Channel Diver Blasket Diver Seazones

SEASON, WHAT'S THAT THEN? Seven days a week, son, and no time off for good behaviour!' That was the response of a dive-boat skipper when I asked him about the upcoming dive season.
He was roaring with laughter. In fact, the very idea that things would come to a halt just because the sun shone a little less or the wind got a bit colder was hilarious to the seasoned captain.
I shivered at the thought of December diving, but on further investigation I was amazed to find that there are nearly 70 all-year-round hard-hull day and liveaboard dive-boats now operating in Great Britain and Ireland. They're ready to rock and roll come rain or shine.
From the Maherees Island off the coast of Kerry to the scuttled ships of Scapa Flow, these dedicated dive-boats are well-equipped - with mugs of hot brew to warm frozen-blue divers' hands once back on board. They also offer a few surprising extras.
Back in the days of old, heading out on a dive-boat could be a claustrophobic affair, with just enough space to park your bum and your gear strewn about the deck. Kitting-up was an Olympic event, as were entries and exits that were sure to leave the odd bruise or two on the arms and legs.
I remember only too well the cries of 'fore' as divers rolled off the sides and everyone took cover from the upward fin-kicks. Band-Aids were in ready supply on-board.
Nowadays, however, we seem to be spoiled for choice of facilities by the many dive-boats servicing the seas around our favourites sites.
Half the vessels we looked at had diver lifts, which make splashing in and out of the water a doddle, especially for those using twin-sets and carrying stage tanks.
Almost all the boats have heads, or toilets, which is just as well. On-board compressors are also provided on many of the boats, though only a few offer nitrox and trimix gases.
Wheelchair access and facilities are available on a couple of the boats, although it may prove difficult for many smaller vessels to promise this just yet.
Most of the boats have ample dry-room space in which guests can escape the elements, and a few have berths, should anyone need to get his or her head down for a bit.
Kitting-up space is an important aspect to consider when selecting a dive charter, as no one relishes that sardine-can feeling. Struggling into a drysuit while contending with five extra pairs of arms and legs is no joke - squeezes should be avoided both above and below the surface.
All the vessels featured below have more than adequate changing areas, with the wheelhouses doubling up as extra dry areas. Of course, any divers who enter this sanctum with wet gear may end up wishing they had swum home, because the skipper's warm, dry wheelhouse is considered a holy place.
I asked four skippers to tell me their experiences, and about the changes taking place in UK and Irish diving.

Glad Tidings Karin North Star


THE BLUE TURTLE
Lyme Regis, skipper Doug Lanfear


'The greatest change I've seen over the years is the increase in the number of tekkies and rebreathers out on the boats midweek, as opposed to the club divers at weekends.
'This is all good, except for the wannabe-tekkies, who look like Christmas trees with so much gear hanging off them.
'What with the market stagnating over the last few years and the bad summer in 2007, there is bound to be a thinning-out of operators, but this will only benefit the industry. Established boats will always be busy, with weekends sold out a year in advance.
'Midweek diving tends to start filling up from March onwards, with weather a huge factor.
'On the whole we're blessed with polite and friendly divers, just the kind we like.
'One story that still makes me smile is when we were out and a diver asked me where the shotline was.
I pointed in the direction of where it was, which was still over half a mile away.
'Suddenly there was a splash. The diver, without warning, had entered the water and tried to swim to the shot!
'Another story that does not make me smile was when I had one guy dive to 65m on kit that he had borrowed and never used before.
'It goes without saying that he had an incident and missed all his stops after a 30-minute bottom time.
'I do think divers are pushing the limits, with bottom times getting longer and longer. They forget that in some areas when the tide gets going they are going to be anything up to a mile from the dive site, and this puts extra responsibility on the skipper.'


THE ROCKET
POOLE, skipper Trevor Small


'If you look up the word 'diver' in the thesaurus it should say: 'Person who is able to cover the total length and width of a diving vessel with kit, creating as many trip hazards as possible within a very short time of boarding.'
'A commonly known law of thirds is often observed aboard Rocket. This law means that
if any diver is given a pasty or pie to eat, the following happens. One third is eaten, one third is dropped on the floor and the final third is worn by the diver, and all of this is usually in the wheelhouse, much to my annoyance.
'Club demands have changed over the year, because members now expect comfort and hospitality when chartering a dive-boat. Usually the first question asked is 'Do you have a tail-lift?' We have seen quite a few clubs merging to survive, which means that there has been a reduction in the number offering training to new members.
'We are getting more and more year-round bookings, even though the weather and visibility takes a bit of a knock. We have a committed bunch of regulars that includes a lad who wears an artificial leg, which he simply removes and replaces with a specially designed scuba one while diving. Quite a character.
'Don't get me started on the nutters from BSAC 7071!'


OUR W
EASTBOURNE, skipper Dave Ronnan & Sylvia Pryer


'I have noticed over the years that club bookings are not as plentiful as they used to be, but this has been balanced out by a lot more individual bookings.
'Many of these are tekkies with closed-circuit rebreathers, all looking to do longer and deeper dives.
'Although we offer year-round diving, we're limited by the great British weather, which can affect our charters from December to February, but our weekend bookings are pretty solid from March to the end of November.
'We have noticed that a growing part of the market definitely wants a 'customer experience' rather than just transport to and from the site. Often it's more about a good day out than the specific dives.
'Our divers like to come back with a smile on their faces - as did one individual who shall remain nameless after he/she discharged a new wreck's dry-powder fire extinguisher at 45m. As if visibility wasn't bad enough!
'Most customers understand that plans can change at the last minute, and roll with the changes. When they're happy, we're happy - unless they stand in the dry cabin dripping wet, that is.
'One funny story does stick out, from a charter some years back. We're out on the Braunton, which is at 30m, in a force 4 with another charter-boat.
'I have two divers ready to go in, but they seem to be faffing about a bit. After I drop them on the shot and turn round, I see a lot bubbles and a guy waving at me.
'Straight round, I pick this diver up with our lift and ask: 'What happened? Are you OK? Has your buddy gone diving without you? Do you want another go?' All I get is 'I'm cold! I'm cold!'
'Now it's April and the waters are 10-12?C, but he's in a drysuit and has only been in for two minutes - or so I think. It slowly dawns on me that he's not one of ours, and my pair are off diving happily. I call up Ray on the other boat and have a bit of a laugh about it - throw it back, it's too small to keep etc.
'However, persuading the diver to get back in so that Ray could safely pick him up wasn't easy, until he worked out that if he didn't, he'd be going back to a different port with nothing but his dive kit.'


THE WANDRIN' STAR
PEMBROKESHIRE, skipper Mark Dean


'We've been operating a hardboat since 2006, and as a centre find that UK training is dropping off, as it's impossible for us to compete with the inclusive low prices offered abroad.
'We find that individuals trained abroad, and at inland sites in the UK, on the whole are not prepared for UK charter conditions, and the standard of safe diving practice that we like to see - and this can be scary!
'Invariably we have to pick up the pieces and retrain individuals, which is unfair to them and us.
'The demands for greater facilities such as diver-lifts and nitrox on board will see some boats disappear.
'We get all classes of diver from many different agencies, but our favourites are club divers who know their stuff, make few demands, are patient and forgiving and don't blame us for the visibility, conditions or weather. Oh and we really like those divers who don't nick our weights!
'I'm sure skippers across the country have seen it all, but a few things that stick out in my mind as showing how crazy certain people can be will always give me a giggle.
'Like one diver who dived with a boiler-suit over his semi-dry suit to 'protect' it.
'Or another who was seasick all through a Saturday and couldn't get up from the galley floor to go diving, but returned to do exactly the same thing on the Sunday. Fantastic!'


Jane R Jean Elaine Radiant Queen