“To write the article properly, you need to experience a dive.” So said Alex Warzynski, the Wirksworth-based chairman of the British Sub-Aqua Club when I interviewed him for my previous post.
“I’m not a very good swimmer,” I warned.
“Don’t worry,” his reply, “you don’t need to be good at swimming, only sinking!”
So, with those cheery words still ringing in my ears, I arrived at the University of Nottingham’s swimming pool, one evening in February armed with a new pair of bathers, a towel and the short wetsuit that my son Rob had bought in Woolacombe, aged eleven!
I could squeeze myself into the wetsuit, so that was a good start, before Alex, an instructor with the University of Nottingham Sub-Aqua Club, took me through a scuba diving taster session, His fellow instructor, Davs Brander, was also on hand to pass on a few words of wisdom and record the event on camera.
Alex first talked to me about the scuba diving kit, pointing out the safety features I needed to be aware of, which includes a built-in life jacket and extra mouth piece for a diving buddy to share the tank’s air in case of emergency. He also runs through the hand signals he will use underwater as we will not be able to communicate verbally.
The whole package, with the air tank, weighs a little over 20kg, so I am strapped in while in a seated position. The kit feels quite weighty as I stand but not excessively so.
Yours truly all kitted up and ready to go (photo Alex Warzynski)
And so into the pool, down the steps, backwards and carefully, the sense of weightlessness is quite pronounced as the tank wants to float. The pool at Nottingham University can be adapted for a range of uses. Our session followed a water polo match with the pool at full depth, but for our session the bottom of the pool, at one end, has a platform which is raised from 2 metres deep to around 1.4 metres, creating a shallow end, not unlike an underwater shelf that you may find on the coast.
BSAC chairman Alex Warzynski is a diving instructor with the University of Nottingham Sub-Aqua Club
UoNSAC instructor Davs Brander
Now is the time to put on the flns that will propel me around the pool and final instructions before we fit our masks and I dip my head into the water for a practice at breathing under water.
I have to consciously not breathe though my nose, it is initially a strange sensation to be able to breathe whilst underwater, but the confidence soon follows. Now for my first full immersion and…
My feet go out in front and I find myself sitting on the bottom of the pool, not able to do much, a bit of a beached whale. I try to swim into the right position, but that’s not too successful either. Alex explains that I need to have my legs out behind me and that they should do all the work. He also adds some lead weights to my jacket to help me overcome my natural buoyancy (full of hot air!).
Enjoying my scuba diving session with the BSAC (photo Davs Brander)
Over the next couple of immersions, my mask begins to fill with water and eventually I forget and take a deep breath through my nose…..
My throat and mouth fill with water and I come to the surface, coughing and spluttering. My wife Karen, who has come to support me, peers over the top of her glasses. “I thought you were going to be sick!” she later told me.
Davs suggests that if I lean forward and begin to kneel…
Success! I enter the water at the right attitude, face down with feet splayed out behind me, and this feels so much more comfortable. Rolling a little, correct with the feet, seems to be working much better.
Heading down towards the deep end (photo Davs Brander)
“Sometimes it takes a little bit of getting used to,” Davs explains later. “The body position in the water is easily moved when swimming as the weight of the equipment on your back moves with you! As you get into it more you find your position and finning technique improves hand in hand and everything becomes a little easier.”
Given this considerable improvement, we venture into deeper water. I feel at last as though I am fully immersed, not just head down with feet flapping about on the surface. Control with the feet begins to feel comfortable, I notice Alex holding his hands together, as they are redundant in the underwater swimming action.
The whole experience now becomes calm and relaxing, a little ungainly perhaps, but all seems to be going well. There is a rubber torpedo toy on the pool bottom over there, I swim towards it, somehow I manage to swim deeper and reach out to pluck the toy from the bottom of the pool.
Following Alex’s example, I’m trying to swim with my feet and not my hands (photo Davs Brander)
I feel quite pleased with myself, I actually achieved something underwater!
Alex and Davs are both instructors with the UoNSAC. I have no plans to progress to open water diving, but how long does it take for a new student to qualify, I ask Alex?
“It depends on the club and what time of year you choose. At the university we start in October when the students come back. It’s five pool sessions, a few lectures to sit through for the theoretical side of it and four open water dives that we get done at the end of November. They go from a standing start to qualified ocean divers in a couple of months.
“It’s brilliant watching them getting in the sea for the first time. My first sea dives were in Oban in 1990 and I’ve taken people for their first sea dive at the same site, off Kerrera. There are quite a few shipwrecks and it’s sheltered water.
A little ungainly but getting there (photo Davs Brander)
“One of the first trips I try to give them is to the Farne Islands because a colony of seals lives there, really friendly. Last year’s pups, the yearlings, are all very inquisitive and want to play with you. They’re just pottering around in the shallow water, nudging you and butting you, their behaviour is very much like dogs underwater. You just have to remember that they are wild, they have massive teeth!”
While Alex was chaperoning me around the pool, a couple of female students sat patiently awaiting their turn in the pool. One girl, Saniya, later told me that she had previously been qualified but, after a time away, wanted to see if it was something that she would like to return to. The other student, like me, had no previous experience, so she wanted a taste.
“The world is changing and we have to change with it,” say Alex. “For some people it’s about scratching the itch and saying ‘that was fun, wasn’t it?’ and hoping that they want to continue, although for some it’s just about ticking a box. The training is a means to an end, but what you really want to do is go and swim around wrecks and look at the wildlife.”
Alex Warzynski keeping an eye on my progress (photo Davs Brander)
Happily Saniya said that she had enjoyed her return to the pool and was hoping to join Alex’s club, although she felt more comfortable in the safety of the pool environment.
Alex says the hardest part is getting out of the pool after the dive and, as I drag myself up the steps, the weight of the tank seems incredibly heavy.
For anyone interested in taking up the sport, costs may vary between qualifying with a club branch and a commercial centre, as Alex explains. “Generally to get a basic qualification in a shop is about £350-400, in a branch about half that but it does vary.
It really was a great experience! (photo Davs Brander)
“BSAC fees are £60 per year, a typical branch charges between £50 and £200 per year, often discounting membership if you “put back” into the branch. However at the pricier end, they often include lots of things such as air fills, kit access and boat access. A training pack for a BSAC Ocean Diver course is only £40.
“You would need your own suit if the branch doesn’t have one that fits, or you can rent them for £10-£20 a day. To buy, they’re about £200 for a wetsuit, £500-£1000 for a drysuit with undersuit. Mask, fins and snorkel are about £100. People then normally stop renting and buy the kit: typically a decompression computer is about £150, a BCD (buoyancy compensator device) jacket is £200-400 and around £40 for a torch.
“Once you’re qualified, the diving part is the cheap bit. It’s the travel and accommodation that is the expensive part. A club boat’s fees are about £20 a day and a commercial hard boat would be about £50 a day. On top of this you need to add air fills (£3-4 a fill), food, accommodation and getting there. Costs may depend on how fussy you are with your accommodation! We use bunk houses, chalets and caving huts which keeps the cost down. It is no different from any other outdoor pursuit in that respect.”
Me and Alex following the session (photo Karen Ford)
But what a great experience. And many thanks to Alex for giving me the opportunity to taste this exhilarating pursuit and to Davs for coming along to record the event for posterity.
I did say this was February. As we left the pool at the University of Nottingham, the rain was hammering down. Maybe I should have kept my wetsuit on to get to the car!