When is a water-resistant watch not a water-resistant watch? asks Graham Sands. Answer - when it's a water-resistant watch!
"OH, BUT YOU SHOULDN'T USE IT FOR DIVING. It's not designed for that." I knew I shouldn't have mentioned my hobby. I should just have let the sales assistant's spiel wash over me, but this had been bugging me for a while, so I didn't.
"Look, it clearly states: "Water resist 50m". Would you agree that that means water-resistant to 50m depth?" He scratched his spots and sullenly agreed.
"Good. I intend to submerge this watch to a depth not exceeding 50m. Should work all right, then?"
"The guarantee won't cover it. It might let in."
So it might. As did its predecessor. I was 22m down on the Dido, off southern Ireland, when the digital display mutated into Japanese, then went dark. We were well into the dive, so I just moved us up to 6m, clung onto some kelp as I was floaty, and counted down 180... 179... and so on to be on the safe side.
Every damn thing floods if you give it long enough, and this time it was a £12.99 Casio that had already given me long service above and below sea level. So now I was buying an identical model and later took it diving, which it seemed to enjoy.
I might have left it at that, had I not bought another watch for posh wear. This one was stamped "Water resistant 100ft". The leaflet explained that this meant "3-5 ATM (100-150ft): withstanding splashes of water during washing hands, rain; should not be submerged."
But even if I were to splash out on the 10 ATM (330ft or 100m) version, this would be "suitable for swimming but should not be used for diving."
So is such a watch suitable for its intended purpose or not? Trading Standards was non-committal. In a world full of dodgy Rolexes, this was not an enforcement priority.
Next stop, the Consumers' Association. The December "97 issue of its magazine Which? dealt with a customer for a 50m Casio watch being told it was unsuitable for diving. Manufacturers followed an international standard, explained Which?. The watch would resist at 50m in still water but in flowing water may not do so.
"The standard was confusing to the public and the manufacturers should come up with something better," it suggested. It implied that its reader had narrowly escaped buying an unsuitable timepiece.
To me, that was not the problem. Here is a cheap, robust product suitable for most recreational dives, yet customers are being warned off and persuaded to buy something fancier than they need.
Sure, for deep or technical dives it wouldn't suffice, but you'd configure your kit accordingly. If a £12.99 watch breaks or floods, so what? Chuck it away and buy another one.
What of the makers? Many profit at the "added value" end of the market, and wouldn't want to know that something cheap was just as sound.
I hoped that Casio Electronics, as the bargain basement brand-leader, would see things my way, and get dandered up the better to promote its wares.
However, its reply followed the same pattern. "Watches marked 50m will resist splashes and normal exposure to rain, as well as moisture from other activities such as swimming, bathing and immersion in water for washing up, car washing etc. No buttons should be used under water and the crown of an analogue watch should not be pulled out when the watch is wet."
It cited ISO 2281, so I bought a copy of this international standard, at a cost of three Casios. This describes the terminology and testing of water-resistant watches and was issued in 1990; it does not apply to "divers' watches", specified in ISO 6425.
The crunch test for our purpose is the resistance to overpressure: the watch is immersed to at least 2 bar (20m) for 10 minutes, after which no condensation should appear inside the glass.
Such a watch can be described as water-resistant, to the test depth. "These indications however do not correspond to a diving depth but refer to the pressure at which the... test was conducted."
Phooey. Simple physics teaches us that 5 bar of water has the same effect however created. If an object can resist 50m for 10 minutes, it can probably resist 20-30m for longer than you can.
The business of still versus flowing water seems irrelevant; underwater scooters excepted, the ambient flow of water in diving is generally no more than in recreational splashing about.
This "standard" has parted company with reality. Did anyone ever check that a range of test pressures corresponded with suitability for particular usages? I doubt it.
More likely the manufacturers all got together at some conference in Montreux in 1958, where the official translator mistook high-board for scuba diving, and it's been unthinkingly copied ever since.
So turn up your noses at "divers' watches" and wear the cheapest, most expendable kit you can. What's the worst that can happen?
You cling onto some kelp counting 180...179...178 and look forward to forking out another £12.99.