Hull diver makes a living cleaning boats
on October 4, 2012
Streaming water, Jack Johnson hauled himself up on the dock and spat out his regulator. He pulled off his mask and sat panting, fins in the water, his face pooched out under his camo neoprene hood.
“Can’t do that on the vegetarian diet,” he said, wiping at the water dripping from his forehead. He’d just scrubbed the bottoms of a 38-foot sailboat and a 35-foot powerboat, feeling his way around in the frigid green baywater, breathing through a hose attached to a compressor. It’s a workout, he said, but the pay is right. “That’s $200,” he said, snapping off his gloves.
A sailboat glided by on its way toward the Point Richmond Yacht Club boatslips—a potential customer.
Boats in the water don’t stay clean long. Paint collects a thin algae icing within weeks; given a few months, the hull will be sporting a full beard. The growth makes the boat slower, and ignored long enough, eats through paint and damages the hull. A constant problem for boat owners, the inexorable slime equals cash for Johnson and a dozen or so other hull divers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Bob’s a real nice guy,” Johnson said, gesturing behind him toward an enormous house. “Bob” owns the house, the attached dock, and the two boats Johnson just cleaned. Johnson’s never met Bob in person, but he’s a good guy to talk to on the phone, he said.
Johnson’s never met most of his clients. Like Bob, owners typically make the arrangements over the phone, and Johnson comes, cleans and leaves without ever seeing them. He charges $2 per foot to clean a sailboat—for example, he charges $50 to clean a 25-footer—and $3 per foot for a motor boat. He recommends a cleaning every two months. Beyond that the growth is harder to remove, and harsher abrasives are more damaging to the underlying paint, he said.
He’d arrived at Bob’s dock less than an hour earlier, tying his inflatable skiff off on the powerboat before unloading his gear. The afternoon sun warmed the dock’s all-weather carpeting, mixing its plastic scent with the salt air. Johnson found an outlet for his compressor and laid out his tools on the edge of the dock: mask, fins, towel, trowel, and what looked like a Brillo pad. A long yellow hose ran from the compressor to a SCUBA regulator.
Mask on, fins on, regulator in, he grabbed the trowel and pushed himself off the dock. The water was 62 degrees, comfortable compared to the 55-degree winter average, he said, but it was still cold, hitting the face and filling the wetsuit.
The surface was noisy—compressor humming, wind on the waves, halyards clanging on flagpoles, an echoing distant nail gun—but below was silent, save for the sound of Johnson’s regulator, in ooooooh, out, paaaah, spewing bubbles.
He moved away below the sailboat, trailing his hose, his camo wetsuit invisible in the murk beyond a couple feet. Starting at the bow, he worked toward the stern, up from the keel. Boogery debris came away on his trowel, muddying the Pinesol-green water.
Bubbles boiled on the water’s surface and his gloved hand swept out of the water and back under as he finished cleaning along the waterline. Done with the trowel, he made a quick pass with the Brillo-like sponge before moving on to the powerboat.
The water was soup, no visibility, and Johnson’s face stayed myopically close to the scummy hull. The bottom, just seven or eight feet below, could as easily have been 20 fathoms; above, the sun was a dull glow. The water darkened objects, greener and greener till the edges were lost and the eye naturally shifted to the swirling particles that floated everywhere.
Finished with both boats, Johnson sat on the dock, stripping off the upper half of his wetsuit.
He used to work inside, he said, using a computer to create vector images for architecture firms, but the 2008 economic downturn left him struggling to find jobs. He’d been SCUBA diving since he was 14, taught in a swimming pool by a friend back home in Modesto, but never considered it as a career. A friend made the connection for him. “My friend had a boat, he told me, ‘I’ll give you $50 to clean the bottom,’” Johnson said. “Went from there.”
It’s a good job, he said; it’s active, outdoors, and it doesn’t make any difference whether there’s rain or sun. He started his company, A1 Jack’s Diving, roughly a year ago, and he already has more than 100 clients all over the Bay, he said, enough to keep him busy through the year.
The Point Richmond resident said he’s pretty comfortable with where his business is now, but that starting out was a struggle. He heard a compressor somewhere nearby, and looked around for the source, suspicious it belonged to another hull diver.
The secret to success, he said, is customer service. “This business is all about trust. People can’t see under their boats,” he said. “You do honest work and you have a good relationship with your clients.”
His gear safely back on board, Johnson untied his skiff and chugged away from Bob’s house near the Point Richmond Yacht Club. Beyond the breakwater he opened the throttle, skimming past the graving docks, past a cargo ship unloading Hondas, past the old glass Ford Richmond Plant, and into the Marina Bay Harbor, hundreds of sailboats rocking gently in their berths.
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.