You go on holiday to Greece, hoping to return a fully-fledged Advanced Open Water Diver, only the instructors make the Marquis de Sade look like a caring, sharing type of person. How will you make it through the week? Mark Hayford reports
It's a Saturday in August, and Greece is hotter than Satan's wok. I have phoned ahead to ensure that I can qualify as an Advanced Open Water diver in just one week, so long as I get to Porto Heli's "dive island", a 30-minute drive from my hotel.
I present myself in the hotel lobby at 8.30 on Sunday morning, clutching my fins and mask. The bus-driver is a dour, chain-smoking local of around 50 with swarthy eyebrows and a permanent scowl. He points a disbelieving finger at me: "You, diveere?" Bet your bottom drachma. He gestures towards the bus as if to say: "Don't just stand there." I get in.
It turns out that I am the only person seeking a qualification this week.
Our party consists of me, a Bo Derek lookalike (Anouka), an Italian couple and an English mother/daughter combo up for a scuba "experience".
On our way the mother, Jane, wonders out loud what she has let herself in for. She is textbook-nervous, so l do my best to make soothing remarks: "I'm sure they'll look after you," etc. But will they? And how do you explain what it's like to a gibbering virgin when you've only just qualified yourself?
I look to our driver for help but he's preoccupied with his walkie-talkie. He keeps saying "ne" wearily, but nodding as he says it. Ne means yes?
There's not much to see but scorched fields and the occasional festering garage. Plump housewives skulk around on the patios of unfinished homes; apparently, the arcane tax laws apply only to a new home once it is completed, so you build what you need to exist in and then run out of cement. Deliberately.
The road is bendy and narrow. Every so often a huge truck comes the other way, and our driver nonchalantly flicks us out of its path while I consider Catholicism. We pass a few roadside shrines to those with inferior reflexes.
At the quayside we are met by the grinning, bare-chested Georgio, who herds us into his quivering speedboat.
There is much bickering between Georgio and our chauffeur: pantomime remonstrations that are a little alarming until you realise that it's part of their (perpetual) ritual of mutual dissatisfaction.
Gunning the throttle, Georgio yells over the roar of the outboard: "You go toilee tohay? There ees no toilee on he islan'."
I can't recall if I've been toilee tohay or not. I'm still recovering from the beer mountain I unwisely consumed on arrival the previous evening. Worse, Georgio has fitted his dinghy with an outboard motor the size of Athens, so when he cranks it up we bounce off the waves like a concrete Frisbee.
By the time we reach the island I am miserably wet - something Georgio and the Italians find achingly amusing. I am dismayed to discover that our "dive centre" is little more than a dilapidated hut, and that most of the island is occupied by cactus. I wonder about emergency procedures (where's the oxygen? etc), but resolve to keep shtoom: I'm a new Open Water diver with a pathetic total of just 12 dives, not Professor Bubble-Trouser from the Safety Department.
The bus driver appears. "You. Howmeni difes?" I tell him. He looks depressed. "You weeth me, hokay?" The penny drops: this is the main man, Dimitri Kalianos.
Dimitri, we learn, is a former marine commando and PADI Instructor of 12 years' standing. It quickly becomes apparent that this is his island and we are in a "come-along-chop-chop" situation. This makes it difficult to rock the boat. Your questions, it is implied, are about as welcome as piles.
Forgive me for being naive, but isn't it a good idea to ask questions before you boldly go? Doesn't it improve your chances of boldly coming back?
Dimitri belongs to the "what-are you-waiting-for?" school of dive tuition, as in "your rig's fine, I've checked it - see you at the bottom, hokay?"
No, not hokay. I hate to impose, but what will we be doing down there? It appears that I am about to descend to around 18m and be put through some fairly hideous hoops, but you won't tell me what they are. And because your English is almost non-existent, you can't tell me what they are. And this is only my 13th dive ever, and I don't want to be tossed into the gaping jaws of death like Poseidon's packed lunch.
But the voice in my head says: "Just get on with it, you cry-baby - all will be revealed."
Unless I am even more stupid than I thought, PADI's website offers no indication of what you might expect to happen in an Advanced OW practical examination. Is it a secret? Never mind the glamorous specialities, what about the basics, the unnerving nuts-and-bolts that many divers don't bother to practice? (When, for example, did you last practise breathing from a free-flowing regulator? Did it at 20m did you, in some godforsaken British quarry? Sure you did.)
We are divided into two groups: jittery Jane and the Italians are with Georgio, the buxom Anouka and I with Dimitri. After a few words of encouragement (from me), and a buddy check (me again), I don't see Jane until lunchtime.
I bounce up to her, full of the joys: "So, how'd you get on?" Her eyes are puffy from crying. "I blew it. I'm obviously not suited to it," she sobs. It turns out that the mask with which she's been issued is faulty and keeps flooding. Irritated by Jane's inability to clear it (despite repeated requests), Georgio simply dumps her on the jetty and goes diving with her daughter instead.
"I think he was angry with me," she croaks. I do what you would do: I hold her hand. This is a woman whose husband has just died, who has come out here to begin again, to try to do something new. This episode makes me want to shave Georgio's mullet.
But there isn't time. I have a briefing to attend. Dimitri draws me to one side and grips my forearm. "Marek, underwateere, calm, hokay?" I nod. That's it: briefing over.
I'm wearing a shortie and I'm not certain I'm weighted properly. Dimitri looks disapprovingly at my under-nourished belt and hands me two bits of lead the size of paving slabs. He scans the glittering horizon. There's a slight breeze, but no traffic and little in the way of current. "Now, we dife," he says, as if the sea is listening.
He chucks his rig in and slides off the ladder to retrieve it. I, however, am invited to jump. It looks a little shallow around the jetty. I hesitate. "Marek," yells Dimitri, and points at the sea. I smash my right heel on a rock as I land, straddle-entry notwithstanding. I touch my head - OK - and mask the pain, as I have no wish to draw Dimitri's attention to my inept start. For all I know this is part of my assessment, so I'll just have to fin and bear it.
We descend a gentle gradient that eases us ever deeper into the big nowhere. It would be lovely to be able to wax lyrical about the beautiful forests of kelp that caressed us, the thrilling reefs and the dozens of exotic creatures we encountered, but I can't, because the topography is deeply unremarkable.
I try to get excited by kidney sponges. I come face to face with an oblade, which looks permanently affronted, like an underwater Kenneth Williams. Other characters include a clutch of girelles (essentially green, but with brown, go-faster stripes and cream throats), saupe (blue with yellow patches) and the superb ornate wrasse, which dazzles with its yellow trunk, turquoise fins, orange neck and purple face.
Not much to write home about, admittedly, but I had been warned; and besides, the absence of Disneyland allows me to focus on the difficult tasks ahead, whatever they might be.
We reach a plateau at 20m and come to rest, kneeling on the sand. It has been explained that whereas Anouka is not being examined and can opt out of the various "tests", I am obliged to do everything. Dimitri pulls faces at the dishy Anouka to make her smile, but for me he has only the cold stare of the unimpressed.
One compulsory drill involves removing one's entire rig and laying it down in front of one, before reaching forward and putting it back on. The trick is to avoid yanking one's regulator out of one's gob, a feat akin to operating a bacon-slicer with your eyes shut.
I unbuckle my BC, shrug it off and lay it on the sand. I then pick it up and throw it over my shoulders (simultaneously raising my arms) and shrug it back on. I am about to secure the second buckle when Dimitri releases my weightbelt.
You will not be surprised to learn that I immediately go into an uncontrolled ascent. What fun this is turning out to be!
We're all superb at dumping our weights, aren't we? Lots of quick-release this and fast-ditch that, but how fabulous are we at arresting unexpected buoyancy when there is nothing to get hold of? The book says you should extend your arms and legs or "flare", which I do, but it's as much use as a cardboard condom.
Still howling upwards like some demented firework I look down and lock eyes with Dimitri. He's completely composed. I continue on my way, ankles first. Dimitri shrugs. Finally, he waggles his fingers, furiously. "Get down here now!" he signals.
I kick like hell and with a stupendous effort claw my way down, inch by inch, until I can reach my belt and anchor myself. With a little effort, I am able to "skip" into it (in slow-motion) and regain some composure.
I am still struggling with the finer points of belt adjustment when my air dies. Christ. My first reaction is consternation. There's no way I can be out of air. Bonkers. Crazy. Not happening. Only a total tuna-brain could gasp through 60 minutes of air in less than 15 minutes. Am I that bad?
No time for debate, this is a genuine out-of-air situation. I get one (deeply restricted) breath followed by nothing - a brick wall. It focuses the mind. As my eyeballs bulge, my heart dances and my brain goes bananas, I look around for Dimitri. He has vanished. Marvellous.
Suddenly, he appears alongside me, looking bored. I lunge for his regulator, but he is already handing it to me. With his other hand he calmly turns my air back on and then hands me my own regulator. "We're going up," he signals.
I feel bad. If that was a test, I obviously failed it. Lost my head and omitted to give the "out of air" signal. But aren't you supposed to tell examinees that this dive will include the out-of-air portion of the exam? Isn't turning off a novice's air without warning a rather stupid thing to do, like taking away someone's chair as he's about to sit down?
On the surface, Anouka's smile has gone and she is as white as a sheet. "I am so glad he didn't do that to me," she gasps. "God knows what I would have done."
As I bob about trying to catch my breath, I wag my finger at Dimitri in mock admonition. Initial disbelief is being superseded by cold fury. "You're a wicked man," I tell him. He grins and shrugs his eyebrows. "Hadvanced," he says. Me or you?
Over the next few days, more drills remain to be mastered. Anouka and I have to demonstrate competent buddy breathing. Next up is the methodical removing, replacing and purging of the regulator. On the first attempt I forget to put my tongue up as a "shield" and blast a mouthful of salt water straight into my lungs. Most amusing.
Dimitri and Anouka watch amazed as I quack and parp and gag and finally settle down. "When you've quite finished?" Dimitri's expression seems to say.
We follow this with the horrible mask-clearing malarkey, which never fails to deposit water in my sinuses. Dimitri does it and makes it look like a genuine no-brainer, then gestures to me and folds his arms expectantly. I get it done, but not without choking slightly. Dimitri applauds sarcastically.
Dimitri then takes us both down to 30m to see what we make of it. I half-expect to have to write my name on a slate, but instead Dimitri sets his heart on trying to shift a huge iron safe from the seabed, to release some fascinating creature that is allegedly underneath. He motions me to help him lift the wretched thing, but after much faffing and cursing we have to give up and leave it in peace.
Defeated, he contents himself with handing the bug-eyed Anouka a worryingly shiny artillery shell, which she promptly drops. As it crashes into the sand I flinch and imagine the headline: "Butter-Fingered Trainee Sleeps With The Fishes."
Shell-shocked, we drift back up to safety. At no point in the entire week do we bother with safety stops. Instead, we are allowed to coast back to base in a casual shoal, ears squeaking with relief as the pressure eases. Once again, I hold my tongue.
On Day Two Dimitri, ever the entertainer, uses his dive knife to prise an oyster from the seabed. Removing his regulator, he consumes it, there and then. Showboating, yes, but it somehow inspires confidence. If he is this relaxed, why are we mentally flapping?
Day Three is mainly about navigation. Take a bearing, adjust the compass, keep the needle in the zone, hit the target. I find it deeply rewarding to "set sail" for the pier and then swim right up to its legs. It reminds me of the time I aimed for the wreck of the Stanegarth at Stoney Cove. After six minutes of furious finning I slammed straight into the hull - fabulous. Passed that bit with flying colours.
As I grow in confidence, so I appear to get promoted. By Day Four, with many hurdles successfully cleared, Dimitri motions me to sit up front with him in the bus, while the twitchy beginners languish behind us asking endless, sweaty questions.
When someone feels bold enough to ask why I am permitted the luxury of the front seat, Dimitri stares at the guy in the driver's mirror. "Hadvanced," he snarls by way of explanation.
I am sitting there feeling smug when Dimitri suddenly brakes hard at a T-junction. He turns to me and screeches: "Marek! Wish way, wish way?" I haven't a clue. I um and ah, but he ignores me and turns right, chuckling. The message? Don't get ahead of yourself, Marek, you ain't qualified yet.
By the week's end I have even learned to pack properly for the day: two bottles of water, one drinking, one tap. Fresh from the ocean and in the absence of any facilities, you drink one and pour the other over your head to clear away the salt. Seeing me do this, newcomers begin to follow suit. If nothing else, it teaches me that there is more to good practice than what you do in the sea.
Most nights Dimitri sees us ashore before disappearing into the deep again with Georgio, speargun at the ready. Twenty minutes later he returns with fresh fish: a huge scarlet grouper or maybe a couple of plump yellowtails, and "cleans" them on the rocks with his dive knife.
I would have given my back teeth to be a fly on the water for a speargun outing, but it is made clear that I am far too green. Dimitri's astoundingly tolerant wife Raisa, tells me that this is how he honours her: whatever he catches that night she will cook. They take only what they need from the sea, and sure as hell leave nothing behind.
When I emerge from the soup following another mandatory, hair-raising exercise, Raisa is always on hand, like some human Kit-Kat, proffering chilled Fanta and homemade biscuits. I only see her snap once, when she rounds on Dimitri for his incessant smoking. He takes to hiding behind the hut like a schoolboy, hoping she won't notice.
She does. "I, Eenstructorr, smoke. Marek, studen', no smoke. Ees hokay," he tells her. She is not amused.
On our last morning together Dimitri takes me to one side for one of his special "chats". It amounts to "down to 20m, over to the drop-off, loiter by the oysters and back to base". Fine. We return to the main group and he makes them sit down, before sitting down himself.
Silence. I look at him: what now? "Marek. Geev briefing." Eh? Nine expectant faces look up at me. Christ. I start muttering something about 20m, stick together, etc, when Dimitri interrupts. "Marek. I no hear you. Star' ahain. Spee' up!."
I start again, this time introducing myself and making it clear who will do what with whom. When I have finished, Dimitri holds out his hands in a mafia shrug - a gesture I am getting used to. "Was that really so hard?"
To my own amazement, I find myself inspecting "my" group and taking them into the water. Dimitri still leads the way, of course, but I get my first taste of "leadership". I notice that John, an OWD with 30 dives, is forever hanging back to inspect amoebas, and falling behind.
I gesture to him a few times, but he replies with "yeah yeah" before carrying on as before. So I fin over and point firmly to the rest of the group: "Get moving." To my surprise, he complies.
Back on land, Dimitri gathers the group and calls for hush. Pointing at me, he tells the bewildered faces: "This, Marek, he now Hadvanced Diveere, so," and with that, he breaks into applause. They join in. I stand there, not sure what to do.
After all the tough-guy posturing and the hectoring and the near-drowning, I have finally made it. OK, so Advanced OWD doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this world, but it means a lot to me at the time. Perhaps there is something to be said for the chop-chop approach after all.
When it's time for goodbyes, Dimitri looks me in the eye and pushes his two index fingers together, side by side: "Marek, always reemembere, buddy togethere, OK?"
I take him to mean that I am to look out for fellow-divers everywhere, and that this will (naturally) be reciprocated. My pleasure. As he turns to go, I say "Dimitri", and press a pack of Marlborough Lights into his hand.
He looks baffled at first, then slips them into his sweatshirt and, glancing over his shoulder at Raisa, emits a filthy chuckle.
"Eff haristo," I say. Thank you.
"Siga vre," he replies. Take it slow.