Fresh Start: After Almost 2 Decades Topside, Shawn Welds Underwater

Shawn preparing for his dive.
Shawn preparing for his dive.

I started welding in¬† 1997 and full-time as a career for 16 years, fitting and fabricating heavy equipment. I’ve done everything, including concrete mixers, roofing tar kettles, rodeo equipment, live stock equipment, food processing machinery, CNC Router Machines, Asphalt Pavers, and huge track crawler excavators. In between my main job, I’ve worked on small and large projects for friends and family and now underwater projects and repairs for power plants.

I started scuba diving in 2007 and was hooked. I would work 12 hours a day, 6 – 7 days a week welding at my full-time job, and in the evenings would go with my dive buddy and night dive from his boat – man, was I burning the candle at both ends!

With my new passion and hobby of scuba diving and going treasure hunting in our local rivers and lakes, all I could think about was where our next dive would take us. During the day I welded, but still one word persisted in my mind.


Opportunity Strikes in the River

In January 2008, our local dive shop held an event called the New Years Day Dive. About 20 – 50 local divers (including myself) started the new year at 9:00 am, scuba diving the Tennessee river that runs through Chattanooga: It’s 10 – 15 feet wide and about 20 foot depth, and the water temperature is 48 – 50 degrees. Loads of fun.

Right away I met new friends, and the Water Rescue Team that focused on public safety diving (body recoveries, water related accidents, salvaging cars and boats) asked my brother, our friend and myself to join the Water Rescue Team to be a diver. It was all volunteer I never got paid with money, but I couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding experience as to help people with the skills I acquired looking for things lost underwater.

Experience Gained

Shawns HelmetWhile being apart of water rescue, I further increased my skills and knowledge of diving and was able to take special training just for public safety diving. In June, I attended a weekend of intense dive training in Gulf Shores Alabama, and Dive Rescue International held the class and training.

From 2008 – 2012, I dedicated my free time to helping my community through water rescue operations. Sometimes (even during my day job) I would be called out to go recover a drowned body or a trashed car or a sunk boat; it was never a dull moment.

The Flip: Topside to Underwater Welding

Finally, I’d had enough. In 2012, I burned out on my full-time gig in the factory. Welding. Welding. Welding, just constant welding. I thought there has to be something more exciting, so I made decision to go to commercial dive school.

In May of the same year,  I flew out to Seattle, Washington, and by July I was able to start school at Divers Institute of Technology. For the next seven months never missed a day of school and pressed forward.

Ready. Set. Dive.

Deep, dark and gloomy. Lights help.
Deep, dark and gloomy. Lights help.

I graduated Feb 6, 2013, (Wednesday), boarded a plane (Saturday) to fly back home to Tennessee, and by was hired (Tuesday) on with Underwater Construction Corporation. I’ve been with the company a little over a year now, and I can still remember my very first dive for the company. After spending about a week in the shop learning the equipment, my supervisor comes out on a¬†Friday¬†and says “Hey, be ready to dive¬†Monday, we got big job starting.”

Wow. What a job it was.

The job required a complete rebuild of a traveling water screen and intake pump for a chemical plant. My supervisor came up to me, and he asked me directly if I could weld some of the parts back in place that had broken off. My very first dive for this company came just a week into my job, and I was already welding underwater! I was so excited. “Sure!” I confidently told him.

Sparks in Chocolate Milk

My dive was unforgettable. To all you new divers out there, let me be clear. This dive was at its prime of challenging conditions.¬†Blackout, cold, and welding in a Desco Pot. The water was like diving in chocolate milk – I couldn’t even see¬† a few inches, so I had to weld by feel. Over my 16 years of experienced welding, I could tell by feel where my rod had to be, travel speed, size of weld. It was incredibly difficult but felt great.

I had a small ego boost when another diver hired in about the same time as me welded one side of the metal and asked me to weld the other: He basically laid beads about a 12″ away from the actual part – amateur move. For me, I never heard anything from the supervisor; the other guy – unfortunately got teased and given hell about everything he didn’t weld. It made me feel good to be dead with my welds!

I’ve experienced a lot since being a full-time commercial diver,¬†but I’m thankful it’s gone well. Dive safe, weld safe!


– Shawn Ashley, underwater welder

Age: 37

Lives: Chattanooga, TN