You've got one film, one day, a specified area to shoot in and a judging session that night. That's a British Society of Underwater Photographers Splash-in. Tony Sutton went to try his luck at Bovisand, but found his luck trying him instead
"We've hired a RIB for the day. Local boatman included. He knows his stuff, knows all the dive sites," said Mike Maloney, one of my dive group, giving me the nod and stroking his nose.
My mind flooded with visions of Aladdin's caves, and shoals of fish appearing from secret locations.
But as I assembled my kit, I ruefully remembered that I hadn't checked it. To my relief the camera system was functioning: flash OK, batteries charged, O-rings sealing. My cylinder wasn't quite so straightforward. The knob turned, but too smoothly; no air came out. As for my spare cylinder, it was empty and out of test.
"You've damaged the head. There's nothing I can do," said Bovisand's man at the air station. Fortunately Martin Parker of AP Valves was on hand. "No problem," he said as he took the knob off and turned the air supply on with a hand wrench.
At last it was onto the RIB, and away to capture those prize-winning images. A swell and some white horses greeted us as we rounded the bluff from the Fort and headed for the rocks. This was obviously going to be a long trip.
"There's a nice pool over there, lots of things to photograph," said the boatman, pointing to rocks with waves crashing over them.
"Won't we be swept about a bit?" asked one of the divers, gazing with horror at the foam and hanging onto his precious photographic gear as the RIB pitched in the swell.
"Maybe," he said, eyeing his nervous passengers. "What do you want to do then, the Mewstone?"
A couple nodded. The RIB turned and headed for the Mewstone. "Here's good for underwater photographs," said the boatman, as he vaguely waved his hand at the sea.
"What's the depth?"
The boatman reached for his depth sounder and shook it. "Err..." He shook it again: "7 metres."
Not totally reassured, someone asked if he ever dived this spot. The "no" was drawn out, followed by a pause, and then the confession: "I don't dive."
"Then how do you know that it's a good spot?"
"Divers tell me it is." To that, there was no answer. We went down to be greeted by kelp, more kelp and lots of tiny two-spotted gobies that would hardly fill the frame of a microscope let alone a 35mm camera.
The swell swept us back and forth. Two divers were realistic and quickly gave up. But my buddy Ken Sullivan and I stuck it out for an hour. I captured some images of small goldsinny in a crevice - hardly frame-filling - and the mouthparts of an enormous spiny spider crab. It was too big to get all of it using my macro lens. Ken seemed pleased. He had photographed jewel anemones and a cuckoo wrasse.
Back at the Fort at midday the tales had already started: winners and losers, the worst and best spots.
"I've never seen so many fish. There were hundreds. And those two huge lobsters out in the open," said one diver, lugging her gear back up to her car.
"Where was she?" I asked.
"James Eagan Layne - that's where we should have gone," said one would-be winner from our group. "There were john dory on the wreck this morning."
"I've heard that one group came across a couple of cuttlefish and played with them for hours," said another.
"And someone's boasting he's got some beautiful shots of a cuckoo wrasse," said yet another.
Linda Pitkin - a former winner - just smiled at everyone as she came up the slipway and then went back down the slipway and then back up again.
The harbour area was causing some concern to Bovisand's operations manager, George Gradon. RIBs laden with photographers were gridlocked - some trying to get in, some trying to get out. And underneath them and all around them were photographers, flashing away at the marine life on the harbour walls, some with SMBs, others without.
"Hold it, hold it," shouted one RIB diver. "There are three just under the surface by the bow."
"Tough!" the cox'n shouted back. "We've waited long enough. They could be there bloody hours," he said as he revved up his twin outboard engines. Bumping sounds came from the hull, but no blood. Gradon winced .
The day had started at 9am, when 46 competitors had queued up at the "interrogation room" for their one roll of slide film, Fuji Velvia (a choice of either 50 or 100asa), under the watchful eye of BSoUP chairman Peter Tatton.
It was reminiscent of one of those war films in which people are lined up to have their fate decided by inquisitors behind a trestle table.
"And your name is?" enquired Tatton, looking down his list.
If your name was on the list you got your film. If not, you had to undergo further examination.
"Address? Are you a member?"
The film had to be exposed in Plymouth waters and returned by 4.30pm. That was when the waiting started. Processing supremo Peter Ladell descended to the "dungeons" - one of the casements at the Fort - armed with all the exposed film. Here he had a bank of processing tanks and helpers. Competitors disappeared into the bar.
For the next three hours Tatton could be seen walking back and forth anxiously from the dungeons to the interrogation room, where the slides would eventually be viewed.
"When do you reckon we'll get the films back?"
"8.30 at the earliest," he replied. After subsequent trips that became 9pm, then 9.30.
At 9.45 he announced with great relief that there had been no cock-ups in the processing. "They're not scratched and they're correctly processed. They're now drying. Give it 15 minutes."
The queue reformed, names were called and films handed over.
"Back by 11 please. Up to two slides for the main event and one for the humorous section," shouted Brian Pitkin, one of the organisers, above the general din.
"What about the slide mounts?" wailed a few.
"Sorry, we've forgotten them. You'll have to beg, borrow or steal," responded Pitkin. So this was to be an initiative test as well. Fine. I got no sympathy when I bleated to a friend that I had no mounts or scissors to cut out my shots.
"Fail to prepare, prepare to fail!" I was told. How right she was.
Viewing the day's efforts and voting for a winner finally got underway at midnight.
"I'm voting for myself and so is my wife," announced one competitor. "But that's cheating," spluttered a spectator.
"No it's not. It stands to reason. I wouldn't be submitting these slides unless I thought they were going to win and as I'm voting for the winning slides I must vote for mine!"
More than 50 people were now waiting for Brian Pitkin to get the show underway. There were some beautiful slides. Some of the tales were true. Lots of john dory and cuttlefish appeared on the screen and a spectacularly colourful cuckoo wrasse.
There were also plenty of candy-stripe flatworms and tompot blennies. Ah, why hadn't I seen any of these?
The winner on the day was Derek Haslam for the cuckoo wrasse shown above. I watched as he went up to receive the BSoUP trophy. His arms were held triumphantly aloft, like a darts player celebrating a winning one-hundred-and-ayyyteeee.
Appeared in DIVER - October 1999