Imagine your welding gun hovering in front of you, slightly swaying from side to side. Everything seems to hang in space around you, like someone just turned off gravity. You look down, expecting to see solid ground and find nothing but a vast abyss below. Even your own body is trapped somewhere in between falling and flying upwards.
That’s the first big difference between underwater and normal welding: gravity’s a whole different story. It’s not enough to be aware of what’s around you. An underwater welder has to be aware of what’s above and below. The mostly weightless feeling can trick you though. Accidently drop your welding material and it’ll slowly sink, possibly hundreds of feet down before finding solid ground.
Second big difference: There’s even more ways to get seriously hurt. One of my biggest underwater fears is having my lungs explode inside my chest. If you hold your breath while swimming upwards too fast, the air in your lungs can expand to the point of puncturing them. A more realistic problem happens when nitrogen bubbles get trapped in your blood stream. At lower depths, it’s harmless. But as you begin to surface, the nitrogen bubbles get bigger, becoming lodged in your veins and causing all sorts of havoc.
Of course, the dangers can’t compare with the awesome feeling of weightlessly welding carbon steel to the side of a monstrous floating hull. Most underwater welding is done using a Stick process, though a Flux-core or Fiction weld process can also be used. Special water-proof electrodes have to be used with around 300-400 amps. Most underwater welding has to be done with carbon steel or lighter materials since heavier materials tend to crack. Many underwater welds are considered temporary fixes until the problem can be addressed at a dry dock. It should be noted, however, that several groups are vigorously working on new processes to improve the way underwater welding is done. This will potentially result in much stronger welds for permanent solutions to underwater problems.
So, how do you get into underwater welding? Many underwater welders are trained during military service or with several schools that teach full certification courses. Underwater welders make on average around $54,000 per year, though the top 10% end up making more than $100,000 a year. That’s not a bad chunk of change by anyone’s standards. Of course, if you’re determined to live in a landlocked state like Nevada, you might have a hard time finding jobs. Underwater welders tend to work along the coast near major shipping areas. The more adventurous ones that don’t mind being marooned on a hunk of metal for several months work on oil rigs out in the ocean.
Now it’s your turn. If you could ask an underwater welder any question you’d like, what would it be? Let us know in the comments down below.