Excerpted from The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure
by Christopher Swann (Oceanaut Press)
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.
Continued in the next post