holding the fort
Fort Bovisand in Plymouth is one of the venerable names in British diving, but it has been through the mill in recent years. Tony Sutton spends a Sunday at the Fort to find out how its new owners are faring
On a bank of white water, Mike springs up from his saddle, yanking the front of his £15,000 jet-ski clear of the surface and executing a tight turn in front of a RIB-load of astonished divers. It all depends how you feel about jet-skis, but in any case it will take a lot more than that to match the excitement already felt by at least one couple on the boat.
They have just enjoyed their first outing as qualified PADI divers, flexing their credentials on the James Eagan Layne, perhaps Britain's most dived wreck.
Back on shore, Chuck is flexing his pectorals, to the obvious delight of an attentive girl in a flashy sports car. She beckons him, and the two are soon speeding away from the Fort.
George's mind is on other things - a group out in the deep pool on a club instructor course.
The "Under New Management" sign has now been up for three months at Fort Bovisand. The jet-skier, Mike Papavasiliou, is the new owner, along with Wayne Holman, who is off somewhere, poring over plans to expand accommodation. George Gradon is Operations Manager.
Chuck is one of the customers, a twentysomething former male stripper from Canada on a ten-week commercial diving course costing £6000. He lives in a five-bed dormitory in one of the casement blocks at the Fort. "Ju-ust fi-ine," drawls Chuck, when I ask how he's enjoying his stay at Bovisand.
It's a brilliant Sunday afternoon in June. The sun is blazing on a flat, blue sea. RIBs are tethered by the harbour steps. Divers are taking it easy by the mobile cafe next to the slipway after a morning's dive, and tanks are being recharged at the quayside air station.
It's relaxing here at Fort Bovisand - perhaps more relaxing than the new management would like, with only some 50 divers and half a dozen RIBs in evidence today. But this year they expect divers to book 18,500 bed nights and to pay for 35,000 air and 3500 nitrox fills at the Fort.
Mike and Wayne are believed to have paid the receivers around £500,000 for this des res Victorian fort, with its fabulous views over Plymouth Sound and its private harbour. It also comes with 18 acres of land, which makes it sound like a bargain.
Why so cheap? Well, the land is owned by the Ministry of Defence. Mike and Wayne have a 96-year lease, which they hope to buy one day. The listed buildings have to be preserved, which limits their use, and much of their external fabric needs treatment or replacement.
Perhaps more importantly, Fort Bovisand has been run as a diving business since 1972 and no one seems to have made much money out of it, judging by the number of times it has gone bust. It was certainly heavily in debt when the last owner, David Welsh, called in the receivers. Will this time be any different?
When Alan Bax and Jim Gill - the original owners - set up Bovisand, it was unique. It could claim to be Britain's only coastal national diving centre, offering an extensive range of courses and some of the best easily accessible dives in Britain. Divers flocked in from around the country.
Since then, Bovisand has lost its competitive edge. The Fort now has to compete with overseas centres offering cheap holiday packages with training and coral-reef diving in clear, warm waters. As a launch site it is now in competition with nearby Mount Batten, with its wide slipways, recently done up with Government money. And a multitude of other diving centres have sprung up around the UK since Bovisand was launched.
No more National Lottery
Mike, a professional diver, fell in love with Bovisand on first sight, when he was just out of the Navy in the early '90s. He reckons it offers a more comprehensive service to divers than anywhere else in the UK. Now he and Wayne are pumping £1.2m into Fort Bovisand Underwater Centre over three years to upgrade and expand its facilities.
The centre includes the diving complex and hotel, but there are four other separate operations on the site - Fort Bovisand Diver Training Ltd, Plymouth Dive School, Fort Hyperbarics and Fort Bovisand Dive Shop.
Mike exudes confidence about the centre: "We're now breaking even. It'll be tickety-boo in three years and I'll be able to take a back seat in ten."
Full-time staff have been cut back from 60 to 34, and are supplemented by up to 40 part-timers. "We've got some great senior instructors that work here. But to me all the staff are important, whether they're a manager or Joe the cleaner," says Mike. "I think it works because we try to run things as a family.
"Six months ago people had really had enough. They were looking for jobs, they couldn't care less. That's what pushed me to buy the company. It went through a stage that whenever a cheque was written out they use to call it a lottery. Staff nick-named wages day the National Lottery. It was awful. Nothing is done now in the company without all of us discussing it."
One of the first things the new management did was to ask divers what they wanted. Splitting the casement dormitories into smaller units for two, three or four people was high on the list.
'There are no open dormitories any more," says George. "Some people miss them because they provided a very affordable way of coming down when they cost £7.50 a night - even 5 five years ago. But the vast majority of divers say they do want some creature comforts." An overnight stop will now set you back £12.
They are considering little comforts like washbasins in each room, tea and coffee-making facilities and TV. "Videos will be on hire for educational or entertainment use, so visiting clubs can teach out of their rooms rather than having to hire a classroom."
This winter the Harbourside block - the Fort's de luxe accommodation - gets the treatment. The en suite twin-bed rooms overlooking the Sound will be refurbished and the baths changed to showers, as requested by divers. The present price of £45 per night will be maintained.
And there could be a second Harbourside block, built behind and above the first. This idea is being promoted by Wayne Holman who, with his hotel/catering background, wants Bovisand to appeal to divers' families as well.
Above the main complex is Top Fort - run-down, and used to accommodate staff. Its ground floor will provide guest accommodation in four flats, while the upper will be converted into two self-contained units for large diving groups. Top Fort West will accommodate 16 people in two, eight-person dormitories. Top Fort East will have two 10-person dormitories. Both will have their own catering, shower, toilet and car-parking facilities.
Outside Top Fort a new visitor centre will be linked to the area's coastal path and open Bovisand to the public.
Underground, one of the magazine rooms is to be made into an explosives range - the Fort will offer courses in the subject. "A common archaeological tactic is to use very light charges to break the concretion on some of the older wrecks," says George Gradon. "There's a genuine need for individuals to undertake explosives training." He reckons the facility could come in useful for his current pet project , surveying the historical wreck HMS Coronation.
Other diver-prompted changes are cooking: the dining room has had a makeover and there are more choices on the menu, with meals around £5 and full breakfast £3.50. "The hours are more flexible - and the bar is much better now."
The Harbourside Cafe has been replaced by a mobile one, and the air station has been moved to the quayside so that divers don't have to lug their bottles a few hundred metres. The slipway is being enlarged to provide a turning circle at low tide.
Another chamber is to be installed in the hyperbaric room run by Fort Hyperbarics, and the training tank is being deepened and re-equipped. There are plans for an indoor pool, too, if a grant can be obtained.
Onward to Monday
George Gradon sports a Hans Hass-type beard and lives for diving, mostly on nitrox, tri-mix or rebreather systems to depths of 70m. George belongs to three diving clubs, including the 170-member Fort Bovisand Diving Club, of which he is Diving Officer. Membership costs £40 a year and includes free air-fills, bar membership and hard-boat dives.
"At the Fort we offer rebreather training with TDI on semi-closed units, which is generally the Draeger Atlantis or Dolphin, and closed-circuit training on the Buddy Inspiration, currently done through TDI," he says. "Now PADI has released its semi-closed-circuit rebreather course, so as soon as standards are set we can teach that.
'There are enough of us here who are TDI rebreather, extended range and tri-mix instructors, and so on. As soon as the programmes become available we can offer them."
On this particular Sunday seven divers are in the deep-water tank on the club instructor course. 'Those who are successful will go on to do the open-water instructor on Monday," explains George. "On these programmes we never exceed four to one on student-instructor ratio and normally run in on three to one."
He reckons the Plymouth Dive School at Bovisand will handle 70 club instructor trainees and perhaps 100 open-water trainees this year. Club instructor-level courses cost £60 a day. The school also offers skill development courses from boat-handling to practical rescue management, search recovery, O2 administration, full-face masks and nitrox extended range.
The commercial side, handled by Fort Bovisand Training, sees up to 150 trainees a year go through. "Offshore anywhere in the world you'll find 40 per cent of the guys were trained at Fort Bovisand," says George. "And if you're diving inshore in the UK you'll find 60 per cent of the divers were trained here.
"I strongly believe we offer the best training anywhere, because of the variety of dive sites, the range of equipment we use and the variety of instructions and techniques we employ. And that's why people come back."
So many sites to see
If all goes according to plan, there could be a big new diving attraction accessible from Fort Bovisand by the end of next year. A local non-profit-making consortium is looking to sink a 4000 ton ex-military frigate in Whitesand Bay if it can obtain such a vessel, get it cleaned to the required standards and secure the necessary permissions to sink it.
In the meantime a wide variety of well-established sites exist in the Plymouth area, and traditionally Fort Bovisand has been the jumping-off point. A shuttle service operates with a flat rate of £13.50 for one dive up to £45 for four (members of the Bovisand Diving Club pay less and can go further). George Gradon reckons the service will grow as Government safety legislation makes it increasingly difficult for clubs to operate their own boats.
The biggest attraction is the US Liberty ship James Eagan Layne, lying upright three-quarters of a mile east of Rame in Whitesand Bay, at a depth of 24m. With a length of 143m, this is one of the biggest ships air divers are likely to encounter in this area. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat towards the end of World War Two. The stern section broke off, but divers from Bovisand have reunited the two sections by rope so that others can explore both without getting lost.
The limit of the western range from Bovisand is marked by the Rosehill, an armed steamship of 2800 tons that was torpedoed in World War One some two miles south of Seaton in Whitesand Bay, in 30m of water.
Between Seaton and Rame lies a sub, the A7, which is a war grave in 40m. It was lost in 1914 with its entire crew - a dive only for the experienced.
And in the Western Approach to Plymouth Sound is the protected historic wreck HMS Coronation, which sank off Penlee in 1691. Ninety-three of the cannon from this 94-gun warship have been recovered.
The one remaining piece, a 3.5 ton chase gun, was spotted off the wreck but then lost. Bovisand Members Club intends finding it again this year. The club has also discovered three wrecks in the Western Approach and is trying to identify them.
HMS Elk also lies in the Western Approach, at a depth of 32m. This 30m fishing vessel was converted to a mine detector in World War Two but missed one and sank. It is upright, missing its superstructure, but reasonably intact.
Other wrecks visited from Bovisand include the Persier, a 5000 ton British merchant vessel built in 1918 and torpedoed in 1945. It lies upright in about 30m of water 10 miles east of the Fort but is now fairly broken up. The paddle steamer Totnes Castle, sunk in the 1960s, is in deeper water - 44m. The steel hull is intact but the decking has gone, allowing access to the interior.
A major attraction of the area is the protection offered to many of the sites. Within Plymouth Sound, the breakwater guarantees diving in all conditions apart from strong south and south-easterly winds. Built on a shoal in the 1820s, it has a flat mud bottom to the north and a rocky kelp area in the south. There are four broken-up wrecks and a Lancaster bomber to explore.
There are also shore dives from Fort Bovisand and an underwater nature trail. Many of the participants in the British Society of Underwater Photographers' annual competition held at Bovisand get all their shots from these dives.
Swinging round to the east is the Mewstone Rock, which drops down to 30m and provides a very attractive scenic drift dive, with lots of hard and soft corals to see.
Hillsea Point sports a pinnacle that rises from 35m to within 5m of the surface. This rocky area is east of the entrance to the River Yealm, six miles east of Bovisand. It is known as Fairyland because of its sweeping gullies and abundance of marine life.
One of the most popular reef dives is the Eddystone, some 10 miles south-south-west of Bovisand. The Eddystone itself drops to 55m and a number of pinnacles rise to within 10m of the surface. It is fabulous for marine life, and fish-watching in particular.
A mile or so further on lies Hand Deeps, which provides dramatic wall diving with a series of pinnacles standing in 65m of water.
Appeared in DIVER - August 1999