ONE OF THE THINGS I HAVE ALWAYS LIKED about the Professional Association of Diving Instructors is the modularisation of its training. It enables people to add to their diving repertoire in small, manageable chunks, tailoring training to suit location and personal interests.
One of the courses PADI offers qualified divers is its Wreck Speciality. Craig Nelson and I decided to make it one of the three we were checking out during our stay with Red Sea Diving College in Sharm el Sheikh. After the TDI Cavern Course under the Brecon Beacons (Beginning to Lose the Light, January), I figured it was about time I gave him something easier to photograph.
I make no apologies for our frequent returns to the Red Sea; indeed, it is a deliberate move on my part as it is the overseas diving destination most frequented by Diver readers. At just five hours and £300-£500 from the UK, it has masses to offer us northern Europeans, not least the ability to undertake speciality courses all year round.
It was a struggle for my instructor, PADI veteran and avid technical diver Terry Johnson, to restrict his teaching to the entry-level curriculum. With his wealth of experience, he found it difficult not to expand on each topic. Call me old-fashioned, but being taught by someone with too much knowledge is what I call a nice problem to have.
With no dedicated classroom session required on this two-day course, we headed straight for the first of the wreck sites we would be using; that of the Dunraven, located within the boundaries of the Ras Mohammed National Park at Beacon Rock.
Built in 1873, the Dunraven was on her way to Newcastle loaded with timber and Bombay spices when she went down just three years later. As local legend has it, after discovering that his wife was having an affair with the first mate, the captain got drunk and rammed her into a reef (the boat, not his wife).
This legend would seem to be substantiated (at least the drunken bit) by the fact that the Dunraven sank in calm weather with all portholes open. She now lies upturned some 20m from the reef in 30m of water.
On route, we made a start on the theory by reviewing the first part of the PADI manual. This dealt with wreck law and salvage rights. The information has to be applicable to a global readership, so it was predictably bland and pretty boring.
The rest of the two-hour journey was more interesting, taken up with reviewing practical matters such as rudimentary line-laying skills, wreck-penetration and the use of independent air sources, such as pony bottles and twin-sets. All these subjects could form the basis of courses in their own right, so it was a little frustrating that the material only skimmed over each one.
On arrival at the dive-site, Terry briefed me on the dive plan. We would be using the Dunraven primarily for practice, so Dive One would be undertaken as if it was an information-gathering exercise with a view to future penetration of the wreck.
My tasks included sketching a map of the site, recording depths, features and general condition of the structure. I also had to note possible penetration points and any useful navigational aids, such as the wrecks proximity to the nearby reef.
We dropped down the reef wall, making use of the light current to drift onto the bow section before making our way down the massive upturned hull until the huge single screw came into view.
I started making my map of the wreck, including as much detail as I could. This task was made particularly challenging because I had neglected to bring anything more than my emergency communication slate, which is about 2cm square.
As planned, we then made our way back to the reef while I continued to sketch potential routes into the hull. There were so many of these that the cavernous interior provided a series of swim-throughs rather than true penetration.
Terry had obviously chosen an excellent training site for divers wanting to venture inside a wreck for the first time. It would be virtually impossible to stray outside the very limited safety parameters of the course (never more than 40m from the surface and always in the light zone).
Back on board, it was time to draw out the map in more detail, followed by a debrief during which Terry answered the many questions with which I had surfaced. On the way back, we addressed another course topic - knots.
Its inclusion would seem justified when one considers how often knots need to be tied during any dive trip, from securing the boat to the wreck to fixing a penetration line before entering an interior. Terry was able to add personal tips on which is best for each different application, and my grandmother would have been proud of my efforts.
Was this very late at night or very early in the morning Either way, at 3:30am I remembered why I had never visited the Thistlegorm before.
At 7am I awoke to a clear blue sky and the smell of frying omelettes. We were still an hour from the wreck, but in the distance I could make out the shapes of three boats already moored.
Terry said that dives on the Thistlegorm were always eventful because of the amount of diving traffic. This situation is compounded by the lack of permanent moorings on the wreck, which meant that dive guides had to bounce down to its deck to secure the boat.
It was quite something to see; dive boats whipped around the site as divers holding thick lines ascended and descended all over the place. Im amazed that people arent beheaded by props here on a regular basis.
After breakfast, we kitted up and prepared for our second dive of the class. It would follow much the same format as the day before but with the addition of laying a line on the wrecks outer structure before making a short penetration on the following dive.
Within the first couple of metres of the descent, the shape of the Thistlegorm came into view. Only with the kind of visibility afforded here can you appreciate the scale of this diving monument.
As we were using single cylinders and most of the dive would be spent around 30m, I had time only for a brief look around before getting started on the first task - line-laying.
Most of the reels we buy come supplied with nylon line. These are negatively buoyant so good for wreck-diving, as a lost line will always sink and can be relocated on the floor. Unlike cave-diving, however, there are many opportunities for this usually fine thread to be snagged or cut on sharp, decaying, metal, so care has to be taken in placing it to avoid these hazards.
As Terry had explained, it is very important that it be used as a guide and not to pull yourself along.
I reeled out the line for about 20m, making tie-offs every 3 or 4m for practice. Unlike on the cavern course, I was not short of places to belay the line, as most of the railings and fixtures were still in place.
Apart from the hazard of sharp edges, decaying structures can also mean objects falling. In some cases a divers bubbles may be enough to cause a collapse, so after the line-laying exercise, it was time to make another map that included these potential hazards.
It was a tremendous dive, and as we made our way back up the line I was already looking forward to Dive Two. We had a minor surprise at the surface; the line now took us to the bow instead of the stern. Apparently, a small collision had caused the bowline to break free while we were on the wreck. It seemed that Terrys predictions were already coming true.
After a quick cup of tea, I made a detailed plan for the third and final dive of the course, based largely on the information gathered on the previous recce dive but augmented by Terrys knowledge of the site. This time we would look inside and I would be laying a line as we went.
Well turn around at the wellies, Terry said, after explaining the contents of the hold to me. This seemed a unique use of natural navigation but would risk less confusion than when using rocks as waypoints.
I wont go into the contents of the Thistlegorms holds again here, but this is truly an incredible wreck. There is something bizarrely reassuring about seeing a shell-casing the same size as myself, made purely for destructive purposes, with a small school of graceful bannerfish swimming silently above it.
The dive went according to plan. The sheltered interior of the wreck allowed us to avoid the stiff current, and we even managed to time it to avoid bumping into the now-lunching divers above.
It was fascinating and, were it not for the ascent, would have been a blissfully uneventful dive.
As instructed, we made our way slowly up the line while Terry waited at the bottom for the signal to untie. Halfway to the surface I looked up, only to find that our destination seemed to be a large pile of floating rope. It was distinctly lacking in boat.
Luckily, this is where the popularity of the wreck worked in our favour, because we were surrounded by what looked like a rope forest.
Using some signals not included in the PADI Wreck Speciality manual to convey to Terry the change in our situation, we employed the brisk current to jump across to the line of another boat. This was a little disconcerting, as if we had missed the line the next stop would have been Israel.
Some time later and back on our own boat, it transpired that the skipper had considered it to be a little crowded and cast off, assuming that we would simply use another boat. He was, as it happened, correct. Apparently, this is a fairly normal occurrence in Egypt and considered part of the fun of diving the Thistlegorm.
This entry-level offering covered air-management (rule of thirds), independent alternative air sources, line use - in fact, everything in the manual which the instructor takes the time to teach. I know that some dive outfits teach this course in quarries, and unfortunately PADIs definition allows for a lot of latitude in what and how it is taught, which some will use as an excuse to do the minimum.
Sadly, perhaps this is why PADIs speciality certifications dont carry all the weight they might within the dive industry.
If you stay within the depth and light parameters, the curriculum appears adequate, even in the less-forgiving waters of the UK, but the quality of the course itself is highly dependent on the instructor.
Over the two days, we reviewed the manual content and were able to conduct practical sessions in all the specified skills, albeit only once, so it was more like a taster session than an exhaustive preparatory process. There is definitely room for PADIs technical arm DSAT to pick up the baton and take the next step to a full-blown overhead course.
The supporting video and manual are very well-written if a little patronising and contain a lot of useful information, but be warned, they do spend a considerable chunk of time pushing other complementary products.
Even at this most basic taster level, however, with a conscientious instructor there is scope for a rewarding course.