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Swimming The Blocks

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Swimming the Blocks

One of Magone’s resources is an old, two-hundred-foot-long, hundred-ton capacity floating drydock. It stays pretty busy lifting trawlers, crabbers, barges, research vessels and even NOAA weather buoys. For every job, a series of two foot, by two foot, by two foot wood blocks are stacked and strapped down to the drydock deck to securely support the vessel and ensure it’s being lifted straight and level. The location of these blocks is based on a layout provided by the customer’s engineer showing length of keel, turn of the bilge and location of sea chests, transducers and other equipment. As the drydock rises, a diver “swims the blocks” to make sure all is going as planned and warn Brandon, the drydock foreman, of approaching problems. 

Article and photos by Mark Norder

Magone has a couple divers experienced with the drydock evolution. They know what to look for and understand the information Brandon needs to ensure the vessel is being lifted safe and stable. When they are unavailable, the job goes to George, owner of Harbor Welding, our competition on the island. Even though I’m not yet part of the dive department, it drives me crazy to sit and watch while someone else comes into my back yard to do our job for us. 

One day I ask George if I can follow him around, and he says sure, knowing he’s training his replacement. I quickly gear up and meet him on the stern of the Yahveh Jireh, where we watch patiently as winches pull a 92-foot tugboat into the tall grey walls of the dry dock. The Chukchi Sea is being lifted so we can replace the cutlass bearings that support the prop shaft at the hub and do some work on those three props. While waiting, George explains the procedure, giving me a better idea of what we’ll be doing on our dive.

Once the boat is centered, Brandon gives us the OK and we jump in and swim to the stern. Pausing on the surface at the rudder, George goes over a couple last minute details before we descend to begin our inspection. It is a tight, almost claustrophobic squeeze between the hull of the boat and the deck of the dry dock, especially with SCUBA tanks on our backs. I stay close to George, paying attention as he points out details, surfacing occasionally so he can explain something when he feels hand gestures aren’t quite adequate. 

Swimming the Blocks

Two or three times the lift pauses while we go back down to recheck things. Soon the drydock deck is out of the water and the tug is balanced high and dry on the thick wood blocks. Securing from dive ops, I thank George for his help before getting out of my gear and going back upstairs to the office.

Although these evolutions are pretty straight forward, I follow along a couple more times with Magone divers, then go over the whole procedure with Brandon before I feel comfortable for a solo swim. The night before my inauguration, a reddish-brown algae bloom rolls into the harbor, darkening the water and making me wonder about the consequences of accidentally swallowing some of this toxic soup. I first Google “red tide”, then call Robert, the island marine biologist from the University of Alaska. He tells me not to worry, that the concentration isn’t high enough to be a concern.

The next morning, not long after the lift begins, but before contact is made with the blocks, I do a giant stride off our barge and swim into the drydock toward the stern of yet another big trawler. I pause long enough to exchange my snorkel for the regulator, purge my BC and drop to the drydock deck, 12 feet below. Ducking under the boat’s stern at the keel, I realize hands are going to be more useful then eyes in the tea brown water. 

Sliding down the length of the boat, all looks good; the keel is centered over the keel blocks, and using the blade of my hand as a gauge, I can tell that the narrow gap is consistent fore and aft. I then check the blocks that support the port and starboard sides. Swimming the length of the vessel, I see that they’re not close to anything they shouldn’t be and the gap on each side’s about the same as under the keel. I surface, give Brandon a thumbs up followed by a brief rundown, and hang off over at the drydock wall while it continues to rise.

Swimming the Blocks

Soon, I hear my name and look up to see Brandon giving me a thumb’s down, so I stick the regulator back in my mouth and drop back to work. Now the boat is hard against the blocks, closing the gap between the hull and drydock floor, squeezing out what little light is left in the shadows. I scrape sidewise along the bottom, feeling for clearance or overhang between the keel and keel blocks. Finishing at the bow, I again swim outboard to slalom in and out of the five blocks lined up along each side of the hull. Closer to the surface, a bit of filtered brown light lets me see that all’s OK there as well. Surfacing, I let Brandon know nothing has changed and return to my spot by the wall to wait. When the turn of the bilge comes into view, the lift pauses once more. After one last look I swim back to the ramp, take off mask and fins, climb out of the bay and head for the showers.