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Volume 26, Number 3May/June 1975

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Divers of Arabia

Written by Jackie Drucker
Photographed by S. M. Amin
Additional photographs by John Burchard

Dee McVay, now of Saudi Arabia, is a model of success in the American mold. Left fatherless at 16, he struggled, failed, struggled some more and finally made it. With his partner, Khalifa al-Gosaibi, a man cut from the same bolt, he now presides over a company that owns 20 ships, employs 70 marine specialists and accepts, with a rare no-nonsense efficiency, some of the world's biggest undersea maintenance projects.

But basically Dee McVay is a diver. As a young man he raised waterlogged lumber from deep Idaho rivers and dug gold out of underwater crevices in Oregon. Later he dived for rubies in Ethiopia and for pearls in the Arabian Gulf. On one occasion he spent two hours on the bottom of a river while a spider trapped in his helmet industriously spun a web across, up and down his face.

For some men such experiences provide no more than good conversation. For Dee McVay they provided exactly the right background for a later meeting with Khalifa al-Gosaibi, a smiling, optimistic Saudi Arab entrepreneur with an eye on the future and a taste for unlikely ventures.

Earlier in his entrepreneurial career, Khalifa al-Gosaibi had put together a profitable shrimp business that included a processing plant, a cold-storage warehouse and a fleet of shrimp boats with names that spell out his commercial philosophy with commendable economy: Kifah (struggle), Filah (expectation), Najah (success) and Rabah (profit). But in 1962 he was thinking of a more exotic venture: pearls.

In those days—and for that matter, these days—pearls were gathered by methods which antedate the Queen of Sheba. Teams of up to 20 hardy divers, without tanks or air hoses, would plunge down to the oyster beds, fill their baskets with oysters, return to the surface with the help of a rope and dive again. Pondering this one day, Khalifa al-Gosaibi began to wonder if divers with modern equipment might enable the famous Arabian Gulf pearls to again compete with the recently developed cultured pearls of Japan. He wrote to Dee, whom he had met previously and who was then diving for rubies in Ethiopia, asking him to think about it too. Not long after Dee returned to Saudi Arabia to work out the arrangements.

The scene of the negotiations might well have been staged in Hollywood. Khalifa pitched a tent on a sandy beach by the sparkling Gulf, covered the floor with exotic carpets and laid on a sumptuous Arab banquet that included an entire sheep, chicken, squab, camel meat and mountains of rice. He also dressed for the occasion, in white ghutra and flowing robes, and Dee, in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, was impressed. He was even more impressed when he found that Khalifa and he had much in common. Both were men of action, unafraid of the future and with the courage to leap in an unexplored direction. Besides, to a man who had mined gold in Oregon and searched for rubies in Ethiopia, Khalifa's proposal was irresistible. Surely with a competent guide to the oyster beds and the extended bottom time permitted by modern equipment, he could vastly increase the catch of men who descended into the depths as their fathers and grandfathers before them.

As it, turned out—after three months of hard work—he and Khalifa were wrong. The venture ended with no more than enough pearls to pay the crew's wages—plus increased respect for the hardy divers of the Gulf. But it didn't matter much either. For just as Dee and Khalifa decided to wind up the pearling scheme, someone from Aramco telephoned and said: "We understand that you have a boat, equipment and crew. Would you be interested in a short contract to backstop one of our own diving crews?" Khalifa and Dee huddled, clarified the scope of the job, negotiated a price and went to work.

Years ago the Gulf would have been the last place in the world to found and operate a diving and marine service. Shallow and remote from the main shipping lanes of the world, the Gulf managed quite well with shallow-draft dhows and the occasional freighter. With the discovery of oil, however, and the subsequent drive toward modernization, the Gulf changed. Its waters today are dotted with drilling rigs, gathering lines and loading platforms. Its bottom is carved into harbors and channels deep enough to accommodate the world's biggest freighters and tankers. Its shoreline is rimmed with modern ports—some with piers extending miles into the Gulf. When McVay and al-Gosaibi accepted the contract with Aramco, therefore, they made what would turn out to be a profitable decision.

For Dee that decision was the beginning of a long and difficult road—but also the end of another. After his father died Dee had given up school to earn a living for himself, his mother and three siblings in a variety of demanding jobs that included fire-fighting, logging, road construction and, when that proved insufficient, professional boxing after work. For a time, in fact, Dee thought that boxing would be his career. He won national ranking by knocking out his own friend and tutor Curley Nogle, then Oregon State champion, and was being talked about as an eventual contender for Joe Louis's heavyweight crown. But then—the first disappointment—he ran into a heavy-weight named Del Curran and, after two unsuccessful bouts, switched to diving.

As a boy Dee had been fascinated by water. He would descend into Montana lakes carrying stones to counter his buoyancy. This fascination led him later to a U.S. Navy school in World War II where, during training in 1942, he got an air drill tangled in his diving suit. Before it could be shut off it damaged his knee so badly that the doctors said he would never regain the use of his leg. As his unit was leaving for the Pacific, however, Dee decided to ignore the doctors. He stowed away on a ship, checked into a hospital in Hawaii, eventually rejoined his unit and spent the next four years as a diver with the colorful Seabees, the Navy's World War II construction battalions.

After the war, Dee decided to stick with diving and spent the next 14 years in a series of tough, often innovative ventures. Believing that his new techniques could be applied to gold mining, he used diving equipment to recover gold that was lost by earlier, more primitive techniques and wound up in deep crevices in swift rivers. It proved successful—he collected $20,000 worth of gold in one season—but a flash flood washed away not only the gold but a lot of his equipment. Later he used surplus Navy diving equipment to reclaim waterlogged lumber which had sunk to the black, cold, 40- to 100-feet depths of lakes and rivers in Idaho and Oregon. He raised the lumber by attaching inflatable canvas sacks to the logs and pumping them full of air—a technique, he says, that is now employed on a wide scale in the Northwest.

About then, however, the Bechtel Company offered him an 18-month diving contract in Saudi Arabia. Dee accepted it, spent the 18 months with Bechtel and, after moving to Ethiopia, received the intriguing proposal on pearling from Khalifa al-Gosaibi that eventually gave birth to what today is called "Al-Gosaibi Diving Service."

It was not, Dee recalls, an easy delivery. Although the first Aramco contract was completed to the client's satisfaction and other contracts followed, it soon became clear that their one rented boat and some dilapidated diving equipment were insufficient for a market that, the partners began to realize, was potentially huge. They needed compressors. They needed masks. They needed bottles, hoses, and communications equipment. Above all they needed people—divers, crews, maintenance personnel— and, most urgent of all, boats.

To solve the boat problem, Dee began to scour the Gulf for anything that would float, and triumphantly returned with two Basra river boats built in the shade of date palms on the shores of the Shatt al-'Arab. Although they knew the boats were intended for the more sedate waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Dee and Khalifa equipped them with compressors, tanks and hoses and launched them in the choppy Gulf where they contributed to numberless miles of underwater pipeline inspection and quite a few cases of mal de mer. They also procured several small Aramco tugs, which the oil company had decided to auction off in favor of newer and larger vessels, and added some dhows.

It is difficult for the average Western worker, white collar or blue, to visualize what life was like aboard the Service's early boats. As veterans Billie Nielsen and Jim Hall, put it, "Life was bloody awful!" Divers lived in primitive shelters, slept on deck when temperatures rose to 120 degrees and frequently provided their own food by catching fish. Sometimes they had to barter fish for fresh water. As there was no communication between the ships and the office, they often had to sail to shore, hail a taxi and send word back to the headquarters in al-Khobar.

One of their chief headaches was equipment. Anchors, for example, are indispensable in maintaining the positions of diving boats and barges in choppy, unpredictable waters and are, moreover, easily lost in rough seas. At one point anchors were so short that the Service faced a curtailment of work—and the idling of divers and crews on the payroll. To solve the problem the Service mounted a two-pronged effort that included the manufacture of anchors by a blacksmith in al-Khobar who had never seen an anchor and a search by boats and crews of the bottom of Dammam harbor for anchors lost by merchantmen over the years. To the relief of the Service—and their clients—the combined yield from these sources eased the problem.

The Service also quickly learned that operating a diving company has a lot in common with running a fire department or an ambulance service; at any time, it might be called upon to help in emergencies. Once, for example, the master of a small tanker tied up at one of the oil-loading piers at Aramco's Ras Tanura Terminal found himself unable to discharge the ballast from one of his main tanks because a pin in the tank's discharge valve had sheared off inside the tank. As every hour of delay in deballasting and loading meant heavy financial losses, the only solution was to send someone into the inky interior of the ship to thread his way through invisible struts and braces and open the valve with a wrench. When Aramco relayed its request for help to the Service, the only available diver was the then and present manager of Marine Equipment and Maintenance, ex-U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer and ex-advisor to the Royal Saudi Navy, Coen Bright. Without hesitation Bright threw tanks, rubber wet-suit and other necessary diving gear into his car, drove the 40 miles to Ras Tanura, spent 15 minutes pouring over the ship's drawings of the interior of the tank and then disappeared into the stygian, oily ballast water. Half an hour later, the valve was open. Afterward, Bright's only comment was that it was no job for anyone afficted with acute claustrophobia.

One reason for the success of the Diving Service is its willingness to undertake small, trying, economically marginal jobs of importance to local development. Several years ago, during an expansion of the great man-made harbor of Dammam—today the major port for Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province—engineers in charge of deepening the roadbed leading to the port's newest wharves discovered that a large dredger could not be moved close enough to the wharf area to accomplish the necessary close-in deepening. This minor but vital job was accepted by al-Gosaibi. Thereafter, for several weeks, al-Gosaibi divers, slung with extra weights for stability, and, plagued by schools of curious squid, operated pneumatic drills from morning to night in water 15 to 25 feet deep, steadily boring into the bedrock of the harbor and stuffing the holes with high explosives.

On another occasion Dee and Khalifa learned that the city fathers of Safwa, a village not many miles distant from Aramco's headquarters in Dhahran, had a serious problem. A large artesian well that for decades had irrigated the village's vital palm groves was plugged with an accumulation of debris and sand. There was, the city fathers reported, only enough water for two of the village's five irrigation channels. Could the Diving Service help?

Nothing loath, McVay made a quick estimate of the probable cost, without any increment for profit, a figure which turned out to be dismally low, and agreed to restore the water flow for this sum. As the source of the water was 90 feet down, he decided to use an air lift—a large hose operated by a diver on the well bottom into which is fed compressed air from a hose at the surface. After moving the mouth of this apparatus into position the diver would spend his time collecting and tying together for rope transport to the surface the larger debris which the years had carried to the bottom of the Safwa well. My husband, who served as a weekend volunteer on this project, recalls elevating a bicycle frame, old tires and other contemporary artifacts not usually associated with a farming village in a distant desert kingdom.

In microcosm, the problem involved in this venture was typical of those which frequently confront the Diving Service. At 90 feet or thereabouts, a diver can work no more than a limited period without either decompressing or risking the bends. As the job did not warrant a decompression chamber the only practical alternative was to assign a large number of highly paid divers, each working for no more than two periods of 35 or 40 minutes per day followed by a decompression stop of ten minutes at 10 feet.

Finances aside, the project was highly successful. The blockage was removed, the five irrigation channels were restored and the divers learned to know, enjoy and respect the inhabitants of an Arabian village, whose warmth and hospitality were in the finest Arab tradition.

The main reason for the Service's success, however, is the high caliber of its divers who, despite a wide diversity of backgrounds and education, share certain qualities that are indispensable: confidence, self-reliance, craftsmanship, integrity and courage.

Some of the divers learned their trade in one of a number of navies. Others graduated from diving schools in Europe and the U.S. Still others took up scuba diving as a sport while in school and decided to turn their hobby into a profitable job. One supervisor, John Jennings, is an ex-boxer whose skills have helped settle more than one dispute. But whatever their backgrounds they share a uniform pride in their physical fitness, a sine qua non to the regular practice of their trade, and to a man are self-confident and self-reliant, traits vital to men who work in relative isolation and must exercise their skills while wearing cumbersome gear in strong, frequently cold currents, often with zero visibility. The best divers also possess a high degree of mechanical aptitude, can read and interpret blueprints and write concise, meaningful reports. Of utmost importance too is personal integrity and devotion to duty; an inaccurate or incomplete report can mean enormous losses in terms of money and time to the client. Above all, perhaps, they must be inured to physical discomfort and have the ability to keep cool in the face of danger. One time, for example, the Diving Service assisted in the installation on the Gulf floor of a 500,000-barrel underwater storage tank for crude oil constructed by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company for Dubai's al-Fatah field. The job, which required up to eight divers working in 160 feet of water, was completed safely but for a final inspection diving supervisor Jim McClaskey had to enter the enormous tank and examine its vast interior. In the total darkness he could not see that his air supply and voice-communication lines had become entangled in the struts and bracing of the tank. Suddenly, however, he lost communication with the surface and realized that a line had been cut somewhere. If his communication line could be cut, why not his air line? Resisting panic, he slowly and carefully retraced his path, gathering his air hose in his arms, until he could reach the narrow opening at the top of the tank leading to the surface and safety. As any diver will say, "You've got to be tough to be a diver."

The company's versatility cannot be overlooked either. The al-Gosaibi-McVay partnership, for example, is frequently asked to cope with one of the major problems in underwater maintenance: how to insure that once a structure is placed on the bottom it will stay there. In the Arabian Gulf the combined effect of tide and current makes the sea bottom an unreliable, ever-changing scene. In a single season the sand beneath or beside a structure, pipe or line may be washed away, leaving it unsupported. When this occurs divers pack bags of cement or other substances beneath, beside or above the structure to lend it support and stability. At one time, this meant lowering cement-filled bags from a barge down to their underwater destinations—no easy feat. Today, workers mix cement with sand and water aboard a barge anchored near the worksite and force it through a high-pressure hose to the bottom, where divers have already positioned the empty bags. The bags are then filled in place. This technique—pioneered in the Gulf by the al-Gosaibi-McVay team and called "grouting"—is especially adaptable to undersea pipeline maintenance. In moderate depths and under reasonable weather conditions a single barge can lay as many as six or eight bags per day. At Iran's Kharg Island, recently, the Diving Service also had to experiment with laser-beam equipment in the installation of 60-ton sections of "risers," the vertical sections of pipeline which link sea-floor pipelines to steel platforms above offshore oil wells. Despite the size and exacting nature of the work—to attach the 56-inch risers to the platform and insure adequate support—the job was completed on schedule and without injuries.

To satisfy the ever-growing demands of clients for a greater volume of quality work, the Diving Service is continually developing its staff—particularly those employees who demonstrate an ability to grow. In the early days, for example, the Service hired a cheerful Saudi Arab named Ali Muri to drive a well-used Chevrolet. Willing Ali, however, quickly earned not only indefinite tenure but the opportunity to expand along with the Service. He now supplies the Service with six modern trucks, four new personnel sedans and all the drivers and maintenance men necessary to keep them in operation.

Another example is Ali Abdullah who, when Dee was with Bechtel, served as his tender, the man who, among other things, feeds and retrieves the air hose as the diver moves about the bottom and who, in general, is responsible for the needs and safety of the diver insofar as these can be seen to from the surface. When Dee and Khalifa embarked upon their pearling venture in 1964, Ali gave up the security of his job with Bechtel to join them and, along the way, become a diver himself. Later, when the new Service needed more divers, Ali was the first hired. Since that time he has perfected his diving skills and become particularly adept at welding and burning.

Like Ali, some of the divers from many lands have been with al-Gosaibi almost from the company's inception. Others have performed a year's contract, departed and later returned for more. There was even one man—Colin Hart—who was seriously injured but refused to either stay in the hospital or relinquish his responsibilities. Instead, he volunteered to take over the job of company agent on Bahrain. Why? Because, he says, the Service pays well, provides ever-improving accommodations and creature comforts, offers work continuity and the opportunity to grow and advance in the job and—not least by far—is extremely safety conscious. Divers are always furnished with, and encouraged to use, the most modern—and most expensive—equipment and the results are impressive. In some 500,000 hours of diving only three divers have been lost, a record that, considering the profession, is spectacular.

Over the years the Diving Service has also upgraded and expanded its fleet—most recently by adding four new 109-foot, Danish-built vessels able to accommodate up to 12 divers and supporting personnel, 375 tons of cargo, 30 tons of fuel and 30 tons of water. All named Lillian—after Dee's wife—and christened by her on a blustery day in Denmark in 1973—the new craft can cruise for three weeks, moor at sea for several months, and be rotated 360 degrees by use of the twin screws. But the star of the fleet is a spectacular 237-foot LST which Dee had completely refurbished and overhauled in the United Kingdom. Able to house and transport up to 42 people, it has its own desalination plant capable of producing nearly seven tons of fresh water per day.

All of these additions, as well as a number of the older members of the fleet, are equipped with air compressors, modern decompression chambers and ship-to-shore radio which keep each Lillian in constant contact with her many sisters and with the various al-Gosaibi offices scattered around the Gulf. The Service has also introduced cranes to move heavy loads to or from the bottom, and video cameras which divers take to the bottom to permit experts on the surface to observe close details of the work below. As a result, the Service has frequently cut job costs and time substantially.

Nearly as essential to the success of the Service is the backup staff of administrative and executive personnel without which no modern business can continue to function—men like Jim McClaskey, whose line got cut in the Dubai tank, and Lou Cunningham. McClaskey, a lawyer who came to help with burgeoning administrative and contract problems, was, to everyone's delight, also able to develop his sports-diving experience to the point where he won the admiration of the professional divers. Cunningham, a man with experience in labor relations, personnel management and banking, started at the top—he came in as an executive vice president—but as a sports diver has had some experience at the bottom as well.

Equally important are the engineers, mechanics and maintenance technicians whose skills affect the very lives of the divers; and still further to the rear are the secretaries, liaison men, carpenters and accountants who, constantly at work behind the scenes, make the operation run. Not least among these is Dee McVay's Lillian for whom all the vessels in the fleet are named.

Since her marriage to Dee in 1965, Lillian has served as administrative assistant, number-one secretary and, when Dee was undergoing back surgery, as Dee's substitute. During that time, she found herself in de facto command, supervising everything from contracting and purchasing to hiring, firing and handing out work assignments to 50 or more divers. For all those contributions the company decided early on to name the fleet's vessels after her and, more recently, to send her to Denmark for the christening of the boats whose purchase in 1973 brought from a top oil executive a succinct summary of the firm's achievements: "phenomenal."

Jackie Drucker, who researched this story in and under the Gulf, does free-lance writing in between tennis, archeology and scuba diving.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the May/June 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: DIVING

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1975 images.