have the support you need. But the profits were much better than in construction. That’s not true any more.”

End of Multipart post

Very fun and intriguing reading
That was awesome. Thank you.

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