I was awoken this morning slightly ahead of my 4.40am alarm by the sound of rain pounding on the roof and the wind blowing through the rafters (what are rafters anyway, i’m not sure we’ve got any). This could only mean one thing – diving. Even after a ten year absence, with the weather that bad and the alarm set that early there could be no other possible reason.
The last time i was in Stoney Cove was December 1999 to finish off my rebreather course, and even that was a one off: A couple of years earlier, our club had started to use Capenray, which took fractionally less time to get to, with a cheaper entrance fee and far fewer divers to compete with for a parking space and diving space. My memories of Stoney were, as such, fading away. But unlike grandiose childhood memories that are normalised when revisiting a place as an adult, the entrance into the cove was much more impressive than i’d remembered: The surface area of the water seemed vast, surrounded by cliffs that plunge straight into the water for most of the shore line and with a tree line that tops the cliff. All of this, this morning at least, was framed by the turbulent storm filled skies and a hell of a lot of rain.
Despite a dry-run at kitting up in my living room the previous day (i would highly recommend this at the beginning of a new season, let alone after a ten year absence – three problems found and three problems solved before going anywhere near any water) it was ten years since i’d done this for real. Mix in the pounding rain and the lower than seasonal temperatures and you’ll start, but only start, to get a picture of the misery. Despite the long absence, ambient conditions and an almost completely new set of kit (original stuff comprised of knife, dSMB, mask and fins) i wasn’t anxious. I had a nagging doubt that i was forgetting something, but other than that my overall feeling was of excitement – that sense of excitement that one gets at the outset of a new adventure. It seemed that this dive was more than jumping into Stoney Cove on a cold wet April’s morning.
Walking down to the point of entry into the water fully suited up with cylinders and weight belt on, the immense weight of all the equipment was very evident on my lower back – a point of weakness for me. At the water’s edge we all steadied ourselves against whatever stable structure we could hold onto. More akin to Flamingo’s after a ten pint drinking binge than any sort of delicate mating ritual, putting your fins on with heavy equipment and a restrictive dry-suit is tricky and un-elegant. Regardless of ambient conditions you are very hot at this point – your thermal suits are designed to keep you warm in the coldest of waters, and water conducts heat 25 times better than air – this means that in air, heat isn’t been taken away from you very well, and thus you get hot. I’d wondered how i would feel the moments before getting into the water after such a long break from diving. I imagined that i’d be nervous, not about the task or experience ahead, but more about how i’d react to it. The reality was that i was so hot i was almost begging to get into the water just to cool down. Once in the water it all felt very familiar and very natural. The signal to descend was given and we were off.
We were diving as a four. The main aim of the dive for us all was a simple weights check: New equipment accumulated during the off-season (or off-decade in my case) leads to changes in buoyancy, which needs to be compensated with an equivelent change to the lead carried around one’s waste. It sounds simple, but with the best planning in the world, estimates made in the comfort of you front room can be significantly different from reality leading to either not being able to get under the water or being too heavy. In our case, Neil was too light and i was too heavy. Neil had to get out to get more weight, whilst we chose to continue on with our dive. Once under water i was amazed at my automatic reaction to the normalities of diving: ears were cleared, auto-dump was set and air was checked all almost simultaneously and without one concious thought. My only awareness was of being too heavy, which is good to be aware of.
Stoney has changed in the past ten years or so, at least underwater. There are a lot more items of interest to see including at least three wrecks. Whilst simply experiencing being underwater and exploring my own dive kit, i was glad to have my buddies Julie and Dave take me on a tour of some of the new additions. Their underwater navigation was noticeably good, expertly taking us from one site to another. Only a small disagreement involving a compass, slow but sharp pointing of hands and both divers threatening to go in opposite directions showed a slight chink in their otherwise impeccable navigation abilities
Of the three ‘wrecks’ we saw, the Stanegarth is the biggest. As one would expect, the wreck is sanitised. Anything that could cause an issue has been removed. It provides safe entry and exits for those wanting to get into a wreck in a relatively safe environment. That being said, its a good size ‘wreck’ for a quarry and provides something of interest, particularly for those who may not yet have seen a real wreck. Two more wrecks, the Defiant and the Belinda are smaller versions of the Stanegarth and are only a short distance away.
Ascending up gentle slopes is always more uncomfortable than coming up a shot line. Your orientation in the water isn’t vertical, meaning every dump of air from your suit valve can only be done by twisting your whole upper body to show the valve to the surface. This is somehow made worse when you’re over weight – the excessive amount of air ‘sloshing’ in your suit doesn’t help matters. But, this feeling was no greater or less than if i’d have been doing my first dive of a season, rather than my first dive in a decade.
My first site as we surfaced was to see the the rain bouncing off the surface of the water. On land people were at different states of getting ready: cylinders were being filled, dry suits were being donned. In the water divers were breaking the surface or dumping air and descending into the dark. I, meanwhile, had a very big smile on my face.