Exercise Southern Craftsman Phase III
This is by far my favourite shot of Port Stanley, I have no idea who took it but it is wonderfully composed and taken from a great vantage point one I’ve stood at in daylight and evening, but one that was never lit in this way when I was there. Port Stanley, capital of the Falkland Isles represents the commercial hub of the archipelago and I hope it never changes, it’s a small capital and still charming, I truly hope the population recognise that and resist any attempt to modernise it, simply enjoying what they have and its timeless and slightly quaint appeal. Our journey from Port Stanley to Weddell Island had begun on 05th January 1996, we would eventually leave the Falkland Islands on the 05th of February ’96 a brief month in one of the most isolated and dramatic Island groups on Earth, but before we set foot back on land at Port Stanley we had a debt to pay, to the MV St Brandan, our stalwart sea taxi over the last few weeks and somewhere we had been made to feel very welcome by Captain and crew alike. It seems Don had bartered some of our passage in order to reduce costs for the expedition, the Captain had a day or so of work for us reducing the kelp growth at the St Brandan’s re-fueling station, a cleared area where she would run in close to shore and fuel up from Diesel pipes run out to sea, not somewhere you wanted to foul a prop……. First off, we would get a leisure dive in the cove before we moved in to the fuelling point to carry out the clearance
Now there was only one issue Don hadn’t quite figured out…..the entry and exit for kitted up divers, but he had an idea, one which I featured in…….. as yet, unknowingly! So the dive briefing went smoothly, we were clear on what the mission was, and the potential hazards, the use of one of the inflatables as safety cover and diver recovery, the divers would, of course, wait to enter the water until the safety boat had been deployed and was positioned, should anything unfortunate happen on the entry from St Brandan so “….Jonah, you’re in first, Port side of the bow from the Bow Ramp, and you’ll wait for Martin to follow and pair up” I almost missed the designated entry……almost! I re-ran the words again….no I don’t think I misheard… “…. Port side of the bow from the Bow Ramp…” and again….”…from the Bow Ramp…” No, I was positive I’d heard right and it was Deja-vu…..Don had pulled this stunt before in Jamaica, with Sharks, I was a bloody guinea pig again, the inflatable was there to pick up my broken body after I shatter every bone on impact, it’s a 20 foot plus drop from the bloody bow ramp ffs! Well, no point arguing, if it was going to go Pete Tong they’d have to work hard to get me back in the little RIB…that’d teach ‘em! Don piped up again, “OK then, 20 minutes to the off, oh by the way, the dive-site is “Death Cove” for log-book purposes”………You have to be shitting me…. “Death Cove”….Fcuking Priceless!
I wouldn’t be writing this if things didn’t go well on that day, I remember feeling apprehensive, I also remember feeling exhilarated, this was the kind of stuff I signed up for, I was about to drop well over 20 feet in full dive kit, into the frigid South Atlantic Ocean……….this was what it was really all about! I knew the drill, Step out, look to your front, Right hand holds your reg & mask in place, Left arm across the body holding your contents gauges in tight to your front, to prevent them smacking you in the face and possibly dislodging your reg…..(not ideal, bearing in mind you were going in “deep”, your kit couldn’t be over-inflated or it would likely break free on hitting the surface)…..cross your fins and point them down so you don’t end up losing one piling in “flat-footed”……… And GO! ……… Don’s words rang in my ears and I stepped out and dropped like a stone, for what seemed like an eternity, and then whoosh, I hit the water, and instantly went under a good few meters…… and breathe, no problems, mental check on kit, all seems present and correct, slowing now, clouds of bubbles meant I could see “zip” but I could feel I was starting to become positively buoyant and rise in the water column….and there it was….I popped, unusually high, out at the surface and then settled back to bob, quite safe and comfortable, everything where it should be, and turned back to the St Brandan and gave the OK signal, and waited for Martin to follow, now this would be fun to watch………
It didn’t take Martin too long to get oriented following his entry and we both made our way to the stern of St Brandan and descended. My first dive off the St Brandan was on the 29th of January ’96 and was logged and described as: “High Entry – Off St Brandan’s Bow Ramp – Death Cove – S.A. great drop in then a keel inspection & look at the prop then a look round the sea-bed – no interest there so back up for a look at the prop again. W/Temp 10’ viz 3m Air In 225 Out 175 Buddy Martin” I loved the dive, even though there wasn’t a great deal to see on the sea-bed the exhilaration of the high entry, followed by the trip up and around the hull and prop of the St Brandan was enough! The next day would be our pay-back to the stoic work horse that was the St Brandan, and would comprise of cutting free the hold-fasts of giant kelp, it is an unremarkable experience except for the sense of accomplishment once the task has been completed, my log book reads: “RIB Dive – Long Creek – S.A. working dive clearing Kelp for shore access to fuel lines by St Brandan’s crew. W/Temp 10’ viz down to 1/2m Air In 225 Out 125 Buddy Don & James”. I recall our first dive was slightly deeper, at the fringes of the Kelp forest, working our way in to shore, repetitious cutting and moving forward, cutting and moving forward….it seemed we were getting nowhere…and we had been at it for 33 minutes. Our second dive of the day, after a light lunch was more of the same, but we were getting a little shallower, Don had remarked at our meal, “….it is interesting to see the difference of technique each of you adopt…..yours is methodical, cut, Left to Right, then return Right to Left….move forward and repeat…….some slash wildly about, then look around and move and do the same, others move forward cutting what is directly in front ignoring peripheral’s….fascinating stuff” Essentially we were operating a “Slash & Burn” programme, it was beginning to show progress! I logged the dive as: “RIB Dive – Long Creek – S.A. working dive to complete access route through Kelp. Hard work but successful. W/Temp 10’ viz down to 1/2m Air In 225 Out 80 Buddy Don & James” This dive had been shallower and had taken longer, I had been in the water for 79 minutes and on exit was cold and tired, but it had been a good days work and the Captain & Crew were delighted with our efforts. We’d spent two days travelling now and completed our task for the St Brandan, it was time to get back to Port Stanley but there was time for one more dive on our way back….Ajax Bay, San Carlos water, now before I got my hopes up Don was keen to manage expectations, despite asking the Ministry of Defence if we could take a ceremonial dive on one of the Falkland island War wrecks of 1982, and despite Don having been a veteran of that conflict and our Corps affiliations with those lost on the wrecks during the conflict, the MoD position was a firm “no”, unequivocal, final and that was it………we would not break that order
I have hated the MoD for that decision from that point onwards, skulking bureaucrats, happy to condemn service personnel to political turf wars from a safe distance, happy to send others to do their dirty work…….unhappy to see that sacrifice honoured by comrades…..the pen-pushers were, in my opinion, and still are, beneath contempt. We all felt it appropriate to hold a ceremony for those lost on HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope, there were undoubtedly brothers in arms amongst the 42 brave souls lost on both valiant ships
So to say the mood was brooding was to understate the situation, we felt cheated, this was an official expedition, one that could only be described as very rare, a joint service expedition to dive the Falkland Islands, what better opportunity to honour those who lost their lives serving their country in such a bleak location……… So it was with a sense of despair that we kitted up to take a dive in San Carlos water, somewhere close to 42 brave souls we identified with and some had even shared service with. My log book records with a sense of military irony expressed in the quote from Blackadder: “High Entry – Brandan – Ajax Bay – San Carlos Water – “GOD DARLING, IT’S A BARREN FEATURELESS DESERT OUT THERE!” Only interest was a pod of Commerson’s Dolphins @ 3m Viz 4m Temp 9’ In 220 Out 150”. The dive itself was, as can be seen from the descriptive in the log entry “unremarkable” not surprising in the circumstances, I remember descending to a sea-bed of silt, just a mud bottom, unusual for the dives we had done so far in the Falklands, but likely to be normal in certain of the bays I’m sure. The dive bottomed out at 25m and so we spent little time exploring, just a “compass point” leg out and, seeing no benefit from continuing, an about turn to retrace our finning and ascend to look around the St Brandan’s prop and hull
We shipped out that afternoon, 31st January of 1996, sailing back to Port Stanley to spend the last few days of the expedition with the local BSAC club, Don had arranged to do some BSAC training for them and I had been assigned, along with Percy if I recall correctly, Diver Coxswain skills, taking out a couple of their divers and going through the Sports and Dive-Leader boat handling skills. I enjoyed it, we spent the time trolling up and around Port Stanley’s quay and the sound, demonstrating maneuvering, slow and fast variations of handling, getting on the plane and “trimming” the Rib, coming alongside, picking up casualties in “man – overboard” situations, all the stuff I’d been taught at Poole Divers and some stuff picked up over the last couple of years, even locally over the last few weeks. The guys seemed to enjoy it and they were signed up accordingly, having done what was asked of them with skill and efficiency, so we had contributed something to the local diving community if nothing else! There was a little time left to look around Stanley, at the places so recently in the world spotlight for all the wrong reasons, Stanley Church and the Globe Pub, the famous whalebone double arch and the post office, where I picked up some interesting 1st day covers, I’d collected stamps as a kid, many did, it was perhaps a throwback to buy such small but important souvenirs of a journey so far from our normal diving experiences. We did one last dive from Port Stanley, on the sailing ship SS Kelly out on a local spot called, unsurprisingly, Kelly’s Rock, my little Red book (Wreck log) says: “03.02.96 Port Stanley – South Atlantic – Ran aground 1892 Steamship SS Kelly, on Kelly’s Rock outside Port Stanley S.A. wedged between two out-crops of rock, heavily kelped at the surface which, when underwater gives the effect of a forest round the remains. Really atmospheric lighting! Viz about 8m. The hull is timber, Copper plated at the waterline and below, near enough all of the length is there but most of the bulk of the hull is gone, plenty of marine life & a couple of large fish, loads of nooks & crannies & holes – great dive”. SS Kelly will undoubtedly appear in another section of this blog at some point, hopefully with a little better detail too!
And so that was it….. officially….. all that remained was to pack the remaining kit away into the ISO container, most of which had already been taken care of before we left New Island. The container was made ready to ship and we awaited our call forward to the Tri-Star flight out of Mount Pleasant to Ascension Island and on to Brize Norton and what would be a journey back…..to the future