This year, prop diver Roger Hitchens celebrates 53 years with the Millville Volunteer Fire Company, where he’s held almost every office, including chief. Hitchens has called Ocean View “home” since his family moved there from Millsboro when he was just 6 months old. In 1969, he trained with a fire-service dive team, resulting in certification in 1970.
“Ours was the first dive team in this area,” he said, “and it’s still active today.”
He retired after 31 years with DuPont but was still working for the company when he took his love of diving one step further.
“In the late 1970s, I started my own prop-diving business,” he said (prop is short for propeller).
Because he was the first in this area in that line of work, he fashioned his own tools – prop pullers with a special clamp device. Although more sophisticated tools are now manufactured to do this work, Hitchens still uses his original creations with great success.
“Mine is a universal prop knocker,” he said, “which reduces the number of tools needed under water.”
For most divers, “under water” means swimming in the clear blue ocean among fish, coral reefs and fellow divers. Hitchens, on the other hand, dives in black water.
“You can’t see anything in many places,” he said, “not your hands, your tools or even the boat propellers. You just have to feel things out.”
According to Hitchens, underwater, lights are useless.
“Shining a light in dark cloudy water is like a car’s headlight, trying to penetrate the densest fog.”
Black water is often the result of the wind and the tide; usually blacker when the tide is running out – especially around Bowers Beach, the Mispillion River or the Leipsic River. The running tide pulls mud from the marshes and clouds the water.
Repair work includes mending holes, pulling shafts, rudders and props, taking them to a local marine shop for repair and replacing them on the boats.
“When I started my business, I knew absolutely nothing about repairing boats, let alone repairing them under water,” he said. “So, I learned by watching repairs being done on land and fashioned my own tools to do the work under water. Basically, I can repair almost anything under water that you can repair on land,” he said.
The benefits to boat owners – especially commercial fishermen – are many. It’s costly and time-consuming to pull your boat from the water, haul it to and from a repair shop, and lower it back into the water; and with the current price of gasoline, that cost continues to mount.
Hitchens prefers “free scuba” diving, as opposed to being hooked up to a hose on the surface.
“Free scuba means that I have a tank on my back, which allows me the freedom to perform two or three jobs at one time, moving from boat to boat in the marina,” he said. His tanks are regularly inspected and hydro-tested. Dive shops will not fill tanks unless they meet these legal requirements.
Hitchens laughs when asked if he’s ever been afraid in pitch-black water.
“I don’t like snakes,” he said, “and often slippery black eels hide in the props. When I attempt to remove a prop, even though I can’t see the eels, I can feel them slithering across my arms.” He shudders at the memory.
But Hitchens wasn’t laughing when he recalled a salvage assignment gone bad.
When fishing boats overturn, nets, fishing gear, wire cages and other equipment hang from their moors. “My tank got snagged in the rigging,” he said. “I was trapped.” Over and over he repeated his mantra: “Don’t panic. Panic will kill you. Don’t panic. Panic will kill you.”
“I concentrated on working to set myself free, but my major concern was air – would I have enough to get me through? I did, but it was a fearful experience,” he said.
In his work, Hitchens has also encountered sharks, mostly in the ocean. He said he believes that if you respect them, they respect you. “However,” he added, “when they start acting erratic, you know it’s time to get out of the water.”
Hitchens drives a white 1999 Ford box truck (which he and his son-in-law also repair) with his name, phone number and the words “Prop Diver and Underwater Specialist” printed in blue. Other than that, he doesn’t advertise.
“I don’t have to,” he said. “I’ve built my business on referrals and word-of-mouth. People call me from Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to fix their boats.”
But this prop diver’s talents extend far beyond boat repair. He is an underwater specialist, often called upon to retrieve items that people have dropped in the water.
“I’ve recovered everything from dentures to diamond rings,” he said, laughing. “I also retrieve outboard motors, shafts and propellers that fly off boats. And keys! I can’t tell you how many sets of keys I’ve found for people!”
Although finding diamond rings and keys in the marina’s black mud and water seems an impossible task, Hitchens developed a proven plan for success. When customers give him an idea of where an item was dropped, he dives with a small round, 10-pound anchor and centers it in the suspected location to create a pattern area.
“If you don’t do that,” he said, “you’re likely to drift off target, disoriented by the water’s current.”
Wearing cotton gloves and grasping the rope attached to the anchor, he moves in a circle around the anchor, scooping up one handful of mud at a time, feeling for the lost item.
“For smaller items, such as diamond rings, I search bare-handed, often just using my fingertips,” he added. With this method, he boasts an astonishing success rate of 95 percent.
Hitchens dries his wetsuit by slinging it over the fence surrounding his 40-by-50-foot home swimming pool. The pool has long been a training ground for dive certification.
“I don’t do the training,” he said, “but I allow qualified certifiers to use my pool for this purpose.” More than 50 people have been certified in his pool.
In the early days, when Hitchens started with the fire service dive team, he participated in the search for at least nine bodies.
“Those were difficult dives,” he recalled. “The worst was searching for a brother and sister who drowned together. They were the exact ages of my son and daughter at that time, which was particularly upsetting.”
For more than 30 years, Hitchens was a one-man show, averaging 200 to 300 dives a year, but as he approaches his 72nd birthday, he admits to slowing down.
“I used to do ocean work – tugs with huge props. That was rough work,” he said. “And if you drop something in the ocean, it’s gone. I stay away from that and salvage work now and work mainly in marinas. I love this work. This is pleasure to me. When I’m diving, I’m working. Nobody bothers me. I’m down there in my own world and have lots of time to just think.”
Hitchens now dives less often in winter than he used to, too. With a family history of heart disease (his father died from a heart attack at 54), Hitchens himself has had four heart blockages of his own and now has a stent (a small mesh tube used to treat narrowed or weakened arteries in the body).
“I used to work year-round,” he said, “but now that I’m on blood thinners, I get too cold in the winter. If the air temperature is below freezing, you know it is going to feel much colder down below, especially when there is ice all around you. Even with the thickest wet suit, I can now feel the bitter cold.”
But Hitchens still dives in winter if it’s an emergency, such as ropes tangled in and around wheels.
“All you have to do is cut them,” he said, “which means that you don’t have to stay down long.” If the job is more involved, he often calls someone else to handle it.
Because there are no qualifications for prop diving, no specifications, no job description and no schools to teach you the drills, Hitchens now trains others to help him in the Indian River Marina.
“You can’t be frightened, though,” he said. “Because of the confinement of black water, if you have even a hint of claustrophobia, this isn’t the job for you. Some of the divers I’ve trained don’t realize what it’s like to work in black water; some quickly find out that they’re not cut out for it.”
The Hitchens family stays connected by a strong diving cord; his son, daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons are divers. The only one who doesn’t dive is Hitchens’s wife, Ginger. “She looks after the rest of us,” he said.
Does Ginger worry about him?
“I do worry,” she said. “Not as much now. But, yes, I still do worry.”
Ginger doesn’t dive, but she does help her husband at the dock. As the summer season approaches, Hitchens provides a free service to boat owners by diving and swimming from boat to boat, identifying problems. He surfaces just long enough for Ginger to make notes on a specially designed form, which they leave on the boats.
“The boat owners don’t have to follow up,” he said, “and they don’t have to use my services. It’s just something I started a long time ago as a benefit to boat owners. There aren’t too many boats in this area that I haven’t worked on,” he added.
At this stage in his career, Hitchens has more business than he wants. He’s fully licensed, certified, bonded and insured. Others who dabble in prop diving who do not meet these qualifications are referred to as “jack legs” (perhaps derived from the infamous Irish-American New York gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, also known as “Gentleman Jack”).
Every morning, the disciplined Roger Hitchens rises at 5 a.m. and heads to the fire house to work out on the treadmill and lift hand weights to keep his muscles toned. He works out less in summer because he dives more and also plays golf – his other passion – preferring to walk 18 holes rather than take a cart. He has also just retired from 40 years of teaching Sunday school at the Church of Christ in Ocean View.
Roger Hitchens has been diving for more than 48 years. How long will he continue diving into the black waters of rivers and marinas? And how will he know when it’s time to hang up his wet suits and put his tanks into dry dock?
“The time is short,” he said, “but I don’t know when. As long as my health is good, I’m not setting a deadline.”
To contact Roger Hitchens, call (302) 539-1832.