Nov 102012

It’s been an interesting experience coming back to diving after a ten year absence. As you might imagine there’s been a few changes. For those of you who can’t remember, or weren’t diving then, there is one obvious change: Everyone used to dive with one cylinder!

If you did have a twin-set (and any sign of shiny D-rings on you’re stab jacket) then you were most definitely a “technical diver” – a term very much in it’s infancy then, and as far as I can tell, no more strictly defined now. But very few people did “twin up”, and fewer still really saw the need to. For those that did want for some extra security in terms of a completely separate system, a 3ltr pony cylinder was adorned – not for breathing on every dive, but simply there for emergencies.

I was an early adopters of twin cylinders. Actually, being a student, it was all mainly club equipment: the only bit that was mine were the twinning bands! For me, the twin cylinders were simply a way to carry more gas, and were only used for dives over about 45m deep. I suspect that there is something that might upset a few “modern” divers here: the technology was there to carry fully redundant systems and people themselves were no less intelligent or well educated than they are now, but they carried only one cylinder – one cylinder that could fail and kill them… couldn’t it?

As I see it, there is a great paradox in modern diving. One school preaches carrying more redundancy (which by definition increases complexity and failure points, but does provide more redundancy), and the other preaches on the simplification of kit (less points of failure with kit or the diver adorning it, but no on-board redundancy). These philosophies are in conflict. The outcome of these tussles seem to have settled with the modern ‘basic’ kit consisting of a twin set.

4 cylinder setup

Mini-Quad: My current setup mainly used for 35 to 50m dives

But why do we need to carry a twin set for a 20m dive? With a single cylinder we DO have redundancy – it’s called the “Buddy System”. By keeping with the simplest set of kit we reduce our chance of having any sort of equipment failure lead incident. By diving the buddy system, we ensure that if there is a failure, a truly completely redundant system is available. The argument against this is that you’re buddy might not actually be there to help when there is an issue, but to a large extent is this an issue with modern diving technique? Divers who only ever knew diving on one cylinder tended to dive the buddy system strictly. The so called security of a twin set can result in dive practice that places less emphasis on diving with a buddy, and more reliance on extra equipment, and let’s face it, there are multiple equipment induced fatalities every year. The thing is, when it all goes seriously pear shape, is it extra equipment you’ll be hankering after or a sane buddy to calm the situation down, help sort the problem out and make sure you get back to where the air is free and limitless?

So obviously I dive a single cylinder on everything but deep dives right? Ahem… well actually I’m twinned up most of the time (bloody hypocrite I hear you all cry). My excuse? I don’t have a single cylinder to dive on! :-)

Oct 132012

Scapa Flow is UK’s premier wreck diving sight. Strewn with fantastic wrecks and steeped in history, I don’t know a diver who hasn’t either dived Scapa or wants to dive it. What is less well recounted is the truly stunning scenery of the Orkney Islands. As divers we’re privileged to see some of this scenery that simply can’t be seen from anywhere other than at sea. Here are a few photos that i took on my recent visit – I hope you enjoy.

Scapa Flow

[img src=]Rainbow over Mill Bay, Lyness
The weather during our trip in September was wonderfully changeable, with storm clouds, rain and sunshine often within ten minutes. Whilst moored at Lyness, i went for a walk and managed to snap this shot :-)
[img src=]Rainy view from the boat
There's something quite nice about finishing diving for the day, having a hot cup of tea and then watching the storm clouds roll over and the heavens open from the comfort and warmth of the salloon.
[img src=]Mill Bay, Lyness
For those that know this area of the world, when you get off the boat and start walking towards the Scapa Flow Museum at Lyness, off to your right is Mill Bay - If the weather's nice, it's worth the detour to take in the view
[img src=]Sunset from Burray
Two fantastic dives in Scapa Flow, followed by a beautiful sunset, followed by a great meal, followed by a few beers - It doesn't get better than that!
[img src=]Graemsay and Hoy
This looks like one land mass, but the lighthouse in the foreground is Hoy High Lighthouse which, confusingly is on Graemsay. The mountains in the backgound are on Hoy. The body of water in between the two is Burra Sound (not to be confused with Burray which is East of here). Burra sound is famous, of course, for it's block ships, most notably the Tabarka, which is undoubtedly one of the best wreck dives in the country.
[img src=]Foreboding skies over Graemsay and Hoy
The weather was mixed whilst we were in Scapa, but that made for some amazing views... even if it was a bit cold and wet from time to time
[img src=]Hoy High Lighthouse
After a long day's diving, Graemsay's land mark let's you know it's not too far back to Stromness
[img src=]Tumultuous skies over Hoy High lighthouse
Sun and rain were never too far apart, and often when one patch of sky was beautifully clear and sunlit, another was thick black with heavy cloud and rain.
[img src=]Tumultuous skies over Hoy High lighthouse
... and darker
[img src=]Tumultuous skies over Hoy High lighthouse
... and darker again
[img src=]MV Halton at Burray
No more than 50 meters from here is the Sands Bar Hotel, that has a lovely bar and some great food. The ideal place to spend the night
[img src=]MV Halton
A great weeks diving from Bob's boat, the Halton
[img src=]Let it rain
After a perfect day's diving with great weather, the clouds open up on our steam back to Stromness
[img src=]Sunset from Burray
We spent our penultimate night moored at Burray. After a quick walk round Burray to stretch our legs, I took this shot. The Sand Bar Hotel was our next destination, just a few yards from here, for a wonderful meal and a few beers

[The gallery is best viewed in Full Screen mode ('FS' button in the bottom right). Also, the 'i' button in the top right reveals some of the comments I've made on the photos. N.B. these options are only available if you have Flash enabled]

Sep 292012

Thirteen years ago I celebrated my 26th birthday in Scapa Flow. It was a special day. By keeping my birthday quiet, I thought it would pass without being noticed. We dived one of the deep wrecks in the morning, the afternoon being reserved for the Tobarka, a block ships in Burra Sound: The block ships were ships that were deliberately sunk in some of the entrances to Scapa Flow. Their purpose was to stop prying U-Boats gaining entry to the Flow and sinking any of the British Grand/Home Fleet whilst at anchor. They are an amazing counterpoint to the scuttled German fleet. The remaining massive German fighting vessels are all (comparatively) deep, grey and foreboding. The block ships are smaller and sunk in shallow water with fast flowing currents and sunlight that streams through the wreck’s ribs like some Cousteau film of the Thistlegorm. Diving the Tobarka is diving a ship that is intact but where all of the dive is spent inside the wreck. Where this would normally be a big no-no, the Tobarka is different: the fast flowing currents keep the wreck clear of any silt that would normally blind your exit, and holes all around the vessel mean that an egress from the wreck is always quick. On this day thirteen years ago, I ‘bumped’ into some friends coming in the opposite direction down a narrow companion way. They stopped me, had a knowing look at each other, and through the dense water I could just start to make out a tune they were vigorously trying to sing to me…. ‘Happy Birthday to you…’. It is without doubt the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had.

Thirteen years later and after a gap of ten years from diving, I suddenly find myself back in Scapa. I say suddenly because after ten years without diving, my first dive in Scapa is only my 8th dive in recent times. And here’s the thing about Scapa: It’s not a walk in the park. Mel, my dive buddy, said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the thing about Scapa is that the deep technical divers dive it with too much complacency, and the regular sports divers don’t take it seriously enough. The German fleet wrecks span a depth range from thirtyish meters deep to about forty five meters. This is at the deeper end of the mid range for air diving. But it isn’t just depth that matters. It’s all the other stuff. They’re foreboding wrecks, the deeper battleships are upside down, all the interesting stuff to see requires advanced diving and going UNDER the wreck. And it catches you out. Thirteen years ago I had the opportunity to save a girls life, but I didn’t… to my eternal regret. She was there and gone in a fraction of a second, looking for her buddy at speed. With twenty-twenty vision I could have made after her and rescued the situation, but the severity of the incident was only apparent when we broke the surface. How much would we give for glasses that would give such vision? Thirteen years later and another diver is lost on the wreck we’re diving. There’s no contact underwater this time, but our boat has to pick up the remaining divers as the casualty’s boat rushes to shore. It’s not a comfortable few hours, but the divers we pick up are certain the person involved is not one of their group. The casualty is pronounced dead upon reaching the hospital.

Diving the scuttled German fleet is just one part of an amazing story. It’s a story that begins in the late 1800′s with an arms race that is just as big then as the nuclear arms race of our (or our parents’) generation. The escalation in the size of the German fleet is (arguably) just as important to the start of the first world war as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The naval stand-off during the war (only notably broken at Jutland) was akin to a game of chess played by the world’s greatest Grandmasters. When the end of the war was immanent a last ditch, but well thought out, attempt to heavily wound the British fleet (and thus provide some leverage for Germany at the peace talks in Versailles) was only thwarted by mutiny on several of the German ships shortly after they put to sea. As a result the fleet had to return to Wilhelmshaven and a final tête-à-tête was avoided.

The armistice that saw the end of hostilities wasn’t actually the official end of the war. It was a glorified ceasefire until an official treaty (the treaty of Versailles) could be signed. As part of that armistice, it was agreed that the German fleet would be ‘interned’ in a neutral port until the war was officially over. In reality, Britain used some technicalities in the agreement to intern the German fleet in Scapa Flow, the home of the British fleet in Orkney. The final location for the interned German Fleet wasn’t known to the Admiral in command, Ludwig Von Reuter, until their rendezvous with the British fleet in the Firth of Forth. With no options open to it (the German ships had had to be stripped of all their armaments before leaving Wilhelmshaven under the terms of the armistice), the fleet was escorted to the Orkney Islands.

Over the following months, the officers and crew of the German fleet were starved of information about anything going on in the outside world. Their only insight was through copies of the Times that were four days old. In fact, it was the very nature of the outdated information that allegedly resulted in Von Reuter deciding to scuttle the 74 ships in internment in Scapa Flow on the 21st June 1919. News from the old papers had lead Reuter to believe that the war was about to start again. Knowing that the German fleet without any way of fighting couldn’t escape Scapa Flow, Reuter ordered the scuttling of the ships. Whilst this outcome was expected by the British Royal Navy, the resulting panic by the British trying to get the German crews to reverse their actions lead to nine Germans being killed. Fifty-two ships went to the bottom or settled in shallow waters at Scapa Flow.

After the official end to the war, there was interest in the sunk German ships for their scrap value. The British sold the rights to Ernest Cox who, with little experience, raised the majority of the wrecks. No one had ever raised so many ships of such a large mass before. The efforts bankrupted him and killed several of his crew. Whilst the last remaining few were salvaged by another company, seven ships still remain, and these are the ships that today’s sports divers dive.

These ships took lives whilst they were afloat, they took lives whilst they were sinking, and they sadly continue to take some lives to this day. Diving should, however, continue to be encouraged. The Scapa Flow wrecks have an international reputation, with divers coming from all over the world to dive them. This in turn brings much needed monies into the local (and national!) economies. The wrecks are a living history that no museum with any amount of interactive displays could ever hope to replicate. Caution and respect should be observed at all times though. These sites should be dived by people who are comfortable diving in the depth range of Scapa – If these wreck sites are a first for you, nothing else about the dive should be.

If you’re planning on heading to Scapa to dive (or even if you’re not) there are a few things I’d highly recommend doing:

1. Read “The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919” by Dan van der Vat. This will provide a historic perspective to these great leviathans well in excess of that found in the standard dive guide books.
2. Visit the website: it’s got some great information and brilliant interactive 3D images of the wrecks as they are today
3. Go to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness. It’s full of wonderful artefacts and photos covering the history of Scapa Flow as a naval base
4. Take a camera, the scenery is stunning!

Sep 132012

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.