Marine archaeologist Colin Martin says thank you to Honda for a very useful freebie, the rugged all-terrain Foreman 400.
Diving from the shore has a lot going for it. No tossing at anchor in the cramped and cluttered confines of a RIB, no buddy's elbow in your face as you struggle into your gear, no cold, spine-bashing ride home. A good dollop of terra firma in the right place gives divers a diving platform more spacious and stable than the QE2. The problem, usually, is getting there.
We were faced with this situation on our archaeological project off Duart Point, Mull (involving the 17th century warship the Swan, featured in Diver in February 1996). The wreck site lies only a few metres offshore, with an adjacent headland providing ample space for gear and excellent access to the water. But the nearest road is a quarter of a mile away, and the intervening ground includes a near-cliff, a bog and a stretch of jagged rocky terrain.
In times of drought (an almost unheard-of phenomenon in the Western Isles) a Land Rover can just make it, but after a spectacular bogging down to axle-level on all four wheels we returned to the drudgery of humping everything in - and out - on our backs.
Being underwater archaeologists, our minds turned to the legendary monk Odo Blundell, who, around the turn of the century, had dived on prehistoric crannogs in remote Scottish lochs, transporting his heavy standard gear by horse and cart. It was then that someone suggested a quad all-terrain vehicle.
The idea took root, and we wrote to Honda UK. It was tickled by the idea of an ATV supporting a diving operation and agreed to lend us its top-of-the-range model, the Foreman 400, for a season's trials.
The vehicle arrived hot from nameless activities with the army (there were boot-marks to prove it) in time for last summer's expedition to the Swan wreck site, and we immediately put it to work. Within a couple of hours we had all our gear - two compressors, cover boat, diving gear, cylinders and a site hut - in place on the rocks.
Previously this job had taken two days, and left us exhausted. Now we had two extra diving days in hand and, blissfully, we were fit and raring to go. A concrete mixer, cement, sand and gravel followed for the construction of compressor bases and access steps to the water.
The quad's load-carrying capabilities were then routinely deployed throughout the season, ferrying both bulky items and delicate gear such as cameras and archaeological recoveries up and down the hill.
Best of all, when the project ended everything was removed as painlessly as it had come. Our quad had become a full and valued member of the team.
The Foreman 400 is designed for hard, heavy work and is powered by a high-torque, low-revving, 395cc, OHV, four-stroke, single-cylinder engine. Its five forward gears and reverse are configured to optimise the engine's considerable "grunt", and engage via an automatic centrifugal clutch at 1750rpm.
Gear changing, using a toe pedal, takes some getting used to, as does the thumb-operated throttle. Sensitive coordination between the two is required to avoid a lurching start when the clutch bites. But the knack comes quickly with practice and the arrangement provides for excellent control, especially during rough-riding.
Honda rightly insists that this is not a machine for the uninitiated, and definitely not a toy. Power and torque are a potentially dangerous mix, so ignorance or over-confidence can spell disaster. Prior instruction by an authorised training establishment is recommended, and mandatory if the quad is intended for workplace use.
The vehicle and its comprehensive handbook are both plastered with dire warnings - no passengers (the extended saddle is not for a companion, but to allow for weight-shift, vital to safe control); no stunts or "wheelies"; and no driving on public roads, which is not only dangerous but illegal. Appropriate protective clothing is recommended, preferably motorcycle helmet, eye protection, boots and gloves, and limbs should be covered.
Honda gives no performance figures for the vehicle, exhorting riders to stay within limits imposed by their own levels of experience and skill. However, in optimum conditions the quad can certainly shift, and at the close of the season I permitted myself a burn-up across the sands at low tide. Though there is no speedometer I reckon I hit 45mph, and the sensation was as exhilarating as low flying.
Cross-country performance is impressive. With its low centre of gravity the Foreman 400 will climb (and descend) almost anything you ask of it, though it is advisable to go for slopes square-on, thus avoiding too much sideways tilt.
Duart's notorious bog, a soggy carpet of sphagnum moss that would delight David Bellamy, never gave a moment's worry, and the wide, low-pressure, high-traction tyres scarcely left a mark, even though we followed the same route throughout the season.
In the unlikely event of bogging down, we reckoned that four hairy divers could easily lift the 250kg machine and carry it out anyway!
The Foreman 400 is cleared to carry a maximum weight, including rider, of 220kg. Cargo can be secured with bungees on the front and rear racks (30 and 60kg limits respectively), and we found that small quantities of diving gear, cameras and so on could conveniently be transported in this way. Bigger loads require a trailer, and the quad has a 50mm ball hitch that can take a load of up to 385kg. Pulling a medium-sized inflatable could be feasible, though modification might be required to some types of boat trailer to reach the hitch, which is recessed into the rear of the vehicle.
We opted for a 2m x 1.2m flatbed trailer fitted with quad-type tyres, built to specification by Kay Trailers of Milnathort.
The Foreman 400 is a remarkable workhorse that can transport substantial loads safely and effectively over almost any terrain. For divers whose site access is inhibited by difficult country such a vehicle is worth considering, at a cost around that of a mid-range RIB and outboard - £6340 including VAT.