Divers-In-Training Practice Skills on Historic Ships
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — When ships sit in saltwater for long periods of time, a never-ending maintenance battle begins.
Marine life accumulates, metal rusts and leaks are sprung.
“That takes a lot of work to maintain and it gets expensive,” said David Hollars, president of the International Diving Institute, which trains students for careers in commercial diving at its school in North Charleston.
As of last week, Hollars and the divers-in-training at his school have allied with Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant to fight that near-constant battle on its own historic vessels, which have been sitting in Charleston Harbor for decades.
It’s a win-win situation, Hollars said: Students studying ship husbandry get hands-on experience working on the ships at Patriots Point, and the museum has access to the school’s skills, tools and work at no cost.
That’s particularly relevant now as the maritime museum absorbs the financial losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced visitation and total revenue there by about half. Museum leaders just chopped $5.9 million in expected costs from their budget to make up for the drop in revenue they expect over the next year.
Museum spokesman Chris Hauff said it would be “hard to put a dollar amount” on the value of what IDI’s students can offer. They’ll be there working on the ships for at least a week per month, scrubbing and pressure-washing hulls, patching up leaks and inspecting the pier.
That kind of maintenance work would typically have to be contracted out, and while the museum has had a diving budget, it’s been “very small,” so the museum has been conservative about using those services, said Patriots Point maintenance manager David Coates.
The partnership with the school will be continuous, Coates said, bringing in new students on a regular basis as they cycle through IDI’s 16-week curriculum.
Having the diving students there so often is another potential source of cost savings, Hauff said. They can catch small leaks before they become big ones, and keep the ships’ hulls in cleaner condition year-round.
For three days last week, students came to Patriots Point to orient themselves with the site and dive there for the first time. They already had experience outside of the classroom in diving tanks and in the Cooper River, but the work they were starting at the museum would be different.
Kyle Hartman, a Navy veteran with just a couple weeks of classes left to go in the program, was the first one in the water. He dove in, swam out to the bow of the USS Laffey, did a visual inspection and started spraying off algae for about 30 minutes.
“More than our other dives, this felt closer to an actual job,” Hartman said.
It was especially interesting to work on that ship, a World War II-era destroyer, because of his own experience in the Navy, Hartman said. Of the about 12 years he served, he spent six stationed in Japan.
The Laffey had earned its nickname as “The Ship That Would Not Die” after being attacked by Japanese bombers and kamikazes in 1945 — a huge contrast to think of after experiencing the partnership that the U.S. and Japan have today, he explained.
About half of the students at IDI are veterans, Hollars said, and the school accepts military benefits for all of its training programs. That was appealing to the museum, too, since it aligned with Executive Director Larry Murray’s goal to work with more local veterans.
All courses start with classroom learning at the school on the former Navy Base in North Charleston. A major renovation and expansion of the school was unveiled there early last year.
Interest in the program has been strong lately, Hollars said, despite having to close for five weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. The career prospects for grads are still looking good, he said.
Students studying ship husbandry specifically — the trade divers-in-training will get real-world experience with at Patriots Point — get recruited for Navy contracts and jobs with cargo companies and cruise lines.
Hollars said he’s confident the work his students will do while they’re out at the museum site will give them an edge in their field and help instructors deepen the lessons they’ve been teaching in the classroom.
“It’s one thing to stand in front of a class and talk about the work,” he said. “But to dive and train on real, live ships and to understand the importance of maintaining such a wonderful resource? That’s a no-brainer to me.”
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