Could you cut it as a commercial diver? There aren't too many training centres, but Fort William in west Scotland, the rainiest place in the UK, is one of them. Sue Daly spent three weeks there recently, the only woman on an HSE Scuba course. Rain was the least of her problems
I was shown into the kitchen, the steamy-windowed heart and soul of the dive centre. I made myself a cup of tea. The room was full of blokes scoffing the remains of their breakfasts, swilling tea and exchanging manly banter in the way that only men can. I hadn't expected to find many girls at a commercial diving school but I didn't think I'd be the only one.
I was taken down the pier to meet my classmates and make a start. As an underwater camera person I needed an HSE Scuba qualification - until recently called a Part IV - to work in the UK. But preying on my mind was the big question: was I tough enough to endure the rigours of a commercial training course, even after all my years as a sport diver?
The Underwater Training Centre at Fort William owns its own pier, a slightly ramshackle collection of rusty sheds, welding bays, workshops and portable cabins, with the odd caravan thrown in for good luck.
Piles of scrap metal lurk in the corners, along with mounds of cable and complicated-looking bits of diving gear.
The first job was to find a drysuit to fit me, no mean task as all the gear seemed designed to fit the fuller male figure. They all had feet several times larger than my own and room inside to swing a cat or two. I thought fondly of my cosy made-to-measure neoprene number at home.
Eventually even the smallest of the commercial suits was abandoned and I was given a membrane suit from the 'recreational' side of the kit room. Not only did it make my bum look huge, it was luminous lime green. All the blokes had very serious-looking black suits. So much for trying to fit in!
It was time for the first dive of the course. Each diver has an assistant called a tender to help him dress and to check that all is well before entering the water.
First a sort of harness with lots of D-rings is stepped into and tightened up. The weightbelt is next, a chunky rubber effort carrying 13.5kg, or more often 16kg, of lead. Commercial divers need to be negatively buoyant, as they work mostly on the seabed.
The belt is secured with its pin and the tank, in this case a sturdy steel 15 litre, put on with a simple harness. I tried not to think of my dear little 10 litre tank at home. Next the umbilical is clipped on - a rope connecting the diver to the surface, which also carries the wiring for the communications system.
Finally the full-face mask, an Exo 26, is sealed around the hood and held in place with five adjustable straps. Inside is a microphone and earphones so that the diver can communicate with the surface.
Unlike ordinary diving - 'scooby-dooing', as the commercial types condescendingly call it - the entire dive is controlled Godlike from the surface by the supervisor. He tells the diver when to leave the surface, where to go, what to do and when to come up again.
He monitors individuals' air supply and calculates their decompression situations using US Navy tables. The diver is left to concentrate on the job in hand.
With the equipment in place, the diver and his tender must work through a comprehensive checklist and also check communications with the supervisor before entering the water.
My first dive is etched as clearly on my mind as my first-ever dive in the sea. I waddled down the steps into the loch with all the grace of a hippopotamus as my tender let out my umbilical.
The murky, icy layer of fresh water on the surface took my breath away as it closed over my head and trickled into my drysuit. A Scottish voice asked whether Diver Two had any leaks in the mask. 'Diver Two, no leaks,' I answered, resisting the temptation to add: 'But I think I've had enough now, can I go home?'
I made my way to the bottom of the steps to await further instructions. Below the layer of fresh water, the sea water was surprisingly clear and not so cold after all. The bottom of the loch was home to masses of plump starfish, the likes of which we don't get where I come from.
When the second diver came down the steps towards me, I enthused about their size and splendour. A voice in my ear pointed out that the other diver couldn't hear me and that we weren't there to look at the marine life anyway.
I put the starfish down and tried to concentrate on the exercise.
We were there to practise bells and pulls, the rope signals that working divers use to communicate with the surface. A yank on my umbilical told me that the exercise was about to start. I pulled back to let my tender know that I was ready and was answered with two bells, short tugs, on my line.
I remembered that this meant 'walk away from the line'. With mental apologies to the starfish on which I was treading, I lurched off until stopped by one pull on my line. Perhaps this wasn't so difficult after all. Four bells this time. Four bells, four bells, left or right?
I was about to guess when I noticed my fellow-diver gesticulating wildly to the left. Bless him, I owe that man a beer.
So the exercise continued with us wallowing backwards, forwards, left and right in a cloud of silt as our lines dictated.
We all took it in turn to dive and tender, with odd few minutes free to sneak off and make much-needed tea. We also practised rescuing each other, a good way of plaiting the umbilicals. Work over for the day, I was about to go and pour the water out of my 'dry' suit when I was called back by one of my team. There was, it seemed, a course initiation ritual to go through.
This involved climbing on to the roof of the scuba shed and leaping some 10m into the loch. I hate jumping from high places and was torn between a desire to rise above any macho showing-off (run away and hide) and an urge not to be seen as a feeble girlie. I compromised; I did the jump but let out a very un-macho squeal as I plummeted into the loch.
Our next task under water was a two-day exercise in carrying out underwater surveys. 'The object', a metal construction of bars, struts, pipes and bolts, had to be drawn, measured and described as accurately as possible so that we could produce an illustrated written report.
Very much a team effort, this involved several late nights but my skills as an artist earned me a few brownie points with the blokes. My knowledge of marine life also helped us produce a list of the plant and animal growth on 'the object' the like of which has never been seen before in Fort William.
IN THE DARK
By day four I was feeling much happier with all the new equipment and, even better, my own drysuit arrived from home. I had never been so pleased to see it!
Next came the search exercises, where we had to practise 'looking' for objects using various search techniques with blacked-out masks to simulate a zero-visibility situation. I found this an eerie experience, especially among the silt and weed on the bottom of the loch, where I found it easier to close my eyes than keep them open and see nothing.
Rope-tying exercises were next. As I reached the seabed, everything I had learnt above water drained from my mind when I was confronted with a jumble of ropes and a list of knots to tie. I did my best, signalled that I had finished and the knot bar was lifted to the surface.
After a pause the Scottish voice grumbled: 'I said a bowline, not a bow'. I have practised furiously since then and can now 'throw' a bowline one-handed with my eyes shut in record time.
Our time was split between diving, lectures and training on how to prepare and operate the decompression chamber (a 40m pot dive proved as entertaining for those of us on the outside as those inside). Weekday evenings were spent either lolling around chatting about diving or studying, depending how close we were to the exams.
Most of the students were experienced divers and had come not only from all over the country but from as far away as India, Italy, Spain and Australia.
Evening meals bought back memories of the worst of school dinners, apart from on Sundays and Mondays when the wonderful Nora cooks, so the local fish-and-chip shop saw plenty of custom from the dive school. With a strict school policy on drinking, going out for a beer or two was left for the weekends, when we could enjoy the bright lights of Fort Bill without worrying about diving the next day.
impressed by eels
The weekends also provided an opportunity to explore some of the stunning countryside in the shadow of Ben Nevis, as well as getting some laundry done.
The next week saw us progressing to one of the barges moored just off the pier. By now we were getting the hang of setting up the gear, filling the tanks and wiring up the comms but the move to the barge saw us regress somewhat, resulting in a sharp reprimand about teamwork and organisation (our lack of).
The centre owns several barges and the diving is carried out through a moonpool, a large square hole in the centre of the ship. We were beginning to venture into deeper water and explored a couple of the wrecks in Loch Linnhe. Both were teeming with marine life. By now I had learnt to curb any urge to communicate my excitement but even the boys were impressed by the conger eels.
We practised rescue techniques along with simulated decompression stops and cutting up scaffold poles with hacksaws. This, at 30m in pitch-blackness, is less easy than it seems. I was distracted by a diving bell being winched to the surface from the barge next to ours. It loomed out of the darkness with its green lights glowing like something out of The Abyss. When my eyes adjusted to the gloom I saw that I had made a mere series of scores in the scaffold pole, whereas my buddies were busy cutting through it like butter. Swots!
Between dives we were taught the noble art of splicing, something I had always wanted to be able to do.
The end of the course was getting closer. The mornings of the last three days were taken up with the exams covering all the aspects of diving physics, decompression, chamber operation, rope signals, first aid and the dreaded HSE regulations - multiple-choice but still tricky.
As each of us finished we gathered in the kitchen to await the results, arguing over the correct response to losing your buddy and which side of a lock gate is safest to dive on.
After a couple more dives the course was complete. We all felt quite pleased with ourselves for getting to the first step of the commercial diving ladder.
That was as far as I had to go, but for the blokes it was just the first part of a course that would take them many more weeks of work, study and exams before they emerged as Part I divers.
They would move on to surface-supplied equipment and learn to cut and weld under water, as well as using a variety of compressed air tools. Working down to 50m, they would dive from bells and experience surface decompression.
Known as baby divers for the first two years of their working life, they would go on to look for work in the North Sea or on platforms further afield in the Middle and Far East.
I had one day left in Fort William and was lucky enough to spend it with my group as they began the next stage of their course. I had the chance to experience the excitement of using Kirby Morgan surface-supplied equipment and the fun of diving from a bell, followed by simulated surface recompression.
I enjoyed it so much, I found myself wondering if I could afford another four weeks at the training centre to take my Part III. And to think, I was homesick when I first arrived in Fort William.
So if anyone out there needs a camera person who can saw through scaffold poles 30m down in pitch darkness, let me know.
Appeared in DIVER - February 2000