For nearly half a century, Roger Hitchens has immersed himself in underwater chores

Interview by Marie Cook Waehler  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the July 2014 issue

PropDiver-byScottNathanSince the 1960s, Roger Hitchens has been a “prop diver” and underwater specialist, immersing himself in local waters for the Millville Volunteer Fire Company’s dive team and the private firm he founded in 1975. The longtime Ocean View resident — whose family moved there from Millsboro when he was just 6 months old — also had a 31-year career at DuPont, climbing the ladder from floor sweeper to supervisor of mechanical and chemical engineers, before retiring in 1991. Even when working full time, Hitchens still spent plenty of time in the water: He estimates averaging 200 to 300 dives a year in his heyday, most of them doing repair work for local boat owners. (The term “prop diver” refers to maintenance done on propellers, though tasks are far-ranging, from mending holes in hulls and repairing shafts to finding dentures and diamond rings that were accidentally dropped overboard.) As Hitchens approaches his 75th birthday, he sat down with Delaware Beach Life to talk about this difficult and sometimes dangerous pursuit.

What got you interested in diving?
In 1969, when I joined the fire department, I began to take diving seriously. Before that, friends and I used to dive off the pier into the canal at Murray’s Topside Restaurant off Route 17. I still remember the thrill of opening my eyes underwater, amazed at the life that thrived beneath the surface, both in canals and in the ocean.

Why work underwater instead of having the boats pulled out for repairs?
Repairs done underwater financially benefit boat owners, especially commercial fishermen. It’s costly and time-consuming to pull your boat from the water, haul it to and from repair shops, and lower it back into the water.

How well are you able to see when submerged?
Indian River Marina has pretty good visibility, but the further inland you go, the muddier and blacker the water becomes, resulting from wind and tides pulling mud from the marshes and clouding the water. And underwater lights are useless, like trying to penetrate dense fog with headlights. In many places, you simply can’t see anything — not your hands, your tools, or even boat propellers. You simply have to feel things out.

Does anything scare you about the work? Any close calls?
Nothing scares me about the work. If you’re scared, you won’t be able to do your best job. But dropping something is always a concern. When you drop something, it sinks into sand and/or mud, and you have to start all over. That’s time-consuming.

I will admit to a fear of snakes, and although there are no snakes where I dive, eels are infamous for hiding in props. When I work in black water, I can’t see them, but I sure can feel them, and I shudder when they slither along my arm.

Years ago, when I did salvage work, I had a super-close call. When fishing boats overturn, nets, fishing gear, wire cages and other equipment hang from their moors. On that job, visibility was poor. My tank got snagged in the rigging, trapping me. Over and over I repeated my mantra: Don’t panic. Panic will kill you. As I concentrated on working myself free, my major concern was air: Would I have enough to get me through? I did, but it was a fearful experience.

Do you work alone?
For more than 30 years, I was a one-man show. Even now I still work alone most of the time. But as I age, I find that I need help with the larger props. I can still pull them by myself, but additional strength is needed to put them back on. Along the way, I’ve trained several younger guys to help me and to work on their own. Right now, I work with certified master diver John Watson, a fire company friend. I didn’t teach him to dive, but I have trained him to become a professional prop diver.

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