ON THE JOB
Quitters sometimes win: Jumping ship in order to clean them
By Chris Colin, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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Brian Moran, owner and staff of Brian’s Boat Cleaning. Ph… This is what hull cleaning looks like from land. Photo by… Brian Moran hard at work cleaning a boat’s hull. Photo by…
On the Job
I don’t know if Brian Moran felt different at his dot-com job than others in the Bay Area felt at theirs. What he describes certainly sounds familiar: He weathered the bust. He made good money. His work wasn’t overly taxing. But he was sort of bored. Less familiar is what he did about it. While other unfulfilled office workers plodded their way into grumbling acceptance, the 31-year-old San Francisco resident jumped ship. He landed not at a slightly cooler office or, say, the MFA program that always beckoned. He landed in the San Francisco Bay.
That was five years ago and he still smiles — actually smiles — when asked about his current job. What’s rare isn’t a career change. What’s rare, I think, is choosing happiness over that alternative offered by so many office jobs or, for that matter, any job we gradually surrender to: the vague promise of something possibly leading to happiness. Anyway, to this day Brian still lands in the bay each morning — he pulls on his flippers and mask and slides on in.
Brian dives under boats and cleans their hulls. When he left behind office life — his the customer service variety — he had no idea such a job existed. He didn’t even really have a solid conception of a hull in the first place. What he had was the hazy notion that he wanted to be working with boats. Or maybe trains. No idea where this transportation thing came from, he says now, he knew nothing about either. He picked boats.
Turns out life is receptive to daring career changers. The Spinnaker Sailing School at San Francisco’s Pier 40 was willing to hire Brian with no experience; for the next two years he varnished and sanded and performed general maintenance. One day, the hull cleaner next door invited Brian to learn the business. That, too, he did for a while — getting to know many of the marina’s boat owners in the process — before standing on his own two flippers. In February 2005, Brian’s Boat Cleaning set sail.
The South Beach Harbor marina is a sprawling, gated grid of 700 slips. Rows and rows of sailboats patiently await their weekend furlough, tethered with their special sailboat knots to the tidy network of docks. (Nowhere else in the city could a single pair of scissors ruin so many golf games.) Just beyond the sea of masts rises AT&T Park; the unrelenting gray of the Bay Bridge stretches in the other direction. Between these landmarks stand all the office buildings Brian no longer enters.
“This,” he says, pointing at the water, “is the opposite of an office.”
I don’t doubt it. I observe no ringing phones, flickering monitors or whatever else gives a desk job that cluttered aura of despair. Seal-like in his wet suit and fed by a red air hose, Brian simply slips under his boats and cleans. On a given afternoon, there is little sign of his efforts but the drone of the air compressor on the dock and an occasional eruption of bubbles at the water’s surface. He’s out of sight a good half hour (leaving me to dream up brilliant mottos for his business: “Think your hull will clean itself? Don’t hold your breath”). The gleaming white Kick-n-Back bobs happily in the meanwhile as its underside is scrubbed.
The boats are all gleaming white, by the way. The marina is mildly oppressive in its moneyed shimmer. A dangerous number of vessels have wind chimes. Nevertheless, a funny peacefulness suffuses the place, underscored by downtown’s clamor just beyond. It’s quiet here, but the peace seems to go deeper. Brian says his fellow marina workers love their jobs.
“The varnishers, the painters — they’re here because they want to be here. So of course they’re happy,” he says. “The owners of the boats, too. At first I was afraid it’d be patrician and East Coast country clubby. White shoes, guys named Chadwick. But they’re all just nice, ordinary folks. And they’re happy, too.”
Happy is appealing, but I couldn’t help but think there was something diamonds-on-the-soles-of-her-shoes-ish about cleaning the hull of a boat. Who cares what’s on the bottom of your sloop? I finally ask.
An unclean hull causes drag, Brian says. He points to a nearby boat’s hull, with a beardlike ring of algae undulating out from underneath. No soap required, just have to scrub it off.
Other questions answered: Does he really get in the water in the winter? Yes. (“It’s not quite as fun then,” Brian admits. “The boats are getting blown around, it’s rainy, you get out of the water and the wind’s blowing. You stay cold for a long time on those winter days.”)
And: Is it dangerous? No. The worst that’s happened was when he grabbed an electrical cord that had fallen into the water and got a mild shock. Although that’s not to say it isn’t scary sometimes.
“Once you start thinking ‘shark,’ it’s very hard to get that out of your head, even if it’s totally unlikely,” he says. “There was another diver here who felt something swim up behind him — it was big enough to push him against the boat he was working on. He climbed out after that.”
Of course, the hazards and hassles of diving also mean good money. Brian says he was well paid in the dot-com days, but nothing like what he makes now. He says he earns between $70 and $100 for every hour he’s under a boat — though he also points out that there are expensive, torn-up wet suits to replace periodically, an air compressor to maintain and other expenses. Anyway, it’s not the money he appreciates as much as the freedom. He still works a full week, but on his own schedule.
“I wasn’t comfortable with all that structure [at the office],” he says. “Now I set my own hours and make my own decisions about things. And I’m outside all day.”
But this isn’t enough to fully account for Brian’s disposition. An uncommon calm issues from his general vicinity — great friendliness, too — and it goes beyond the mild satisfaction that comes merely with good pay and job flexibility. What, I ask him, has been happening down there these past years? It turns out he didn’t just find a different line of work — reality itself takes on a new cast over the course of Brian’s 9-to-5.
“There’s no input down there. It’s this dark water and the hull and your breathing sounds — and that’s all,” he says. “It becomes very cerebral, in a strange way. Your brain isn’t engaged with the boat cleaning, since it’s pretty straightforward, so you’re free to just think. Or have imaginary conversations. Or make plans. I even tried writing, in my head, for a while. Mostly just ruminating, though.”
He ruminates a bit, then adds that there’s a meditative quality to his time beneath the boats.
“It’s a little like that state just before you fall asleep. It’s almost … dreamlike. It’s very peaceful.”
Between the career swap and the subaqueous reverie, Brian concedes he’s changed over these past five years: more confident, he offers, maybe more outgoing. Definitely happier. But the biggest change, he says, has been this new sense that a person can make things happen, if he’s willing to put forth a little effort.
“At my office job, I’d been caught in this mind-set that I’d always be there, that I’d always be in these middling jobs doing things I didn’t love,” he tells me one morning over the phone. “But once I made a change, I realized that change is possible. In fact, I really just wondered why I hadn’t done so sooner.”
Then we hang up and he’s off to clean more hulls.
Want him to clean yours? firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Colin was a writer-editor at Salon, and before that a busboy, a bread deliverer and a bike messenger, among other things. He’s the author of “What Really Happened to the Class of ’93,” about the lives of his former high school classmates, and co-author of The Blue Pages, a directory of companies rated by their politics and social practices. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the New York Observer, McSweeney’s Quarterly and several anthologies. He lives in San Francisco.