BRAVO DIVER, TWO BELLS GIVEN, two bells returned. Diver go to end of jackstay,” reports the tender for Bravo team to the Chief Petty Officer, who is sitting at a desk set back from the water’s edge.
“Understood,” the CPO replies, noting down the time, and that the diver is beginning the search.
All very normal for Royal Navy divers undergoing their basic training at the Defence Diving School at Horsea Island, but this diver is a teenage girl – a member of the Sea Cadets.
Although the diving facility at Horsea has been closed to the public, military training continues at the Portsmouth site. It is also used by the Sea Cadet Corps’ National Diving Section for its annual Naval Acquaint course.
Diving in the Sea Cadets is run to British Sub Aqua Club standards and procedures, and all divers are BSAC members. Many Sea Cadet units have diving sections, which train and dive as any BSAC branch would, but with the preponderance of beginner training and newly qualified divers, few diving sections have the resources for more advanced training and diving – hence the National Diving Section.
The Naval Acquaint course aims to give diving cadets and staff a taste of the training an RN diver would undergo, learning skills and completing exercises based on Navy diver training.
THE CADETS ARE IN THE MIDDLE of a search exercise, where divers in scuba gear with full-face masks and drysuits operate as roped divers, searching for a missing object (a plastic bottle filled with gravel and sand) using a jackstay search pattern.
This involves feeling with fingertips in the silty bed of the old torpedo-range lake for the bottle, while following a jackstay line out and back from the quay wall.
The search is controlled by a second member of the team acting as rope tender, passing signals by pulls (longer tugs) and bells (short jerks) on the line.
The day begins with cadets and staff in uniform, standing at attention while “Sir” or “Ma’am” conducts an inspection and briefs them.
Then it’s a quick change into anything more comfortable for the morning PT, starting with warm-up exercises, then a run, and finishing with a scramble into drysuits for a swim halfway across the lake and back without fins.
All through the run and swim, cadets cheer encouragement at each other. “Use your arms!” and “Breaststroke legs!” are popular calls to divers who have forgotten that they aren’t wearing fins, and are lagging behind the pack.
Prohibited from using the ladders during the morning swim, getting out of the water requires teamwork as impromptu groups form to push and pull each other onto the quayside, about 60 cm above the lake’s surface.
There is rivalry in completing any task first, but not at the expense of whatever teamwork is necessary to ensure that everyone finishes.
Real diving then commences, with roped divers conducting jackstay searches. For the week of the course, the cadets are split into two eight-diver teams, Alpha and Bravo. At any time each team has a diver in the water, a rope-tender communicating with the diver, a standby diver sitting fully kitted, and several dressers and helpers tidying ropes and filling cylinders.
For safety, a staff diver stays in the water as a buddy to keep an eye on each roped diver – this is after all a club.
OFTEN THE STAFF DIVERS are staff cadets who have completed the Naval Acquaint training in previous years and are back to have some fun and help out.
I catch on after a while. Those who have completed the course and earned the “diver” rating wear combat trousers with their uniforms, while those under training wear blue.
Similarly, some of the trainees are staff – petty officers and officers from cadet units, but for the purposes of the Naval Acquaint course back on the cadet side of the fence.
“Bravo diver, five bells received, five bells returned. Object found.”
The Bravo diver has completed the search. The tender signals the diver to return to the quayside end of the jackstay and surface. Dressers stand by to coil the rope as the tender takes in the slack and assists the diver up the ladder.
Back at the kitting-up bench, strict protocol is observed. Gas remaining is called out, and the dressers help the diver remove kit.
“Stay to the front of the bench,” a CPO calls out as a dresser strays to the rear, where it’s easier to reach a cylinder tap. On board ship, there may not be access behind the bench.
“Sir” and “Ma’am” are the Sea Cadet officers in charge of the course. Then there are POs, the CPOs (or “Chief”), and “Chief Diver”, the CPO in charge of diving operations.
It’s very military, but I am reminded that all are having fun when I surface from a dive to find “Ma’am” wearing a fleecy chicken hat and a black nose.
Cadets and staff know instinctively where the dividing line between military and fun lies, without undermining the chain of command.
Morning dives completed, training continues with jumping from a platform cantilevered out about 4m above the lake. For readers familiar with Horsea before it closed to recreational diving, this is the lower of the two platforms.
Ropes are attached to divers but left slack, there purely for contingency purposes. Fins are worn, but no heavy kit. Divers must observe a strict technique as they jump: legs straight, ankles together and toes pointed, nose pinched, elbows in tight to the chest and head looking straight ahead.
Some cadets adopt manic expressions and step straight out when their turn comes. Others are more cautious, and take gentle coaxing from staff and the rest of their team before taking a step tentatively into the void.
It looks a bigger drop when you’re on the edge of the platform, looking down at the water between your toes.
All cadets have big grins as they climb back onto the quayside. Some are required to repeat the jump to correct a point of technique, eyes ahead and pointed toes being the most common corrections. Others just want to do it again for the thrill of it.
Now cadets must climb another set of steps to the upper platform, at twice the height. This time just about all of them hesitate, if only briefly, before stepping off the board.
After lunch, it’s back to diving. One team continues with jackstay searches, while the other makes an endurance dive along the length of the lake.
Pairs of divers are buddylined together and follow a permanent line along the muddy bottom. The objective is to reach the other end of the 1km-long lake within 45 minutes, towing an SMB, and surface with 50 bar remaining.
It isn’t a simple race. Pairs of divers start at five-minute intervals, with strict instructions not to overtake. Swimming too fast uses too much air; swimming too slowly wastes time and more air, and runs the risk of the next pair catching up and being held up.
All these mistakes are made by one or more teams through the afternoon.
One pair barely progresses 25% of the way along the lake, foolishly diverted by looking at crabs and other marine life.
The pair behind surface frustrated when they run into their fins, but don’t get tempted to overtake.
Another pair makes a false turn onto one of the many lines that cross the lake. They have to be signalled to surface by their SMB line before getting a boat ride back to the start to begin again, but with a fair part of their air already used.
THERE ARE SUCCESSES, however. One pair is within 100m of the far end when they surface. With no measure of distance, they were oblivious to how close they were until they surfaced to see the lock gates.
With this experience behind them, they will make it all the way when they repeat the exercise, as will the other divers. The small stature of most of the teenagers gives them an advantage over adult divers, once they learn to chill out and get less excited.
The staple exercise of jackstay searches becomes more complicated, as the divers’ full-face masks are blacked out with tape and bin liners, or a purple swimming-cap stretched across a mask.
Regular rope-signals maintain communication and control from the surface. A diver who is persistently tardy returning a signal, or gives too many inappropriate signals, risks having the standby diver sent in after him or her.
In fact, the Chief Diver makes a point of sending every standby diver in “to the rescue” at some point. It’s all part of the training.
For those who watched Cuba Gooding Jr in Men of Honour, in which he trains as a US Navy diver, the next exercise will be familiar. The cadet divers have to assemble a pipe-flange from parts dropped to the seabed, and a canvas bucket full of nuts and bolts.
Additional rope-signals to those practised so far are needed to lower and raise the bucket of bolts and tools, and to lower a loose end of rope to tie onto the completed pipe-flange assembly.
Assembling the pipe and flange is harder than it looks. The parts have to be aligned properly, but there is nothing flat and level on which to lay them for alignment, and while holding the parts of the flange together the first nut and bolt has to be fiddled into place.
Luckily the water is relatively warm, so most of the cadets don’t need diving gloves, or even hoods.
With the first bolt holding the assembly loosely together, a second bolt stops the flange parts from spinning around each other, and subsequent bolts then go in far more easily.
Finally, the bolts have to be tightened, but in the right order and not too much at a time, to keep the sections aligned. It takes the first diver about 40 minutes.
Subsequent divers have a slight advantage, especially those who help to take the whole thing apart again when it’s hauled onto the quayside between dives. They are more familiar with the task by the time they do it under water.
DIVING COMPLETED FOR THE DAY, it’s time for a work-out, based on the RN divers’ fitness exercise. Every day Navy divers do a few fitness circuits that involve jumping off the top platform, swimming with fins halfway across the lake, hauling in one side of an inflatable boat and out the other, then swimming to the far side before running round the end and back to the start.
The seriously fit Navy divers do about 10 circuits, though I never counted.
The Sea Cadets do a single timed circuit, in teams Alpha and Bravo. They are allowed to help each other in and out of boats and out of the water, but not to carry each other. All cadets must finish under their own steam.
Team Alpha goes first, Bravo team and the staff cheering them on from the side, though I also note the more canny Bravo members swapping notes on how they can improve on Alpha’s strategy.
Who should go first so as to get to the Gemini boat in the middle and help others in Who should go last and help stragglers Should they stay as a pack, or spread out
While Bravo swim across the lake, I make my way round it to photograph them climbing out of the water, then run ahead to catch them running back round the end of the lake.
As I approach the quay, I hear the staff and Alpha team cadets cheering: “Come on, John, you can do it!”
Just the encouragement I need to get back and turn round in time to catch the cadets running behind me. I’m glad to say I didn’t let DIVER down, but then, I hadn’t just swum the width of the lake, and I wasn’t running in a drysuit.
“Five bells received, five bells returned; diver Liddiard has completed work.”
Most divers could learn a lot from a one-week Naval Acquaint course along similar lines to the Sea Cadets’ course – even if the morning PT doesn’t prove to be to everybody’s liking.