IT WASN'T LIKE THAT IN MY DAY
I know I'm going to sound like a pompous old git, but I believe that standards in diving have suffered a disastrous decline in recent years.
I have just returned from the Red Sea - an achievement in itself, given the murderous incompetence of my fellow-divers. Never in the history of hopeless flailing about has so much coral been so comprehensively wrecked by the fins of so few.
In my day, we were warned on pain of death not to "bicycle". Yet most of the so-called "experienced" divers on this trip were tricycling.
We swept across the reef like the hordes of Genghis Khan across the Steppes, in an orgy of blood and rape and pillage.
When I learned to dive, there was a proper emphasis on rigour and discipline that is sadly absent today. In the time it took me to gain my Junior Snorkeller badge, one of my contemporaries accepted voluntary redundancy as a bus conductor and became a world-renowned eye surgeon.
I put it all down to commercial greed. My course took six months and cost just 10s/6d. I had to wrestle in slurry ponds with belligerent farm animals, assist the ascent of grossly obese bend victims from 30m of freezing brine, swim 10 lengths of the pool with a locomotive axle strapped to my back, master Boyle's Law, Henry's Law and Sod's Law, then memorise the Dive Tables.
Not just the BSAC tables, mark you, but also the Mexican Airforce Tables, with their abstruse "mañana principle", whereby you had to transpose your bottom time to the day after the one on which you planned to dive.
Whereas today, so long as you're prepared to take out a mortgage and sign a wad of liability waivers thicker than the complete works of Tolstoy, you can qualify in around 40 minutes. Persevere for another 20, and you could be exploring 100m wrecks on trimix.
As the courses get shorter and the technical grounding sketchier, something has to give. And this week, it almost did.
The first clown I buddied up with spent the entire dive hurtling between the bottom and the surface. His profile was like a seismograph read-out of the Krakatoa eruption. And throughout this amazing display of aquabatics, he stared at me in wide-eyed panic from a mask two-thirds full of water.
After the dive, I said as tactfully as I could that he might benefit from clearing his mask occasionally. He looked at me as if I'd suggested he translate the Iliad into Urdu. "Er, how d'you do that, like?"
My next buddy had devised a novel style of propulsion. Based on that of the seahorse, it involved maintaining an upright attitude at all times, gesticulating wildly with the arms and kicking the living shit out of the reef. Prime drawback of the Vertical Method is that it produces no discernible forward motion. In 45 minutes we covered just 10m of the seabed - and this only thanks to a wafting current that wouldn't have kept an anorexic snakelocks in plankton.
"Spread out a bit," begged our desperate guide as we mustered for the third dive. "It's a big ocean. Use it!" Her advice fell on deaf (and largely unequalised) ears. In seconds, I was kicked almost unconscious.
I console myself with the knowledge that my ordeal saved the lives of 100,000 innocent marine organisms. Call me old-fashioned, but if the diver training organisations paid a quarter of the attention to their finished product as they do to their shareholders, diving would be more like the effortlessly graceful discipline it was 20 years ago, and less like a submarine production of The Muppet Show.