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If she can do it, I can do it

In the world of clearance diving, females are rare. We talk to Royal Canadian Navy divers Sarah Gunderson and Katrina Koch-Underhill, seconded to HMNZS Matataua.

13 May, 2022

The Royal New Zealand Navy has female ship’s divers, but we have yet to achieve a qualified female clearance diver. Which is why Sailor First Class (Diver) Sarah Gunderson, 24 and Sailor First Class (Diver) Katrina Koch-Underhill, 25, are aware of what they represent to female sailors in the RNZN.

A Navy clearance diver is trained in mine clearance and underwater explosives. They also search for missing persons and conduct underwater engineering on ships and structures.

The first woman to qualify as a clearance diving officer in Canada was in 1993, but it was a decade later when two non-commissioned females qualified.

Today, there are only three women in the trade in the Canadian Navy, including S1 Gunderson and S1 Koch-Underhill.

The pair, based in Esquimalt, Victoria, says there was a request from HMNZS Matataua to have them come to New Zealand and train with the Clearance Dive Group for several months.

Katrina Koch-Underhill (left) and Sarah Gunderson (right) standing poolside during dive training drills at Devonport Naval Base.

Katrina Koch-Underhill carrying out dive training drills in the pool at Devonport Naval Base.

“And who would turn down a trip to New Zealand?” says Koch-Underhill. In her own time she’s a dedicated soccer player and mountain biker who has already discovered the trails in Rotorua. She’s learning to surf in Taranaki and loves skiing. Gunderson loves trail running and is a connoisseur of good craft beer.

The pair, who have been clearance divers for two years, are serious about their trade and there’s no doubting their qualification was one of the hardest things they’ve ever done in their lives. Koch-Underhill was a port inspection diver – a Naval reservist trade in Canada. “I had never dived outside of the military,” she says. “I was at the University of Victoria (Canada), and I heard about this trade being opened up to people off the street. I thought, instead of paying a load of money to learn to dive – a lot of money for a young person – I could train and get paid to do it.”

She later trained and qualified as a clearance diver, joining the regular forces in August 2020.

Gunderson joined the Navy in 2015 as a Naval Combat Information specialist. She had a secondary role on the ship’s dive team and was enjoying that a lot more than being in an operations room. Both Gunderson and Koch-Underhill ended up on the same course together.

The pair were also encouraged by a female clearance diver who had been through the course three years earlier. “It was someone to look up to,” says Gunderson. “If she could do it, I could do it. And that’s one of the reasons we’re here in New Zealand – to show women that it’s possible.” 

Sailor First Class (Diver) Katrina Koch-Underhill climbing out of the water at Davenport Naval Base.

Doing the course together was a big factor. “I was so grateful to have Sarah in the changing room with me. We were always together – I couldn’t imagine being the only female. You need to be an independent person, but that would have taken a bit more mental effort, always being around the boys.”

Koch-Underhill says the course in Canada is modern in its culture and education and has eliminated a lot of the “old school” boys’ club rituals. “There was a time when you ran people into the ground. If you messed up, you did push-ups. Sure, there’s still a bit of that, but now you get told to set up the dive site. Set up the safety boat. Do it again and again so the training is ingrained in you.” The course, without question, is tough, she says. “It’s long, it’s challenging, you’re getting up at 4.30am, you’ve got two night dives a week. But we had a really great group of really switched-on people. The guys were fantastic. So it was tough, but it was manageable.”

Gunderson agrees. “Everyone was there to support each other, to pick you up. We wanted everyone to succeed, rather than have a competition of who was best. With that mentality it made each phase of the course a lot more fun.”

She remembers the Sub-Surface Breathing Apparatus (SSBA) phase, with hoses pumping air from a surface vessel to the diver, and the thrill of going deeper than she had ever gone before.

As a qualified clearance diver, she likes how every day is different.

“You’re not doing the same tasks every day. Nothing is ever going to run perfectly smooth. You’re thinking, problem-solving all the time. It makes coming to work really enjoyable, and you like the people you work with.”

 

There’s always something to do, says Koch-Underhill, whether it’s diving or looking after your equipment. “You feel like you’re learning something new every day.” Both of them say the work-life balance was attractive. “Sure, you can get called in on the weekends, but the balance is good.”

What are some of the hardest aspects of the job? “Canadian waters are much colder than here,” says Koch-Underhill. Gunderson’s least favourite job is changing the underwater sonar dome on ships. She is keen to stress that Canadian Navy ship drivers are not prone to bumping their sonars on the sea floor, but every so often covers need replacing. “They are long jobs, and you can’t talk to each other underwater, so it’s kind of hard to say, ‘shift it a bit to the left’.”

The pair are working as part of the ‘family’ within HMNZS Matataua and are training alongside the New Zealanders. The equipment is a bit different to what they’re used to, something they’re getting to grips with. “Next week will be diving with the rebreather equipment. And there’s talk of doing SSBA dives from HMNZS Manawanui.”

Koch-Underhill would recommend that females interested in qualifying should look at a one-on-one training programme with a Physical Training Instructor beforehand. Gunderson agrees.

“Come to the diving course as well prepared as you can, because that will make every day that little bit easier. Physically, if you are able to recover well, you’ll come in each day that bit more refreshed. It will be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do, and the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”