Helmet Diving and Underwater Work

Question for diver, or Master Diver, or ChiefScott, or any of our other merry maritime masterminds:

About what percentage of heavy underwater labor is still carried out by old-fashioned hard-hat divers?

Meaning hairy guys in big ol’ Mark V diving helmets and weighted diving suits, with surface-supplied air…as opposed to twinkies in masks and flippers and air-tanks?

If I wanted to sink foundations for a bridge over a river, or hired a salvage firm to retrieve gold bars from a sunken yacht, or was trying to fix a gouge in the side of an ocean liner, would the diver opt for pre-SCUBA technology?

It seems to me that, in a case of heavy work, the greater protection of the old-timey diving outfit (and the relative simplicity of the technology) would make it the first choice of a professional diver.

Am I right? How much undersea work is still being done in this manner? Are lead boots and copper helmets still being manufactured somewhere?


Hmmmm . . . Either Ike is editing a book involving diving, or this explains the concrete Aigner pumps he got me for Xmas . . .

Well, there’s this place called The Noose in the West Twenties…


Well, it’s nice to see the NYC crowd all hangin’ out together. Whadd’ya do with Manhattan and Melanie? Or is this for a rescue operation in New York Harbor?

Uke, I think the technology a diver will use probably depends upon the depth he must dive to.

If I remember what I read just a few minutes ago, SCUBA divers (twinkies) rarely go below 150 ft due to increasing water pressure.

I think the big ole bell helmet divers (hairy guys) are part of a pressurized suit and these are used between 150 ft and about 1450 ft. Beyond that you need some form of bathyscape.

Helmet divers? Let the lurid puns begin.

Easy one-step assembly instructions.
Pour Beer A in Uncle B.

Latex helmets are generally frowned upon due to the risk of breakage. The divers often complain of an inability to feel the equipment they are working on as sensativity is decreased somewhat. The pro of this kind of helmet is the increased length of time the diver can remain submerged and the protection the diver gets from the often polluted waters.

Hell is Other People.

“Latex helmets are generally frowned upon due to the risk of breakage. The divers often complain of an inability to feel the equipment they are working on as sensativity is decreased somewhat.”

—Do they have helmets that are ribbed for her pleasure?

I suppose something about reservoir tips would be over the top right about now, huh?

He weathered a firestorm of agony and did not break.
And while Yori raged against his unbending
courage, we took Kyuden Hiruma back.
His loss is great, but so is the gift his suffering brought.
-Yakamo’s Funeral

Thank you, Unc and Sake…I was about to say, if it wasn’t for my beloved if smart-ass New York buddies, I’d get no responses at all. So where’s Alphagene and his pole-ax?

Sake: Latex helmets…are these the single-ported things that are usually used with aqualungs? I’M talking about the great copper domes with the reinforced glass faceplate and “eyes” on either side (and usually one on the upper-front). The air-hose connects in the back, loops under the diver’s arms, and runs back up to a pump on the topside. Y’know, like on the old “Diver Dan” show.

Unc: Say you and I are on a ship, and something goes wrong with the propelling screw. Isn’t it easier to keep a diving rig on hand for underwater emergencies than to worry about keeping aqualungs gassed up and ready to go? This way you can just suit up and jump overboard with your socket wrench in your hand, and tighten up the bolts while I turn the air pump. If you drop a sledgehammer on your foot, no problem…you’re effectively armorized.

Oh, uh, and that thing I said about yachts and gold bars in the OP? Forget I said that, huh?

– Uke, hiding the treasure map

I dunno, Uke. What’s a “diving rig?”

That aside, I think it might depend on the size of the ship yer aboard. There are also limits on how long you can be submerged before you have to worry about decompression sickness (the bends), even at such a shallow depth. That’s probably superfluous to your question, unless using a pressurized diving suit makes a difference.

I think you need an opinion from someone more informed than I.

So, when’s the ship leave port? We are headed for the Caribbean, ain’t we? I know this little bar on St. Lucia.

Easy one-step assembly instructions.
Pour Beer A in Uncle B.

Isn’t The Noose on West 19th, just off of 8th Ave? Gee… NOW I know who all of those friendly folks are, lined up awaiting opening. :slight_smile:


" If you want to kiss the sky, you’d better learn how to kneel. "


By “diving rig” I mean the aformentioned copper helmet with glass faceplates, which bolts down to a breastplate attached to a rubberized diving suit (or “dress”). A weighted belt and heavy diving shoes keep the diver upright. Air (or an oxygen/helium mix) is supplied to the helmet from the surface through a hose, communication with topside by a telephone, and the diver is also tethered to the surface by a “lifeline”: a rope by which he may be hauled back onto the ship by his “tenders,” the shipmates who keep an eye on him while he’s working.

Boy, this is one of those times where a picture would be worth a thousand words.


That’s what I thought you meant, Uke. I think it might take a bit longer to don a pressure suit than it would a ‘twinkie’ suit. So, my answer is, “It beats my pair of jacks, I fold.”

And no picture is necessary. I remember a Looney Tune with Sylvester in one of those rigs.

Easy one-step assembly instructions.
Pour Beer A in Uncle B.

Hoo-hah! Picture ahoy!

Gee, Uke, your link transported me.

I would say that the hard hat, pressurized suit diving is rare.

Lots of commercial diving is done using surface supplied air and phone, but the diver uses a light weight face mask. The suit is not pressurized. They do not use “lead boots”, but a weight belt like a scuba diver would use. If the water is cool, they run a hot water hose down to the diver, which he sticks in his suit. These are the only type I have worked with in the Gulf of Mexico.

Commercial SCUBA divers typically are limited to shallow inland waters.

Well, you really need a commercial diver to drop in here with an informed reply. I am strictly a recreational diver (130 feet max) and all I really know is what I read and what I see in the magazine ads from the commercial diving schools. I do see a modern version of the old hard hat diving rig in the ads.
There are also some newer hard suits using surface supplied air.
Without undergoing decompression, time underwater is pretty limited. Something around 20 minutes as I recall at 120 ft. (I use a dive computer these days so my familiarity the old dive table has suffered.) At shallow depths like 25 or 30 feet, the limit is more the available air in the tank - about 1 to 1 1/2 hours - than no-decompression time, so a working diver might be able to do some meaningful work in scuba gear at shallow depths.
I do know the commercial divers sometimes do what is called saturation diving where they stay at depth until their body is fully saturated with nitrogen. They can work for days in that mode and then decompress in a chamber for days. I understand they rotate in and out of the chamber until whatever they are doing is complete.
Somehow spending days (weeks) in a chamber the size of a very small camper trailer with 1 or 2 other people just doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun job.

If I remember what I read just a few minutes ago, SCUBA divers (twinkies) rarely go below 150 ft due to increasing water pressure

Recreational divers rarely go below 100-130 feet. Water pressure is not really the problem, although some of its effects are. Nitrogen buildup, nitrogen narcosis, and oxygen toxicity (yes, oxygen is toxic under some circumstances) are common problems.

I don’t recall (and can’t find right now) the record for SCUBA dive depth, but I do recall seeing a show on PBS about divers going on the order of 400 feet down. They carried three different gas mixtures.

FYI, free divers have gone to about 80m (262 feet) feet on one breath, and have gone to 150m (492 feet)(reference)



Hence the oxygen/helium breathing mix, which I referred to in an earlier post.

No nitrogen in the lungs/bloodstream equals no nitrogen narcosis, AND no inconvenient “bends.” You can just pop up like a little cork.

It’s amazing the things you remember from boys’ adventure novels…

They were using hard hat divers in Alaska on offshore oil work 15 years ago when I was in the oil bid’ness. I remember that those guys made a little less money than God does but they had a annual fatality rate of close to 20%. The last I heard of a hard hat diver was in deep water Gulf of Mexico oil platforms about three years ago and he almost joined the 20%. I don’t understand how some of these posts say that the worksuit is not pressurized. The diver’s outfit/chest/lung expansion must push against the water pressure at depth. They can’t just be sucking air through a garden hose 200’ down.

I, too, am not a commercial diver; thus, I am afraid I can do little to answer the specific question. But I certainly want my presence felt; there are so few questions that touch upon this particular area of interest/experience of mine. :slight_smile:

I have done quite a bit of scientific research diving, including a 10-day saturation mission. As diver mentioned, once a person becomes saturated with nitrogen in the blood/tissues, the usual constraints on bottom time do not apply. We worked on the reefs anywhere from 6 to 12 hours a day. When our tanks (doubles) ran low, we would just switch to new ones at designated stations near the work sites. These stations were supplied by surface support divers.

10 days living in a research tube, spending that much time in the water can be daunting. Diaper rash; ear infections; fatigue; always feeling cold; etc… But then, the mild case of nitrogen narcosis that keeps you at a slight buzz helps to take the edge off! Overall, the mission was a fantastic experience.

As far as my reasearch went, if I was working in shallow waters where the surge over the reef was particulalry strong, I would just weight myself down with about 36 pounds of lead on my belt. In addition, my partner would sometimes have to hold my feet for extra stability. Even so, I got raked over my share of coral (ouch!) and fire coral (double ouch!).