The Magazine for Underwater Professionals

Sep/Oct 2016


A life in diving

'Oceaneer: From the Bottom of the Sea to the Boardroom'

Mike Hughes made his first dive in a neighbour’s swimming pool with a cylinder and demand valve a friend ordered from an advertisement in Popular Mechanics. By the time he had used all the air he thought he might have found a way to cover his tuition at the University of Tennessee.

He ordered his own set of gear at once. While he waited for it to arrive he wrote to anyone who might have need of a diver.

It was not long before the Tennessee Valley Authority took him on part-time at a dam on the Tennessee River which had been built over a section of riverbed riddled with caverns. The work went on for two years, most of it spent trying to cut off the flow of water where the bottom was porous. (In one place the flow was so strong it sucked his leg into a hole; it was only thanks to his partner that he extricated himself.)

By the time Hughes graduated with a degree in civil engineering the programme was winding down. With few prospects of other diving work, he drove to Morgan City, Louisiana, the hub of the Gulf of Mexico oil industry.

Thanks to his engineering degree, Shell Oil in New Orleans referred him to Norman Ketchman, the diver to whom they entrusted most of their work. Ketchman operated with another diver, Norman Knudsen, who had a one-man company, Gulf Coast Diving Service, and at Ketchmann’s suggestion Hughes joined them.

In October 1963, having lined up a chain-smoking mixed-gas specialist named Peter Edel, Gulf Coast Diving Service made the first helium dives in the Gulf of Mexico. The equipment consisted of a Desco mask, modified for demand breathing, vulcanised to a Jack Browne canvas dry suit. As the engineer, Hughes was given the job of designing and building a manifold the diver wore on his chest, with valves for switching gases. It was, he writes, “A plumber’s nightmare.”


Ketchman made the first dive; Knudsen the second. Both reached the bottom at 335 feet (102 metres), setting a depth record for the Gulf. Hughes then made a helium dive to 100 feet (30 metres) for 30 minutes: a dive which if carried out according to the US Navy helium tables would have called for about 20 minutes of decompression, but which using Edel’s procedures required no decompression at all.
When Hughes started with Ketchman and Knudsen there were just the three of them, plus two tenders. All went well until Knudsen brought in a business manager, who it transpired was pocketing the money he was supposed to be collecting for medical insurance. When Knudsen refused to fire him, everyone – which by then included Hughes’s friend from university Johnny Johnson and two former Navy UDT divers –walked out. The result was a new company with the grandiose name of World Wide Divers.

After five years in business World Wide Divers was prospering, thanks in large part to work as a result of Hurricanes Hilda and Betsy. Being short of divers – which was usually the case after a major hurricane – Hughes called on Lad Handelman of Cal Dive to bring his crew from California. Since the oilfields in the Santa Barbara Channel were in much deeper water than those in the Gulf, Cal Dive had accumulated a great deal of experience with mixed gas. Furthermore, one of the partners, Bob Ratcliffe, had designed a light-weight fibreglass helmet with a demand breathing system (the Rat Hat), which was essential for conserving helium.


In September 1969 Cal Dive and its sister company Can Dive in Vancouver, owned by Phil Nuytten, merged to form a new company, Oceaneering. At the time, both companies were working on a large project with World Wide Divers inspecting a Shell platform that had been damaged by Hurricane Camille. Hughes and Johnny Johnson were already talking to Handelman about joining forces, and on the last day of the year World Wide Divers merged with Oceaneering.

The decision as to who was to be the president of the company and who the chairman of the board was decided by consulting a book on management. Given that the duties of the title of president covered three pages and there was only one duty for the chairman of the board – to preside over board meetings – Hughes said he thought Handelman should be the president. Hughes would assume the position of chairman of the board.

At the time of the merger, World Wide Divers was still, despite its name, very much a Gulf of Mexico-oriented business. “One of our major strategies,” Hughes writes, “was to spread the risk of business disruption by diversifying geographically.” With the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in mind, which had brought Cal Dive’s West Coast operations to a halt, the importance of doing so was abundantly clear.
In the spring of 1971 Hughes and Handelman learned that Divcon, a company started by Murray Black in Santa Barbara, which was now owned by International Utilities and based in Houston, was up for sale. Divcon had contracts in the North Sea, the Middle East and Africa – just what they were looking for. There were two difficulties, however: International Utilities were already in advanced discussions with the French company Comex, Divcon’s main rival, and they considered Oceaneering too small to be taken seriously as a potential buyer. They would only talk if the upstarts came armed with a cashier’s cheque for one million dollars. Astonishingly, Hughes managed to persuade Oceaneering’s bankers to write the cheque, and in fairly short order Hughes, Handelman and Johnson closed the deal. With the stroke of a pen, Oceaneering became one of the two biggest diving companies in the world.


In the foreword to Oceaneer Hughes makes clear he has not attempted to provide a complete history of Oceaneering; rather, this is a collection of stories from the author’s career, before and after the company’s formation. For example, he tells of his first two diving jobs in Morgan City before joining Ketchman and Knudsen. On the first job, the contractor went bust and failed to pay him; on the second job, standing by to dive in a heavy sea after working four days and nights without sleep, he nodded off and fell overboard.


There is the discovery after Oceaneering bought Divcon that the manager in London is rebidding contracts in West Africa in the name of a company he has set up on the side. Further on, Hughes describes Handelman negotiating to obtain the rights to the Jim atmospheric diving suit, with his opposite number repeatedly disappearing into an adjoining room to consult his astrologer.

There is also the fascinating piece of information that the Lusitania, contrary to the assurances of the British government, was indeed carrying munitions when she was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915; proof of which Oceaneering saturation divers recovered in the form of several brass bomb fuses, missed by a secret Royal Navy operation two years earlier.

Oceaneer is an interesting and highly readable book by one of the pioneers of today’s commercial diving industry. It will appeal to divers young and old – and perhaps to non-diving family members as well.

Oceaneer: From the Bottom of the Sea to the Boardroom; Mike Hughes; published by; hardcover; 197 pages; ISBN: 978-0-9964027-0-5


Christopher Swann





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