Taking a dive: Durke Ferris working as an underwater welder

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

When Durke Ferris’s mother thinks about her son’s new career as a diver and underwater welder, she expresses one regret.

“My mom says, ‘I wish I’d never bought the fins and snorkel for you,’” Durke says.

That was years and years ago, and he’s been in the water ever since.durke_suiting_up

Diving is a good job and it pays well, but the risks involved are somewhat greater than most jobs on land. Durke could lose his air supply or his communication with the crew above. There’s the danger of electric shock and explosions. He could come in contact with radioactive particles—that one really did happen, but that’s another story.

The 2001 Morenci High School graduate started thinking about a diving career when his Vo-Tech instructor, Donald Stawowy, talked to the class about his past welding experiences. When he mentioned the field of underwater welding, Durke took an interest.

“It just struck an arc in me,” he said. “I started reading about it and looking up schools.”

He chose the College of Oceaneering near Long Beach, Calif., considered the best in the nation. Durke first earned his scuba diving certificate in Michigan, then headed west in September to start the 50-week program.

It’s a tough program, Durke says, and more than half of the initial class of 60 dropped out. Twelve hour days starting at 3 a.m. were bad enough, but the book learning made it worse.

“It was a lot more fun after we got out of the classroom and in the water,” he said.

His first water experience, however, was in metal cylinders on land.

“I think the hardest part of school was in those open tanks,” he said. “They told us to practice drowning.”

Trainers gave them a hand by suddenly shutting off the air supply or issuing masks with the back side missing. It was all part of getting accustomed to the water.

Students eventually practiced skills out in the harbor where they would spend up to two and a half hours of “bottom time.”

They practiced salvage work that could be used to cut apart a sunken ship. They moved heavy pipe to simulate work at an oil rig.

Most jobs incorporated the use of a lift bag that would be inflated under water to assist in moving bulky items. Divers have to be cautious in judging the correct amount of inflation needed for a job—a detail that varies with the weight of the object and with the working depth.

“You have to be careful or it will shoot all the way to the top and take you with it,” he said.Work in the harbor brought its own challenges.

“Ninety percent of the time you’re working on zero visibility,” Durke said, because the muddy bottom gets stirred up. “If you’re lucky, you can see three feet. It’s almost better at night without the sun’s reflection.”

Visibility improves nearer the surface but mid-level work is more difficult the bottom, lead weight keeps a diver planted on the floor. In between, there’s a delicate balance of remaining at the right level.

Durke also had the added challenge of his ex-Navy SEAL instructor.

“I swear that man didn’t like me,” Durke recalls. “He’d set me up for failure every day. He was on me that bad, 10 hours every day.”

Eventually, Durke won him over and the instructor lined up his first job.durke.walking_on

On the job

Many of Durke’s classmates headed for the oil rigs of the Gulf of Mexico. They went through a lengthy apprenticeship program above water; Durke started diving right away.

He signed up with the Underwater Construction Co. office in Baroda, near St. Joseph on Lake Michigan. The company is based in Connecticut and takes on jobs around the globe.

Durke’s first assignment was at the General Electric power plant near Ludington. A couple of miles of fencing is installed underwater to keep fish and debris out of a large water intake tube. There’s plenty of maintenance work needed on the netting and Durke began spending 10-hour days in about 50 feet of water.

The visibility was fantastic with the sandy-bottomed Lake Michigan, and an overhead barge provided warm water to flood the wet suit and take away the chill.

On his last day there, he learned that his assignment would take him to the Perry Nuclear Plant near Cleveland. The first step was to fill out about two inches of paperwork for security clearance.

Then began the long, tedious job of changing sensors in the pool where spent fuel rods are hung to cool. They glow a purplish-blue when they’re still “hot.”

One day the edge of some severed conduit caught on his head gear. Durke thought he felt some moisture but figured it was sweat. When he pulled down on his helmet housing, the tear widened and he was flooded with water.

He was pulled to the surface and whisked out of his suit. He was cleaned, tested two days in a row, and found to have very minor contamination.

“The water is really clean,” he said. “It isn’t radioactive, but there are particles in the water that get stirred up from the bottom.

“It freaked me out at first, but it was such a low level of detection, they had to do a total body count to find something.”

Things don’t always go as planned, Durke says, but that’s what makes the job interesting.

“It might seem like the same routine, but it’s not. It’s a learning experience every day.”

The incident didn’t sour him on the Perry job. Now his crew has moved on to another pool where the reactor is located. After that comes the suppression pool, and each location offers a new experience.

New experience—that’s what Durke is after. He would love to tackle a salvage job and there’s always work on the many hydroelectric plants across the country. For a real thrill, there’s the penetration dive in which a diver snakes through a pipe to inspect the welds. That dangerous job pays by the foot.

Durke thinks he might have to go off-shore sometime to give the oil rig environment a try.

His friends tell him he’s crazy to spend his life this way, but so far he’s enjoying everything about it.

“You’ve got to have a passion for this job,” he says, “and I hope I don’t lose it. I want it to stay interesting to keep my drive alive.”

He’s come a long way from the fins and goggles that his mother bought him as a kid, but he still has a long way to go.

    – Nov. 13, 2002 

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