A Day in the Life - Diving Superintendent James Jee

A Day in the Life - Diving Superintendent James Jee


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Diving Superintendent James Jee has been with UMC since 1997 and holds a H.S.E. Part 1 professional diving qualification. He is based at UMC’s Southampton office in the UK.

Unlike most commercial divers I’m not ex-military or ex-navy; I was just a civilian coming into the industry, which in those days was quite rare. I paid the money, did my diving course, qualified then as a commercial air diver in 1997 and then I joined UMC.

I was thinking about what to say about a typical ‘day in my life’, but one of the attractions of my job is that it’s not typical! And that’s what I enjoy about it. My day can vary from revising documents or procedures in the office, to planning a big project that requires a lot of logistics, technical input and organisation before we start, to overseeing teams working somewhere else, to getting the call to go anywhere in the world and provide a service. There are no two days the same! I keep a wash bag in my drawer at the office in case I have to go somewhere quickly.

At UMC we do a lot of routine tasks such as hull cleaning or propeller polishing, but these days I’m probably less involved now in the day to day diving activities and my role is more that of a site supervisor or project manager. We do a lot of what we call ‘special projects’ which are either complex or a departure from our day to day projects.

What we do - any repair that can be done in dry dock we will do afloat. We try to save owners and operators money by carrying out any task that can be done in dry dock afloat. That applies to not just vessels, but also to anything, any structure that gets wet. That can involve vessels to platforms offshore.

I’ve been with UMC for most of my diving career but have left UMC twice and worked as a sub-contractor for offshore and for other companies. This has been good as it has broadened my experience and skillset. I originally trained as a commercial diver down in Plymouth at a commercial diving training school. I think I was drawn to diving because I’ve always been quite practical. I’m not the most academic person and I didn’t study at university, but I found my love of the water and the ocean was quite strong. I wasn’t a sports diver beforehand but I just thought maybe it’s something I can do and I wanted to maximise my earning potential doing something practical. Commercial diving seemed like a good way of doing that.

There are schools in the UK and globally that provide training for divers. You have to fund the training yourself and it can cost around £10,000. My training was some years ago now. It’s a ten week course and you’re then qualified as an air diver to dive commercially up to 50 metres. If you need to dive more than 50 metres then you have to breathe in mixed gas. People often think we breathe oxygen, we actually breathe air. Once you dive over 50 metres as it’s not good for you to breathe air so you have to breathe mixed gas instead. We are trained to dive up to a maximum depth of 50 metres – most of our work is round 10 meters because most ships drafts aren’t greater than that.

But of course we don’t just work on ships. For example, we have an office in Dubai and work at the Dubai dry docks and we carry out maintenance to the gates in the dry docks and that can be up to 15 metres. When the MSC Napoli cargo ship ran aground on the UK South Coast in 2007 we were involved in the salvage work recovering some of the containers and the debris that came off the vessel at different depths. Depending on the water depth, you’ll dive what’s required by the job. A lot of people ask ‘how long can you hold your breath for?’ but as a diver you should never hold your breath, so that’s quite often a big misconception.

Obviously, some vessels aren’t in a position to get to dry dock. For example, a cruise liner,  they sail from port to port at full speed and can’t lose any time so if they go to dry dock there are massive repercussions and compensation to pay to the guests onboard, so certainly for cruise ships it’s very important. For any other ship – if it’s not operating, it’s losing money. If it’s going into dry dock and they haven’t planned for that it has to come off charter and there’s a huge loss of money.  If it’s going to dry dock and they haven’t planned for that it has to come off charter and there’s a huge loss of money. We carry out a lot of work for the MOD and for the US Navy - they might have ammunitions on board and they might not have time or be in a position to go to dry dock.

Obviously for some platforms and installations if they’re drilling or if they’re producing oil then they don’t want to stop doing that – it’s almost essential for some clients the repair work is done afloat.

The job has changed a lot over the years and with more regulations it’s become a much safer environment and better paid job. Nowadays diving is more heavily regulated and process driven. Previously, our job pack on site would be a couple of A4 pages but today it’s quite detailed. It can sometimes take as long to fill out the paperwork as it can to do the dive. It’s definitely changed in that respect. It’s definitely safer.

I think that’s where our industry is no different to any other, most divers might like to think we’re different but we’re not, we have the same issues that a lot of other people have with the paperwork side of things. The hardest thing I think is that you’re normally called out if there is a problem. A lot of our work is reactive and you don’t always have time to fully prepare, you don’t always know what you’re heading into and sometimes you can be under resourced and not quite prepared because just don’t have all the facts. Sometimes being in a remote location and trying to source particular equipment or personnel to do something you didn’t really know you were going to need. Logistically getting the right equipment and people to places they need to be is the hardest thing.

The job can take you anywhere…

On one occasion I was working in the office and got a call from a client at around 1100 in the morning and by 1800 that night I was on a private jet flying to the job!

We received a call to say a cruise liner had some divers operating on it in Portugal but for whatever reason they weren’t able to provide the client with the service that they needed and we at UMC were able to offer that.

But there were no flights available to Portugal and because it was a cruise liner and there would huge compensation to pay, the client told me to hire a private jet! So we chartered a private jet to fly to Plymouth to pick up one of our team then to fly on to Southampton. Between the two of us we put some equipment on board, took the jet to Portugal and started work straight away.

So I asked my wife to drive to the office to drop me off some clothes while I was packing the equipment.

I asked her to pick up some takeaway pizza on the way in and ate the pizza in the car on the way to the airport. We got there and didn’t know where to check in having not ordered a private jet before – there is no gate for private jet!

I went to the help-desk and told them my name and they were obviously prepared for me…though I don’t think I fitted their typical candidate who hires a private jet. We were able to drive the car directly up onto the runway and the Captain of the plane came out while we were unloading our equipment and said “Well, what’s all this?” “We’re going to do a diving operation,” he said “Oh, OK then!” and he helped us load it on to the plane.

We arrived and carried out the job, it was an 18 hour project to get the job resolved then we flew back home… via Easyjet!

It’s a good story to tell - in 17 years on the job I’ve done that only once so it’s not a typical day by any stretch but it goes to explain some of the highs.

The daily commute

A lot of people’s perception of a commercial diver is of somebody who is brave and takes risks and goes in the water and looks at fish! The thing about diving – it’s how we get to our job. Most people drive to work but we put on diving kit and swim to our job! Before I’ve been up in the office in Southampton not expecting to go anywhere and suddenly got the call to go up to Aberdeen to do something. That particular job wasn’t offshore it was inshore in the port of Aberdeen itself, so I flew up there that night.

Setting the standard

So diving is just one aspect of it, I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re engineers - we’re not qualified engineers but there is certainly an engineering technical input to do what we do in the water and diving is just one aspect of the work.

We are very procedural driven and carry out a lot of safety risk assessments. With the drive now in the company to go even more procedural, by raising standards and trying to work for certain clients, it’s even more relevant that we have procedures and the right documentation in place.

Our company history

UMC were a very small company originally and obviously being bought out by the Group has changed a lot which has had both advantages and disadvantages. I think initially it was hard for a lot of people at UMC to see the big picture and recognise that we’re part of a big group. Even though we travel aboard a lot, from a company point of view we can be in danger of being a bit insular. After being in a small family run type of company for such a long time and then to be bought out by a big global multi-national company - things are very different so that’s been a learning curve.

Working together

I think we can draw more from other business units, I don’t think we understand each other’s business units enough and these kinds of things, like the V.News article that I’m participating in now, will help to improve that. Because the Group is typically seen as a shipping management company and there’s a lot of businesses in the Group that aren’t ship management I think it’s important we get our say as well and I’m sure there’s many other business units who would probably quite like their say too. So I was keen to do this interview to help improve that situation and our understanding of each other.

The best part of the job

It is nice when you get in the water and the customer’s got a real problem and they think they’re going to have to dry dock the ship which is really going to cost them a lot of money and you’re in the water and able to rectify the problem and you get a sense of accomplishment about it – you’ve been able to solve their problem and save them a lot of money.