Subsea Stories

Tom Gilchrist wears a "Unisuit" with Rod Butler helping adjust a Rat Hat, preparatory to diving through the ice in Tuktoyaktuk in the Canadian High Arctic, circa 1982. Photo by Bill Belsey, courtesy of Nuytco.


Early in January, Tom Gilchrist replied to my email, explaining that he did technical writing, an extension of his former subsea and fuel cell careers. “Now instead of doing the work myself, I write manuals to help other people do it. In turn, that helps me stay involved and in touch.”

I was delighted that Tom included a brief summary of his underwater history. “Like others of my vintage, my early inspiration was Jacques Cousteau. I never missed his TV show and read every book of his and every book about diving in the North Van library where I grew up.  My father was also a significant influence for me. He was a Master Mariner and spent 50 years of his life at sea travelling the world.

“I began sport diving when I was 13 years old. At 15, I had my first hands-on exposure to a real submersible during a summer job at International Hydrodynamics (HYCO) when Pisces V was under construction. For the rest of my high-school years, I worked part-time at the North Van branch of Willoughby’s Diver’s Den which was the centre of the Vancouver sport diving community at the time.  Following that, I got a pipe welding certificate and gained experience in ship construction working at Vancouver Shipyards.

“Fast-forward, circumstances led me to doing some surface welding work for Can-Dive Services. In the meantime, I had also studied electronics technology, and after the welding stint, I was offered employment there working on oceanographic survey jobs and remotely operated vehicles for Jim English. That’s when I got my first experience working on an offshore oil rig.

“However, I really wanted to get in the water as a commercial diver, so the company gave me a leave of absence to go to California to get my mixed-gas diving certificate. It was really just a formality because the school (the Commercial Diving Centre) was the training division of Oceaneering (Can-Dive was one of the founding companies) and I had a job waiting for me when I finished.

“Following that, I spent summers in the Beaufort Sea working for Can-Dive as a bell diver on the Dome/Canmar rigs. I was fortunate to be employed year-round, outside the arctic season, thanks to my additional technical background. This led to my training at an Oceaneering facility in the UK for atmospheric diving suit (ADS) operations (the predecessor to Phil Nuytten’s Hardsuit and Exosuit evolutions). And periodically Can-Dive would “lend” me to Oceaneering to support their ADS operations in Brazil and Santa Barbara. I was also the ADS technician for the National Geographic Breadalbane Arctic expedition along with Phil, other Can-Dive personnel and Dr. Joe MacInnis.

“Then I spent several years working for Atlantis Submarines (formerly Sub-Aquatic Development Corp) for John Witney, Dennis Hurd, and Tom Roberts. I was involved in the construction of several submarines and directly in operations in Barbados and Grand Cayman Island.

“Eventually, I diverted away from the subsea world and got into electrochemical fuel cells working for another Vancouver technology company, Ballard Power System (BPS). But even that had a subsea connection as one of the founders and some of the early employees had subsea backgrounds. They were my foot in the door and I spent 11 years there.

Eventually I resigned to start a technical documentation business, but BPS continues as one of my customers to this day. I also re-established contact with old subsea friends which led to documentation work for OceanWorks (US Navy submarine rescue system, and other projects), Cellula Robotics (with Eric Jackson from the early ISE days), and Nuytco Research (Phil Nuytten, of course). In fact, I’m working on a project for Nuytco right now. So, my subsea connection and involvement continues from its beginnings in the early 1970s to now. It’s been an amazing life.”

It was also quite the story! Tom lives in Squamish and shares his email:

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