Bill Schumacher traded a wool suit for a wet suit and now spends six hours a day, five days a week underwater scraping barnacles, sea grass and slime off the bottoms of boats in Newport Harbor. It's a dirty business, what with worms and other tiny sea creatures crawling through your hair, but Schumacher loves every minute of it.
As one of dozens of Orange County divers who specialize in cleaning and servicing boats, Schumacher, owner of Leading Edge Underwater Yacht Service, estimates that 75% of his business consists of scouring underwater growth off hulls. "We service anywhere from 600 to 800 boats a month," says the 39-year-old Schumacher. "We don't do anything above the water."
Divers such as Schumacher like to compare their profession to yard work. As Tony Mickelson, owner of Poseidon Yacht Services in Newport Beach, says: "It's like a gardener would come in once a month and mow the lawn. We come in once a month and clean the hull."
If the hulls are not cleaned regularly, barnacles and other marine growth keep sprouting just like an unmown lawn. The result can affect the speed of the vessel, slowing it down and hampering its ability to win races or adding an extra hour to a weekend trip to Catalina Island.
"One barnacle, if it is growing on a propeller, will slow a boat down," Mickelson says. "It will hinder the performance of a boat. People who have boats want to be able to get in them and go to Avalon in a normal amount of time. If it takes an extra hour, then chances are there is extra growth on the boat."
Using a scrub pad, scraper and steel wool, divers such as 31-year-old Jeff Warner, owner of Warner Diving Service in Huntington Beach, work their way from boat to boat, servicing a regular clientele.
"I can do six to eight boats in a day," says Warner, who has been diving for 10 years. "I love the diving," he says, "but it is hard work. There's a heavy burn-out factor. It is hard to keep divers." Warner employs four divers and says the average diver "stays about six months."
Schumacher, who has six divers working for him, says: "It is hard, physically demanding work. In the wintertime the water is cold. Visibility is bad. And it can get real dirty at times. It is not the type of job that if you are used to sport diving off Catalina in clear water and seeing pretty fish . . . well, it is not like that at all."
As Warner points out, "just cleaning a boat is hard, and it is even harder when you are doing it underwater. We dive all year. In the winter the water can get down to 50 degrees. You get worms crawling through your hair. I've had people quit because they didn't like that. And you have jellyfish sting you in the face and in the lips."
Although hull-cleaning makes up the majority of the diving business, divers occasionally are called upon to retrieve objects dropped into the water. "We get called to dive for car keys, eyeglasses," Mickelson says.
"In the summertime we get those kinds of calls daily," Schumacher says. "I even got a call this summer to look for the parts from a wheelchair that a customer had dropped into the water."
A couple of weeks ago, Warner was called to help raise a sunken boat in Newport Beach. "I've also helped look for diamond rings and gold bracelets," he says.
No matter what the underwater job, professional diving is not only difficult, Warner points out, but it is also risky. His brother, Greg, who founded the diving business 10 years ago, was killed in an on-the-job accident three years ago.
"He was diving, looking for a fishing pole, and he got tangled up and ran out of air," says Warner, who now runs the dive business with his sister-in-law, Sue Warner, who serves as business manager.
Warner admits that his brother's death made him re-examine his career, but says: "It had been my brother's lifelong dream to start the business. I think he would have wanted us to keep it going."
Despite the disadvantages and the risks, most professional divers insist they enjoy their work and would not trade careers for a more conventional 9-to-5 desk job.
"Growing up I was a competitive swimmer," said Schumacher, who gave up a successful retailing career to become a professional diver. "I love being around the water--always have. It is a quiet world underwater. It gives you time to think."
Mickelson agrees. "I love being out among the boats in the bay. It beats the heck out of doing anything else I can imagine. Every day I think about that. I love it. I can't think of anything else I would rather do."
Rowing and kayaking: Introductory rowing and kayaking clinics are held each weekend at the Newport Aquatics Center, 1 White Cliffs Drive, Newport Beach.
At 9 a.m. each Saturday, an introductory sculling clinic covers basic instruction in boat handling, safety and rowing technique. And at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday, a similar clinic is offered in kayaking. Participants should bring bathing suits and a change of clothes. The clinics are offered free to members of the Newport Aquatics Center and cost $5 for non-members. For information call (714) 646-7725.
Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. On the Waterfront appears each Saturday, covering boating life styles as well as ocean-related activities along the county's 42-mile coastline.