HAWAII AT WORK
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Zak Dixon has been a commercial diver with American Marine Corp. for eight years. Above, the former Hilo resident posed last week with a diving helmet in the company's offices at Honolulu Harbor's Pier 14.
Zak Dixon puts his ocean knowledge to work as a commercial diver
Title: Commercial diver
Job: Performs underwater construction and salvage work
Zak Dixon knows he has a risky job, but he takes the view that education, preparation and safety consciousness can go a long way toward offsetting that.
Dixon is a commercial diver with American Marine Corp., a company with about 200 employees that provides specialty marine contracting, commercial diving, and vessel-support services to clients through its offices in Alaska, California and Hawaii.
Dixon joined the company about eight years ago, after undergoing training at the Divers Institute of Technology in Seattle. The seven-month program taught him the fundamentals of commercial diving, including skills such as underwater welding and salvaging.
Besides his certification from DIT, Dixon has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, which he attended after graduating from Waiakea High School on the Big Island, where he was born and raised.
Like many who grew up in the islands, Dixon loves going to the beach to go surfing or fishing, but understandably he doesn't go scuba diving as much as he used to, since diving comprises his typical day at the office.
Dixon, 33, is married to the former Florence Cronin, with whom he has a 3-year-old son, Cole, and a 5-month-old daughter, Kirra. They live in Makakilo.
COURTESY OF AMERICAN MARINE CORP.
Dixon jumped into the water recently to inspect the pilings under a pier at Pearl Harbor.
What is your work title?
Zak Dixon: Commercial diver.
Q: So you're a scuba diver who does construction work underwater?
A: No. They pretty much frown upon us doing scuba diving. We do scuba on a pretty much limited basis.
Q: Well, if you don't do scuba, what do you call it?
A: It's call surface-supplied diving.
Q: Is that the kind with the helmet on?
A: Yeah. We don't use those big old heavy helmets from the old days. (Laughter) They're more modern, fiberglass helmets, but the head is fully enclosed. So basically what happens is we have an air compressor that pumps air through an umbilical down to the diver.
Q: And what would you be doing down there?
A: Anything and everything. One of our long-term service contracts is the Chevron mooring site, off Barbers Point.
Q: What do you do there?
A: We basically maintain the sea berth, where they bring the tanker ships in. And there's two pipelines that run offshore to the berth, and we maintain the mooring buoys and marker buoys. And at the end, where those pipelines end, there's what they call subsea cargo hoses. The ships pick those up and they pump their materials through the hoses back and forth, between the refinery and the ship. That's one example of things we do. We change out those hoses. The hoses are 300 to 400 feet long. It's quite a big operation. You're basically bolting flanges for pipelines
Other projects, we end up doing a lot of inspection work for tugboats and barges.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Zak Dixon is a commercial diver with American Marine Corp. who gained ocean knowledge both at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he majored in marine biology, and the Divers Institute of Technology in Seattle. Above, Dixon posed last week with a helmet at Honolulu Harbor.
Sounds like you need many more skills than just knowing how to dive.
A: Yeah. Your diving is the least of your worries. It's like knowing how to drive so you can get to work. Your diving is just your method of transportation to the work site.
There's a lot of labor, a lot of use of tools. We do underwater welding and cutting; we do form work, to pour concrete underwater. Pretty much anything you can do on the surface, we can do underwater, construction-wise.
Q: How did you learn those skills?
A: Well, American Marine Corp. is a member of ADC (the Association of Diving Contractors), and they're basically a governing body that tries to uphold safety standards for people diving. So our company follows the rules of ADC, and, basically, divers and tenders have to go through a formal training school. So everyone who works in the commercial diving field goes through a training school of some sort. And there's several of them across the country. I went to DIT (Divers Institute of Technology) in Seattle. You go to that training program, and mine was seven months long. They teach you the basics of the gear and the equipment, and after that, once you get the job, it's all on-the-job training.
Q: Do you need a license to do this kind of work?
A: Yeah, it's a certification. That's what I was trying to say about the school. You get certified by the ADC to be a commercial diver. Then there's kind of an apprentice program, where you start out as a tender, working on topside, and then you work your way to be a diver.
It sounds like the job could be very dangerous at times.
A: It can be, but statistically more people probably get hurt on the freeway. But it's not like sitting at your desk at your computer. It's outside. When we dive, we dive with a four-man team, and I'll tell you who they are:
You have a supervisor, whose job is to keep track of time for decompression - the bottom time of the diver, how much time he's been in the water, his air pressure, to make sure his air pressure is at the right level. And also he's in constant communication with the diver - we have radios and speakers and microphones.
We have the diver, who's actually doing the work.
We have a tender, assisting the diver, but basically he's topside supporting the umbilical hose for the diver, also passing the diver tools and whatever equipment he needs.
The last position is a standby diver.
Q: When would he be needed?
A: Well, in the worst possible case, if the diver is down there, he gets trapped or tangled and he can't free himself, then you have another backup source, another standby diver, to assist.
Q: Do you ever have to work at night?
A: Yeah. We've worked at night. We've worked in zero-visibility, where there's more light with your eyes closed. (Laughter) We've worked in tunnels. A guy here went 700 feet into a sewer tunnel. We do rigging. We do crane work.
In Lanai, they had a project there at Kaumalapau (Harbor), a breakwall, and we assisted a company, Traylor Brothers. We helped set their core locks - basically they look like huge concrete jacks, the kind kids play with - and they're 35 tons each. We set those with a crane on the breakwall one at a time into position, and the diver would assist, making sure it was in the correct orientation. And then (he would assist with) de-rigging it - disconnecting it from the crane that put it in place.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dixon showed off the operating panel of a hyperbaric chamber used for surface decompression after deep-sea diving.
How deep, typically, are the jobs you have to work on?
A: Here in Hawaii it's generally all been under a hundred feet. Once or twice it's been a little over a hundred feet, but most of the things we work on here are relatively shallow.
Q: What kinds of jobs are you working on right now?
A: Right now we just finished in Kona. There's a Board of Water Supply, and they have what's called the Kahaluu Shaft.
Q: What did you do there?
A: The shaft is 600 feet down below the earth. You take an elevator down there. We're diving in the water table, the aquifer, basically. They have four pumps and we're doing maintenance work to the pumps. We're pulling the pumps out; we're changing the casings, we're pouring foundations, little slabs of concrete around the casings. This is all in about 6 feet of water, 600 feet below the mountain.
Q: Besides Hawaii, have they had you dive anywhere else?
A: We've worked on Midway and Wake Island.
Q: What was one of the most challenging jobs you've had to work on?
A: Um, let's see. ... Salvaging is always challenging. We've done salvage work off Diamond Head. Long-line fishing boats that go aground. We just salvaged a sailboat off Waikiki. They're challenging 'cause they're right in the surf break. You're working right in the surf with the surge and the shallow water, and you're trying to move very heavy things that are grounded on the bottom.
Q: Is this something you expect to stay with for some time, or is this the kind of job that leads to something else?
A: I expect to stay with it. There's another guy who's been here about 15 years. I've been here about eight. Everyone is pretty much in here for the long haul. It's a great place to live and work.
Q: Do you ever do any recreational diving?
A: I do, but not as much as I used to. (Laughter) You know, you're diving throughout the week. But I do like to surf and fish. I like to go to the beach and all that. I like to do free diving.
The greatest thing about this job is it changes daily. You're never doing the same thing. It's always changing. One week it's salvaging a sailboat, the next week it's in six feet of water in the fresh-water table.
Q: What's your least favorite part of the job?
A: Well, we're a marine construction company, so we do some other work besides the diving. There's always chipping and painting, fighting rust and painting. I don't think there's anybody who would say that's their favorite part, but it has to be done. You can't be diving all of the time.