MARK THREADGOLD CONTACTED ME in June 2004. He wanted me to give a talk on Inspiration closed-circuit rebreathers to his club, Brighton Marina Divers, and we arranged this for about two weeks later. I didnt realise at that point that I was embarking on one of my biggest instructional challenges yet.
About a week after the club talk, Mark called to thank me for coming along, and to say that he was interested in taking an Inspiration course. Nothing strange about that - except that Mark is totally blind.
After I had picked myself up off the floor and thought it over, I told him that I would talk to a few people and call him back.
I spoke to Martin Parker and Nicky Finn at Ambient Pressure Diving (APD), which makes the Inspiration. Once persuaded that Marks case was worth all the effort, APD agreed to modify the electronics of the Inspiration Classic to better suit a visually impaired diver. I also contacted the Health & Safety Executive, and Dave Crockford, then of TDI UK, who helped to get things off the ground.
Soon Mark and I had embarked on the initial training. Mark was already a BSAC Nitrox diver, but the entry-level requirement for Inspiration training is a course with 100% oxygen use. This was achieved by doing the TDI Advanced Nitrox course, so I had the chance to get some early dives in with Mark. He completed the course with flying colours.
Mark Threadgold lost his sight in August 1999 following a serious head injury while in the Army, sustained in an accident about which he is reluctant to talk. He spent the following year at St Dunstans, which helps ex-service personnel with significant loss of sight to lead independent lives. Located in Ovingdean, near Brighton, the charity has produced successful performers in sports you might not expect, such as archery.
In October 2003, Mark broke the national blind powerboat speed record on Lake Windermere, with a speed of 99.19mph. He also completed the Isle of Wight powerboat race, a distance of more than 57 nautical miles, in 1 hour 50 minutes.

Blind water-skier
Mark was guided in these feats only by instructions given over the radio. Dont try this with your club boat - its not that easy. He has even driven a boat towing a blind water-skier at 42mph - very much a case of the blind leading the blind!
But he had been a diver since 1994, and taking up the sport again was a different challenge, especially using a rebreather.
I wanted to progress with my diving skills following the two-year gap since the loss of my sight, Mark told me.
On the BSAC Advance Nitrox course, it was suggested that nitrox might help to give me a safety margin, considering the brain injury and surgery that caused my blindness. As I had been interested in the constantly variable nitrox principle of the Inspiration, it seemed a logical progression. The determination to do something is instantly doubled when youre told you cant do it because youre disabled. To be the first totally blind rebreather diver would also be quite an achievement.
I had done some work in the past with disabled and partially sighted divers with the Scuba Trust, so was aware of many of the problems associated with training blind divers.
Together, Mark and I devised a series of signals that we would be able to use when diving on the Inspiration, and we later added to and modified these to suit various skills.
Happy that Mark could handle the next step, we went to the pool for a try-dive on the Inspiration. He did better with it on his first go than most sighted divers do. We were ready to place an order with APD for Marks modified unit.
Mark was able to use CD versions of the TDI and APD manuals to study on his talking computer. He sat the theory part of the course in October 2004, alongside fellow club-divers Rob Breskie and Paul Jackman. As his dive buddy, Paul would go on to play a big part in assisting in Marks training. Marks score on the theory was 100%.
It turned out that we had picked a time right in the middle of the APD Evolutions completion and release to get the modified Inspiration built. This put the pressure on Nigel, APDs electronics whizz ,and Nicky, who had to put up with Mark and me pestering them to get it finished, but were grateful that they came through with such a very usable unit.
The standard unit was modified to include warning buzzer sounds. To indicate No O2 check valve it beeps for 10sec on, 0.5sec off. Low O2 on Surface is signalled by means of a continuous beeping.
A 6sec on, 2sec off sound indicates Low O2 & Cell Warning, while a sequence of three short beeps followed by one long one and 1sec off means High O2 & Cell Warning. All other beep warnings are as on the standard unit.
Mark has had a slate showing these buzzer sounds and signals made for new buddies who are fully qualified on the Inspiration to dive with him.
The energy that Mark put into the course was outstanding and it was always a pleasure to teach him, however difficult things became at times. Though it was challenging to overcome the lack of visual signals, I found the Inspiration course very interesting, said Mark. Everything had to be hands-on rather than visual demonstrations, and some ingenuity was needed at times.
Devising tactile hand signals to communicate the status of the Inspiration and to indicate the drills to practise was an important part of this.
Pool training went well, but the first open-water dive really highlighted the difference with buoyancy control. Its certainly true that you have to learn to dive again when using a rebreather, and I relish the challenge of perfecting the techniques, and becoming more proficient as my experience builds.
Mark has made a big impact on me as an instructor, and there is more to come. This June he takes on his biggest challenge yet, with plans to dive to 100m into the Blue Hole at Dahab in Egypt.
Mark will be accompanied by two cameramen and two safety divers, though they will not be able to intervene if, as he hopes, he is to set records for the deepest scuba dive and deepest close-circuit rebreather dive for a blind person.
He will descend a shotline to 100m. Braille slates will be provided at the decompression stops so that Mark can read the depth and time of stop. The support team will comprise Paul Jackman, Mark Elliott, Sally Cartwright and myself.
The attempt will be sponsored by St Dunstans and Neilson Active Holidays as well as Analox, Custom Divers, Delta P, OThree and Brighton University.
I still believe Im privileged to be in a different world where we dont belong, says Mark. Using senses other than sight on a dive is challenging and ultimately very rewarding.
Finning along while running my fingertips along the seabed, I find a multitude of life that my sighted buddies often disregard or simply dont look at. The feeling of water all around and the weightlessness is fabulous.
I have an enormous sense of accomplishment after every dive.

  • Ian Hanness runs Ocean Soul Watersports & Diving,
    07889 430570, www.oceansoulwatersports.com

  • this
    this hand signal indicates a setpoint of 0.7
    a
    a tap of the mouthpiece indicates to clear it
    A
    A system of special hand signals was devised for Mark Threadgold - pulling one finger means select setpoint
    two
    two fingers indicates a setpoint of 1.3
    drawing
    drawing circles on his palm means deploy SMB
    and
    and pulling his thumb up tells him to ascend
    Spreading
    Spreading Marks arms tells him to
    Mark
    Mark receives his certification from Ian Hanness