Diamond Divers Star John Aydelotte Tames the High Seas

John Aydelotte: Salvage Boat Captain

By Matthew Halverson May 18, 2012 Published in the June 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Captain John Aydelotte is normally right at home on choppy waters. As the owner of Marine Services and Assist in Cornet Bay, the hirsute hero of salvage and rescue has plucked stranded boaters from sinking ships near Deception Pass for 30 years. But last winter he had to wonder if he was finally out of his depth, as Spike TV filmed him and his crew mine for buried treasure off the coast of South Africa with shoddy equipment and a leaky boat for the new reality series Diamond Divers. The network no doubt hopes the show’s high-seas drama hooks Deadliest Catch–level ratings when it debuts June 20, but the real question is whether Spike brought cameras big enough to capture its new star’s Jaws-size personality.

One of the successes of my life is that I’ve never had to shave or cut my hair. I’ve been self-employed or employed temporarily to the point where I can live my life as I see fit. That freedom has changed my life in a lot of ways. Sure, I’ve gone to restaurants where they refused to wait on me. And cops used to pull me over and ask, “What are you doing in my town, boy?” But on the good side, I have some of the joys of life that other people who go to work in their little cubicles don’t get. Look where I work. Look what I do. It’s magic.

The first time I saw this bay, I’d come out here to a party. There was free beer, what can I say? So I get all drunk, leave, and ride up to the top of this mountain in the state park. I parked my bike and laid my sleeping bag out and passed out. Next morning I wake up and some hiker lady is yelling at me. “Lady,” I says, “I don’t need this crap. I’m laying here on my jacket, and in my jacket pocket is a pistol. If you don’t quit ragging at me, I’m going to look for it.” She ran off, and I figured, Well, I’d better leave. But anyway, once I found this place, that was it—I had to figure out a way to be here.

A couple young bucks died out here on the water back in the ’80s. The sheriff ran around, driving back and forth in front of my shop, looking for somebody on a boat to rescue these kids. I had boats, but he never stopped and talked to me. So after that I joined the fire department to help out. We’re on an island and the sheriff didn’t have a boat. How dumb is that?

I’ve won a great series of awards for being Johnny on the spot and saving people’s lives. I don’t charge for that. But when I get a doctor or a lawyer who’s wrecked his boat and needs a lift, I charge them like they charge me—and I don’t even make them wait in a waiting room.

Microsoft money makes mistakes. Guy just got rich, goes out and buys a yacht, doesn’t know how to drive, and hits the rocks. I show up—hairy, bearded, your worst nightmare on First Avenue after dark—and I’m Jesus to him. And I use the same icebreaker every time: “Are you the one who ordered the pizza?” I could have sold a million pizzas if I had an oven on the boat.

A miracle is an ordinary event under extraordinary circumstances. Let’s say there’s a wrecked boat on a reef somewhere, and we patch the hole and pump the water out. That sounds ordinary. But, with the waves crashing and the boat sinking, it’s dangerous inside and out. One time my son’s hand got stuck in a piece of fiberglass when he was patching a hole and he was trapped in a sinking boat for five minutes until I heard him screaming.

You don’t challenge Mother Nature. You sweet talk her and go with the flow.

There’s no atheists at sea. Everybody gets religion sooner or later. In a wooden boat, you’re one plank away from eternity. Every time you cast away from the dock, you stand a chance of not coming home. Every time.

Filming this show, I was in probably the worst storm that I’ve ever seen: 70-mile-an-hour winds, 40- to 50-foot seas. It was a 14-hour trip to get to safe port, and we were in a leaky, old wooden boat. We’d get to the bottom of a wave and the bow would dive into the sea. I had a bunk in the mate’s quarters, and I spent the night bouncing from the ceiling to the floor. Just hung on for dear life for 12 hours. All I could think about was getting home, going to Arizona, and riding my Harley in the desert. But it was awesome.

The challenges that we faced were not what we expected. There was a lot of what we professional mariners call bullshit. The mining equipment didn’t work. The boat was old and, I would say, 70 or 80 percent used up. The guy who owned the franchise to mine there sold us a bill of goods. We were hoodwinked and lied to, and that’s not something I’m used to in business. But I’m proud of the way my team pulled together and made it happen.

I’m already a legend in my own mind, but I’m anxious to see how they portrayed us. They have many opportunities to blow this. And they have many opportunities to make it great.

I don’t watch TV. I have a life. When I want to do something, I actually do it.

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