Divers say job dangers bind them together

Underwater construction workers form friendship amid perilous labor

Posted: Tuesday, December 12, 2006

ANCHORAGE - When the tide started to turn, Owen Boyle headed topside. Getting caught under more than 100 feet of water is no place to be when the big tides of Cook Inlet move. Underwater divers must make these ascents in stages, to stave off the physical problems associated with decompression.

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Boyle had gone up 30 feet, waited a few minutes. "Where's Sid?" he asked the supervisor about his dive partner.

"He'll be along," he heard over the radio.

Boyle went up a few more feet, nearly there. "Where's Sid?"

"He's hung up."

Boyle dropped down. He and his co-worker Sid had been running cable lines through the bracings of the natural gas platform Baker. He found Sid's cable, and started fishing his way through Baker's X-bracings.

The tide's strength was picking up fast. The surging water plastered Boyle against the platform's legs. He inched his way down, plucked the line from the snag and helped Sid up.

It was a harrowing experience, Boyle said years later, but not necessarily an unusual one.

Boyle's longtime co-worker and friend Steve Stuart has had some scary times too. There was the time when a crane collapsed during the Steelhead platform construction.

Stuart was on a barge, dressed and was about to dive when a crane's foundations failed and crashed into the water, near the spot where Stuart would have been in a few more minutes. "You could feel the impact on the deck," Stuart said. "I came up a foot off the barge."

None of the 30 crew members on the barge were hurt.

Construction divers are a rare breed. Rarer still are those who can dive and complete a job successfully in the coastal waters of Alaska's Cook Inlet. They are unique in a narrowly specialized industry. Tim Wood listened to the veterans with wide eyes. One was old enough to be his grandfather, the other his father. He is anxious to join their ranks.

This spring, Wood is scheduled to take his first plunge into the cold, murky waters of Cook Inlet to lay sandbags to shore up an underwater pipeline.

The 33-year-old has shown he has a knack for welding and for underwater diving. He's done the dirty jobs all around Alaska, scraping pipe and tossing gravel bags overboard to those who hold the job he has coveted for nearly a decade.

He's ready. An employee of the American Marine Corp., Wood has been trained by some of the world's top marine construction divers, including Stuart and Boyle.

"Divers have to display an affinity and talent before Cook Inlet," Stuart said. "Tim has a natural talent and the confidence to do Cook Inlet."

"In this career, a man has to have it innately in him, and then they get the training," Boyle said.

Three generations of Alaskan marine divers gathered around a table recently trading tales about work. They sat near three generations of diving equipment, from the old bronze cage helmets to the lighter Kevlar hats. Boyle's suit from his early days, reminiscent of that worn in the "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" movie, hung on a wall nearby.

Boyle has trained dozens of divers over the years. He calls them his "professional sons."

"The most satisfying part of my career has been training these guys and keeping them alive," he said.

Boyle is 75 years old, and emanates an unusual energy and quick smile. He stopped diving two years ago, and now supervises marine dives.

The Idaho-born Stuart has known Boyle since they worked together during the 1970s, when both worked pipeline construction jobs on the North Slope. Stuart, a diver since 1978, has worked many jobs alongside Boyle.

Clean-cut and polite, Wood has dived for seven years. He grew up near the Naval town of Roanoke, Va.

They are members of the Piledrivers, Bridge, Dock Builders and Divers Local 2520, a trade union affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Stuart calls his work as a construction diver just a glamorized laborer. But the work is much more than that. They build underwater pipelines and offshore oil and gas platforms. They do inspections and they salvage wreckage.

"Here, you got to learn all this. No one with just one specialty is going down into the Inlet," Stuart added.

It has the potential to be one of the more dangerous jobs in the construction field. Because of that, it's also one of the more safety-conscious. American Marine Corp. has never reported a death in Alaska.

"That's a sign of the professionalism here, and it's another reason to work here," Wood said.

After a stint in the Navy working as a pipefitter and welder, Wood took a job on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There, he heard the stories of the Alaska Cook Inlet divers.

"When I worked in the Gulf, I always heard about Cook Inlet divers, that only the best could work in those waters," Wood said. "This is one of my goals. First was coming to Alaska, next is Cook Inlet."

Why Cook Inlet? And what makes it so treacherous?

Cook Inlet is a 200-mile stretch of water, reaching from the coasts of Homer to the shores off Anchorage to the Matanuska Valley. It is situated in one of the world's most seismically active rims, and is lined with a half-dozen volcanoes.

"I've dived all over the country, and this is the most dangerous water dive I've ever seen," said Boyle, who has been diving since 1960. "If you can dive Cook Inlet water, you can dive anywhere."

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