Boat-hull Cleaning Services

For my nine-year-old, choosing a vocation is all about the gear. Now it's an astronaut, now a cowboy, now a fireman -- whatever equipment strikes him as cool that day. Last week while we were at Point Loma Seafoods, he led me down the pier and pointed at two divers in full gear, getting ready to swim alongside a 40-foot yacht. "Whatever they're doing, that's what I want to do," he said. What they were doing was cleaning the boat. Marlan Hoffman, CEO and co-owner of California Marine Services (619-222-3483), told me what it was they were scrubbing. "Divers perform a valuable service, both to boat owners and the environment," he began. "They remove bio-fouling -- marine growth. It contributes to boat wear. Also, since a boat burns fuel, if it has a heavy buildup on the hull [then] there's no streamlining effect. That means the boat burns more fuel, which means more emissions."

Hoffman went into detail about our particular forms of marine growth. "There are many different types, and divers need to know how to remove them. You have things like mussels, and soft and hard algae. The hard algae looks like a sore, but it's actually three-dimensional. And we're getting barnacle clusters en masse this year. Another big problem is the South China sea coral worm. It's an invasive species that migrated from Vietnam. The worm floats around while it's small until it finds a hard surface," like a boat. "Then it colonizes. It secretes a calcium-sulfite tube around itself, and an acid to attach itself to metal. It's very aggressive; it grows an inch every month. If you had full coverage on your propeller and shaft, you would lose the majority of your speed. If you did nothing about it, then in a few months, the boat would not be able to navigate."

There are two ways to fight bio-fouling -- one preventative, one therapeutic. For prevention, there's "anti-fouling paint for the hull of the boat. That's put on as an invertebrate repellant. The toxin in the paint is copper. The problem is that it's not only toxic to the critters that you want to keep off but also to the environment. So there are legal standards about how much copper can get into the water. Right now, there is a mandate in San Diego to reduce the copper level in the water. So divers are becoming more critical" -- diver-cleaners being the therapeutic method. And even with anti-fouling paint, said Hoffman, you still need to clean your hull "every three to four weeks. Without any paint system, a diver would need to clean every week to ten days."

California Marine Services does do haul-outs and painting, but first, "If we get the opportunity, we'll do an in-water cleaning. We want to remove the organisms that are on the boat, so that we don't create more pollution on land. In the water, we're just putting the organisms back in the water. Some die, some float to the nearest pylon, some float to the bottom. On land, we have to dispose of the stuff."

Hoffman said that a "good, well-trained diver can do between eight and ten boats a day. The average boat takes 30 to 60 minutes, though large boats could take hours. He wears a suit for protection -- you don't want to get pushed up against the docks -- and uses a typical SCUBA system. He'll either wear the tank on his back or set it on the dock and use a longer hose. That's called a hookah system." The actual nitty-gritty of cleaning "is a really basic manual system, done with a series of pads. The California Professional Diver's Association has what are called Best Management Practices. They're designed to guide the diver and reduce environmental impact."

For instance, "if a paint system on a boat is very old, it will have lower toxicity. It won't repel fouling as well, and the diver will have to scrub harder and use a heavier, coarser pad. Or even a plastic scraper." But because of the low toxicity in the paint, that's okay -- the scrapings won't add much copper to the water. "On a boat with a new paint system, the diver can use a commercial-grade carpet. It's cheap and it cleans really well." And it doesn't scrape off the copper-laced paint.

Areas that are usually unpainted, such as the propellers and running gear, require steel wool and/or a scraper. Hoffman estimates that only one percent of boats get paint on these areas. ("While the diver's out there," he said, "he's also doing general maintenance, such as corrosion protection. He might be putting a sacrificial coating of zinc on the exposed metal.") Different parts of the boat are made from different metals, "and when you put two metals in a saltwater solution, it creates a battery -- a current draw. That's going to give off ions, just like any other battery, and one of the poles is going to go away. The zinc is a really inexpensive sacrificial coating -- it's the one that goes away. You just replace it every so often. There's an entire industry built around that type of protection."

A trained diver "can make anywhere from $150 to $250 a day, with four to eight hours in the water. The cost to the owner is between $1 and $1.50 a foot. That's been our rate for the past ten years. This is an extremely tough job; it requires a lot of physical stamina. But it's also very transient, and there's no regulation other than voluntary regulation. You don't need anything but a business license, and you can get access to boats in many different ways. That drives prices down, because there's a lot of competition. It's a good thing in some ways for the boat owner, but it can also drive the quality down." While all Hoffman's divers take the Best Management Practices course, some companies "can't afford to create training programs that would make a diver more professional and effect a positive increase in quality."

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