I have been talking about getting a rebreather for a while now. Probably the first conversations started with Paul Toomer and Andris Nestors back in 2008 during a Diving Leisure London Icebreaker in Vobster Quay drinking copious amounts of DOOM BAR and talking Diving!!! It was a bit too early for me at the time to get the rebreather didn’t had the experience and more importantly the money!!!
Time passed and the subject of rebreathers was coming up more frequently primarily on diving trips with Andris Nestors when more often than not I found myself being the minority and quite often the only OC diver on the boat!!! During one of our drive trips one of the regulars on the boat mentioned that he knew of someone who could sell his unit for a very reasonable price. That was the closest I got to buying a rebreather but then unfortunately he decided to keep his unit and I went ahead and did my Trimix course on OC in Malta instead.
The main driver for me getting a rebreather has been Gas Management. Open Circuit (OC) diving gas management on day diving trips is a bit of a fuff but easy to deal with. Most dive centres / filling stations expect at least a day to fill a trimix twinset. They want to have the time to begin the process by filling with Oxygen, then let it settle, add helium (He) and finally top it up with Air. So if I was planning to go diving for the weekend I had to drop off my stuff to get filled at least a couple of days earlier. There is nothing difficult about that but things do not always go to plan. Sometimes the scheduled dive was cancelled then I was left with a mix that was in no way good for next weeks diving and therefor I had to empty my twinset and fill it with another mix. Now considering the price of He no one does that so I would save the mix on my twinset and borrow another to fill with a different mix. Now if that dive got cancelled things got even more complicated because I had to return the borrowed twinset to the rightful owner who was kind enough to let me use it because he (or she) needed it.
So you can see how it gets complicated.
Gas Management & Logistics become further complicated when I was planning sequential mixed gas dives. In that case as I would be diving Saturday and Sunday therefore I had no time to get my cylinders filled even if I could!!! Most of the times I could not get He fills anyway (the boats didn’t had and by the time we got to the marina no dive shop was open to fill cylinders). It all turned out too stresfull and not much fun. There was one certain trip where I ended up borrowing 2 twinsets futher to mine and 4 more stages further to my 2 stages!!! In one word: Ridiculous!!!
To make things worst trying to fill a twinset with rich trimix (so that when I air topped it I could still get a half descent mix) cost a fortune and were not very good mixes to dive on (for example 20/60 – a stupid mix). And of course to add salt to the wounds the rebreather folk would always go on about reminding me how their gas bill was about 1/8 of mine…
It looks like though the time had come for me to go CCR. After an epic weekend of diving which was saved only by Paul Haynes being VERY WELL PREPARED for all eventualities and fed up with OC, while on a club night Mike Ferguson exclaimed: “I have a solution to your problem!!!” “I have to units right now and as much as it hurts me it looks like I will have to part with one”!!!. needless to say before the end of the month I had bought the unit, I had booked a course, booked leave and I was ready to go CCR.
Photo of a box standard APD Inspiration CCR (photo courtesy of http://www.aquamaniacs.co.uk/ccr_rebreathers.html)
For an OC diver rebreathers are intimidating. Way too complicated with OC equipment. All sorts of screens flashing, lights blipping here and there and to make things more complicated Cells, Scrubbers and stuff!!! Overwhelmed.
I had booked the course with Paul Haynes a well known CCR diver Instructor Trainer and we decided to go with BSAC primarily because the quality of the student pack was half decent compared to the rest available.
We started the course by going through a lot of theory, history of rebreathers, different types (oxygen rebreathers, SCR, CCR, mCCR, eCCR etc) The theory part of the course involved a fair bit of physiology, dive planning and maintenance etc. Along with the theoretical stuff we had a couple of practical session were we went through the actual unit, took it apart and discussed each and every component. Must admit that after all that I was feeling a lot better about my unit compared to the shear fear that the “Black Box” (well yellow in this case) had inflicted. Understanding what component performs what function and taking into bits to see what it is made of definitely helped A LOT.
All this time Paul Haynes was very patiently answering all sort of stupid questions that I was coming up with!!!
After a couple of days of intense theory, practical sessions and dry runs the time came for me to try this thing in the water!!!
Monday 10/09/2012 – Day 1, Stonehaven
The Plan was to start early on Monday 10/09/2012 morning and make the most of the day. Well the early start didn’t really happened because my flight back from London only arrived in Aberdeen around 10:00!!! I had nearly everything ready, loaded the car and off I went to Stonheaven marina where Paul Haynes was already there waiting for me. Setting up my rebreather for the first time in anger it was an interesting experience and it did took a lot longer that I had expected it to!!!
Aerial photo of Stoneheaven Marina (photo courtesy of https://marinas.com/view/marina/11999_Stonehaven_Harbour_SC)
Fortunately Haynes is a strong believer of Checklists and he had gave me one to follow which I helped things out A LOT. Trying to do the same without it would have been seriously stressful!!!
Eventually sometime early in the afternoon we managed to get in the water and of course took it easy very easy. From a gentle swim in the surface to my first dive at about 3m depth? or maybe less!? Ironically enough during that dive it all felt well because there was no expectation of me to hover so all I had to do was pretty much lay at the sea bed or drag myself at the bottom of the sea. Easy.
The second dive was actually a boat dive. Rod Macdonald was around and was kind enough to take us on the boat around to a cave known to the locals as “Angela’s Crack”!!! We jumped out of the boat into the water outside Angela’s Crack. this time visibility was a bit better but far from great. Haynes deployed a DSMB and I was holding to the line as visibility was less than 2 m !!!
Back at Hayne’s place we took the unit apart, cleaned it and decided to go to the local quarry for Tuesday which would probably be a bit colder but at least we could see each other during the skills and drills!!!
Tuesday 11/09/2012 – Day 2, Boddam Quarry
Tuesday morning we met up at Hayne’s place and after cup of tea I started preparing my rebreather. We then left Stoneheaven and headed North to just outside Boddam where an abandoned, flooded quarry is used for training purposes from local dive schools and all divers who want to brush up their skills.
No surprise there was no one else around which is what we were expecting for a cold Tuesday morning anyway. Once I got ready we entered the water. Having been diving without gloves in Stonehaven I assumed that it would be fine to do the same in the Quarry. I was wrong! The temperature in the quarry being fresh water was substantially lower and very quickly I realised my mistake.
Visibility was half decent and the dive went well executing mask clearing drills, clearing a partly and fully flooded loop, dil flushes and shut downs. Once we had enough of that (and got cold enough) we decided to end the dive. I ascended holding (tight) to the fixed shot line and after 68 minutes we surfaced.
During the surface interval we had lunch and discussed how to further improve on the skills and twick my gear.
The second dive was equally uneventful with more practice on the same skills and more work on my buoyancy. At that point I was well aware of my buoyancy being really very fragile.
By the end of the second dive it was getting late and by the time I got back home I was too cold and tired to want to do anything else so an early night followed. I was quite surprised by how tired I felt I mean in the end of the day all I did was two dives. But I guess the cold weather and the cold water, the trip back and forth to the quarry and the mental stress of trying to perform the skills take their toll.
Wednesday 12/09/2012 – Day 3, Boddam Quarry
The plan for Wednesday was pretty similar. Head out to Paul’s and from there we went off to Boddam. The water in the quarry was cold and I decided to use my KUBI dry gloves. Just before I enter the water the outer ring locking o-ring was dislocated and considering that it only holds the outer ring in place I decided to dive with out it.
It turned out that it wasn’t such a great idea as the dry gloves were leaking and therefore were not that dry after all!!! As if that was not enough I was trying desperately to control my buoyancy exclusively using my dry-suit and I was (most likely) overweighted. This was a pretty bad combination that resulted in me having a rather unpleasant dive struggling to hold buoyancy with loads and loads of gas in my dry suit.
To make things worst my rockboot laces got undone and I was having problems to fin or hold buoyancy. Also with the rockboot displaced more air was moving to the dry suit socks making things even more difficult.
Again and under not so favourable conditions I did managed to complete partial and full flooded loop clearing, and practice on a number of scenarios like high and low ppO2, lost electronics and bail out. By setting the set point to 0.7 I had to maintain set point to 1.0 my manually adding O2 which was fun!!! Suppose this is how it feels to dive an mCCR?
One of the most enjoying parts of the dive was when Haynes asked me to perform a mask clearing mid water. In theory this should be a doddle. nothing challenging in performing a mask clearing for an experienced diver like me eh? Well it turned out to be not that easy. So I got the signal to perform a mask clearing and off I went. Now partly because of my contact lenses, partly because of the cold water I do close my eyes when mask clearing. So I closed my eyes. Flooded my mask. Cleared the mask and opened my eyes. No one was around and I was struggling to breath!!! What happened??? I immediately reached for my manual inflation valve and added dil to the loop. Panic over now I can breath. Still where is Haynes??? Yes you guessed well J I looked up and Haynes was still hovering a few meters above me just where he was when I had closed my eyes before I flood my mask!! It didn’t took me long to pick up what happened. With my mask flooded I blew air (hard) to clear it. Too hard actually so on one hand yes I did cleared the mask but on the other hand I pretty much blew substantial loop volume too. my buoyancy reduced I descended and of course I had less volume in the loop to breathe and this is why I was out of breath!!! Lesson learned I will remember that next time I have to do a mask clearing.
After 71 minutes of fun and games I grub holded the shot line rope and started my ascent!
During the surface interval I made a couple of knots at the end of the rockboot laces so that even if they got undone in the future they would be easy to redo again underwater. And needless to say I did tied them up. Really Well. Sadly because of the problem oring I ended up loosing my KUBI dry glove outer ring altogether which was rather annoying.
The second dive was better in the sense that the rockboots stayed in place (kinda) and I was mentally prepared for the dry gloves leaking so it was not a great surprise!!!. Managed to get a few more skills and decided to call it after 50 minutes because it felt like the water was getting even colder!!!
An unpleasant surprise was Haynes brand new pick up truck would not start as the battery was flat!!! Assistance was called and that allowed us further time to search for my missing dry glove ring but with no luck. Assistance arrived and the battery was revived! On the way back a quick stop to Aberdeen Watersports (AWL) to get cylinders filled for Thursday and then back home. because with the whole thing we were running late Haynes did invited to join him for a curry but I was cold and tired and wanted to go home. Come to think about it a curry would have been better J
Thursday 13/09/2012 – Day 4, Rosehearty
The plan for Thursday was very ambitious. We would go to Rosehearty to dive the open sea. Rosehearty is a small village further up north from Aberdeen. Very picturesque as it turned out!!!.
Again we met up at Hayne’s place in Stonehaven, had a cup of tea, loaded the truck and off we went to Rosehearty. The weather was pretty bad and it didn’t look like any diving was going to be happening but Haynes was positive Rosehearty will be fine. Once we made it to the lighthouse by the beach and although the view was stunning and the sea nearly flat calm a dreadful feeling of gloom and despair took over. The entry to the water was a long walk over sharp, uneven and pretty uninviting rocks. I have never been good at walking at uneven surfaces let alone climbing over rocks like that in full diving gear, CCR and a stage!!! That was not going to be fun.
What I mean by “never been good” is NEVER like 15 years old going on holidays with my parents and grandparents to the remotest of places and I would always be the last to make it there. Maybe because I am tall and my centre of gravity is higher, maybe because I am inherently unbalanced (both mentally and physically) maybe because I was born clumsy. Don’t know. But I am not good at this.
Photos of Rosehearty beach (photos courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sahara13/)
The left photo is the actual entry point the right should give you an idea of what it was like climbing to the entry point
Back to the present and my Rosehearty dive. Haynes took his stage to the entry point and I followed very very slowly and carefully. made it there and back without incidents. We got kitted up and made our way to the entry point. It was a long an painful trip that I did not enjoy. Much to my surprise I only had minute slips but didn’t made it to trip and fall!!! At last at the entry. Giant stride entry and off we go!
Immediately things changed. As I said earlier the sea was pretty calm and visibility was phenomenal!!! Never before had I seen anything like that in the UK!!! Bar the grey and cloudy sky that didn’t left much space for light visibility was endless!!! I could have well been diving in Malta, Egypt or Greece (in a cold winter day!!!). The rocks around us made for a pretty nice scenery with loads of crevices and a fair bit of life, crabs lobsters etc. But the viz!!! The viz was something breathtaking especially for UK standards!!!
As much as I was enjoying the dive that much i was growing concerned about my buoyancy, I could dive around and look at things but hovering was just not happening. I was having problems venting air from my suit and although I was OK when moving hovering still was proving to be a challenge. Haynes left me to settle and have an enjoyable trouble free dive for the first part before we could go to skills.
When we tried to do some skills I was struggling to complete them because of my buoyancy. Probably a bad combination of venting air problems, overweight and having to manage the buoyancy of the loop. surprisingly and under these conditions we did managed to complete a 91 minute dive and perform a controlled ascent. Now for this controlled ascent a lot of effort and hard work were required. Me holding to rocks and underwater vegetation (I know not very good for the vegetation) and Haynes taking the lead and forcing me to perform an “Excess air in the dry suit” drill which was something I had not done for more that 4 years and in all honesty I had completely forgotten about….
All’s well that end’s well!!! And we did made it back to the surface after a painful yet immensely enjoyable dive (I am not a masochist) an I myself am still struggling to understand how did I got to enjoy such dive full of problems!!! But the viz was GREAT!!!
After that the painful walk through the rocks took me ages to complete. Haynes in the mean time must have had got changed and had at least a cup of coffee if not two!!! But as I said earlier am not good at this sort of stuff.
A few bruises and cuts more and skills sort (with all this happening we left stuff like DSMB deployments for another time) we made our way back to Aberdeen. this was the last day of leave I had to complete this course because I was flying offshore the day after.
If it wasn’t for the entry I would love to go back to Rosehearty and from what i hear the wreck of the Fram is around there so hopefully I may get to dive again next time we take the boat up there!!!
Wednesday 03/10/2012 – Day 5, Boddam Quarry
The next time that I was available we decided to go to Boddam as the entry / exit to Rosehearty are not really ideal for courses and it is quite a long way to go for a day trip from Aberdeen.
I have been having problems with my dry suits neck seal pretty much since I got my dry suit. It has always been too big and leaking badly. I got it shortened a bit but not enough. For a long period of time I was diving with a bio-seal. This is an additional seal that can be used in cases like that to save a dive. They are not meant to be a permanent feature and I have been diving it as such. Sadly in my last dive, an OC dive to 65m it leaked pretty bad and I had to cut the dive short and ascent because I was freezing and flooding and they are both equally bad.
so when I got back I sent my suit to a local guy that I was told that he is good with repairing suits. He probably was and so far I have no problems with the alteration he did but he didn’t had the suit ready for me when I needed it!!! So I called Haynes and told him that I haven’t got a dry suit and we would have to cancel the dive. Haynes being at AWL at the time came up with a great plan. Lets hire one from AWL!!! I do not believe that you will find many CCR divers diving or training on hired dry suits but my options were limited. I went to AWL tried a few dry suits, selected one and I was ready to go diving!!!
On Wednesday morning again we met up at Haynes place and had a cup of tea prepared the equipment and made our way. On arrival we did our pre dive checks and jumped in the water. Immediately I noticed that there was a slight leak from my hired dry suit’s left cuff seal but decided to go ahead with it anyhow.
During the dive we practised further Bail Out drills, loop clearing, mask clearing, dil flushes, shutdowns, hovering and swimming about which was the easiest.
When we had enough of cold water we surfaced after a nice and slow ascent by the shot line. During the 6m stop I din an O2 flush and 67 min after we entered the water we surfaced and for once I was quite happy with my dive!!!
Sadly and much to Paul’s disappointment I could not do the second dive as I was soaked and really cold so we decided to call it a day and head back to Aberdeen.
Further to that and because of work commitments we didn’t got the time to arrange the final and qualifying dive before I left to go to Egypt for Paul Toomer’s RedTek…
To Be Continued…