Thursday, October 1, 2020

Diving into the Depths of Memories

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I started diving in Wales in the mid-1970s.  I guess being brought up by the sea gave me a head start with wanting to dive, as a family we lived on the beach in the summer and as children would be in the water constantly; and along with Jacques Cousteau’s famous TV series being aired at the time I was desperate as a child to become a diver.  As we entered our teens we started snorkelling around the rocks that were part of Rhosneigr beach seeing crabs, wrasse and if we were really lucky a shark, well a dogfish actually but still thrilling to watch swim.

So during 1974 I had been nagging my parents to let me learn to dive, eventually they relented and we went to Dickies the local boat yard and dive shop (now Dickies of Bangor) to ask how I could learn to dive, they gave Mum the phone number of a Captain Bill Carroll and on the 14th October 1974 I turned up for my first dive lesson after some serious negotiation on behalf of my parents and Captain Carroll because I was under 16 at the time.

So lesson one was the “A” test a basic swimming test which was duly passed and then in the subsequent weeks, I completed the pool sessions and the lecture program for both snorkel and scuba training. My first open water snorkel session was on the 7/11/74 in the Fron Quarry, I was terrified not only at the prospect of having to get into freezing cold water in a deep quarry but also at the climb down the cliff to actually reach the water. Once in the water, part of the training session was to dive 7 metres deep, not difficult one might think but this was in ICE cold water with only a 4mm wetsuit, an ABLJ (Fenzy MK2) and scuba fins, well the result was a complete disaster! Water up my nose, the feeling of being completely smothered, I wanted to give up there and then but I was taken to one side by a lady named Anne Carroll (daughter in law to the Captain and my history teacher at school) and given some moral boosters and eventually the snorkel training was done.

Next was the scuba open water sessions, my first open water dive was on the 3rd April 1975 in a picturesque bay called Porth Daffach on Holy Island, it was a shore dive of about 6 metres depth with a cool guy called Owain Roberts, who currently is a regular on television now as an ancient ship expert. I remember he took me by the hand as we swam around, I was on cloud nine!  I was actually diving! Not in the pool but in the sea! WOOHOO!! I went on to complete the training and examinations, qualified as a 3rd class diver on 18th November 1975 and as a 2nd class diver on 28th February 1977. Later on I qualified as a BSAC Club Instructor and finally in 1979 as an Advanced Instructor at Didsbury collage in Manchester whilst working as a Police woman.

So diving: As I passed my pool snorkel sessions I needed to buy some equipment to continue my training so we were recommended to go to Manchester to a shop called Greens, now long gone, with a list of stuff that would be needed there and then, so one weekend when Dad was home from Liverpool he took us to get this stuff.

I got:

  • 2 piece single lined 4mm wetsuit with a shark skin exterior
  • 1 pair 5mm hard soled boots
  • 1 4mm single lined hood
  • 1 pr 4mm gloves
  • 1 pr US Divers Jet fins
  • 1 scuba Pro mask
  • A snorkel
    ABLJ Mk ii Fenzy
  • Mickey mouse depth gauge
  • Compass
  • Weight belt with 10lb lead
  • Spirotechnique knife

So for the times that was the bees’ knees! I was ever the envy of everyone else!  When I started to do my open water scuba diving I had to loan a bottle and a DV for the first few as Dad was unable to afford any more at the time but by mid summer he bought me my first set, an ancient tadpole twin set (old WW2 aircraft O2 cylinders) with an even older US Divers twin hose regulator.  This was OK for a while but by the New Year, I think the regulations were changed and Tadpoles were banned so Dad had no option but to invest in a brand new Luxfor 72 and a 60 along with a brand new Nemrod Snark 2 silver DV with a contents gauge.

Buoyancy control was a matter of manually blowing up your ABLJ by mouth, a right royal pain in the rear! The club (Gwynedd BSAC No 71) diving officer, Gus Roy at that time had been to a machine shop and had them make up some direct feeds that would screw into a spare port on the DV’s 1st stage and onto the front drain plug on the Fenzy, I was lucky enough to get one of these, I think they must have been one of the first direct feed setups in the UK; shortly afterwards they became common place for all ABLJ’s. The problem with these direct feeds, was they were operated by a whopping great twist knob that stuck out a mile on the front of your ABLJ and when you swam it used to get knocked on and slowly leak causing you to float.

The same guy Gus Roy owned a local wreck, the “Castilianan arms ship that was wrecked on the infamous Skerries rocks off Holyhead. This was a big ship full of 22” shells still loaded but with the steel tips rusted away, so was incredibly dangerous. On the back of this ship was a huge bronze propeller, 16 tons of it, now Gus wanted to salvage this thing and sell it for scrap, so he enlisted the help of a lunatic professional diver and explosives expert called Dai Beatty. Dai actually used 2 explosive charges on the propeller shaft to remove the propeller! MAD!!

Anyway the next day the propeller was lifted to the surface and tied up to a boat, slowly it was towed on its lifting bags towards Holyhead but halfway there, the weather started to turn nasty and the prop was endangering the boat, a 75ft cruiser called the Flying Dream, so the captain took the decision to anchor the prop and run for cover. Later that day a trawler was fighting its way back to port and got caught up in the  ropes on the lifting bags and had to cut them free, sinking this propeller in 140ft water in one of the worst tidal areas in the UK. Now the propeller was a free for all, salvage and all that, so Gus told the club that if they helped him find this prop he would buy us a new boat so for weeks all we did was dive off Carmel head looking for this thing, 1 minute of slack was all there was, so drift searching was the order of the day. Dive after dive nothing, all summer long, at the end of the summer who turns up for 1 dive but Dai Beatty, I think he had taken a shine to me and decided he wanted me as his buddy; so over we went, splash, gave an OK and down went Dai followed by me a few seconds later into the blackness with my hand on his SMB line. All of a sudden in my torch light was Dai, sat on top of this propeller! 1 dive and he hits the jackpot! Dai tied off his SMB reel and we surface, Gus is ecstatic but won’t let on because other boats are around looking for the thing too. Well to cut a long story short, the prop was lifted early the next morning and landed later that day, bad bit was the club never got its boat because the whole thing had cost Gus £16,000 but he only got £15,000 for the scrap.

The club had as part of its membership a few people from the marine biology centre at Menai Bridge, they asked us to help then to do a survey along a straight line across the Menai Straits, so metre by metre we took a metal square, drew and listed all the life in the square (dull). It turned out that this line ran over what ended up being the oldest wreck known it the UK at the time, otherwise known as the “Slate Wreck” it wouldn’t have been found otherwise as it was in probably the dullest diving area known but very close to some excellent diving.

The wreck was surveyed by the Extramural department of the University, headed by Dr Cecil Jones, now Cecil was a star beer monster and every Friday night got well away, so we all drew straws not to dive with him on Saturday morning. Why? Well because he would sit on the side of the boat with a green face before going over the side, then once on the bottom he would take out his mouth piece and casually barf! It was horrible, like a cloud, can you imagine? But when you think about it that was no mean feat, to have the self control to barf then purge his mouthpiece before breathing in. Another notable club member was the renowned nautical archaeologist Sid Wignal, now Sid was quite old then and had some pretty impressive jobs under his belt, an Armada ship off Ireland, the search for Drakes coffin off Panama, even tried to organise a British expedition to look for the Loch Ness monster but the thing was, this famous nautical archaeologist couldn’t swim, so he went backwards over the side ABLJ inflated, then dumped the air to descend and the reverse to ascend.

Someone I regard as my mentor was/is John Stubbs, one of the real pioneers of the sport who started in the 50’s, what a wonderful man; I used to dive with him quite often as I was great friends with his daughter Ann. John was well known as being a little mad, when he dived he wouldn’t shut up, he would go off chatting, shouting, and laughing the whole dive, he was great fun to dive with; no fool though, he was a first class diver, a national instructor and was the leading authority in the world at the time on breathing gasses for sport divers having written several papers on the subject. I remember one dive with John on the Caswenan rock a 60m deep pinnacle off Bardsey Island; we had been down to the bottom, it was so clear we could see the boat above us (unheard of in the UK)  John had found an enormous lobster halfway down the rock (top of the rock was at about 20 metres), on the ascent we were decompressing on the shot line, as usual John was chatting away to the lobster when all of a sudden he starts to attack me with the thing,he was so funny. Through John I got to meet and dive with some of the dinosaurs of the BSAC, Reg Valentine, Leo Zannelli even Horace Dobbs, the man who did so much to ban spearfishing within the BSAC (ironic really).

Horace was something of an expert with Dolphins at the time, and had some experience with a famous Irish sea dolphin named Donald, he gave lectures up and down the country about this thing. One afternoon we were diving off Hells Mouth on the LlynPeninsula, with John, his daughter Ann and Colin, when we surfaced there was a fin moving through the water around us, now this was the time of Jaws! So John who was already in the boat hauled Ann in by her tank straps, I was getting in helped by someone else but poor Colin was struggling on his own, he had his weight belt in the boat along with his tank when this dolphin face pops up in front of him.  He got to ride and play with the Dolphin for about 10 minutes which was awesome to watch, I was so jealous.

Colin lost his mask that day, it had his name on it. A year to the weekend later we were diving there again, low and behold someone found his mask! (Remember that propeller?)

Yes it was Dai Beatty.

1 COMMENT

  1. I enjoyed your memories. I too started to dive at the same time, first in Manchester and with Grimsby Club then initiated the club in Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. Dai Beatty, rest his soul (?) was one of the most exceptional divers ever and I only had the opportunity of going crawfish diving with him once off Abereiddy. He forgot to take any net/bag or gloves but managed to come back to the boat with 6 large ones!. If he is still in the land of the living, I would like to get in touch with him.

    TOM Bennett

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