They may call their diving suits dresses, and they may also be found donning corselets, but the men of the Historical Diving Society are no cissies. David Gwyer went to photograph these intrepid divers as they plunged back in time at their annual rally
Mick Peters' heavy boots thud against the concrete as he struggles across the dive platform. At the edge of the water he takes a few seconds to regain his breath, sits down, and waits for his support team to help kit him up.
Two buddies slip a towel around his neck and a huge brass collar - called a corselet - before putting a copper-coloured Heinke helmet over his head and screwing it into place with 12 bolts. Two weights, each weighing 15lb, are placed over his chest and back, and a safety rope is attached round his waist. After a final check, his helmet's face plate is screwed securely into place. He is ready.
Struggling to his feet, Mick grabs one of his helper's outstretched hands for support and, after stomping into the water, disappears below the surface in a froth of bubbles.
As I watch, I have to remind myself that I haven't slipped into a time warp. Some of his equipment may date back to the last century, but we were at Stoney Cove, Leicestershire, in June, enjoying the Historical Diving Society's annual rally.
Formed in 1990, the HDS has around 250 members helping to keep a part of the Britain's maritime heritage alive. Mick Peters, an Ambulance Operations Service manager from St Martin's, Guernsey, explains: "I suppose we are a bit like people who love vintage cars, but it's hard to explain exactly what the attraction is."
Earlier in the day I had been diving at 7m when I spotted a diver struggle across the bottom, dragging his air hose behind him and kicking a cloud of fine silt into the water. He looked clumsy, reminding me of an astronaut bouncing across the surface of the moon. But, reckon HDS enthusiasts, you can be remarkably mobile below water.
"You couldn't go dancing in it," said Mike Watts, HDS Working Equipment Officer, "but it is very comfortable under water. Of course, it's very cumbersome compared to today's equipment, and you need a large support team because the diver can't dress himself. You need a team to supply his air and man his telephone."
What, no dancing? That's an understatement! Each diver has to wear about 150lb of equipment - helmets weigh around 55lb; shoes about 18lb each; there's about 40lb to be carried on the chest and back and the suit weighs about 20lb.
And the reason so much weight is needed is because the suits - known as dresses - are so buoyant. Each has a double layer of twill sandwiched between layers of rubber.
But although the equipment is crushingly heavy on the surface, it feels well-balanced below water. This is partly because of the suit's buoyancy, and partly because the weight is evenly spread. "You can adjust your buoyancy and step and hop along the bottom," says Mick, "and, although you cannot swim freely, you can move about all right. The main problem is dragging your air hose behind you."
Diving helmets are classified by the number of bolts used to secure them to the suit. Six-bolt versions are probably the most common, but there are twelve-bolt and three-bolt versions. Most are made from copper and brass or gunmetal, and collectors can expect to pay up to 2,000 for a helmet in good working order, although prices rocket for more unusual types. So how deep can they go? "The limiting factor is not the suit, it's the pump," Mick explains.
"Divers went deeper as pumps improved, but we do not go much deeper than 25ft - and we usually have a support diver. If there's any trouble, they can slip the weights off the diver's chest and ascend together." Divers can communicate with the surface either by tugging on the air hose line or the safety line, or by telephone sets inside the helmet.
Many of the divers - particularly among the party from Guernsey - dive wearing red woolly hats à la Jacques Cousteau. Mick postulates a couple of theories as to why. "I've heard that divers wore red hats so that crane drivers on the docks could see it was a diver and that they couldn't move out of the way quickly. The other story I heard is that a red hat was a sign of a convict in France and in the early days, diving was always done by convicts." Or perhaps it was just to keep their heads warm?