The depth at my slip ranges from 3 to 4 feet, so my mouth, eyes, nose and ears were always safely above water. What the bottom looked like I dared not think about because scrubbing the hull under water was out of the question when I pulled my midseason waterline exercise.
Occasionally I would use the main halyard to heel Erewhon over at dockside for a quick inspection. When it looked really slimy I sometimes scheduled a Travelift haulout in the slings for a quickie power wash. When I noticed other boats heeling way over in brisk winds, exposing dirty bottoms, I cringed — chastened by the grim thought that my bottom probably wasn’t much cleaner. Out of sight, out of mind was not an option for me.
This past August, no longer daring enough to dive, I went online and found a “diver for hire.” After a brief cell phone conversation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this fellow was someone I had come to know years ago as “Pat the Diver” but had lost track of him. We used to hoist a few beers together and talk boats at a Severna Park pub where my son Eric once tended bar for a summer.
After spending $1,300 on a new mainsail earlier this season, I didn’t feel like paying a lot of money for a haulout. It also didn’t seem to make sense to remove substantial amounts of costly ablative bottom paint with a power wash unless I was going to repaint. So I hired Pat “The Diver” McMahon of Arnold, Md., to handle the chore. He prefers not to discuss fees in print because each job is different. “I also like to keep my competition in the dark,” he explains. “Some jobs, of course, take longer than others, depending on the issues at hand. If the boat rarely goes out or is in especially foul waters, the charge can vary. Barnacles accumulate quickly if maintenance has been deferred and allowed to run amok with slime, muck and moss.”
The trim, blond McMahon — still boyish-looking at 50 — has been doing this kind of work for 25 years. He showed up in a fully equipped van stocked with hardware, tools, assorted scrubbing devices and professional diving equipment. He usually works the middle Western Shore of the Bay between the West River, south of Annapolis, and the Magothy River to the north. “I will not dive in or off the Patapsco River because it’s just too gross and filthy,” he says.
Asked whether he had ever come across a submerged “floater,” he had this to say: “The day I come across a drowning victim is the day I give up diving. I will recover items lost overboard or do underwater salvage and pier work, but I leave finding submerged items like that to other divers.”
After looking over the situation and asking about the depth, he returned to his van and changed into his working outfit — reappearing dockside with a cart filled with diving paraphernalia. Once the air hoses and hardware were connected, he sat on the edge of the dock and lowered himself gently into the water. “I have seen divers just take leaping jumps into unknown waters, unconcerned about what they might encounter,” he says. “I have groped around in dark, murky waters long enough to be very cautious and aware of hidden, harmful obstacles. Broken pilings and pipes could split you in half if you leaped blindly. Imagine the bottom of the Baltimore Harbor after a century or so of misuse, and you get my message.”
Suddenly he was standing at the bow of my boat in 3 feet of coffee-colored water. Then he disappeared, leaving a trail of spooky bubbles as he scrubbed the bottom of slime. He also cleaned my long-shaft 4-stroke Tohatsu 5-hp outboard, which lives partially submerged in the lazarette. I try to pull it a couple of times each season to hose it off and clear away any barnacles, but it weighs about 70 pounds and is a struggle to do so.
The last thing he scrubbed was the waterline, but he does not advise scrubbing so hard that too much bottom paint is removed. “It’s better to go easy because the real purpose in the paint is to prevent barnacles from attaching to the hull,” he says.
I told him I rolled on two coats of Pettit Ultima green ablative in April, and he says it seems to be performing well. “But you definitely have too many years of paint accumulation and should have the bottom stripped,” he says.
“When Florida boaters cruise the Chesapeake, they are really surprised to find such dirty water and so much slime up here,” he says. “Water is much cleaner down South — even in the southern Bay and somewhat in the northern Bay, too, where the water is fresher.”
As I watched him scrub the waterline, the black slime disappeared for the most part, showing the bright green color again. What a difference! The boat looked as if it had just been repainted. I congratulated him on his effort and wrote him a check for his work.
This winter my boat stays in the water, as I hope for a repeat of last winter’s mild weather, which may allow some daysailing. I may or may not haul out next spring and will ask Pat the Diver to make a quick assessment, and I’ll go from there — or at the least invite him back for a return scrub next August.
Visit www.diverforhire.com for more about McMahon and Diver for Hire.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
November 2012 issue
Jack has been cruising Chesapeake Bay and writing about the region for more than 25 years. His critically acclaimed book, "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," was published by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Press and is now in its second printing. Before joining Soundings, Jack was a feature writer at the Washington (D.C.) Star for nearly 20 years and a senior editor at Chesapeake Bay magazine from 1995 to 1998. His monthly Bay Tripper column focuses on the Chesapeake.