Thursday, 25 October 2012

Upping The Game

I DESCEND QUICKLY through a blizzard of plankton, gripping the line to prevent being swept away by the current. The force of the water has me horizontal; liquid flight. As we drop deeper the water clears a little, but the ceiling of plankton above us turns day into night: it's pitch-black. With barely three or four metres of visibility, we hit the wreck which looms into view. Hanging onto to the rusted, anemone-encrusted hull, I take my bearings and unclip my primary light; its powerful beam illuminates and colours my surroundings as I catch my breath and take a moment to compose myself. Cold. Dark. Limited visibility. At 28m below the surface, and in these conditions, we have to be on the ball. I find it difficult to figure out exactly where we are on the wreck, and nitrogen narcosis fogs my brain. But my hands are no longer shaking. My buddy, David, swims alongside me; we constantly check on each other, shining our lights on our hands frequently, thumb and forefinger making a circle to signal OK. If we lose sight of each other in this darkness, it means an aborted dive and a fraught ascent alone. We pick our way carefully across the debris; a bright blue fishing net appears out of the inky night, strung out between sections of the twisted ship. I point out this potential hazard to David with a sweep of my beam and he acknowledges that he's seen it. Becoming entangled at this depth, in midnight water, is the stuff of nightmares. As we swim across the wreck I spy several holes and doorways that would tempt me in better conditions, but on a dive like this could spell my end: I'm an adventurous diver, but not a stupid one. Each passing minute I cover up my torch and look up to make sure I can see the faint green light from above, ensuring we haven't entered the wreckage unawares: seeing solid metal above us will set my heart racing…no-one wants to be lost down here. Twenty five minutes in, and it's time to ascend. Securing ourselves atop the hull, David inflates a marker buoy I have clipped to a reel and we send it racing to the surace to indicate our position to the waiting boat. We slowly move upwards into light, him checking our ascent rate with his computer while I reel in the line and keep an eye on my own depth. Before long we're at the Safety Stop, spending three further minutes ridding ourselves of the nitrogen bubbles we've accumulated in our systems. Floating atop the surface in a gentler environment, we signal to the boat that we're ready to be picked up.

This pretty far from the lagoons of the South Pacific and their gin-clear warm water, or Indonesia and its 40m visibilty; there are no sun loungers to relax on between dives as there are in the Red Sea. It's very different to my experiences so far. Diving the UK is almost a different sport. More equipment is required: drysuits, thermal undergarments, gloves, hoods, 3-litre "pony" bottles with enough air to get you to the surface should a regulator (your scuba mouthpiece) free-flow air due to the cold. It takes some getting used to. I completed drysuit training dives earlier this year, and getting used to the restrictive feel of one takes time…but it's worth it for a far more comfortable dive. Back at my local dive club in Hackney this summer, I took a course to become a BSAC instructor. The practice will do me good before I return to the road and teach the PADI courses. And with diving you never stop learning, which is one of the things I love most about it. Ironically, the quarry at which I took the course was in the North of England, and one of my old stomping grounds. It was strange to be diving it, when previously we only ever used to be up there as youths, smoking grass and listening to music after the Acid House parties of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I'd come full-circle.

Mickey Gee, one of the club's longest-serving members, is of the old school; the kind of diver who'd be leaping into the deep with a set of spanners to dismantle a wreck back in the old days. Naughty. He used to chide me when I first joined, telling me that I was just a holiday diver until I'd dived the UK. I can now see why. My dive buddy from my Philippines and Truk Lagoon trips, Smasher, said that if you can dive these waters, you can dive anywhere. She was also right. British divers are a different breed, and those who start their careers here before travelling to warmer climes must find the seas of Egypt and the like a walk in the park by comparison. It can be tough. You need to be a hardy type.

There is the DIY element to begin with. This is not a case of turning up at a foreign harbour and being shown to a spot on a sun-drenched boat, where your kit is ready-assembled for you. It's more a case of driving a few hours to the coast at dawn, filling your own cylinders with air at 9am, grabbing a fried egg butty and a coffee before keeping warm on a chilly September morning by loading the converted trawler with the necessary equipment. As the boat leaves the harbour, divers have to find space to kit up on a crowded deck, sometimes in rough seas. After a cold water dive, getting back on board a boat can be a challenge in choppy seas; then the whole process begins again, but in reverse. Soup, tea and sandwiches restore body heat between dives; fleeces, hats and gloves help maintain it. Eating pumpkin curry and fried fish, clad only in boardshorts, on the sunny deck of a Philippines bangka, is a vivid though distant memory.

My first dives were in a freezing quarry on the Welsh border at Vobster, and quite a shock to the system as my last immersion had been in the Méxican Pacific. On coming out after a bleak, murky dip, I could hardly speak as my face was so numb from the cold. My drysuit was worth every single penny, insulating me from the 5ºC water. A few weeks later I dived the wrecks of the City Of Brisbane and the Indiana, off the coast of Dorset and Newhaven and Littlehampton respectively. They were uninspiring, and the drift dives we did with the tides after these dives could only be likened to swimming in chicken soup…you could hardly see a hand in front of your face. It wasn't really grabbing me, it would be fair to say.

A week later saw me travel several hours away to Cornwall with a few members of the club. Glorious sunshine heralded a superb week on and off-shore. The diving improved, we spotted a basking shark, and I got plenty of depth-progression dives in as a warm-up for my main target for this year: the German WWI shipwrecks at Scapa Flow in Scotland. Porthkerris is a lovely spot with beautiful shorelines and quaint local pubs, the pace of life a world away from the hectic bustle of London. Fresh fish is welcome on my menu any day of the week, and with my mate Matt around, it is virtually guaranteed. I sat atop a rocky outcrop with him one afternoon when diving was done, and in forty minutes he'd managed to cach fourteen mackerel: they just kept coming. His girlfriend Lindy scrambled up a cliff to pick fresh samphire to complement it. I fired up the beachside barbecue and we proceeded to enjoy what was the freshest, tastiest fish I've ever tasted. Straight out of the sea and onto your plate. So that was me rather content. Washing the fish down with a cold beer in the sun, I remarked that UK diving was better than I'd imagined, and that I could get used to it. Matt laughed. "Enjoy it, mate…it's not always like this."

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