From witnessing a military submarine explosion to diving on oil rigs, Mahurangi West resident Brook McRae has lived an action packed life. The 36-year-old pushed through some rough teenage years to kick-start himself in the water cooler industry before finding a passion for commercial diving. Ben Donaldson talked to him about the extreme ends of his trade and how he handles a career unlike any other …
In 2013, I was contracted to work as a salvage diver at an Indian naval base in Mumbai. We’d almost finished the job when, at just past midnight, a naval submarine carrying thousands of pounds of explosives blew up in a suspected terrorism attack. The explosion was hard to comprehend. I was just 450 metres away and suffered shellshock. It was so hot and it lit up the whole city as if you were wearing orange tinted glasses. When I properly came to, people were running in panic, not sure whether the station would come under attack again. There was a lot of confusion. One man got sandwiched between a ladder and a tug that was trying to rescue people. They brought the injured man to me. His middle section was crushed, but he was still breathing. He was past my level of training, though, so there was nothing I could do. Luckily, I had called my divers out of the water just two minutes earlier. Shockwaves travel faster through water than air, so had they been still diving, the explosion would have burst their lungs and killed them instantly.
The Indian navy wanted to investigate how the incident occurred. There were places on the sub where their own commando divers couldn’t get into so, as a salvage diver, they called me back in. They took me to a replica sub at a dry dock where I could get to know the vessel by touch. This was important because inside the wreckage there was zero visibility. I will never forget my first dive into the sub – it was like a human boil up. The explosion had cooked the crew for three-and-a-half hours and on the surface of the water there was a layer of human fat. At the time I was so focused it didn’t really affect me. I was wearing overalls rather than a wet suit because India was very warm and when I got back to my hotel I realised my skin had human remains stuck to it. Initially, I was just going to examine the damage, but the navy then asked me to clear the bodies first. The only way to get them out was to push them through a 600mm tube inside the conning tower which was the only way in or out of the sub. It was a pretty gruesome exercise and at one stage, I thought I had brought up a winch and some alloy bars, but it turned out to be a spinal column and some ribs.
After the human recovery was finished, I went on to assess the armory on board. Training for that was a boy’s dream. I got to work with a weapons expert so I could learn every explosive aboard, again using just my hands to identify them. That dive was probably my most technical. I was going through gaps only wide enough for body and tank, in pitch black. I knew if my umbilical cord (the oxygen supply) broke I would die in there. There were also points where I had to find a space big enough to turn around, because it was so tight I couldn’t go straight back without my tank getting caught. Inside the sub, the missiles and torpedoes were stacked like pick-up sticks which could all go off at any time.
The missiles were eight metres long and at one point, I was straddled over one thinking ‘how many people do this in their life?’ I enjoy the intensity of that sort of work, real balls to the wall stuff. If I ever got a tattoo it would be of a diver riding a missile.
I learnt my trade as a commercial diver when I was 26 and living in Huntly. Since then I have done two saturation (SAT) dives on oil rigs, 100 metres below the surface. You live at that depth for a month so they can call on you to work at any time. The chamber you live in with two other people is no bigger than a van and my bed was 700mm wide. It’s a mental challenge. You get to know your colleagues on a very intimate level and you really have to rein yourself in and make life as easy for each other as possible. There is a code that means you aren’t allowed to talk about family and relationships down there. At that depth you breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen to survive, so you all sound like chipmunks the entire time. Meals are sent down from a barge and the toilet is next to the beds, behind a curtain. The diving is often zero visibility so if you lose your cord it’s very dangerous. Hypothermia will kill you before your reserve air runs out, but surfacing will kill you instantly. On one rig, I worked for over 14 hours straight without food or water. Both my SAT dives went well, but you appreciate things so much when you return to the surface. You forget the sound of your voice and what natural light is like.
So much could happen while you are down there that you would be unaware of. I also do dives where I have to surface quicker than your body can pressurise so when I get to the surface I have seven minutes to get into a decompression chamber.
People are often amused that all my jobs have been water related, and even my name is another word for a stream. At 22, I decided to set up my own company in an Auckland warehouse, selling water coolers to businesses. I used $10,000 inherited from my mother who died of cancer when I was 19. For two years I was living off $80 a week trying to grow the business so I slept inside the warehouse and had to crawl between stock to get to my bed. The venture was a partnership with a friend, Terry Jack, and at times we thought about giving up. After four years, I sold my share to Terry for a healthy sum, by which point Tony Falkenstein, the chief executive officer of Just Water International, had offered to buy us out. I had a lot of fun running that business as we only employed young people so we were always being cheeky.
My youth was full of parties and social life. At 15, social services wanted me removed from home so I lied about my age to avoid foster care and got my own flat in Roskill South. It became the flat where all my friends would come for parties, I remember doing burnouts in the kitchen on my motorbike. It was quite a rough area with a lot of student gangs around and a lot of serious crime. One night a gang stormed into my house and had me at knife point on my couch before they left, with me crying like a baby.
I faced someone with a knife at school, too, when one time a kid waited outside class for me and tried to stab me. I found myself in a lot of fights at my high school, Auckland Boys Grammar. In Third Form the principal told me I had been in more fights than any other two students combined. I wasn’t very academic at school and only got accepted into grammar because the vice principal was in charge of the cycling team and I was good at road biking. I made the A team and often, cycling was the only thing that kept me focused and at the school. I also got quite good at boxing. I would never back down from a fight and always defended people who got bullied. I made the front page of the Herald once after I caught someone breaking into my house and put them in a headlock. I had the police on the phone, but the call ended when I broke the phone over the guy’s head.
I moved to Auckland when I was six. Prior to that I grew up in Murapara where Dad was a deer farmer, until the industry fell flat overnight and he became a possum trapper. We lived in a sort of commune with lots of families on one section. They were all family friends of my parents from Auckland, a group called the ‘can splitters’ because they used to open containers at the docks. Barry Crump was our neighbour and I remember he released the book Wild Pork and Watercress on our property.
Growing up I often visited Whangateau. We had a friend that owned land there and we helped him turn it into a cricket pitch. I proposed to my wife, Sarah, at Pakiri Beach and we were married at St Leonard’s Church in Matakana. We have the two children, Frankie who is two and Coco who is two months. We launched Clearyaks at Goat Island last year as I wanted to set up another company and give Sarah a project. This area gave me a real connection to the ocean so it’s nice to share that with people. I also have a sister who lives in Leigh and Mum is buried at Whangateau. I do miss my family when I’m away diving, but I really enjoy working on big construction projects and if I couldn’t handle it, I wouldn’t do it.