Combines Geotechnical Engineering with Diving to Inspects Bridges … from Underwater
When Colwyn Sayers grew up in St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean, he engaged in all kinds of water activities, including swimming, fishing, boating, diving. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to just be around water,” he recalls. “My mom told me that when I’d cry as a baby, one of the best ways to get me to stop crying was to put me in the tub with a toy boat, and that would calm me down.”
Later in life, water activities stayed close to Sayers’ heart, but something else entered his realm. As he relates, “Somewhere along the line, things switched to where engineering was more important than being around the water.”
What kind of career path emerged from this unique background? Now 28, Sayers has become a professional engineer that doubles as a diver and inspects the underwater portion of bridges. This gives him a unique perspective on our country’s bridges, one that allows him to evaluate our infrastructure from a different angle.
In explaining why engineering came on as a second passion for him, Sayers says, “It’s kind of a family thing. My dad was an electrical engineer, and then my brother was also an engineer. I’m the only civil.”
To satisfy both of these callings, he went into the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, where he got his B.S. in Civil Engineering. Then he moved to Lexington, Kentucky to get his M.S. in Civil Engineering with a specialty in construction engineering and management from the University of Kentucky.
The corporate office for FMSM Engineers, an engineering firm, happened to be in Lexington, so Sayers interviewed with them and landed a job in their Cincinnati, Ohio office in 2004. He took the opportunity because, he recalls, “Very few companies have engineers, PEs, that are certified divers.”
While Sayers had dabbled in scuba diving growing up along with his other water sports, he hadn’t done it very much much. When he started at FMSM, his interest in diving took off. “It was a niche market FMSM was involved in, underwater structural inspections,” he explains. “They encouraged me to train, and they facilitated that. I got my scuba certification, and after that, they sent me to Santa Barbara for commercial diver training.” He attended the Santa Barbara Marine Technology Institute in California.
Then in December 2007, Stantec Consulting Services bought FMSM Engineers. Stantec is a multidisciplinary engineering firm with offices all over the United States and Canada and corporate headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta. Covering the entire lifecycle, Stantec plans, designs, inspects, and maintains road, rail, and pedestrian bridges.
Besides bridges, Sayers says his diving work involves other underwater structure such as piers, dams, and water storage tanks. “You name it. Anything in the water that’s a structure we can do, other than offshore.”
Sayers reports that his diving activity has increased over the past year. “The past three years before this year, I’ve done mostly engineering work in the office. I’m also heavily involved in geotechnical work, foundation design, that type of thing. And I also do some municipal work.” He prepares hazard mitigation grants for municipalities around Cincinnati and manages projects for them. But 60 to 70 percent of his work this year has been diving and preparing reports. Stantec has gotten busier, and he has taken on the role more. He pushes his supervisors to let him do more diving work. “I love being in the water. It doesn’t feel like work when I’m doing it.”
In describing the territory Sayers covers in diving bridges, he says, “I’m kind of regional, I do a lot of work for ODOT (the Ohio Department of Transportation).” He has also worked for the City of Cincinnati, Tennessee DOT, and Kentucky DOT. Bridges are inspected on an annual cycle. Every year, each district of a state DOT has a certain number of bridges to get inspected, and they bid that work out.
Commercial diving like Sayers does involves using surface-supplied air rather than scuba, meaning a topside air compressor sends air through a hose connected to the diver. He wears either a wetsuit or drysuit, depending on conditions. He uses a drysuit for cold or contaminated water.
Also on the surface, a hyberbaric chamber awaits if a diver stays down too long and needs to decompress gradually to avoid decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends. “Or, sometimes we have to do mandatory decompression on the surface. Once you come up, you have to get in the chamber,” Sayers says. “It’s not always an emergency situation. If it’s really deep, we have to do decompression on the surface.”
On a typical dive, Sayers looks for signs of deterioration that may cause instability or even collapse of the bridge. This includes scour, undermining from flowing water that erodes the streambed, deterioration, cracks, section loss, and impact and abrasion damage from trees. Tree debris caught in the bridge leads to scour and erosion. “It depends on the construction type as well as the materials on the bridge,” he states.
After an inspection, Sayers generates a report describing what he finds and the level of deterioration and gives a rating on a scale of 9 (excellent) to 1 (unsafe). Stantec provides CAD drawings of the bridge, location maps, and photos taken by Sayers of the bridge structure and defects. “We do everything. We try to provide as much information as we possibly can,” he says.
In light of reports often heard about the deterioration of bridges in the United States, Sayers’ observations bring a measure of reassurance. “Substructurewise, I would say the majority of the bridges are in good condition from what I’ve seen. While there are probably elements of the bridge, the superstructure or otherwise, that may be in critical condition, I’ve never had to rate a substructure element of a bridge as critical. Most of the deterioration that occurs is with the superstructure.”
While commercial diving can prove dangerous under certain conditions, Sayers reports, “It’s been mostly good experiences for me. I haven’t had any bad thing happen. I have from time to time gotten tangled up in tree debris or construction waste that might be in the water, but I’ve typically been able to get out of it. The main thing is to not panic, because you have unlimited air when you’re dealing with surface-supplied air. All you have to do is breathe, and you’re fine.”
Sayers adds, “The main issue with diving is safety, and that usually requires the most planning and time. You never know what you’re going to meet, especially if you’re dealing with surface-supplied air, so you have an umbilical that goes all the way to the surface to the boat. Sometimes, you get that tangled up in things, and you’re stuck.”
“Typically, any inland river that we might be doing work on, it’s very little visibility, maybe one foot to five feet,” Sayers says in describing another diving challenge. “A lot of the time, we have to feel around. If we’re inspecting a structure, we inspect with our hands.”
But occasionally, they do get good visibility, and Sayers says this often brings unexpected treats. When he dived a large bridge in Knoxville, Tennessee, “This fish about three feet long followed me all the way around through the inspection. That was pretty cool. Stuff like that happens.”
On a Navy job in Maplewood, Florida, they inspected the entire berthing for their ships. “The marine life was very vibrant down there. We saw manatees, dolphins, schools and schools of fish. It’s kind of distracting too when you try to inspect a bulkhead and a school of angelfish goes by you. It’s pretty.”
One dive for ODOT involved exploring a culvert 20 feet by 20 feet by 200 feet long. He was about 100 feet into it in pitch-blackness when he felt a repeated thud on his chest and panicked before he realized it was a fish.
Describing another aspect of his diving, Sayers reports, “The deepest I’ve gone is 80 feet.” “We’ve dived before in water inspecting bridge piers that was deeper than 100 feet. In that case, we have to use a hyperbaric chamber on site for decompression. We have divers that have gone over 120 feet.”
For Sayers, it all comes as part of doing something he loves that traces back to his childhood, combining water sports and engineering. He has found a line of work that also helps lengthen the service life of bridges and reduces the maintenance and reconstruction costs of our infrastructure.