So…… What Is “The Dark Side” Really Like…….?
So now there was a period of reflection, had I gone “one step beyond” had I lost the plot? I had planned to teach PADI divers on the various stages to scuba diving, from Try-dives to “Open Water Diver”. I had expected to take some of those divers on to Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver and even Dive-Master……I had not planned on taking divers beyond that really, but now……..now I was starting to really think where this might take me…….and where that might lead others, if they had a mind to follow! I decided if I was going to teach Nitrox, in any form (PADI were also beginning to explore Nitrox courses at the time), then I wanted to know it inside out! I had some PADI courses set up after leaving the Army in June of 1996, some personal friends, some family members and a couple of divers looking to finish off courses, started with other trainers on holidays, or having had extended time between dives and needing to freshen up skills before passing off the courses. I took these on between July & October of 1996 and then set up my First PADI Open Water Course at Fenton Manor, it went well and I eventually had another Four Divers to take through the Open Water Dives at Stoney Cove. All this activity proved to me there was enough interest locally to give Diver Training a serious shot, and Deep Blue Diving was a reality, I was excited!
I managed to get in a couple of Trips to Anglesey at Treaddur Bay, I had trained Ellie’s Step Father, Tim, and we managed a weekend of coastal dives around the wreck of the Hermione and a couple of shore dives there, down the Tidal Gully to the Left of the beach, a scenic and enjoyable couple of dives to gently introduce Tim to the Sea and tidal diving, but these were distractions……. I wanted to give Nitrox more attention, it was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, I loved training divers, don’t think I wasn’t having a ball, I was, but I knew there was more to do, that diving had even more to give me personally…..and I wanted more from diving. I had met Jason & Darren training my first Open Water Course and they were keen to get more diving experience, that meant I would spend more weekends teaching at Stoney Cove, Dry-Suit Diver, (I didn’t charge for these, I wanted divers to progress from Semi-Dry-Suits used on the Open Water Courses, I just believed it was enough of a stretch to dive in thick Neoprene, without adding the complications of inflation on the Dry-Suit, to an Open Water Course) then Advanced Open Water Diver, and then Deep Diver and Search & Recovery…….Then there was my Second and my Third Open Water Courses at Fenton Manor and weekends at Stoney…….my dive-log was looking like a tour guide for the place, “16/11/96 Trg Dive-Stoney-Leicester O/W Dive 1 Skills Viz 4m W/Temp 8’ Air In 200 Out 150”……. “16/11/96 Trg Dive – Stoney – Leicester O/W Dive 2 Skills Viz 4m W Temp 8’ Air In 150 Out 100” dozens and dozens of dives described in the same way, (I did get to take a weekend trip for some of the divers down to Portland in March of ’97, diving off Mal Strickland’s Rib, we managed a couple of decent dives in and outside the harbour and on the Countess of Erne, a favourite introductory wreck dive of mine, but the most of my diving was Stoney, on the shelf at 6m…… for hour after hour) …… in fact it wouldn’t be for another 6 months, to May of 1997 until I got the chance to dive Nitrox again, when Don invited me down to Portland to assist him, as his Dive-Master, on an Advanced Nitrox Course he was running there…..I said yes…… immediately, Stoney Cove would have to wait!
Don’s student for the Advanced Course was James, an accountant who divided his time between Skiing and Diving after what he casually described as “18 weeks of intense work for clients, preparing end-of year returns”……Shit, I was doing something wrong, I worked 50 hour weeks at JCB and then virtually every weekend at Stoney……I both liked the guy and hated him in the same breath! But James had brought opportunity and Nitrox diving, and I felt blessed! It was great to see Don again too, it had been a while and we had a lot to catch-up on. Don was looking at taking on an IANTD National Facility franchise in South Africa with a pal of his, an ambitious enterprise given that country’s political “fluidity” and the racial tensions still very much in evidence, it wasn’t something I’d have considered, but then Don was an adventurous soul, he’d recently achieved cult status as the First diver on Kitchener’s HMS Hampshire, (a solo dive at 50m) lost 05th June 1916 off Orkney, (only the First of Don’s long list of diving achievements) if anyone could pull off a facility in South Africa my money was on Don Shirley!
The IANTD Advanced Nitrox course is both technically demanding, and emotionally punishing, working out Best mix, Fraction of Gas, Oxygen Percentages, Best Mixes, Maximum Operating Depths, Target Operating Depths, Equivalent Air Depths, Decompression Obligations, Deco Mixes, Gas Switches & Bail-out’s, Oxygen Toxicity Units and Units of Pulmonary Toxicity (UPTD’s), then working out minimum surface intervals and going through the same process again for the second dive, calculating off-gassing in the available time between dives……and that was before we analysed our mixes and re-calculated on what we actually got from the Gas bank! I loved the intensity, this was a different and more focused diving, this was stretching every nerve and every brain cell I had left, and I was just an observer, a Dive-Master there to ensure there was a back-up for the student if the Master had an issue, but I took it as seriously as if I was the student and it was a different world, one where you couldn’t just roll-in and take whatever came up, this was methodical, planned, execution…..and I knew it was for me, I could feel the engagement kicking in, the focus, the heightening of senses, the Dark Side had won and I knew it, diving would not be quite the same ever again!
The first of our dives that weekend was a decompression skills assessment, planning the dive, diving the plan, kit configuration, skills tests….James and I would not get off lightly, Don wanted to know we had done our homework! In reality this was a shakeout dive to ensure the cob-webs of “scuba” were far removed from our reality and the kit was good…..the right tools for the right job, executed flawlessly…. “03 May ’97 Nitrox Dive – Portland Bill – Adv Nitrox Course – Basic Dive Management & Deco Discipline Configuration Checks. Viz 6m W/Temp 11’ Air In 220 Out 90 Buddy Don Shirley – James”
Even my dive Log was starting to look different, I noted the duration’s and mixes in the margins faithfully, 40% mix, 2 @ 6m Deco 50%, 2 @ 4m Deco 50% (3L Pony). This was as serious as my diving would ever get….or so I thought at the time! I must admit, looking back on the weekends dive entries it reminds me of the time very well, I remember the anticipation on the trip down, I had met Don at his former home (following his recent divorce) and we had traveled the remaining miles from Worcester to Portland in a multiple of conversations, Nitrox, Solo Diving, Portland & Budgie, an ex- Matelot mate of both of us. Budgie started a diving business diving from the Breakwater Hotel, and latterly owning & running the Aquasport dive hotel, along with his Dutch Girlfriend of the time. I was looking forward to saying hi again to Budgie, another mate who I respected and admired in equal measure to Don, and someone I had taken Toots diving with many times on Army Sports afternoons, I knew and loved Portland and the Breakwater, it did the best Cheeseburger & Egg (Yeah…with chips!) in the business, an after dive treat I loved!
Our second dive of the weekend was on the Bombardon and Tug, now there is some controversy about what exactly the “Bombardon” units alongside the Tug under Portland Harbour are exactly. The photo I rely on for the description (above) is the only one I’ve ever seen of Bombardons and the detail is somewhat lacking but it seems convincing, the “Beetles” of the Mulberry system are too short to be what is alongside the Tug
Contemporary descriptions (Web Resource: “dday.centre/d-day-technology-mulberry-harbour.html” Accessed 01/08/2020) have Bombardons as “Long Steel constructions, cross shaped, used to form part of the breakwater” but seem to agree that “Whales”, or the roadway sections of the Mulberry Harbours, are “Steel roadways of up to 3,500ft in length, comprised of bridging units supported by “Beetle” pontoons.” The photo below shows what are likely adding to confusion as I think there is at least one section of the “Whales” between the Bombardons, but that is my opinion, and nothing more!
I logged the dive as: “03/05/97 Nitrox Dive – Portland Bill – Adv Nitrox Course – Skills Dive on the “Bombardon” & Tug – Great dive after drills see wreck log”
Now I clearly indicate you should check out the “little Red book” here (my Wreck Log) and the entries in there have always been where I “wax Lyrical” on wrecks, or at least, expand a little on the wreck…… The entry for the Bombardon & Tug, the first time I had dived them notes “Nitrox IANTD Inst Cse Drills in Zero viz (Kicked Silt) then around the wreck for a look, she tipped the Bombardon over & towed the tug down which rests on its side with ½ in silt, great swim up between the two of them, Atmospheric & would have liked more time to ferret about but it was great to hang on 5 min deco above the barge & see the outline disappearing in the murk.” By now Don had mentioned he asked me to DM the dives to enable me to take the IANTD Instructor route….. “If it was something I might be interested in?”…..now…… Don being ahead of the game….Don has history there, as any of you who have read the Jamaica, or Falklands pieces on here will have perhaps picked up on……..
Our third dive of the weekend was on HMS Hood, that iconic WWI Pre- Dreadnought battleship, a Royal Sovereign class ship that had been the pride of the Navy (in several of her iterations, especially the WWII variant, sunk by Bismarck). For many years HMS Hood had been a go-to dive in Portland, she was a “slab”, lying across the Southern Harbour entrance, acting as a torpedo block to prevent attacks, like that of Scapa Flow, when U 47 under the command of Gunther Prien sank the Royal Oak. Hood was impressive, I likened her to a tower block on its side she was that big, I had dived her before but this was different, Don was to make this a decisive dive for me, even if unknowingly!
The dive on HMS Hood took me back into the realm of wreck penetration, something I had first carried out on the Port Napier in the Kyle of Lochalsh two years previously, (another post, soon to be on here….you know where it will be!). I wrote the dive up in the log: “04/05/97 Nitrox Dive – HMS Hood – Portland – Adv Cse- Skills Dive – Semi Penetration after skills & longer deco, see wreck log”
The little Red book says: “HMS Hood IANTD Nitrox Inst Cse Drills – Then down seaward side & limited penetration along a tunnel within near-light zone – presumably a galleyway along the upper deck – that was one of the best dives on Hood but strong (1K) current made control awkward” I remember Don putting me through a range of skills, the ones sticking in my mind being the removal and re-fit of my deco bottle, and the no mask swim, some 25m or so, and then the “gas chase”, a nickname but a descriptive one……..your buddy is allowed to set off finning as if he hasn’t noticed a separation, you allow 10 seconds and then exhale all gas, then you are allowed to begin to swim after him, get his attention, calmly, indicate out of air, and commence taking his alternate air-source. Now that all sounds quite simple sitting in a comfy chair in your favourite bar, or coffee shop……when you do it at 15m or so, in cold water, often in low visibility and for real, it is a more “immediate” experience……. if nothing else, it requires focus, and composure…..precisely why it was trained in the first place! The rest was all about the Hood, and a great dive it was too, the first time I had ventured in and amongst her upturned hull, and the confusion of rat-runs possible at various points along her massive flank. I gained a new love of HMS Hood as a dive that day, and in combination with the IANTD training, waking in me deeper commitment to diving in a measured and planned approach, I gained a whole lot more from that weekend than many others I had taken so far
I think this was the weekend that diving really became an obsession with me, up to this point I knew I could dive and I had dived pretty extensively, this was where I took a step beyond “diving” and irrevocably set myself on a path of discovery focused primarily on wreck diving. Don would use the wrecks of Portland harbour to cement James’s Nitrox journey and, unwittingly lead me to conclude there was really only “Wreck Diving”, that all other diving was just “diving”, it was all about getting to a wreck, exploring that wreck and deciding it either was….or wasn’t safe to get inside and around every part of the wreck you could conceivably see or access. The rest was just “decompression”, it could be great deco, and there might be wonderful marine life and fantastic eco-systems around you…….but it was the wreck that mattered…..it was all about the wreck!