Oceans of Opportunity

the ups and downs of mooring work

Tis the season – water is still cold, brisk morning starts, and a glimpse of spring come afternoon – and the long days out on the water have kicked off. This time of year is a big focus on one thing…mooring work.

What is mooring work? Well, for those landlubber readers, a mooring itself is the permanent anchor set out on the water where folks will tie up a boat that stays on the water for some period of time. Its anatomy consists of some type of heavy bottom tackle, most often a ‘mushroom’ anchor, though at time concrete blocks, or helical screws hydraulically driven into the bottom; a shot of heavy ‘bottom chain’, which rests on the bottom and rarely moves unless there is a major tide or storm; a shot of ‘top chain’ which is a lighter gauge than the bottom chain and as the name suggests, it runs up to the surface; then a short shot of ‘through ball chain’ or the chain that runs through the floating plastic ball; then a pair of pennants, and finished with a ‘pick up stick’ or the device that can be reached while on deck of the boat being moored while the pennants are being fixed to cleats.

The work itself takes place in two rounds during the year. In the winter time (end of boating season), each ball and pennant is removed and brought back to land to be cleaned up, services, repainted, and stored until being redeployed in the spring. During that time, the chain itself is dropped to the mud so that it will not wear while not in use all winter. A line with float, or ‘winterstick’ is left tied to the chain so it can be found easily in the springtime. In the spring, that would be now, all of the mooring chains are dived on to provide a visual inspection of the chain’s conditions, chain and other worn hardware is replaced as necessary, and the actual floating ball is re-deployed.

Mooring work is literally back-breaking work. Despite the help of winches, davits, cat heads – tools of the trade on a good mooring boat – the work involves humping a lot of heavy steel chain and hardware and there’s no getting around it. You get wet, it can be cold, barnacles tear through gloves, and the stink…oh man the stink is incredible. The mud in many mooring fields is thick organic nastiness and it ends up on everything. That’s the topside glory…underwater is no picnic either. Every mooring is dived on. That accounts for say 10 to as many as 30 quick bounce dives in a day, from say 5 feet of water to up to 60 feet of water for here in Rhode Island anyway. I’d say the average depth is about 20 feet of depth. The most moorings I’ve dived on in a single day is 40, and in hindsight based on how I felt after that day I was probably bent (decompression sickness or DCS) for obvious reasons…it wasn’t the time on the bottom, it was all the ups and downs.

The ups and downs are quick. Typically, the most convenient mode to dive is hookah to either a standard second stage regulator, or a fullface mask. Occasionally we’ll use communications, but most often you are flying solo with one person topside. As simple as the dives are, they are incredibly hard on the body. Most often we dive with no fins, so jump off the side while diving heavy (to drop quick and dig in to bottom for leverage while working), go hand over hand down the chain and inspect every link as we go. Once hitting the bottom, there can be any number of surprises…the bottom chain could be stretched out nicely making life easy, or it could be all wrapped up on the bottom tackle. When the latter, the diver takes some time to unwrap the heavy mess and stretch it out to allow for a thorough visual inspection. Then we resurface, report results, and carry on. In instances where chains or hardware need to be replaced, we cut chain to length with a torch, determine the best way to rig the chain to get it where it needs to go, then make the switch. Old shackles can be stubborn and at a minimum require using a crow bar and pipe wrench to break them, at times we break out the hydraulic grinder or when desperate, a hacksaw.

So, down-up, down-up, down-up several tens of times a day throughout April and most of May and you definitely get into shape, but pick up some serious bumps and bruises along the way. What I love the most about mooring work is its inherent nature in improving your fitness to dive…not only physical conditioning, but in psychological preparedness for working immersions. Visibility is typically poor – from zero to maybe a few feet – you work by feel, and become very in tune with underwater situational awareness – relative placement of your air hose to the chain, to any tools brought with you, and so on. In that sense, each dive is very much like an art. What I also love about mooring work is that you become so in tune with performing and executing on the dives, that you begin to embrace the idea that the equipment is just for performance enhancement of individual capabilities – i.e. you are not dependent on the equipment, rather it allows you to simply extend personal capabilities. With that, you become much stronger in the water, much more in tune with diving technology as an augmentation of human capability, and have entered a state of readiness that is needed to carry through the rest of the heavy work season.

Who knew mooring work was so rewarding?!? Thousands of ups and downs staring at chain and digging in hard since age 17 will teach you a lot about life. Add in some salty colleagues and a boy becomes a man virtually overnight.

Now, some may argue that it’s menial grunt work and that they are above mooring work. Well, I’d argue that if you can perform while waist deep in the mud and schlepping 200 pounds of chain around in zero visibility and do a quality job, you can do just about anything…I view this type of work as a litmus test for the rest.

One controversial element of this type of diving is where it lies with regards to health and safety regulations. Yes, it is a working dive, so is ‘commercial’ in nature. However, the standard of practice by those in the field does not fit the commercial diving regimen. That would be incredibly cost-ineffective, and no one would then have the luxury of inshore recreational boating. The means and methods are analogous to husbandry activity associate with aquaculture facilities, whose regulations fall under agriculture statutes rather than diving regulations, though interestingly neither have been well-defined in the Code of Federal Regulations. One reason for this is that the nature of the work requires working from a boat, where there are typically no ’employees’ – only men [and women] of the sea, where labor laws are every shade of gray. Those engaging in the work are largely operating while assuming their own risk – though with a remarkable safety record mind you. So much so that other industries should consider these working dive methods as a unique standard of practice that has applications in other work segments.

Well, I’m beat for today. Back at it tomorrow, where things are looking both up and down.