METICULOUS INSTRUCTIONS LEAD ME TO THE BAR of the Mountbatten Centre on a Friday night. As promised, Hamish is there to greet me. He says he's been waiting since mid-afternoon, but quickly points to his glass of orange juice lest I leap to any false conclusions. The Aquanaut Dive Club, 020 8987 9160, www.aquanautdiveclub.co.uk
He needn't have worried. From our correspondence over recent weeks, I could tell that this was a professional operation. Guzzling alcohol the night before a dive was a no-no.
The Aquanaut Dive Club UK had invited me on one of its skills development weekends, and PADI Divemaster Hamish Harper was the trip organiser.
My journey to Plymouth has taken four and a half hours, which seems more than long enough for a weekend jaunt.
So I am surprised to hear that others have spent more than six hours battling through traffic, and even more surprised to see them looking so unfazed and, furthermore, to discover that this is a regular Friday-night ritual.
One diver has made it halfway round the M25 from Kent, realised that she has forgotten her wallet, so turned back and started again. Another has just phoned in to say that he is held up in London and will be leaving in the middle of the night to join us by 9am.
It's one thing to be keen on diving, but this sounds more like a pilgrimage than a club outing, particularly given the weather forecast - ghastly enough to make headline news earlier in the week. Am I missing something here?
The Aquanaut Dive Club is not your average UK dive organisation. Not only is it a PADI club, which is fairly unusual in itself, but Charlie Thellusson, joint founder and UK Dive Organiser, says it is possibly the most active and successful independent PADI dive club in the UK.
"Possibly", because there is no easy way to compare. Unlike the British Sub-Aqua Club, with its well-defined network of branches, there is no central register or communication point for non-commercial PADI clubs. The PADI Diving Society would be an obvious candidate for the role, but its scope of interest is limited to commercial training centres.
So divers looking to join a non-profit-making PADI club such as the Aquanauts have little option but to turn detective - trawling the Internet, talking to friends, asking at Dive Shows or in dive shops.
Still, Charlie's lofty claim could well be justified. The BSAC and Sub-Aqua Association are the most obvious ports of call for anyone keen on UK club diving, so competition is likely to be scarce, and no one this weekend has heard of another PADI club boasting anything like the Aquanauts' dive schedule.
With help from a committee of four Principal Divers, the Aquanauts ran 14 hardboat trips this year between March and October, including jaunts to Scapa Flow and the Farne Islands, and plan 15 more for 2003. The trips were interspersed with evening talks, slide shows, social functions, and weekly pool training sessions in Putney, west London, throughout the year.
I am told that the trips were heavily subscribed and the events eagerly anticipated. So what is the secret of the club's success?
Next morning, after an early breakfast and a thorough dive briefing, we load the kit onto the boat - a comfortable 35ft Offshore 105 - and set off. In defiance of the weathermen, the sun is blazing, the sea flat-calm, and rumour has it that at least 10 basking sharks are milling nearby.
Hamish swears that the news came from a reliable source, and is leaping about the boat to chants of: "This is going to be an absolute corker!"
There are a few novice and rusty divers on board, so there will be no diving beyond 20m. With sunscreen slapped on, tanks tested, kit prepared, spares stowed away and safety regs reviewed, the boat buzzes with nervous excitement. Rachel, a GP from Winchester and PADI Assistant Instructor, has avoided British waters since she sloshed through a season of particularly bad weather a few years ago. "Excited?" I ask.
"Ask me again in a couple of hours," she gasps.
Geologist Andie, a fellow warmwater fan, has been a UK member of the Aquanauts for five years, attending talks and social events, but claims that this is the first year in which she has found time in her diary to join a UK trip.
She is now making up for lost time, with four outings this season, and insists that she's loving the whole experience, particularly as she can see her skills improving. "But it's definitely better now I've got my thermals," she admits.
Given the option, I think she would still rather be in the Red Sea, unlike materials engineer Bojan, who was an ardent member of the Aquanauts' warmwater branch until he crossed over to the UK side this year. He was drawn by the welcoming, friendly tone of the club. "You can just be yourself and there's no peer pressure to do anything. It's cool," he says, reclining just a bit further to catch the best of the rays.
Computer operator Dave, meanwhile, is feeling a little less cool. He did his first-ever UK dive with the Aquanauts a few weeks ago, and it didn't go well. Newly qualified with a bag full of new kit, he hopped onto the dive boat in search of adventure, but was short-changed with a nasty bout of seasickness.
Luckily, he didn't feel too bad in the water, but as soon as he took the plunge his weightbelt fell off, and on the second attempt his tank came loose. He eventually gave up on the whole exercise.
Dave's experience could have put him off diving for good, but something has made him come back for more. I guess that it is the club's relaxed and nurturing attitude.
Dave chose a PADI club because he thought it would be less serious than the BSAC. "I didn't like the sound of the BSAC's hierarchy, and the constant focus on training," he says.
Put in those terms, the BSAC does sound a little intimidating. The Aquanauts, on the other hand, are serious about safety and skills development but members are encouraged to further their training elsewhere, and club outings are reserved for the business of having good, safe fun.
Speaking of which, we have reached our site, Mew Stone, and it's time to dive. Charlie runs through the basics once more, reminding us to check everything every few minutes during the dive, remember our signals, and stay within arm's length of our buddies. There's no rush, we can take our time, and must remember to ascend to a safety stop at 80 bar.
And there's plenty of help to hand if we need it, so we mustn't be shy - there are Divemasters and Rescue Divers among us, and skipper Pete Fergus is a BSAC Club Instructor and HSE Commercial Diver.
With a few anxious mutterings and the odd hiss of an octopus, the divers are gone. But not for long. The last pair of fins have only just faded into the murk when the first pair of heads bob to the surface.
It was a fabulous dive - no current, great visibility, lots of crabs, lobsters and dogfish - but not enough air. They were too excited and had breathed too quickly. And they weren't the only ones. It's not long before all 10 divers are back on board.
Never mind, it's lunchtime. Finding a quiet spot in the shelter of Cowsand Bay, skipper Pete busies himself with teas and coffees while the lads amuse each other with tales of busty Swedes and French fighter pilots.
Charlie, meanwhile, unveils the day's food offerings - sandwiches and snacks prepared by his wife, with allowances made for any dietary quirks. Charlie's painstaking attention to detail is clearly not limited to dive briefings and safety procedures.
With the lads arguing over who should polish off the last of the sausage rolls, we cruise over to the James Eagan Layne, only to find that five other boats have had the same idea.
"Who are you with?" shouts Pete as we draw up to the site. Four stray divers are reaching for our ladder. "Hey, Roger, I think these are some of yours," he calls to one of the skippers, coaxing the puzzled heads away.
Divemaster Hamish and rookie Vlad are the first of our lot to take the plunge, but they drift from the shotline as Vlad adjusts his mask.
"Swim this way," urges Hamish.
"But I don't want to waste energy," complains Vlad, floating to the front of the boat.
"Then let's just go - look, you can see the wreck from here, come on."
It's flat calm but Vlad struggles a bit more, a little short of breath. With 60 warmwater dives to his credit, he is new to British waters, but had told me he preferred UK diving because it was a constant challenge. I can see what he means.
"And take your regulator out of your mouth. Don't waste your air," says Hamish.
Finally, the divers are down and all is quiet. Or maybe not.
"What on earthÉ?"exclaims Pete, flicking the engines back on. He has spotted a DSMB and two heads, way off in the distance. It's the lads - Bojan and the suave Croatian fund manager, Patrice. As they were heading for the wreck, they had seen a weightbelt, decided to salvage it, struggled up to the surface, dropped it, surfaced anyway and realised that they had drifted.
Pete helps them onto the boat and ferries them back to the shotline. "You may as well have a quick look at the wreck while you're here," he tells them, checking their air supply and rolling them off the side of the boat.
Meanwhile, the rest of the gang are basking in dazzling fields of kelp and deadmen's fingers, communing with sea bass, floating past countless John Dorys, massive shoals of pollack, conger eels and the biggest jellyfish you've ever seen.
Or so they later claim. The colours are amazing, the visibility is as good as the Red Sea any day, and did anyone see that plaice being attacked by the lobster?
As we motor back to base under a cloudless blue sky dotted with seagulls, Hamish produces a guitar. Charlie had mentioned something about sing-alongs during surface intervals, which sounded too much like The Waltons in neoprene to take seriously. But I was wrong. Here is Hamish, strumming away. The Aquanauts really are a jolly bunch.
Even disillusioned Dave is speaking in superlatives - he was buddied up with Charlie, and it had been the most "amazing" day. He feels fantastic, he really does love diving, and the new kit has been worth every penny.
Have the Aquanauts cracked the code to fabulous UK club diving or have I just caught them on a sunny day?
The Aquanaut Diving Club UK came into being in 1995, before PADI even mooted the idea of a "Dive Society". It was the brainchild of Charlie, a commercial property consultant, and Ross Prideaux, owner of the Aquanaut Training Centre in Kingston.
Unlike the many PADI clubs which are owned and run by retail dive businesses, the club says that it enjoys an association with the training centre, thanks to Ross's involvement, but is a wholly independent, non-commercial entity.
Ross, as club's co-founder and Chairman, manages the 40-strong warmwater branch, and the two sides come together for social events and other functions.
Vice-Chairman Charlie has command of the UK reins and, thanks to his enthusiasm and dedication, membership of his branch has doubled to 30 in the past two years.
The club is based in London, but members are drawn from as far afield as Hampshire, Kent and Warwickshire, and there are regular requests from non-members - PADI and non-PADI - wanting to join club outings as guest divers.
But why join the Aquanauts when the BSAC network is so well established in the UK, offering a comprehensive membership package including full insurance and training, a wide choice of branches and a busy social scene for those who want it?
"It's just different," says Charlie. He admits to using the BSAC as a framework - hence the weekly pool-training sessions, parties, and talks - but he reckons that perhaps, as Dave was saying, it's a bit more fun, a little less competitive.
Charlie is keen to maintain a good mix of men and women in the club to keep it from becoming too macho (a third of current UK members are female), and there is no hierarchy to speak of - everyone looks out for everyone else. The club is non-profit-making, as any excess funds are used to buy kit for club use, and it requires less of a commitment than the BSAC. As Hamish says: "We're not going to ask you to buy into a club RIB."
The club also tries to avoid being committee-oriented. Charlie and his four Principal Divers share the organising; a minimum of two organisers must attend each trip, and there must always be enough advanced divers on board to look after the less experienced. It's a simple system, but it strikes a good balance between safety and fun, and it appears to works.
"When members book onto a trip, they know everything is going to run smoothly," says Charlie. He was once chairman of a water-ski club, and the experience has served him well.
"We never mess up on the accommodation, the boats or the dives. We get it right," he boasts.
Skippers and boats are carefully chosen - "We don't want to have wreck dives spoilt because the skipper hasn't shotted the wreck properly" - and trips are organised months in advance.
Most of next year's itinerary is already booked and confirmed, and each dive is carefully planned.
The club's happy-go-lucky appearance belies an almost obsessive concern for safety. The club has its own O2 analyser and DAN kit, and Charlie has compiled a set of club safety regulations, which are strictly enforced. All divers must carry a reel, DSMB and strobe, and are also encouraged to carry trauma shears.
Some might accuse Charlie of being too cautious, but he says most members appreciate his approach. It makes them feel protected, and in any case he's careful not to overdo the safety issue. "If you play it too safely then divers don't feel a sense of achievement and don't progress as they could," he admits.
Speaking of which, Charlie plans to divide next season's trips more rigidly into groups of novice, intermediate, advanced, and very advanced divers, maximising the scope for members to dive within their individual limits.
There are currently 10 advanced divers in the ranks, and for the lucky few deemed capable by Charlie, there will be twin-set trips to the challenging 50m wrecks of the Moldavia and City of Mexico off Littlehampton, and the Salsette off Weymouth.
Here Charlie admits to an ulterior, safety-related, motive. He wants to entice more advanced divers into the club to act as a buffer for the inexperienced, who need less convincing of the club's attractions.
Novice PADI divers are conditioned to diving in a group, led by an instructor. Having to take responsibility for their own kit and formulate their own dive plans can be a culture shock, particularly for those who have trained in warm waters abroad.
For £60 a year, the Aquanauts provide a structured, safe way to dive, and for an extra £15 members get third party insurance. And when members want a break from deadmen's fingers and poor viz, they can opt for one of Ross's foreign trips - UK membership covers them for both sides of the club.
As we glide into Plymouth Sound, we are jolted from a sun-fuelled slumber by a sudden, deafening roar. An RAF Tornado fighter jet swoops towards us, skims over our heads and disappears into the distance, after-burners ablaze and engines on full, spine-shuddering throttle. The Armed Forces have joined ranks for a weekend of fanfare and display, and the Hoe is heaving with spectators.
"See," Charlie laughs, "like I said, when you dive with the Aquanauts, you just know the planning is going to be perfect."
Back on shore, Hamish is packing away the kit, and he's still full of beans. "What a day. Absolutely incredible. Unforgettable, in fact," he gushes.
Perhaps UK diving really can be as good as the Red Sea - it was obviously a Garden of Eden down there. "Sorry, I meant the Tornado," he says. OK, perhaps not.
We never do get to see the basking sharks, but not to worry. We are heading off to an amazing restaurant that serves the biggest steaks you'd ever seen - Charlie found it - and Hamish's informer has already told him there are going to be dolphins around tomorrow.
It's going to be the best day ever.
Bojan gives Patrice a helping hand
Charlie has a friendly word with Hamish
time to get going, but how long will the air last?
Returning to the boat - "countless John Dorys, massive shoals of pollack, conger eels and the biggest jellyfish you've ever seen"
- you name it, they saw it
David - nervous, me? - with Andie and Kay
a singalong always rallies the troops
David - I can't believe I did it - with Charlie back in the bar