State Parks’ marine crew gets deep

Meet the small team of divers and tradesmen who service the waters of Washington’s state parks.

The watery haven of Washington has long been a boater’s delight, and hundreds of thousands of boaters enjoy its state parks each year.

They sail or motor through Puget Sound, tying up at park docks or hitching their boats to buoys. They arrive by canoe and kayak to camp along the Cascadia Marine Trail. They tow their boats to eastern Washington’s inland lakes for fishing and water sports.

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But skippers and passengers may not know that, behind the scenes (in and under the water), an intrepid group of four people make much of that paradise possible. The foursome is the Washington State Parks Marine Crew, and there’s evidence of their work in almost every state park that has water.

State Parks manages nearly 120 piers, docks and floats; more than 340 mooring buoys; hundreds of no-wake and swim area buoys and 60 boat launches, not to mention island toilets and trash receptacles. These features extend from the San Juan Islands to the Columbia River, and they require maintenance, repair and reconstruction, services provided by the Marine Crew.

All in a day’s work

On a chilly day in April, the Sand Dollar, a 28-foot State Parks boat, cuts a white swath through the dark Puget Sound. The Marine Crew is speeding toward Joemma Beach State Park, where Kenny Overa and Zack Hammond will dive to a sunken sailboat and formulate a plan to raise it. Overa looks like a walrus. His laughing eyes, big red cheeks and droopy white mustache peek out from his black diving hood. He stands on the deck checking Hammond’s dry suit, arranging oxygen tanks, regulators, masks and fins. Soon the two men will be in their element.

Within minutes of docking, they are 10 feet under water and inside the sunken boat. Their green and yellow tanks disappear and reappear. Bubbles churn behind them. Hammond pops up and calls the sailboat’s specs to the crew members on land, Bob Parker and Dan Ledgerwood.

The time is 11 a.m. The team started their day at Cornet Bay, three hours north. Now they’ll head back and order equipment to raise the boat. They still have a full day ahead building docks at Deception Pass.

A highly qualified bunch

Back on the pier, Hammond shows off a rock crab he found on the dive (he subsequently let it go). Prior to his job at Parks, he spent years diving for gold in Alaska and on oil rigs in Texas. Overa worked in the marine industry, is a Coast Guard captain and ran a dive boat in the Caribbean. Parker is a licensed electrician. Each crew member is a boatman and diver. They have expertise in construction, repair and marine installation. They all have commercial driver’s licenses.

The crew members, who all live near Deception Pass, are a close-knit bunch.

“They’re tighter than the average work unit,” said State Parks Operations Manager Ed Girard. “There’s a trust that’s involved with diving. It transcends a 40-hour workweek.”

The foursome spends weeks and months together, servicing parks around the state. Every spring they install docks. Every fall they remove and put them in storage or in protected coves. They repair and replace buoys and boat launches year-round, and they service island facilities, landing their 75-foot Thunderbird on shore with 300-foot hoses and sanitation trucks to pump out vault toilets. During the winter they build docks. This past spring, they put in a lighted dock at Jarrell Cove. Parker ran electricity from an on-shore conduit under concrete and water.

“The public is really digging that dock,” he said.

Once in a while, the crew gets an emergency call; over the years they have raised several cars. One disturbing incident involved a sunken car and recovering a body.

Protecting the underwater environment

The Marine Crew is often faced with the human impact to Washington’s waters. They retrieve a sobering amount of garbage from the bottom of Puget Sound.

“Crab pots get twisted and people abort them, but the crabs still crawl in and die,” said Ledgerwood.

He described one heartbreaking find: a baby octopus crawled into a bottle and then grew too big to get out. Ledgerwood broke the bottle without harming the critter, and released it to the sound.

Watching his colleagues explore the sunken boat, Ledgerwood said, “We try to leave the Sound better than we found it.”

A not-so-glamorous job

People often lump professional divers together with corporate pilots, outdoor guides and other jet-setters or adrenaline junkies. The Marine Crew doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s hard work,” said Parker. Beyond issues of aging equipment, bureaucracy and lack of staff, their schedule must move with the tides..

“Sometimes we’re waiting to work at high tide, sometimes we need to wait for low tide,” he said.

According to Ledgerwood, working dives present challenges.

“It’s like being in a dream,” he said. “Your vision is different, sometimes left and right seem backward, and things go slower.”

River diving is tricky, due to currents and moving debris, he said.

Four divers must be accessible at all times, with at least two in the water for safety. They must dive every 90 days and pass a rigorous annual physical to stay current with certifications. As Parker pointed out, none of them are 25 anymore.

“That gear on your back still weighs 120 pounds in the water,” he chuckled.

Each man grimaced when asked about cleaning vault toilets, a service they perform regularly on Blake Island and several other parks.

“You really have to get in there with that hose,” said Ledgerwood.

And even the best outdoor jobs require paperwork. State Parks Operations Manager Ed Girard explained that the group has to work around complicated ownership issues. With a few exceptions, State Parks owns the land up to mean high-tide line.

“Sometimes park boundaries don’t extend to the mooring buoys; then we own the hardware but not the tidelands,” said Girard. “The type of person who works on the Marine Crew is not the same type who sits in an office and fills out paperwork for permitting.”

What dreams are made of

Even among park staff, the Marine Crew is a mystery.

"A park in the San Juans may not know that the same crew is doing the services on lakes in eastern Washington,” said Girard.

But the crew isn’t in it for the glory. They know that commercial divers earn up to $200 per hour, but these men love their jobs, and they love their state parks. They boast a combined longevity of 65 years at the agency.

“We get to see the whole state,” said Overa. “There’s so much variety.”

In Hammond’s experience, commercial divers make a high hourly wage, but the work is sporadic.

“You might not work for a year,” said Hammond.

At Parks, he works every day, and he gets to see visitors enjoying the results of his labor.

Girard lauded the team for their transparency and said their work should be recognized.

“You don’t see them,” he said. “Visitors see that the dock is in place and de-winterized. They see functioning parks. But this small crew does a huge volume of work.”

Parker has been with State Parks for 17 years. Steering the Sand Dollar that April day, he gazed out at Puget Sound.

“Some days we’re in the water with a pod of Orcas. We’re not stuck in an office,” he said. “This is what dreams are made of.”

Epilogue: the Fate of the Sunken Sailboat

The sunken sailboat met its end on Wednesday, May 3, when the crew returned to Joemma Beach. Using four lift bags and a harness, they raised the 26-foot vessel; they tied it in to a pulley system on shore and began hauling. Finally, the Department of Natural Resources Derelict Vessel Program loaded it onto a flatbed and drove it to the dump. The operation cleared an underwater obstacle for boaters coming to Joemma Beach, and took less than four hours.