Brave New World: One of DIT’s First Female Divers Recalls Her Training

Brave New World: One of DIT’s First Female Divers Recalls Her Training

“The size of the classes is remarkable. We had 14 in our course in 1969.”

Two classes per quarter. There was only about 30 students on campus at any one time. That’s compared with an average of 20 – 30 in just one of Divers Institute of Technology’s (DIT) classes now and 1 class starting per month and anywhere from 140-210 students on campus at a time.

Sharon Knoll, the first of two women to graduate DIT, took a stroll down memory lane a few months ago. She toured her alma mater and found that much had changed since she’d been there.

SKnoll headshot

Sharon Knoll

Besides class size, Sharon noted the equipment and class schedules have gone mainstream: “At that time we took night classes from 5 – 11, five nights a week for 14 weeks. 432 hours all told.”

DIT divers now graduate with about 900 hours of classroom and application. Current students also use a large variety of diving equipment – including underwater stingers and electrodes, hydraulic tools and rigging equipment.

Denver to Seattle: Sharon’s Motivation to Dive Commercially

Sharon’s interest in commercial diving developed from a scuba diving class she took in Denver. She was drawn to marine biology and knew that professional diving would be part of her future.

“What really inspired me was the adventure and freedom of working in the water. And the marine life.”

Her first dive school application was turned down, on the basis that they “didn’t have a place for her to go to the bathroom.”


Seattle Times Article about Sharon and Alice

DIT had a different tune. She came in person to the school, which at that time was located a few miles west of its current location in Seattle. John Manlove, the school’s founder and instructor, allowed her to take part in the diving program along with Alice, the school’s receptionist at the time.

Sharon described John’s response: “I will allow you in the ground school, and not in the water. Take it or leave it.”

She took the offer.

Learning Through Projects: Spikes & Pilings

“After ground school, I found myself in the water in the Mark V.  That is what we dove then, Mark V and Japanese Hats. Kirby-Morgan Clam Shell was saved for the very end because they had only just come out.”

Sharon didn’t shy away from the tough projects. She got her hands dirty early on in DIT’s program.

“There was a project about driving the spike into the piling. It had a lot of macho meaning behind it, and everyone dreaded it.  Wearing a Mark V, we went under the barge, blew ourselves up so we could crawl to the other side of the barge, deflate, climb a piling so your helmet and breastplate were out of the water and use a sledge hammer to drive the 6-inch spike into the freshly creosoted piling. All the way in.”

With the help of John, Sharon completed the project faster than anyone else.

“I was suited up and had my sledge hammer (you could pick your size) and John said, ‘Let me check those spikes.’ No one could see that he took the spikes out of my boot and put in two very small nails. So I went through the process, tapped the nails into the piling with about three hits each and came back.”


DIT Founder John Manlove

Brains over brawn. The men came early and stayed late practicing, but they couldn’t beat her record. “The guys could not believe it, and most of them spent their free time trying to better my time. John loved it.”

Besides the regular training, Sharon also worked with other students on projects to pick up a little extra cash for school and living expenses. Times were difficult. Sharon remembered one sign in the city that said it best:

The last person to leave Seattle, please turn out the lights.

DIT Muscle Memory: Implementing Training on the Job

After graduating DIT, Sharon knew that neither her ability nor gender would hold her back from becoming a professional diver. She plunged right into the workforce, finding employment in different diving gigs, including one in Colorado.

One of her assigned projects took place at the base of a 60-foot tower that filled with water. Sharon had to replace the 64” disk valve, enabling water to come in and out. “There was water running underneath the valve that created a vortex and my foot got sucked in. We were using rope pulls for communication, and were on scuba. I could hear Manlove’s voice: ‘Breathe slow, and move slower when a situation comes up.’ By relaxing, the tenders were able to pull me up.”

Diving Success in Efficiency & Motivation to Learn

Though Sharon is no longer an active commercial diver, she was shaped by her experiences. Besides the old adage, “Think smarter, not harder,” she focused on efficiency and forward thinking in her job: “‘…Let the tools do the work’ still makes a difference in my life today. Also, diving is the transportation, not the end in itself. You still have to know how to do something once you get to the job site.”

Being a woman in an industry full of men shouldn’t stop anyone, Sharon says. Success begins with learning. “If you love it go for it. And always, always ask questions. Especially the ones you think are dumb. Innovation happens in the questions.”

Written for DIT by Matt Smith, Creator of Water Welders.

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