Diver breaks barriers in cold waters of Alaska

Underwater welder relishes working in extreme environment

Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Most people would have said, "Heck with this." But for Jennifer Sullivan, that first dive in the freezing-cold waters in Whittier on that Thanksgiving weekend sealed the deal.

"I came out of the water, pulled off my hood and my hair froze like that," she said, snapping her fingers. "I knew then that this was what I was going to do."

Underwater welder. It's not the first profession that comes to mind when one first meets Sullivan. She's petite: around 5 feet tall, and not much heavier than 100 pounds. The 30-year-old blond has a quick smile, but a firm handshake.

She's worked hard to break into a field that employs only a handful of women in an already narrowly specialized group of workers. And she's has impressed even the longtimers, like Steve Stuart, her boss and mentor at American Marine Corp.

"She can keep up with the best. She's a good hand," Stuart said. "This lady, of all the people who came along trying to break into this industry in the last few years, she is in the forefront of the next generation. She's taken it upon herself to do a huge amount of training, she's aggressive. You can tell she really wants it."

Sullivan's ultimate goal is to work in Cook Inlet, considered among the toughest places to work in the world.

It'll be years before she's ready, but Stuart said she's got a good shot.

Raised in Fairbanks, Sullivan took to the water early. She was on the swim team in school, winning several medals over the years.

A car accident put her on the sidelines. A truck rolled over her leg, crushing her femur when she was 14 years old. She spent a month in the hospital and nearly two years on crutches.

After graduating high school, she attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a semester, and figured out pretty quickly it wasn't for her. She wanted to be an underwater welder.

Sullivan said she can't remember exactly what put that notion in her head; she just knew it was what she wanted to do.

"I knew I could either be a marine biologist, and never get into the water, or I could do this and dive," she said. "Plus, the money is better."

She got her recreational divers certification, making that first dive in Whittier on that Thanksgiving weekend.

She was accepted into a diver's academy in New Jersey. While waiting for classes to start in a few months, she and her family took a vacation to Hawaii. There, she found the National Polytechnic College of Engineering and Oceaneering had a commercial divers school, and that one started in a few days.

Her family came back to Alaska without her. The 52-week divers program had finals every five weeks. "It was brutal, but I loved it," she said.

When she finished up in Hawaii, Sullivan moved to California for about a year, doing inspections of buildings and other structures on land, but wasn't diving.

She came home to visit family in 2008, and meantime, recalled a representative from the American Marine Corp. visited one of her classes in Hawaii. On a lark, she applied for a job in the Anchorage office.

They scooped her up, getting her on the payroll and into the apprenticeship program in the Piledrivers, Bridge, Dock Builders and Divers Local 2520, a trade union affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

It's a four-year apprenticeship program: Sullivan is in her fourth year in terms of her diving hours, and her second year in terms of her class completion schedule classes aren't available as often as she'd like.

Sullivan is breaking ground in underwater welding. She is the only woman on the diving staff at American Marine's Anchorage office, and the first female underwater welder to sign up at Local 2520.

The lack of women in her newly chosen career field struck her in school in Hawaii. There was only one other woman in her class. Another had graduated the year before.

"I'd eventually like to see more females, but it takes a different breed of female to do it," Sullivan said.

Another woman recently signed for the apprenticeship program, and looks like she has what it takes, Sullivan said.

It's hard life, though. There are weeks away from home, and it's rough and dirty work. She hangs around with a bunch of men all the time. There's no pampering. Modesty goes out the door pretty quick.

Relationships often don't last; the industry has a fairly high divorce rate, Stuart said. Sullivan was in a relationship for a while - he killed her plants once. It's over now.

"I'm not a homemaker, a wife. I made that choice in high school," she said. "I do everything I can to further myself in this field."

And she's had to learn to do the job a little differently than her male counterparts, who can muscle gear and materials around. Sullivan said she has to use her head more, figuring out ways to maneuver heavy blocks of concrete using the water, for example.

A longtime diver himself, Stuart has taken Sullivan under his wing, teaching her some of the tricks of the job. Always, a safety lesson is first. He's seen two friends die in the water and doesn't want to experience it again, he said.

Sullivan did her first official commercial dive for American Marine last spring, doing maintenance and replacing concrete blocks at the Northstar terminal, a manmade facility on the North Slope located in the Beaufort Sea.

"I think they put me in just to shut me up," she said.

Sullivan eventually wants work on the platforms in Cook Inlet. Divers around the world know about the Inlet divers.

It'll take at least five years of steady work before she reaches the level of experience needed to even be considered for the Inlet, Stuart said.

"In the Inlet, you have to use your brains and finesse. It's the mental more than the physical," Stuart said. "You have to want it, but you have to respect it."

Cook Inlet is a 200-mile stretch of water in Southcentral Alaska. Oceanographers say Inlet tides are among the strongest, largest and fastest in the Americas, with bore tides, rip tides and fast spots under the water that could suck a diver away in a few seconds.

And those fast-moving waters are intensified in the areas where several Cook Inlet platforms are built, thanks to narrower land masses nearby. That stirs up the glacial silt on the sea floor, offering zero visibility. Temperatures average 60 degrees in late summer and 30 degrees in winter.

Why would Sullivan want to do that kind of work?

"It's the hardest diving in the U.S.," she said. "No female has ever done it before and I want to do it. And, you know, when I went to school, you could never tell me a female couldn't do something."



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