A walk on the deep side
‘It is an unfortunate truth that the greater your accomplishments, the greater the opposition and animosity.’ Jim Bowden – World’s Deepest Diver 1994
MARK RANG ME IN THE UK while I was on holiday. “Can you take something out to Sharm for me when you fly back?”
“Sure, what do you need?”
I regularly picked up accessories like dive computers, reels, floats or even wetsuits. Perhaps Mark had extracted a couple of lighting systems from the sponsors. Maybe it’s just a packet of O-rings:
“I need my new 18-litre steel twin-set brought out for the record attempt.”
It wasn’t exactly hand luggage!
The parent company of Ocean College owned the flights between Gatwick and Sharm. With a letter of introduction and a quick chat with the tour rep I was through. I entered the luggage hall at Sharm el Sheikh Airport to watch Mark’s giant, blue steel tanks curling their way around the carousel wedged between various items of Samsonite and Gucci.
I hoisted them up before they flew off the corner, placing them onto my trolley while holding my breath and contemplating my imminent brush with customs.
“What are these for?”
“I’m on a diving holiday in the Red Sea.”
“But we have tanks here.”
“My air consumption isn’t very good, I’m afraid.”
After three and a half thousand miles and multiple conveyor belts, there wasn’t a scratch on the tanks.
Leigh was waiting outside in the car park in an old Peugeot 504 taxi. He had some news:
“We’re starting in July. Mark is coming over to live here. No more seven-day visits; he’ll get used to the heat if he stays for a few weeks.”
“And the food.”
Mark Andrews arrived in early July, laden with more newly acquired sponsored dive-kit. In the months away from Sharm his deep-diving celebrity status had earned him a slot on Channel Four’s Superhumans TV show.
Strangely, Mark was reluctant to talk about it but Leigh eventually forced the details from him. We gathered around in the cabin of New Age and listened:
“The producer had six of us lined up on exercise bikes for an endurance test.
It was a joke and we barely broke into a sweat. So, I was sat there happily pedalling away when the studio doctor came up and told me to stop. ‘My readings tell me you’re about to have a heart attack and die,’ he announced.
“‘You’ve got to be joking? I do this every day walking the dog; my own mother cycles faster.’”
The doctor reached over and pulled out the power lead of Mark’s bike.
“I was furious. I climbed off the bike, pushed him over a railing and sent him crashing into some TV equipment. The cameras were still running; his legs were in the air and his laptop went flying.”
Mark stormed out of the studio still trailing wires from the ECG machine, with the directors following him. “I managed to boot the laptop against a wall and shove a videographer to the floor.”
Mark rarely lost his cool, but to avoid any escalation he headed straight home.
“They rang me to ask how they could make amends and get me back in the studio. The first thing to enter my head was my newly repaired motorbike sitting in the garage.
“‘You can pay the mechanic’s bill for my bike.’
MARK RETURNED the next day to finish filming but noticed in the line-up of athletes an extra person with a very pale and bald scalp.
“‘What are you doing here, I didn’t see you yesterday?’
“‘I’m an actor. They pulled me in at the last minute because they didn’t think you’d come back. They needed a body-double; I got paid 50 quid to shave my head.’”
The In Deep support crew erupted into hysterics and quickly left the cabin.
The normally cool and controlled Mark Andrews had suffered a short-circuit but it made me wonder: what exactly did the doctor see? Mark had proved doctors wrong before. Did medical expertise and extreme deep diving simply not overlap enough for accurate forecasts? Mark had an answer:
“Short of having an autopsy, which I’m in no hurry for, it’s very difficult to say precisely how the extent of tissue damage affects gases. We’re moving into an area where studies and stats are virtually non-existent. All we have is best guess.”
Mark’s route through diving was long, slow and calculated; a fanatical researcher, few doubted his commitment to safety and risk reduction.
“He probably takes his books and manuals to bed with him,” quipped Leigh early on, while coming to terms with his studious new co-diver.
LEIGH’S ROUTE INTO scuba-diving couldn’t have been more different and, like many professionals, he stumbled into the industry by chance.
“I began on a building site in Tel Aviv. After a few weeks I took a trip by bus and taxi across the Egyptian border and down to Dahab. I snorkelled the Blue Hole and nearly freaked out at the seemingly bottomless blue water.”
Five weeks later it was time to return but Leigh had spent all his cash, overstayed his visa and couldn’t pay the fine at the Taba border gate.
“I was only a week late but they took everything we had down to the last English pound. I even lost my shoes. I walked into Eilat barefoot and found a hostel that gave me a week’s credit.”
Leigh’s financial salvation was construction site work at fifty dollars a day, but after a couple of weeks the novelty of new shoes and digging holes wore thin. “One day I went for a walk around the big marina and noticed several foreigners working on the boats.
“My nautical experience was next to zero, so I took a job on a glass-bottom boat serving soft drinks and handing out life-jackets. I lived on board in a cabin the size of a shoebox.”
Three months later Leigh got wind of a position on a safari-boat; one of the long range multi-berth vessels that travelled to the outer reaches of the Red Sea. They needed a chef but Leigh’s experiences in the kitchen stretched little beyond toasters and electric kettles.
“A friend taught me how to knock up five dishes. Incredibly I got the job and went to sea but the owner wanted fish every day.”
In January 1993 Leigh’s boat moored up for a month in Eilat marina to undergo its yearly maintenance.
“Go see my brother-in-law on the other side of town,” said Shimshon, the six-foot five, 20 stone skipper of the Sun Boat. “He runs a dive-centre and will teach you to scuba-dive. The course is on the house but choose yourself a set of diving equipment and I’ll deduct it from your salary.”
“Looking back, the course was diabolical but great fun. I remember over the four or five days of training having three different instructors, none of whom spoke particularly good English.
“We were four students and during one of the dives the instructor bolted to the surface, leaving us under water until we got fed up and went for a swim.
“When our air ran out we surfaced in the middle of nowhere. Back at the dive-centre they informed us that our missing instructor had suffered a serious tooth-squeeze and was with the dentist.
“They really didn’t seem to give a damn about us.”
NONE THE WISER but with a diving licence and a set of scuba equipment, Leigh set off on the Sun Boat for his first safari. “Shimshon wanted us to have diving licences to spear fish and fill up his bank of large chest-freezers. Once back in port he could sell the fish to local restaurants in Eilat.
“He taught me how to use oversized triple rubber harpoons and shoot fish. Decompression and safety information was a joke.
“‘Just shoot as many big fish as you can, Leigh; best to hang out at around the 50 to 60m mark. Once you’re down to a quarter of a tank ascend to 5m and stay there until you run out of air.’”
“I did two seasons on the Sun Boat and developed a real passion for scuba-diving, especially deep diving and spearfishing. Shimshon kept a mini-arsenal of spearguns, one of which was 8ft long.”
One morning Leigh dropped to depth and fired the aquatic Howitzer, sending the sharp piece of spinning metal into a giant grouper. The enormous fish was big enough to feed the whole boat twice over.
“The grouper swam off, pulling out the entire line from my gun. The next thing I knew I was at 70m, flying through the water with a freeflowing regulator. Shimshon was delighted with the fish but it nearly drowned me.”
Sailing the high seas days from civilisation on a privately chartered safari-boat one could get away with anything, but resort tourism and its well-regulated diving community was something of a wake-up call. “By the time I took my PADI training I’d already done 300 dives. Two hundred of them were below 50m. My new instructor asked me if I wanted to do the deep wreck course.
“‘Sure,’ I said, ‘How deep do we go?’
I was expecting something like 100m, as I’d already been there many times on the Sun Boat. I burst out laughing when he said the course limit was only 30m.”
Leigh left Eilat and settled in Dahab, becoming a scuba instructor in 1996.
The 100 Club was in full swing and the Blue Hole and Dahab Canyon its deadliest venues.
“When I arrived two big stories were circulating around town. The first was a multiple fatality incident in the canyon when an instructor and three guides went for a deep night-dive; none came back.
“The owner of the dive-centre panicked and informed friends of the missing divers that they’d left on a camel-riding safari and he hadn’t seen them since.
“After about a week, with pressure from friends of the missing, he cracked and told them about the night-dive. Two local divers quickly went in search of the bodies but only one came back; five dead in one incident, it’s the biggest single loss in the Red Sea even to this day.
“The other big story was about an instructor and the student he took for a night dive under the arch of the Blue Hole; apparently they had only one torch between them. The instructor came back, the student didn’t.
“His remains are still there today at 115m on the left-hand side. I was told the instructor did a runner and nobody has seen him since.”
UNDETERRED, LEIGH BEGAN WORK at the Dahab Canyon dive-centre and continued his quest of near-suicidal deep diving. Restricted by the parameters of his working activities, he needed a window for the deep. There was only one choice.
“My deep-diving buddy was Penny, an instructor and colleague. Our daily plan was to meet in town first thing and jump in a truck to the canyon, where we’d kit up and dive down to 75m.
“Then it was time for breakfast and a full day’s diving work. By 1996 things were getting out of control and I had a number of near-death experiences.
“One particular dive convinced me that I was living on borrowed time. In our wisdom I dropped to the bottom of the Blue Hole under the arch and sat down at 90m with my friend Dean.
“Our master plan was to inflate our buoyancy jackets full and go flying up to 30m. We figured by stopping at the final third of our depth and progressing slowly from there we wouldn’t suffer the bends.
“Well, it sounded like a good idea and what could possibly go wrong?
I remember reaching 30m, dumping all the gas from my jacket and sinking again but rapidly and out of control.
“I became agitated, realising that I was returning to the bottom; I kicked hard and then, totally overwhelmed by narcosis and carbon dioxide, I blacked out.
“The next thing I remember was being shaken and opening my eyes staring at a wall; I was hanging onto the wall, near the bottom of the Blue Hole with my reg pressed against it.
“Dean saw me plummet back down and came to help. He found me clinging for dear life way past 100m and he woke me up. I felt him inflate my jacket and drop my weight-belt.
“I remember thinking: ‘Why the hell did he drop my belt?’ So I caught the weight-belt on my foot and ascended with it dangling around my fin until stopping in shallow water to replace it around my middle.
“Both of our Aladdin Pro computers displayed huge decompression penalties. We cleared as much as possible until running out of air and surfacing.
“I’d developed a huge passion for the deep but I realised that death was imminent unless I stopped altogether or took formal decompression training.”
A year later Leigh became a trimix diver, finally witnessing the deeper recesses of the Blue Hole with a clear head. He continued deep trimix dives until reaching 150m with Belgian diver and friend Ben Reymenants.
“We’d planned to jointly break the Red Sea record of 202m, but injury forced me out. I became his support and logistics co-ordinator instead.
“I remember feeling very disappointed; I had the tools for the job and the ability to make a serious attempt. I was very excited; I wanted to reach my potential.”
A QUALIFIED DAHAB TEC INSTRUCTOR, Leigh soon built a healthy client base of eager new deep-divers in this maverick Red Sea resort. Adding equipment to his inventory and filling his diary through word of mouth, Leigh was never short of happy customers.
Two local tec divers decided that Leigh had achieved his success at their expense. “They filed a labour report with the local authorities and tried to run me out of town. A short while later I bumped into Mr Tim of the Ocean College. Destiny perhaps.”
|READ THE BOOK|
John Kean’s new book A Walk on the Deep Side is out now on Kindle, price £8.99. His four previous titles, Lost Wife, Saw Barracuda; The Great Buoyancy Scam; ss Thistlegorm and Sharks, Fights and Motorbikes are also available on Kindle, www.amazon.co.uk