Anyone who runs a retail business will tell you that they are regularly approached for donations to a variety of charities. It’s a common thing for businesses to choose charities that reflect their employees’ interests or even to have an annual pitch from the employees to pick a charity of the year. In our dive centre we have collecting boxes for the local Hyperbaric Chamber and the RNLI, both close to divers’ hearts and interests.
The reality is that I’ve never been to the chamber for anything more than a planned visit and I’ve never called out the lifeboat. In fact we’ve responded to several emergencies at sea and reduced the times that Port St Mary lifeboat has been scrambled. So although we actively fundraise for both these charities, we definitely count in the low/no user group. But it’s reassuring to know that they are both there if we ever need them.
I have come to the conclusion that the RNLI isn’t always the diver’s best friend. With improved navigation aids and communications, excellent training and really powerful pumps our local lifeboat has been involved in many incidents. We know many of the crew, in fact we taught several of them to dive. The Isle of Man is blessed with numerous wrecks, many still unidentified. These are the product of two World Wars and, in the past, considerable navigation errors. Stick a lump of rock in the middle of the Irish Sea and it seems like a considerable number of vessels will manage to run into it! But all these wrecks are gradually deteriorating, leaving just the boilers and maybe the prop shaft behind amidst a collapsed mess of plates and ribs. As time marches inexorably onwards, the decay takes its toll and within the next few years several of these sites will all but disappear. So my big dilemma is this, where will the next generation of wrecks come from?
I can’t have been the only diver who watched the Riverdance drama unfold in 2008. Once the crew and passengers had been safely lifted off and she was adrift towards the Blackpool coast, I admit I was willing her, telepathically transmitting a “Sink. Sink. Sink” message. The seabed between the Isle of Man and the North West of England is rarely more than 40m. Just imagine a wreck of that size as a dive site. The Zenobia of the North West. But oh no! A conspiracy between the RAF, coastguard, ship owners and RNLI meant that they had manoeuvred her towards the shore until she was abandoned and by then she was so far inshore that she ran aground. She rapidly became a big tourist attraction, but after several failed attempts to refloat her, the owners sliced Riverdance into scrap metal and carted her away to an ignominious end. What an utter waste of a brilliant dive site!
So much as I love the RNLI I have come to the conclusion that they are not really a diver’s best friend. All this pumping out boats and towing them back to harbour malarkey is not good for maintaining a decent number of wrecks to dive. A recent faulty fire alarm panel in a neighbouring building saw the fire brigade arrive at 7am outside the dive centre. The building was locked up, but having established that no-one was in the building and there was no fire, they all accepted a cup of tea (in our DDRC mugs of course) and left with the alarm still ringing. I want the RNLI to take the same approach – if there’s no one in danger then just leave the ship to become a wreck. Don’t worry about where it’s going to end up, we have sounders and towable cameras to find it. A last known position will do and we’ll take it from there.
Sir William Hillary lobbied for the inception of the RNLI after witnessing the destructive power of the Irish Sea around the Isle of Man. He took part in commanding a volunteer crew in the heroic rescue of all the passengers of the St George as she struck Connister Rock outside Douglas harbour in 1830. The Isle of Man is proud of our longstanding association with the RNLI and Douglas boasts the first Life boat station. But in the early days the rescues were aimed at saving lives, the saving vessels part came later. All I’m asking for is the crews to be a little more pragmatic…..the next generation of wrecks lies in their hands!
As the dive season starts to hit full pace again we have the pleasure of welcoming visiting divers coming to the beautiful jade green waters of the Isle of Man, perhaps in search of sharks and seals, hoping to get to a couple of wrecks and all wishing for flat calm seas and sunshine to accompany their trip. For many of our visitors, their trip will have been several months in the planning, and I know that the many emails and phone calls I have dealt with are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the communications that have gone on within the club. Sometimes though it seems communications can be one-way. I’m never sure whether it’s a deliberate “knowledge is power” thing or just the consequence of a busy life for the trip organiser, but every year we will witness the confusion caused when the message just didn’t get through.
Last year a group hired a van to bring their kit over. It was probably just as well it was a hired van as the suspension was straining to hold the twin sets, stage cylinders and weights that were piled in the back. It seems no-one told them that we provide weights and cylinders and alas I didn’t have a camera to capture the look on their faces when they found out! But all credit to them for being prepared. It never ceases to amaze me how many regulators and drysuits we will be fixing at the end of day 1 of a charter. Kit that hasn’t been serviced, examined or even taken out of the bag since last year is transported across with the hopeful belief that “it’ll be OK” although usually with the caveat that “I can’t remember when I last used it”. After all the months of planning, the least you should be doing is checking your kit before you come across. And let’s not even get started on the idea of a shakedown dive before stepping off a boat into 20m + of Irish Sea and hoping everything’s working.
Day 1 of a charter is plagued by First Day Faff. I’d like to pretend that the skipper and the crew are sympathetic, caring individuals who are standing by ready and fully prepared to sort out every kit and configuration problem. Don’t you believe it! In reality they are running a sweepstake in the cabin on how many of the party will have forgotten a vital bit of kit, turn on regs to find the air leaks and ask for insulation tape to try and salvage dry suit seals for the day’s diving. Whilst you are preparing your kit, look up at their faces. You’ll see the (thinly) disguised looks of despair, contempt, pity and enjoyment on their faces. They are not laughing with you, Orville….
For some reason the normal safety rules that divers use for diving activities seem not to apply while on holiday. Last year we dispatched one of our visitors to the Hyperbaric Chamber after he complained of pins and needles in his legs after his first dive. Apparently as he’d finished the course of antibiotics for his chest infection on Thursday, that must have meant he was fit to dive on Saturday. It didn’t. His reduced lung function meant that although his dive profile was reasonable he ended up in the pot. You see? Normal rules (and common sense) don’t apply on holiday. The problem diver have is that physics and physiology do still apply on holiday. And as any good A level science student will tell you “Don’t mess with physics”, although their version is a little more alliterative.
So here’s my top tips for your trips this summer. Do get all the information beforehand. Do get your kit out and at least put it together and check it before packing. If you haven’t been in the water for a few weeks, get everyone together and have a shakedown dive – it’s a good way of getting to know who is going as well. Don’t forget to ask yourself the ‘fit to dive’ question. Please pack your sense of humour and common sense alongside your undersuit, fins, computer [insert other bits of kit that divers tend to leave behind]. We all laughed one year at the diver on one of our Red Sea holidays who produced a kit checklist that he emailed to the group. But do you know what? We all still have a copy of it on our laptops that we print out each time we are going away….We know that the crew are looking forward to First Day Faff, but we don’t intend to be the cabaret on our trips! Enjoy the summer!
For a while just before Christmas a couple of years ago, the common description of the Isle of Man as ’80,000 people clinging to a rock in the Irish Sea’ couldn’t have seemed more real. Our only winter capable ferry managed to ingest some lobster pots cunningly set in the entrance to the harbour, destroying one of the bow thrusters essential for manoeuvring into the tight confines of her berths both here and in the UK. A period of windy and stormy conditions meant that several sailings were cancelled, the schedule went to the wall and running the Dive Centre during this time was a challenge. Customer orders couldn’t get through so there were a few ‘I ordered it in plenty of time, but it didn’t arrive yet’ apologies to some of the local divers on Christmas morning. But in general the poor weather meant there wasn’t much diving going on anyway however the security of supplies should actually be a worry for all divers. We see it as a challenge to arrange expeditions to remote locations, carrying with us tonnes of equipment, fuel and supplies to dive in some of the lesser known spots. The planning takes weeks if not months, and part of the satisfaction is diving knowing that you have overcome all the obstacles. But just think what your diving would be like if that was the level of organisation that you had to run to all the time.
It’s no secret that the current economic climate is hitting leisure industries hard, and that includes dive equipment manufacturers, retail operations, dive training schools and charter businesses. The whole sector has seen a contraction in spending, and those who depend on it for their living are working harder and longer than ever to keep going. I spent 2 hours last weekend advising a diver on kit, discussing the relative merits of different options, measuring him for a dry suit and painstakingly working out a competitive price for the choices. As I slaved over the pricelist and a calculator I saw the dreaded smart phone in his hand and watched in horror as he scanned the barcode and searched for an online price. Despite the time that I spent, the various configurations that I’d rigged for him to try and the detailed knowledge I provided, he ordered online whilst standing just outside the shop!
It’s a free market and of course he can choose where to buy from. Some of the big dealers can get much better trade rates than the small guys and rely on high volume of sales to make their money. However, a word of warning; if the kit was supplied by us, we would happily set it up, take him for an orientation to his new kit in the pool followed by a weight-check dive. Any warranty issues would rest squarely with us and if we couldn’t sort it out in our workshop, we would happily lend him replacement kit whilst we dealt with the returns process. These are all little things that we would do as we recognise that the commitment to buying dive kit is a big step, and a little guidance along the way can make a huge difference. How many new divers buy exactly what someone in their club, usually the loudest person in the bar, told them to get? And how many change their kit within two years?
With heavy hearts now we have had to introduce an admin charge to deal with warranty issues for which although we are a dealer but did not supply the item. If we didn’t make even a small amount of profit selling it, we can’t justify paying the postage to send it off to be repaired. And if the owner of new kit wants to try it out, then we will be charging him for the pool or open water sessions. So how much does the odd £20 that he saved really matter? Obviously to him that mattered a lot, but perhaps now he’s seen the value to the service we provide he’ll reconsider? The good news is that no-one has yet invented a way to download air via a USB cable, so we’ll be seeing him back in the store real soon. Have a think about the security of your supply chain for diving. Local Dive Stores have overheads and may cost a little more, but they will be around to supply your air, provide repairs at short notice, hire kit, give advice and support your purchases. Your diving activities would be infinitely more difficult if they disappeared.
We rely on our diving buddies not only to share the safe diving we are all seeking, but to provide the support to take on more challenging dives and the back-up when things go wrong. Members of other sports don’t have to rely on each other in anything like the same way. Poor teamwork on a football pitch means you lose the match, but no-one’s life would be endangered by it. Poor teamwork on a dive trip means oxygen cylinders don’t get checked, dive briefs get skipped and the outcomes can be deadly serious. With strong dependency on the people in our dive centre can come strong emotions. Longstanding members of a club will know each other’s families, children will spend their summer holidays on dive trips and learn to snorkel or dive within the branch. Non-diving partners can frequently be found supervising a game of beach cricket for a coach load of divers’ children. So woe-betide any Johnny-come-lately who suggests that, instead of the annual pilgrimage to Weymouth, they would like to head to the Farne Islands this year. You are not suggesting that diving with seals might be a fun trip. Oh no! You are (inadvertently) criticising years of family summer holiday tradition! How very dare you?
Diving attracts people from a wide range of day jobs and with that diverse background comes a wide range of skills. The key thing for all of us is the ability to work within the team, to respect each other’s perspective, to negotiate change and to keep an open mind. The job of a dive instructor may seem simple but really good instructors will have a skill set that would make a recruitment agency go weak at the knees. Some time ago a study tried to calculate the value of a mother, checking all her many roles and pricing the commercial equivalent. The final figure was somewhere over £100,000 a year. Putting a value on your dive centre manager will reveal a similar scary figure. Can you imagine employing someone to check the training, observe instructors, meet and greet, strategically plan, keep tabs on the kit and manage the members within the club? For those frustrated members within clubs please note I specifically said putting a value on your DO, not a price! Dive clubs can be the most frustrating places in the world at times – but they can also be the most rewarding and supportive environments for your dive adventures.
Choose yours wisely.
Love is in the air. As divers we obviously prefer our air to be uncontaminated in anyway, but the reality is that many of us will meet our partners/spouses/significant others through our dive club, or on a course somewhere, or hanging around a dive boat. There’s an honesty that comes with having a diving partner. They already know about the hideously early starts to get to the slack water window on a dive site. They understand the stress when your weekend trip is looming and you still haven’t managed to get to the dive shop for an air fill. They are happy to abandon any idea that the garage will ever accommodate the car again as your collection of dive kit expands to fill the available space. They know that you will finish your dive with hair resembling a bird’s nest and a smear of snot across your face. And they won’t think any less of you for any of it.
In fact there is something evolutionarily positive about partnering up with another diver. You’ve got a basic health screen for starters. And there’s a reasonable level of physical fitness. The ability to carry a 15 litre cylinder is a fine test for being able to carry the shopping in from the car or a laundry basket of wet washing. Divers generally have a level of practical skills useful enough for most DIY. And any Dive Leader who has successfully buddied a nervous, newly-qualified diver will have people skills to deal with most situations in life.
I once took a diver out in Cyprus on a nice easy shore dive, but the slight swell running made getting back to shore one of those nauseating moments where the seaweed and us were moving in harmony but the seabed was doing its own thing. This was too much for my nervous trainee who signalled and headed up. We ascended together and on the surface she spat her reg out before she’d inflated her BCD. Getting a firm grip on her, I reached for her inflator and hit the button. My reward was a face full of vomit as her seasickness overtook her. Never have I been so grateful for my mask and regulator. But what excellent training for parenthood! Anyone who has ever reared children will appreciate the desire to run away and get some SCUBA kit before changing an explosive nappy. Even if your conscience overcomes you and you decide to stay with the baby, at least your breath hold techniques will come in very handy.
If your partner is not a diver then you will have to maintain the mystical air of the ‘deep sea diver’. For non-divers our world can be a strange and confusing place, and their concepts of divers will be guided by Sean Connery as James Bond stepping out of a dry suit in Goldfinger. His dinner jacket was immaculate. I tried this once for a film themed fancy dress party. I persuaded my dad to lend me his dinner jacket and dressed out of the back of the car, cunningly parked only 20 yards around the corner. Fully suited with my dive kit on I walked to the front door and rang the bell. It was July and by the time I had made my grand entrance perhaps 20 minutes had passed. My pièce de résistance was to open my drysuit and step out. And there I stood, in the crumpled, creased, soggy mess formally known as my dad’s dinner suit. It was an entrance alright. While paying the extortionate dry cleaning bill, I reflected on how the media portrays diving as such a glamorous sport and how we have a responsibility to keep that alive for our non-diving friends and relations.
It’s only when we persuade the non-divers to come and try a SCUBA session that they will really understand what we’re up to and if we are lucky they may well be hooked too. It’s possible to get married underwater in a number of places in the world. Instead of saying “I do”, you can exchange “OK” signs and then go for the first kiss. It won’t be a long, passionate, drawn-out snog! But it will hopefully be the start of sharing life’s adventure with your buddy. At least you should reduce the number of guests to something manageable as you can limit invites to qualified divers. Why not score extra points with your dive buddies and make it a club trip? After all you’re a diver – you can take the pressure! Happy Valentine’s Day.
The beauty of running a dive centre is that we become the first port of call for the ‘odd projects’ that come along. Over the years this has varied between organising dive conferences, running evening snorkel safaris, recovering plankton data recorders, surveying scallops, razor shells and caves, and every so often some film work. A while ago I worked with a German film presenter whose task was to catch and cook some scallops. Part of the director’s vision was that the poor presenter didn’t know the plan until she arrived on the shoot. This is a European programme so she’s seen Belgian chocolate factories, Swiss cheese makers and now she was headed for the bottom of the Manx sea bed.
In situations like this your Instructor Sense starts tingling as bad as Peter Parker’s Spidersense ever did. How much diving has she done? Has she dived in cold water before? Has she used a dry suit before? Has she ever used a full face mask and comms? The director shrugged the questions off with an air of nonchalance that only a non-diver could maintain. Would it be alright if they flew in on the Saturday morning, did the filming and flew out in the evening? Involuntarily my hand flew up to smack my own forehead as I briefly lost my air of professionalism. Cue a lengthy discussion about sea conditions, weather, familiarisation with new kit and skills, risks of DCI and flights. Oh and the scallops in question being out of season at the time they wanted to film, making us liable to a fine of £50,000!
The Director of Fisheries was duly contacted and issued a special permit for us to collect and retain enough scallops for the filming. The TV director was persuaded that a three or four day filming period was needed to be able to teach his presenter the necessary skills, safety divers were lined up and we started anxiously watching the weather. I read somewhere the other day that many teenagers wake up and check their Facebook profile before getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, using the toilet or anything else. I’d like to think I’d never be that bad, but I’ve realised lately that I can find the weather apps on my iPhone before I’ve really opened my eyes in the morning. I’ve become a compulsive forecast watcher. And as filming days approached the weather was looking less and less favourable.
We took the executive decision to go and catch our scallops early and store them so that we would at least be able to ‘seed’ a sheltered bay if the weather really turned bad. As the scallop season had closed in June we hadn’t bothered going near our favourite scallop spot over the summer. We dropped down in anticipation and were stunned by the state of the seabed. Port St Mary Ledges are a series of limestone gullies running out from the shore. Although the dredgers run up and down the sand at around 30m, they never usually come into the rock ledges – but that must have changed last year. If we’d sunk a tractor and ploughed the seabed it couldn’t have been any worse. The deep gouges through the rock and sandy gullies had cleared every bit of life; the hydroids, dead man’s fingers and sponges had all been ripped away. And there were no scallops at all. Luckily our back up plan for a slightly deeper, more tidal site came through and we collected our scallops for the shoot.
The shooting days were long and repetitive. The weather was as bad as predicted and the visibility was poor. Our safety divers ‘seeded’ the seabed from the bottom of the shot line. Never before has a skipper so confidently said “Head North and you’ll find the scallop bed.” But our presenter wasn’t happy. The overwhelming amount of new skills and new kit, the demands from the director and film crew and challenging surface and underwater conditions tipped her over the edge. For a couple of hours she sulked in the cabin next to the heater, declaring that she had never been so cold and miserable in her life. Never underestimate the power of divers to ‘make things happen’. We dressed our male dive intern in the female presenter’s drysuit, gloves, mask and hood, dropped off the back of the boat and went and did some more filming anyway. The dive brief was short and sweet and mainly consisted of reminding him “Don’t look into the camera” repeatedly!
I want to dive all year round. I’m not addicted to diving, of course. I could give I up any time I want. It’s my choice to have the kit and the training that allows me to be out whenever the conditions permit.
I started out my diving career in a wetsuit, a badly fitting, compressed, slightly smelly dive centre wetsuit. It wasn’t described to me in those terms of course – it was a semi-dry suit, which is a term that has always puzzled me. Semi-dry must by definition be semi-wet and how wet do you have to be before you are just wet? Maybe my approach to life is too scientific but wet and dry are opposites and in my world ‘damp’ is still a form of wet. So there I am in a wetsuit. On my 9th dive, whilst on a diving course, I had my first hit of hypothermia. It was a sunny day in Cornwall, but an old and poor fitting wetsuit was enough to make me cold in the water and then the wind chill back on the boat sapped my remaining core temperature. I just remember feeling extraordinarily tired as I huddled down into the bottom of the RIB and passed out. It took 3 or 4 days before I felt well again and the experience was enough to send me off to find out about the dangerous world of dry suit diving.
My Diving Office at the time thought that drysuit diving was best left to the experienced guys so his ruling was that only Sports Divers with at least 2 years diving could use drysuits. (And just in case you were wondering, yes Nitrox was the devil’s gas.) I went outside the club for my training and have never looked back. The first training session wasn’t auspicious. Despite the 5am arrival at Stoney Cove we still didn’t manage to get into the water until after some other divers had been in and come out. The water dripping off their kit froze on the path and my buddies and instructor slid elegantly down into the water.* The instructor I was diving with provided a membrane suit without any undersuit, but I was reassured that hiking socks, tracksuit bottoms and a long sleeved t-shirt would be fine. The sweatshirt I’d brought was a layer too far and would have “doubled the amount of lead” I was carrying, so it was left in the car. Needless to say I was freezing during and after the dive. Inversion drills aren’t funny when your feet come out of the suit boots but I was so cold that I didn’t notice until I tried to fin. It seems funny now, but as an instructor I would be mortified if I had taught such a poor course. Half the students in my group gave up diving totally shortly afterwards!
So now I am an instructor I am acutely aware of hypothermia. We’re taught on instructor courses that your kit as an instructor should mirror your students. All of my instructor team wear dry suits, so it’s natural that so do our students. Besides, there’s no point trying to teach someone whose only thoughts revolve around wanting to be somewhere warmer. Our students not only get drysuit training but proper undersuits and socks as well. We explain the cooling properties of sweat on cotton t-shirts and frown on those who keep mentioning that their mate in [insert name of a.n.other UK diving location here] has just been learning in a wetsuit – and they said it was sooo much easier. Less dives and less to remember. And ultimately less diving too!
Around the Isle of Man the sea hits it’s coldest at the end of February, beginning of March. Over 120 years of continuous data recording at the sadly closed Port Erin Marine Lab have shown this to be the case. It’ll bottom out at around 4 degrees and dry suits become essential. Every so often the devil inside me offers the newly qualified diver with the ‘mate who learned in a wetsuit in the Irish Sea’ the chance to do a wetsuit dive. That is usually the end of the topic and within a couple of weeks they’ll be in the dive centre being measured up for their drysuit. This ensures that they too have the kit for that year-round hope that the wind will stop blowing, the swell will subside and the vis will superb. They join me in the ranks of fevered weather watchers just looking for the gap in Atlantic low pressure systems. The winter storms have stripped the kelp off the rocks now and this breathes a whole new perspective into our favourite sites. Maybe I am addicted to diving. Winter diving? Bring it on!
*I lied about the elegant part.
Michelle has been scuba diving for over 20 years. These blogs are a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.