Brave New World
It was touch and go for one moment on Saturday morning, but there was no stopping the BSAC's Underwater World conference in Harrogate in November. Steve Weinman and Nigel Eaton report.
Hans Hass was just settling into his stride in the first session of Underwater World when a klaxon starting blaring. Moments later we were standing in the rain outside Harrogate's futuristic Conference Centre, watching fire crews scramble to tackle a false alarm on an upper floor.
Was this much-heralded renaissance of the Diving Officer's Conference in the North to be dogged by problems, as it had been the year before? At Wembley technical hitches had upset presentations, the catering had been rudimentary and, despite many excellent sessions, the mood had been that of a new BSAC regime emerging from the doldrums, making promises but yet to prove itself.
But from the moment the all-clear was given at Harrogate and we shuffled back inside, it become clear that the restyled Underwater World was to be a very different affair.
The weekend reflected a fine attention to detail in the planning and execution, and a new, confident BSAC. It seemed more than rhetoric when National Diving Officer Bob Boler told delegates: "Change is only the end of the road if you fail to take the necessary turn. The BSAC has not only made the turn but is accelerating towards the future."
Some 900 had made their way to North Yorkshire for the event - half as many again as went to Wembley in '96 - and the mood was buoyant.
A problem in the past had been meeting the needs of the DOs for whom the conference was originally designed while also trying to attract a wider BSAC membership.
This was tackled by running additional presentations side by side with those in the magnificently stage-set auditorium, and offering in one case a "break-out" session for DOs. This tackled the issue of the moment: devising entry-level qualifications for branches to match the Ocean Diver qualification for schools. On one thing everyone agreed: the term "Novice" was dead in the water.
Alison Boler put forward three options for "a modern, flexible training programme" that would appeal to any type of diver, anywhere in the world, and get them in the water as quickly as possible without compromising safety or making life difficult for experienced branch divers.
The first option was to dispense with an intermediate grade and train straight up to Sports Diver (not recommended); the second was to have two intermediate grades, a "Resort Diver" with pool experience and a "Club Diver" (a working title, but used a lot over the weekend) equivalent to Ocean Diver.
Alison clearly favoured option 3: a "Club Diver" grade similar to Ocean Diver, followed by the entry-level module to Sports Diver.
It was unfortunate that there was too little space for everyone who wanted to attend the ensuing break-out session, and some disgruntled DOs were left fuming outside.
They did not miss a great debate. The feeling within was that the third option was largely accepted - the unresolved question seemed to be whether "Club Divers" or Ocean Divers within a branch environment should be allowed to dive together without supervision.
A suggestion simply to call the branch grade "Ocean Diver" was well received, and it was noticeable that most references to the Ocean Diver initiative itself were positive.
The results of the debate will not be long coming: Alison Boler said she hoped the new programme would be ready by the end of March.
BSAC Chairman Chris Allen later endorsed the popularity of Ocean Diver: "It has been very well received by schools and public alike," he told the audience. Although he could look back on a year of considerable progress for the BSAC, his roundup was commendably understated.
He told members that he was awaiting the outcome of the club's appeal against its expulsion from CMAS, lodged in Rome the previous weekend, but had no doubt that the vote to expel the BSAC had been invalid. "Whatever happens, we are not prepared to give up our branches and schools overseas," he reiterated.
Objectives for 1998 included implementation of the membership and branch-training reviews, restructural work at HQ, schools development and constitutional changes. Chris also made Jerry Hazzard an Honorary Life Member of the BSAC, following 25 years of loyal service.
Jerry was in fine company. Lotte Hass received Honorary Life Membership to match her husband's, for her personal diving achievements and "for inspiring millions to follow her into the underwater world".
Hans and Lotte, who were celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary - "Lotte was always very courageous" - also accepted the BSAC Medal for their contribution to understanding of the world's oceans.
We were reminded on those grainy black and white films that this couple really were "the Godparents of Diving". There was Hans firing off film instead of spears on Caribbean reefs in 1939, diving with sharks in 1942 when they were still thought of as killers, pioneering Red Sea diving in the '50s.
When he switched his talk to Earth's evolution, and referred to long periods of zero growth ultimately followed by burgeoning development, one wondered whether this might be some mischievous reference to BSAC membership.
But no, Hans Hass believes passionately that the world's population is "dancing on the edge of the volcano". The legendary researcher now wants a brake put on research, and says disaster can be averted only by imposing a 50-year freeze on all scientific development.
This includes dive gear - "Do we really need 120 types of regulator?" - and he was well aware that this was not an argument calculated to go down well with dive gear manufacturers or indeed most divers.
Deep wreck diver Chris Hellas in a later session on rebreathers reckoned that little fundamental had changed in diving equipment since the early days anyway. After all, Hans Hass's films had shown him using a rebreather in the early '40s.
Chris and Dave Crockford are part of the BSAC Rebreather Group, busy developing training courses to meet demand. They hope by August to offer a two-day course that will provide a foundation for choosing a rebreather, with follow-up unit-specific courses developed with the manufacturers ready by November.
Depth limits would be 40m, though a proposal had been put forward to train divers up to 65m. Dave described as "frightening" the fact that the new closed-circuit Buddy Inspiration from AP Valves offered 100m capability: "It must match your capability," he warned.
Chris reckoned rebreathers would be mainstream within three years, but that accidents were inevitable. Rebreathers were in danger of being regarded as a "magic coat" that could protect users from harm, he said.
George Irvine, the US cave-diver who has gained notoriety for his personal attacks on other divers over the Internet, was introduced as a man who "speaks frankly".
But it was strictly business at Harrogate, where he presented a film of the pioneering work of his Woodville Karst Plain Project team in Florida, opening up and exploring its sinks and springs.
WKPP has an impressive safety record. It has carried out without incident 2000 mixed-gas dives to depths of 100m at penetrations of up to 2 miles. George Irvine doesn't tolerate "gung-ho" divers. Nobody does a dive unless at least two others are willing to do it with them. "The good thing about the BSAC is that your peers bring you along - which is good if they are good peers."
His film aroused much interest, particularly the section on how the divers' equipment is configured. Pity about the background music.
Engineer Graham Hawkes leads the world in submersible development and holds the record for the deepest solo ocean dive. The experiences he described Jules Verne might have dismissed as far-fetched.
These included a foray in a Jim suit at 100m in which, while turning to watch creatures around him, he inadvertently drilled himself into the seabed. In the South China Sea, where old charts put the bottom at 180m, he found a cave "straight out of Disneyland" at 240m, the camera imploded at 300m and the wreck he was after turned up at 350m.
He also exploded a great US myth about alien abductions when, while looking for Spanish galleons off Miami, he discovered a number of long-lost military aircraft.
Money to finance his projects is a major issue, as Graham reminded us at every opportunity, but he needs big bucks to get him and his Deep Flight II more than 11,000m down into the Marianas Trench.
Technical Diving Adviser Jack Ingle reported a success - 550 Nitrox and 546 Advanced Nitrox Divers trained by the BSAC, the latter in the space of a year. He is now piloting a three-day Extended Range course open to Dive Leaders and above who are also Advanced Nitrox divers.
Also out this year, Jack hopes, will be full-face mask and nitrox mixing and blending courses.
In a separate talk on kit-rigging, a tiny ladies' make-up box, still containing mascara, was one of several items Jack produced with the deftness of a conjuror from hidden pockets in "the triangle of access" at the front of his harness.
He also had a net-cutter, flare, home-made weighted line and a mini-torch with an elastic band to attach it to the back of the hand.
The make-up box? "The mirror in the lid can be used as an emergency surface signalling device on a sunny day. It also enables me to see what's happening with the kit on my back."
The finer points of kit-rigging were, said Jack, a matter of "what suits you best". But he stressed the need for "practice, practice, practice" with every item so that deployment could be done "blind" if necessary.
Marlborough BSAC's Chairman Stuart Ward focused on risk assessment and posed three questions: "What is the likelihood of a piece of kit failing? What are the consequences of failure? Is there a reasonable contingency?" These factors had to be balanced against one another when planning gear requirements, said Stuart, whose own needs might include four 12-litre tanks mounted horizontally across his back!
Bracknell BSAC's Nick Jewson explained how his 120-strong branch coped with the growing use of trimix and mixed-gas rebreathers.
In recent years several of its more experienced divers had gained advanced qualifications with technical diving agencies, and Bracknell divers were now undertaking two categories of dive, "BSAC branch dives and non-BSAC branch dives".
This brought practical problems, but Nick felt Bracknell's approach was preferable to "driving technical diving underground". The branch could also tap into the "high-level expertise" of advanced members.
"Members First" was the slogan from Treasurer David Roberts, who announced a BSAC campaign of that name for 1998. He also said that the catch-all General Branch would be relaunched as BSAC Direct to make it easier to target newcomers.
David screened the new branch promotional video, including a sequence about the Search and Recovery badge. The voiceover at this point - "One day it could be your boat engine"- elicited one of the belly-laughs of the conference.
Oddly, it was the Incident Reports session that raised the most laughs. "You get to the surface, no boat in sight. What is your immediate thought?" The four-letter word beginning with F turned out to be "Flag"; Diving Safety and Incidents Adviser Brian Cumming has a nice line in humour, and introduced a section on unusual incidents styled on Jasper Carrott's car insurance reports.
Take the diver who was at 24m when "a crab seized my regulator hose" and started a free-flow. He went to the surface to "sort out the crab", but then redescended. The result was a helicopter rescue, the pot and a serious DCI.
The diver's report, said Brian, ended with a question: "Why do pyjamas they give you in hospital never meet properly at the front, and your willy keeps popping out?"
There was more in this vein, but on the serious side, Brian wanted to distance the BSAC from the deaths of what he called "orphan divers" - the inexperienced non-BSAC-trained divers who had recently run into difficulties at places like Stoney Cove and brought "fast-track diving" to the attention of the national press.
"You can't blame Stoney Cove and other inland facilities, their only crime is to be convenient," he said.
BSAC Ocean Diver differed from other agencies' courses in five ways, said Brian: it taught rescue and self-help skills; took divers to depth progressively; provided dive-leading experience; had its foundation in British cold-water diving; and, most importantly, stressed the diver's limitations at the end of the course.
As significant as the increase in deaths at inland sites, said Brian, had been a rise in deep-diving incidents - 8 between 55 and 114m, two fatal.
But his central message was heartening. He reckons the number of deaths per 10,000 BSAC members has halved over the past ten years. "A succession of NDOs should stand up and take a bow," he said.
Maurice Cross of the Diving Diseases Research Institute knows all about diving incidents, and he too is known for his gallows humour. The ailments of diver/fishermen in the Far East continued to offer rich material for medical researchers: "There are more bends in South-east Asia than anywhere else in the world - it's Christmas every day!" he said.
It had become apparent from his work in Thailand and the Philippines that divers were being crippled by the cynical action of importers in countries like Japan and Hong Kong, who sent them boatloads of crude diving gear in return for live fish.
Maurice also showed those assembled how to make an ammonium nitrate bomb, a device the adventurer John Blashford-Snell would view with equanimity. Much of his delightful presentation seemed to be punctuated by very non-PC slides of his old army chums blowing up reefs and wrecks with careless abandon, back in the black 'n' white '50s when these things didn't seem to matter.
His first dive was in Jersey, with a rebreather "full of caustic soda", a brick weightbelt and a gas mask. He was lowered 15m into the harbour and told to pull three times on the rope when he wanted to come up.
When he did so the rope snaked down, he couldn't get the weights off and ended up clambering up the side. "When I got back I found my friend talking to a couple of blondes. 'Oh, the rope's gone!' he said.
This tale set the tone for a succession of hair-raising exploits in which Colonel Blashford-Snell conjured up a lost world of distracting women in bikinis, chief divers with stiff upper lips and boa constrictors round their feet, racing gliders at sharks and blowing up giant stingrays.
"Conservationists might not agree with me here," mused the Colonel at one point. He wasn't kidding, but it was all great boy's own fun.
David Bellamy is a conservationist and one of very few people who can make that subject as compelling as a Blashford-Snell adventure yarn. His talk was about World War III - the systematic rape of the oceans that he says began after 1945.
We have heard the message before, but these were the latest disturbing dispatches from the front line, from Pacific to Black Sea, his main target destructive fishing and farming practices.
It seems we came close to losing this tireless campaigner last year: "I went to work in Vanuatu, where the people know more about coastal management than anywhere else in the world. I sat on the harbour wall, counted 47 corals growing there, sea snakes swimming around and a wonderful French restaurant behind, and I almost didn't come back." Delegates were clearly pleased that he is still fighting the good fight.
Andy Blackford, appearing as he put it "on the Fringe", welcomed delegates to the AGM of Sturminster Parva BSAC. It was, he said, a great moment. Sturminster Parva had just received the Lord Eaton Branch of the Century trophy: "made entirely from the great man's hair, meticulously collected over the years".
Since its founding in 1893 by Archimedes Vallintine "who, tragically, held the distinction of having invented the second stage first, with disastrous results", the branch had enjoyed an illustrious history.
In the past 12 months, however, all had not been plain sailing. The Sellafield Weekend and Bovisand Munitions Party were notable "lowlights" and the darts challenge with Weymouth fishermen had, with hindsight, not been a good idea.
"Sturminster Parva's Training Officer hasn't worked out this year," Andy reminded us. This, he suspected, was because the man was a hopeless alcoholic and a Mexican. "One of our problems has been Renaldo's insistence on calculating decompression according to the Mexican Air Force tables which, based on four types of igneous rock, are liberal in the extreme."
Amateurism of another kind was discussed by diving archaeologist Dr Colin Martin of the University of St Andrews. Pointing out that "it is amateur divers who, by and large, find wrecks", he said divisions between amateur and professional archaeologists "and all the aggro that involves" were not helpful.
Both out-and-out amateurs and full-time professionals had a part to play in wreck research, he said, but many divers fell between the two extremes. The survey and excavation of the Cromwellian battleship off Mull was a good example of amateur and professional working together.
The conference ended on an upbeat note as underwater cameraman Mike Valentine provided a witty commentary to what seemed to be the bulk of his cinematic CV, a dazzling series of fictional underwater worlds as depicted in ads, TV and feature films on which he has worked, including the new Bond and forthcoming Star Wars prequels.
We trooped out under a hail of Hollywood. Who said the BSAC couldn't handle showbiz!
Details of BSAC Awards at Harrogate next month
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