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Scuba Diving - BSAC First Class Diver #512, Advanced Instructor #1032

The Diving bug was caught at Brighton Poly back in 1982. Caving activity up to this time had been fierce but always stopped by the inevitable sump. Cross section '71' across New World Passage on the UBSS 1971 survey of the Little Neath River Cave was a magnet - a massive passage in a comparatively unfrequented part of the cave. However, it was to be later on in 1985 that the diving was put to good use in caves.

Early Days.....

Liz Matthews fascinated me - she was an instructor with the Poly diving club when I signed up at the freshers' fair in September 1982. I may have (innocently) mentioned caves when talking to her about learning to dive. She thought I was mad! Anyway, I went through the diving club rituals - the 'A' test, with it's punitive weight belt swimming, and the 'B' and 'C' tests with snorkeling gear, plus Simon Kenny holding my head underwater for thirty seconds after swimming a couple of lengths to "check that I could hold my breath under water for 30 seconds because it says so in the manual". It was only once I'd got this far that I was allowed to see an aqualung. The fascination shifted from Liz to the aqualung! Lectures on various subjects from regulator operation to burst lung were absorbed and 'ditch and retrieve' survived before the 'D' and 'E' tests on aqualungs.

It was with some relief that I was asked to go on the summer holiday without the requisite number of pre-holiday dives. There were mitigating circumstances m'lud as I'd spent quite a bit of time repairing the boat trailer while others were out getting their dives in as there would be no holiday without the boat!

My expedition organisation skills gleaned from caving expeditions were called upon when, two days before the holiday. Andy Richman and Steve McDermott announced to the assembled throng that the Poly minibus had failed its MOT test and we therefore had no transport! Disappointment set in among the organisers until I chirped up "what about cars"? To cut a short story even shorter, plans were re-arranged and we all set off for Penzance and had a great time. My diving skills were expanded and I learned to drive the boat. My fascination for Liz also returned as she sank more pints than I could take. I took some of them climbing on some pretty rotten cliffs I soloed up with thrope tied round my waist, roped them up - and down - had to solo down myself as there was nowhere to ab from! The members on the holiday were Rob Hayter (DO), Julia hayter, Liz Matthews, Steve McDermott, Andy Richman, Fiona Cowie, Charlie Blunt and Simon Hurley (Instructors) and Nigel Hague, James Dunster, Debbie Holt and myself (Novices). We camped and caravanned at South Treveneague near St. Hilary, just inland from St. Michael's Mount. During the week, we dived in Rinsey head caves, on the Keneggy stone, off Hoe point, Lamorna Cove and - highlight of the week - The wreck of the Alice Marie in Mounts Bay. This is the wreck of a sailing Barque and appeared to be upright on the bottom. Most of the superstructure had long gone but the ribs still projected skyward. I got my first glance as we descended the anchor line from 10m or so above. The visibility was excellent and it was like flying!

I learnt a lot about the diving club that week - and the diving club learnt a lot about me, such that by the time we returned, I was Expedition Leader (and secretary!). Click here for a few pix of the holiday.....

Things really took off and the next Easter we trundled down to Swanage. It was reasonable weather and we were joined by the earlier club D.O. Ian Carpenter. He brought his Zodiac inflatable along to increase our carrying capability. We dived the Kyarra in about 26m off Anvil Point. It was only my 14th dive and I had a regulator failure (it was filling with water which is hard to breathe) - alone in the dark at 20m - my "experienced" buddy having long since disappeared onto the gloom. I managed to clear it and carried on meeting Steve by the anchor. I'd never dived in the dark before and it was certainly dark down there. Later, we dived off Old Harry and under Swanage Pier plus a couple of drift dives. I came back suitably experienced!

Diving continued back in Brighton and a persistent favourite was the "Miown" - a 400 ton steamer, that sunk in 10m of water in a storm about a mile outside Shoreham harbour on 13th Feb 1914. She's well dispersed but a haven for conger and whiting.

The next summer, I organised a holiday to Ilfracombe on the recommendation of Roy and Bea Davidson from the Schooner Sub Aqua Club - a local SAA branch. The weather was far from kind to us and the visibility was generally poor but 12 of us stuck it out and dived the "Monte Morow" and the Woolaway plus the usual drift dives. It was persistently windy making the open water quite lumpy, but there were various inlets to explore, many of them sheltered from the worst of it.

The following Easter, we dived in Portland Harbour. The weather was cold but we dived the "Enicuri", the "Countess of Erne" and the dredger.

We were also getting out onto the wrecks off the Sussex coast, mainly on Peter Van der Boon's boat Vulcan and later Sundowner but also on the Schooner Club's boat and very occasionally on Brighton BSAC's boat - "Brighton Diver". Wrecks such as the Pentyrch, City of London, Steam Drifter, Steam Trawler, Clan Macmillan, and the City of Waterford helped us increase our experience.

I also started to use my diving experience in the caves I'd learnt to dive in order to explore! John McLean - (a fellow caver and member of the Poly diving club) and we made forays into various UK caves such as Swildon's Hole, Porth Yr Ogof and The Little Neath River Cave plus the Dinas Silicate mines in South Wales.

In the summer of 1985, we went back to Penzance and dived the old favourites and a new one to us, the Conqueror - a huge freeze trawler that ran aground with a small wooden skiff that had recently sunk alongside. By this time, I was Diving Officer of the club and had also graduated from the Poly (much to my relief). As a graduation present to myself, I bought a made to measure 8mm neoprene drysuit from Cliff Hares at Solent Divers. This was a sound investment as it meant warmer dives! I organised two more summer diving expeditions with the poly - in 1986 we went to Oban and in 1987, back to Penzance again. However, about this time, I also joined Brighton Branch of the BS-AC. (Pix of the later Poly Holidays to follow...)

The British Sub-Aqua Club.

I may have been DO at the Poly club but it was straight back to square one at Brighton Branch! One of the first things I did was the deep-water rescue test in Bewl Bridge Reservoir for my Second Class Diver qualification. The branch Diving Officer, Mickey Miller, had a massive torch and it was essential as Andy Baker and I raised each other from the sludge at the bottom and dragged each other onto the shore, administering Expired Air Resuscitation. Brighton Diver became part of my life, allowing us to explore some of the wrecks off the south coast. The Pentyrch, 'City of London', City of Brisbane, Clan Macmillan, Steam Drifter, Jaffa, Easingwold and Ramsgarth, became familiar. I was graded Second Class, opening the gates to formalising the diving instructor role. The Poly club had relied on 'experienced' divers for instruction, (experienced meaning having been on a summer holiday!), but at Brighton Branch, it was unsurprisingly more 'professional'. Andy and I also dived from Peter Van Der Boon's boat, Vulcan - a sharp vessel that was not particularly pleasant to be on in a swell, and later Sundowner (or scumdrowner as I called her). We dived a few of the more adventurous sites on evening dives from Humphrey's Gap, Shoreham.

There was a lot of change in sport diving at that time. Advances in (particularly electronic) equipment provided the opportunity for finer definition of decompression requirements - with the promise of longer dive times. Scuba gear had not significantly advanced much since its invention by Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau back in the 1940s except for the now common balancing of both first and second stages and in some cases, environmental sealing, reducing the risk of icing up in cold water. Cylinder technology advances meant that cylinder pressures of 207 to 232 bar (3000-3500psi) were the the norm, giving air capacities of 3000-3500 litres (100 to 125cu.ft). for 14-15 litre sets. My own set was a pair of 7 litre steel 207 bar IWK cylinders arranged as a 'twinset' (no pearls!).

Drysuits were becoming more popular and 8mm Neoprene was a popular choice for British waters, having greater inherent insulation and buoyancy. Membrane suits were also popular, being more flexible, but requiring insulation in the form of a fibre pile 'Woolly Bear' to be worn underneath. These suits were also more prone to squeeze or pinch as depth was gained - relieved by inflating the suit. This also helped re-balance buoyancy. It was still quite common to see collar type inflatable lifejackets/buoyancy compensators (ABLJ) although the jacket type (Stab Jacket) was becoming more popular.

Shortly after joining Brighton Branch, I was co-opted onto the committee as Equipment Officer. This, sometimes thankless, task involved arranging for (and usually carrying out!) the maintenance of the Branch's equipment as the branch had an active training program. At the time, the branch's air requirements were provided by a pair of ageing Williams and James 'Trident' 10.5 cu.ft./min compressors. We had a single Mk10 submarine air cylinder of about 500 Cu.Ft as a reservoir.

In 1987, having obtained 'Club Instructor' rating, I was elected Diving Officer and immersed myself in the job. I had a good Training Officer in the shape of John Murphy and between us, we overhauled the training scheme, encouraging experienced divers to come back and refresh their skills as well as take on new ones. We had a rash of Club Instructor passes and introduced an annual 'Novice Dive-In' over the May bank holiday. This proved very popular and involved a few divers from other clubs such as the Poly Club, of which was still DO! After a few months, the pressure became too great I relinquished the Poly Club job - there was simple not enough time for both.

In 1987, I decided to attempt the BSAC First Class Diver qualification. This was quite ambitious as Brighton Branch had only had three in its history. There are many paths in life that use the role of a Mentor and this was no exception. The qualification was shrouded in a kind of mystery as there was no formal route or training course to gain the qualification. However, Cathy Shennan, one of the National Instructors ran an 8 week course as a preparation for the theory exam and I managed to attend six of them - in Greenwich - screaming round the fledgling M25 after work in Bognor! The course was well worth it and along with a serious amount of study, I sat the exam in March 1988, gaining 73% - a pass. That was only a part of the qualification.....the practical exam consisted of a weekend diving from inflatable and hard boat, organising, planning and executing tasks loosely laid down by the examiners. These took place in Dartmouth, Anglesey, somewhere in Scotland and Belfast and were held once a year. The exam in Dartmouth was popular (for good reason) with both candidates and examiners alike and was apparently oversubscribed when I applied the instant I heard I'd passed the theory. I applied to Anglesey and was accepted. From the theory course, I'd got to know Roger Wood, a capable diver, who had also been accepted at Anglesey having been rejected for Dartmouth. (Neither of us were on the National events circuit and were therefore unknown to the National instructors/examiners). We planned a recce in May and duly travelled up, having booked accommodation with the Anglesey dive centre. We'd hired an inflatable (well, it blew up!) and scouted round the area, diving the 'Havso' and a couple of other likely sites as well as having a good look round for other possibilities and a good look at the harbour. We returned in August for the exam. The weather was hardly kind, in fact it couldn't have been much worse - strong winds for the Saturday and gales for the Sunday. Planning started about 9pm when we arrived (I was late!) and finished about 2am. Saturday dawned windy and after a brief breakfast at the guest house we'd booked into, we set off for the rendezvous. My task was first (Adcock - top of the list!) and I set about attempting to 'outline survey' the 'Havso' - (lucky that one!!). The wind was strong in Trearddur Bay but George Rowing and two other candidates were duly briefed by me and we set off - it as. Lumpy! Arriving at the site, I proceeded to mark Mien Piscar, the pinnacle that the Havso lies on using transits we'd sussed on our recce. Well, first class divers can dive in any conditions.....wrong.....First Class Divers know when it is suicidal and opt for a more suitable site I the shelter of a headland. I tried to dive and was hauled back onto the boat. We returned inshore and successfully surveyed a pile of wreckage close in covered by about 5m of water then returned to Trearddur Bay. The other candidates tasks were carried out - measuring underwater viz and trying to erect an anti-submarine net. We finished, having dived three times each in a fierce swell at about 6pm. A debrief, pack away the gear, pump the bottles for tomorrow, sort out kit for tomorrow then shower and attend the obligatory feast at the Chinese restaurant. Back to the centre and plan the diving for Sunday. Pit about 2am shattered. Breakfast early Sunday, then drive over to the Menai Strait as the wind was howling across the harbour. It was flat calm in the strait - hardly a ripple and little tidal movement - hardly 'First Class' conditions - but we were here. Led a dive to about 26m (we must have dug a hole!) and routed a few Lobbies from their holes for something to do. A few diving related questions were asked and that was it. We went to the debrief - in a pub on the way back across Anglesey, where they ripped up to pieces with their 'constructive criticism'. I can't remember what time we left, but I felt quite dejected and I went up onto Milestone Butress at the bottom of Tryfan in the Ogwen valley and soloed to the top in order to relieve some of the frustration I felt. A couple of weeks later, the failure letter arrived. Two out of the 10 candidates that had turned up passed - Roger was one of them.

Some mitigation might be found in the fact that Brighton Branch was, at the time, in some disagreement with BSAC HQ and an article in the Sunday Times slagging Mike Holbrook (Chairman) off (with which the branch was tenuously associated) certainly didn't help. I was certainly asked more questions about that over the weekend than diving related 'exam' questions. Some of the NI's clearly supported Brighton's view that the hierarchy were not declaring their outside interests to the membership and using their BSAC status for financial gain (mainly the younger ones), whereas others were fiercely loyal to the Holbrook/Ellerby camp.

Deric Ellerby phoned me at home one evening - took me by surprise a bit, but the call lasted an hour or so. He wanted to know what was really going on from a D.O.'s viewpoint. He probably didn't like my answers. A few months later, we were hauled up before the BSAC Council and made to answer allegations of 'bringing the BSAC into disrepute'. There were a lot of words exchanged at this 'Spanish Inquisition' and at the and of the grilling, we signed a 'memorandum of understanding', distancing ourselves from the Sunday Times article but not retracting the allegations of sleaze. We discovered a lot about BSAC that day - we were so naïve!

Anyway, I attempted the First Class practical again the following August - the weather was once again terrible. My 'Asteris Rubens' grid survey was performed in the harbour. I had to abort the first site when we landed in 3 feet of black mud and the visibility went to less than zero. We carried on in about 2m of water in the only other place it was possible to dive. Even the hardboat dive on Sunday was executed in the harbour. I vividly remember one of the examiners throwing himself overboard whilst we were underway and having to organise a rescue, then being criticised for not administering oxygen after CPR on an inflatable! They wanted blood. Another failure, although this time by 1 mark only. There was still a flavour of distaste among some of the examiners when the name 'Brighton Branch' was mentioned.

I was not going to be beaten. The year after, I returned to Anglesey. I'd given up applying to Dartmouth and was resigned to my fate on Anglesey. The inflatable task went well - I got the underwater visibility measurement - a comparative doddle! The wind abated on the Sunday but left its swell. We took an inflatable out with us and dived three sites, including the Skerries and the Oria, a wreck off the harbour arm (a small team of us had been 'clever' here and the night before had, with the use of an inflatable and a pair of hand-held radios, lined up the aluminium works chimney whilst over the wreck and painted a transit mark on the harbour wall) We were grilled on weather, navigation, air requirements, diving incident management and anything else you can think of. We slogged on the inflatable, hauling the 56lb shot by hand from 25m twice, acting as dive marshall (quite successfully I might add), steering the boat, acting as rescue manager, using the Decca navigator and the VHF radio and making tea for the examiners before finally arriving back in the harbour 15 minutes later than planned having done everything we'd set out to do. We were all knackered and I was starving having gagged up about 4 times during the day. The kit was cleaned, stacked, packed and reports were written (in time) and we all attended the debrief to be ripped to shreds as usual. They painted a gloomy picture but two weeks later, an envelope arrived on the mat. There was something heavier than a piece of paper within - a good sign - as experienced from the Advanced Instructor exam which I'd passed first go the year before! The pass slip and wetsuit badge lurked within - I'd got the requisite 24 marks but they couldn't resist having a further 'constructive criticism' on the report. Anyway, who cares? The struggle was over. It put me off having a go at 'National Instructor'. The unwritten requirement was that you operated on the exam circuit for a good while and got your face known before there was any chance of a pass and I had other things to do with my time - the rocks and hills ware calling again!

My time as D.O. was marred somewhat by a number of diving incidents. Bends were not uncommon, and I think we had 6 in the pot (the Royal Navy's recompression chamber at HMS Vernon/Nelson/Gunwharf, Portsmouth) during 1988, mainly due to the lack of experience of individuals using computers which seemed to promise longer bottom times by taking into account the variable profile of dives, rather than considering them as square profiles, using max. depth. In itself, this method seemed sound as the diver was clearly not taking on as much nitrogen at shallower depths and therefore could expect the dive time to be lengthened if the dive proceeded into shallower water. The second dive times, after minimal surface intervals were particularly worrying and this is what really caused the problems, (and the spark for the Sunday Times Article). There were other notable occurrences - running out of air, losing weightbelts and buddies along with quite a few potential incidents for which I wrote copious reports and advice in an attempt to discourage their recurrence. I was not immune, and on a dive with Mickey Miller, (my predecessor as Brighton Branch DO), to the Ramsgarth, in good visibility and with 5 minutes more decompression than our modestly profiled dive time demanded. Mickey rang me two days later from HMS Vernon where he was undergoing treatment for a type 2 bend!!! I was fine. Only later did I discover he had been thoroughly pissed the night before!

Anyway, my time as D.O. came to an end and I was promoted out of the way to become President and Safety Advisor. The diving urge faded and I sat back a bit and got bored. By 1993, I was diving infrequently, the climbing bug having bitten again, although I did get a dive on SouthWest Ledge with the lovely Wendy Thomas from work, who had recently learned to dive.

I've not dived since 1994. I guess future diving may be constrained to holidays, but snorkelling is so enjoyable, I may not need to trouble the aqualung again.....

 

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