Summer is a busy time for any dive centre, and it’s almost with a sigh of relief that we watch autumn unfold so that things will quieten down a bit. However, sometimes summer has an unremittingly autumnal feel as misplaced jet streams bring repeated low pressure systems rolling across the British Isles causing havoc and mayhem. Many of our summer dive plans changed at the last minute as gale force winds and torrential rain made sea conditions treacherous and reduced visibility even in the sheltered bays.
When I lived in west London, all my diving trips necessitated organising towing vehicles, booking accommodation and stupidly early starts. I just don’t want to see 5am on a Saturday morning unless I have partied through the night to get there – and I suspect those days are behind me now. Back then my dive trips were organised with almost military precision and planned weeks in advance. Things are a little different now.
When I first arrived on the Isle of Man two things struck me; firstly, how everything I’d been taught about dive planning, tidal flows and tides was completely trumped by local knowledge and secondly, how dives could be organised at 5 o’clock in the afternoon with the minimum of fuss and we’d all be in the water for 6.30. My gung-ho “It’s not too rough really. I’ve planned to go diving so we are” attitude didn’t cut it here. If you live with such fantastic diving on the doorstep, why have a slightly rough dive? Wait 24 hours, let the wind drop away and have a really good dive instead.
The Isle of Man is close enough to the North West coast of England to be visible on a good day. In fact it’s a local story that you can go to the top of Snaefell (our one and only mountain) and see 7 kingdoms in one go. I’ll leave you guessing to name them all, but the location of the Isle of Man at the geographic centre of the British Isles means that every summer we have clubs setting out in their RIBs to travel across to dive in our waters. And we offer visitors copious amounts of help to locate sites, plan around tides, transport cylinders, locate parts for their broken boats etc. One of the visitors this year declared himself both very grateful and surprised that we should help him out so comprehensively and mentioned that other dive centres in the UK had been less than helpful. Although, it’s true that we are pretty nice folks who want the best for our visitors, there are darker reasons at work.
The Isle of Man is a limited community of around 80,000 and pretty much any diving story will end up with some link to our centre, whether it’s commenting about closing areas to dredging, helping out a fishing boat towed into harbour with their own nets around their prop or getting involved with videoing the local swimming club in training. All diving links lead in our direction…..so it’s in our own selfish interests that we help out our visitors. A lifeboat shout for lost divers swept away on an unexpected current or the hyperbaric chamber being mobilised for a recompression all reflects on us. Some timely advice and guidance keeps the visitors out of the incident pit for a bit longer and keeps diving out of the news until we have a good news story to impart.
Of course, managing the exposure of diving in the local press plays a role in how we manage our diving activities too. It’s been suggested that there are only 6 degrees of separation between any two people in the world, but on the Isle of Man that’s around 2 degrees. Word of mouth is incredibly important. We have to be safe and be seen to be safe, or our reputation would disappear overnight. Doing my Advanced Driving test a few years back introduced me to the idea that ‘accidents don’t just happen’. The same applies to diving, accidents are a culmination of a series of steps. The advice that we freely give to visitors is the first point we can intervene to stop that series of events unfolding. If you’re planning a trip across please feel free to get in touch. If you run a dive centre that begrudgingly hands out dive planning information please have a think about how this reflects on the industry as a whole. I promise you that it won’t undermine your charter service….the clubs that brought their own boats this year are booked to come and dive off our boat next year…..and looking forward to a less stressful trip.
And in case you are wondering on a clear day you can see the kingdoms of Mann, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Mann, Heaven and Neptune.
One of the best things about running a dive centre is the diversity of the clients that walk through the door. One of the worst things about running a dive centre is the diversity of the clients that walk through the door. Our centre is multi-agency which means we can honestly offer the most suitable training to each person that comes to us. We’ve become experts at chatting to prospective divers about their interests, travel plans and diving aspirations and offering them considered and justified advice about their training.
But when people walk through the door the first thing they will say is “I want to do my PADI.” The marketing spend and brand awareness for PADI is huge and there’s the common misconception that only a PADI cert will be accepted elsewhere in the world.
Like many experienced divers, I’m entitled to carry a range of cards covering a number of different aspects of diving, but I pick which ones I take on trips with me. Somewhere in one of my filing cabinets is my set of cards but rarely do they see the light of day. I once had the misfortune to be on a Red Sea liveaboard with a guy who when asked to prove his diver grade slapped a huge wallet of cards on the table with the classic line “There’s 50 years of diving experience in there. Take your pick.” It was unnecessarily aggressive and made all the sweeter when, later in the trip, this same guy was the one who surfaced from the night dive to check where the boat was before dropping back to 12m to finish his dive. Obviously the 50 years of experience didn’t include basic navigation.
In truth, BSAC qualifications generally carry a large amount of kudos. We train in some really tidal, very murky conditions and our training includes a huge amount of dive and rescue planning that stands us in good stead wherever we pitch up in the world. On a particularly difficult pick up from the Rosalie Muller in the Red Sea it was our experienced divers who took over recovering the divers from the water, threw out grab lines and carefully timed their assistance with the pitching of the boat. No shouting. No fuss. They just stepped forward and stopped a difficult situation developing into one that would have ended up in the BSAC incident report.
The Isle of Man hosts motorsport events throughout the year, the TT in June, Southern 100 in July and the Manx Grand Prix in August. These events attract large numbers of foreign visitors carrying a variety of dive qualifications, some stating CMAS equivalence and several requiring translation. We’ve met and dived with some fantastic divers from around the globe, and we’ve had some very deluded people walk through the door. My favourite has to be the bloke who walked in and announced in a very heavy Eastern European accent “I vant to dive vith the sharks!” A little gentle questioning established that he had done a try dive, in a hotel swimming pool in Turkey, about 5 years ago. We carefully explained how much legal protection covers the basking sharks that come to pup and breed in Manx waters, that they avoid divers, that he wasn’t qualified and no, we couldn’t just hire him some kit. He left muttering and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
We run two boats from our dive centre and when necessary have the services of a third boat. The skipper’s first question when I call him to book a group is to ask “Are they BSAC? That’s OK then.” He knows he will get divers who, thanks to the strong club system, will turn up as an organised team and just get on with it. Delayed SMBs aren’t a special course, they’re mainstream. Nitrox isn’t something just for multiple dives on a liveaboard, but for safety in everyday diving. And should anyone have any difficulty there will be someone throwing out a grab line and watching the pitch of the boat as they go to assist.
But of course I’m not claiming BSAC clubs are perfect. We’ve had the divers who got confused when they ran out of dishwasher tablets and put washing up liquid in the machine instead (Don’t try this at home without a mop and bucket handy). We’ve had the clubs that plead for discounts, usually for the ‘poor students’ and their trip turns out to be comprised of university staff and post-docs on sizeable bursaries. And we all look forward to hearing about the club politics as the week goes on.
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!
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.
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.