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Dive 1: Chesil Beach.
Friday afternoon, on my inaugural effort at organising a dive weekend, for 12 members of the uk.rec.scuba (UKRS) newsgroup ranging from AOW to trimix, day boat diving out of Portland.
Neil, Jeff and Janet join me a day early for a shore dive warmup. The Bill end of Chesil Beach seems to promise the easiest entry and exit, but a sign in the carpark reads - paraphrased - 'Divers, we don't like looking at your spotty bums here, so sod off somewhere else'. A little further down is a sign-free pub carpark, which at least means only having to negotiate the seaward side of the steep bank of pebbles.
My config for the weekend is drysuit, Hog-rigged regs and wing on steel backplate, 15l steel single of backgas and a brand new 7l aluminium stage of bottom gas for redundancy (basically a damn big pony). Neil is wearing his new doubles for a weighting check, so between us, we must be a sight for sore eyes as we stumble down to the shore. Reasonable waves are crunching in with some force, so we opt for a dignified 'put all your gear on and kind of scrabble into the surf' entry. Viz is soup onshore, but a bit further out it improves to, oh a metre or so.
There is no way of keeping a four together in these conditions, so Neil and I peel off and head offshore. There is bugger all to see where we end up, not even a single fish, but there is a small spider crab running about. Hard to shake the impression that all the other life is flitting about two metres away hidden in the milk, and laughing at us. Jeff and Janet see two fish, so maybe it was all hanging round them instead.
If we made a comedy act getting into the water, getting out really would have had 'em rolling in the aisles. Let us draw a delicate veil over the inelegant beached whale exit techniques and language used struggling back up the bank to the car park, and just say - "never again!"
This was Janet's first sea dive, all I can say is it really isn't always like this...
Dive 2: Aeolian Sky.
For the first dive of the weekend proper, we are on the hardboat 'Top Gun'. I billed this as a non-technical weekend, but onboard we have the grand total of eight twinsets, one Inspiration CCR and just three divers on singles (...and even then I have my stage...). Offshore When the shot is dropped, there is clearly still a fair bit of current running, and it is a bit of a fight to the buoy.
The viz is really not great, and it gets damn dark going down the shotline. When we hit the wreck at 25m, it is so dark I can barely read my computer - and stupidly I've left my little torch on the boat thinking it wouldn't be any use. On Nitrox over a hard bottom of 30m, I have no immediate worries about no-stop time, but the 7l of bailout slung on my left is very reassuring.
Eyes adjusting to the darkness a bit, we have landed in a vast splintered heap of iron shards, an awful and terrifying 3D gothic labyrinth rising 10 metres off the sea bed. To the sides and below is nothing but darkness, above just a faint green glow. Aeolian Sky was a huge boat - a container ship, her wreck has bow and stern 'more or less' intact, but the shot has landed in the very broken central hold section. The murky viz means at no point do I have the faintest idea what I am looking at, but it forces a very intimate relationship with the old girl - threading through heavy iron petals as they emerge from the dark.
Rich leads most of the dive, but I am keeping a close eye on the shape of the wreck above us, and at one point I see a black mass starting to cut off the faint light of the surface. I stop - I'm not doing overhead on this trip, and certainly not without a light, and try to tug Rich's fins, but he is too far in and swims on into the darkness, obviously not realising he is now inside the wreck without a guideline... So now what do I do??? All I can do is hang at the exit, and watch the glow of his torch grow fainter, turns a corner and disappear. If I had a light, at least I could mark the way out (mental note - stupid, stupid, stupid!). To my vast relief, at this point, Rich hits his tanks on the roof, realises where he is and goes into reverse, reappearing out of the dark.
More twists and turns, bobs and weaves, another short episode of Rich hareing off into a dark hole, and having a sequence of minor annoying problems - mask flooding, fin straps coming undone. After half an hour, air no stop time has arrived - Rich bags up, and we climb slowly back into the light.
Andy and Rob were first in, but somehow manage to be last out, having 'accidentally' done 22 mins of deco. Did I mention this was a non technical trip? Naughty naughty. ;-)
Dive 3 - Countess of Erne.
Ah, the good old Countess. Viz isn't so bad when we drop in, but two other boatloads arrive while we are down there (obviously not the fault of anyone from UKRS!) and I spend the last 20 mins able to see nothing more than a tiny chunk of metal and the glow of Rich's fins. That explains why they make fins in yellow... A courting couple of large Cuckoo Wrasse dance round us for a while, and a Sea Scorpion lies in a hole in the rudder.
Such a flattering sport...
Photo courtesy Alasdair Allan.
Every now and again we pass other UKRS buddy pairs, like buffalo moving through a blizzard - Ken, recognisable by his turtle, once swam round an entire Maldivian island in two and a half hours underwater.
Dive 4 - A shotline near the M2.
A very civilised 2.30 start on a calm and sunny day. While we wait, Chris and Sharon have a tinker with their new twinsets. Their purchase of rubber replacement knobs starts a bit of a snowball effect, and before long everyone is fitting them. This is now officially the UKRS rubber knobs trip!
Rich and I are second in to the - almost blue - waters of Lyme Bay. Under the surface, conditions are a jump better than yesterday and light reaches the very bottom of the shotline. Which is lying on mud at 34 metres, no submarine to see here, move along please. It may have been possible to search and find the sub, but this is my first UK dive below 30 metres, and by we get to the bottom, 10 metres deeper than the "25ish to the decks" I am expecting, at the MOD of my mix in current, and with unfamiliar kit (a hired canister light), stress and narcosis starts to kick in. I give Rich the 'up' signal, and we head back up the line. We expect to see other people coming down the line to nowhere, but Andy and Rob bagged up as soon as they got to the bottom, saving anyone else the trip.
The shot is hauled in, Budgie gives it a second try - and misses. A grapple goes in, and this time seems to have caught on something. Take two...
Dive 5 - A shotline near the M2.
Back in the sunlight, the stress of the last attempt seems like a dream. We both have loads of gas left, so jump in intending to spend a few minutes on the wreck, just to say we did. However, by 25m, the line is starting to level off, and by 30m is completely horizontal and moving in a way that suggests it is quite a distance before it touches anything solid. I have a feeling of 'here we go again', and the willies come back. I try to stop Rich, but he has the bit between his teeth and pulls off into the distance. With a full tank, or 5 metres shallower, or, or... I might have gone for it, but today it just don't feel right. I start creeping back up, looking back, and a couple of minutes later Rich's light reappears, signals OK, followed by Rich. Again my head quickly clears on the way back up. At least he got to touch the sub - the shotline was way too long, and it was a good distance further down the line - and is very patient with getting to spend approx. one minute on the wreck in two attempts.
Chris and Sharon are back on board quickly as well, after Chris sprang a first stage leak. So it's not just me having a bad day!
So I may have twice failed to get to the M2, but on reflection, it's been a useful lesson on how narcosis gets me. In perfect conditions below about 30m, I feel clearheaded but faintly anxious - prone to repetitively check gauges and the like. From this experience, as soon as a bit of stress creeps in, this amplifies to become the heebie jeebies. A good season of diving less-than-30m stuff will give me the experience to come back.
Dive 6 - HMS Hood
After all the farce with the shot we are running late, Top Gun blasts back to Portland at engine thrashing speeds, and we jump the fill queue to get out to the Hood before dark. Rich is keen to go inside this one, so I buddy with Neil again. It is hard to see the wreck at times with all the life down there - the soft light of dusk must be hunting time, all the fish are out, and the sea bed is crawling with hundreds of spider crabs. Every time we find a big one, there is a bigger one just round the corner.
I practice deploying my stage at the beginning of the ascent (does a gas switch from 25 to 32 percent officially make this a technical dive? :-)), we drift off the shotline and I fire a blob in midwater for the first time, leading to some shoddy buoyancy. More practice needed there. However I feel a little better about managing to miss the M2 twice when I hear Al failed to find the Hood...
Dive 7 - James Fennell.
The last morning, dire weather warnings haven't materialised, but we are on JBC, a perfectly pleasant but rather slow boat. There was some talk of getting out to the Sidon, but it will be a long trip in a slow boat, and personally I fancy something a little shallower. In the end we opt for the James Fennel for first dive, staying out for the second and getting back to shore for an early end to the weekend.
In the lee of the bill, conditions are ideal, the JF has a small selection of reasonably sized pieces of metal, including an intact boiler and one rather nice teepee shaped chunk. Jeff has come down with a headache, so Janet comes in with Rich and me. Plenty of good-sized Cuckoo Wrasse are about, and I spot three lobsters. Keith - obviously having lost Al - is near us with a goodie bag, but none of the lobster are keen enough to jump in the pot today.
Out of nowhere, a tiny fish starts attacking my mask and I have a brief "wha' the hellll..." moment, thinking I'm being savaged by a rogue sardine. Then the penny drops, followed by the (dead) fish, and I look round at Rich who is sniggering quietly to himself.
I fire a blob, have another brief adventure in buoyancy, and we drift off the Fennell looking for another, larger wreck downcurrent. It wouldn't be UKRS if I didn't have a leaky drysuit, I'm sopping wet and I can officially add my name to the 'Weezles are fab' list after the job it did keeping me tolerably comfortable in 11 degrees this weekend - but when Janet also signals cold we give up and ascend.
Dive 8 - A cove on Portland Bill.
I go in with Janet for the last dive of the weekend. Going in for a shallow reef dive with a stage attracts some wry comment, but it is all good practice, innit! The ali stage has worked perfectly underwater - it is effectively invisible for buoyancy and trim, I just get on with the dive.
There is supposed to be a small wreck down here somewhere, but nobody finds any metal, instead, large boulders throwing wreck-like shapes. Winding through the Kelp and weeds in clear, bright water, it somehow seems far too pretty for a UK dive.
And finally, to round off the weekend, on our way back the Portland dolphin comes and plays in our wake. UKRS 41 have done 49 descents and 49 ascents between us over the weekend, the wind stayed down and viz could have been a lot worse - I only hope everyone else has enjoyed it as much as I have. :-)