King Edward's diving lessons
QUESTION: “WHAT WILL THE VIS be like, sir” Answer: “Maybe three or four metres, before you touch anything. Afterwards, zero!”
The question was put as we were pounding up the M6 towards Windermere for the “Debris Dive” organised by Paul Rose in March last year. To their credit, even if they had not fully thought it through until then, students Jake and Jack were not put off.
They duly did their two clearance dives with a couple of hundred other divers, one dive from a marina jetty and the other from a rather precarious barge.
They stirred up the silt well and truly, and pulled out everything from tyres to rubber balls in the effort to clear the Bowness lake-bottom of rubbish.
And then it was back to school, to Lower Sixth classes for Jake, now a Rescue Diver, and GCSE revision for Master Scuba Diver Jack. Another moment had passed in the life of King Edward’s School Dive Club.
So how does a secondary school get a dive club The answer is simple – it’s a great way for teachers to keep diving!
Teaching isn’t a great job for a diver. All the good travel offers and club trips take place in school term time and, as soon as we finish term, all the flights and trips suddenly cost a lot more.
On the other hand, teaching does give us a captive audience of young people, and the chance to switch them on to our sport. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham we have been developing the dive club for five years or so, and it has become quite an established feature of school life for more than 50 students and teachers.
We have developed a basic annual routine: try-dives in November, an Open Water course or two in the spring, and a couple of trips to the Med in the summer holidays. Currently these trips are to Gozo, where we have friends in the dive industry who can offer students a range of good diving experiences at rock-bottom prices.
Within the framework of this routine, we are always on the look-out for other opportunities, and we slot in local diving when we can, to build experience and keep up skills.
All our diving is run through the school’s Combined Cadet Force, which as a Ministry of Defence-sponsored youth organisation gives us access to MoD expertise and support.
This includes approved instructors, and makes life easier in many ways (though not in terms of MoD paperwork, which is Byzantine in its complexity!).
Students can join the cadets in year 10, and in the autumn of that year all our new Navy and Army cadets (about 40) get a free try-dive.
This is usually their first experience of diving. They don’t know what to expect, and we do it gently – a very structured start, until they get used to breathing through the reg and being under water.
IT DOESN’T STAY GENTLE for long. Teenagers know no fear! Before long it’s underwater Frisbee – sounds tame enough, but it can resemble underwater rugby, complete with scrums and tackles! It takes close supervision, but it certainly gets the enthusiasm going.
The students tend to come out with a smile, and about a quarter usually sign up for an Open Water course.
At the same time in the autumn term there is a lot more going on – planning for the summer trips, the odd specialist course, and quarry dives for the established divers.
We use Dosthill, our local dive-site, a lot – it is familiar to our divers from their training, and offers a lot of experience.
Depth ranges from 8m to 22m at Dozzi, and navigation is straightforward, although the students don’t always think so. It doesn’t help that the sunken caravan seems to move around now and again, and the Parcel Force van can look quite different according to whether its doors are open or shut. Or how much roof it has left!
If the dive schools have got there first, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, because you can’t see it anyway!
The conditions can vary a lot too, which builds up experience for students in assessing conditions and planning accordingly. Mostly it goes roughly to plan.
Only once have we pulled a dive after entering, and that was on a New Year’s dive in 2013, when there had just been a landslip and the vis was shocking.
Seven minutes in, we were all having trouble seeing each others’ bubbles or the wall, and made the call to turn round and return to the entry point.
We emerged having gained 13 minutes’ dive time and a valuable experience for our divers, including one who was then a trainee Divemaster.
You plan the dive, but you don’t dive the plan if things are not as expected.
We do drum into our divers that testosterone shouldn’t be the master. Discretion is always the wiser course.
There is no shame in pulling a dive if circumstances change, or if you just don’t feel up for it (in fairness to Dosthill, I should say that all was back to normal in a matter of weeks.)
Open Water courses in the spring take up six Wednesday evenings each of classroom and pool time, followed by a weekend at – you’ve guessed it, Dozzi again. Not always warm or dry, but that’s UK diving and they might as well get used to it… and it really makes them appreciate getting out!
On the positive side, the sausage-and-egg baps are magnificent, and there is an endless supply of hot tea available.
The pass record is good. We have never had a cadet fail to complete eventually, despite the odd problem with colds, ears or – on one memorable and painful occasion – teeth, which has meant delaying completion to a later date.
Alongside the initial training, there are dives for the older students. The course weekends give a parallel chance for school staff to take older lads diving, to keep skills current and build experience.
WE GO FURTHER AFIELD, TOO.
We have run a number of trips to Lancashire’s Capernwray, our favourite inland site. You can’t beat Capers: it is warmly welcoming, and it opens at a sensible time, so you don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn – which really matters if you have teenage boys with you.
The site has a huge range of underwater attractions, and it’s brilliant for nav practice – even if it can be disconcerting to think you are heading for the oil-rig and end up facing off an airliner. Or, as students Rob and Andy did, to think you are heading for the diving-bell and to come up on a different wall entirely.
But hey, the other wreck was just as interesting, and the recovery was a real challenge which – in a zigzag kind of fashion – was mastered in the end. And the sturgeon is always worth seeing.
The ultimate challenge is finding the big yellow Wessex helicopter, but it can be done, and even if you miss you can’t get too lost in a quarry.
More importantly, there is a café where the sausage-and-egg baps are as good as those at Dozzi, but you can go indoors in your drysuit and eat in the warm (Stoney Cove, please note).
We keep the programme varied, too. We learn a lot from our occasional visits to the Midlands Diving Chamber in Rugby – a dry dive to 40m in the pot gives a lot of insight into narcosis, and a great deal of laughter too, especially when you’re falling about listening to everyone talking like Donald Duck.
The puzzles we have to do at 40m never seem that tough at the time – it’s only when you are back to 25m or so that you suddenly realise that you have made a complete idiot of yourself, and maybe you were narked after all. Or perhaps ageing teachers just can’t do puzzles.
What about the coast We’ve run a Portland trip with a local dive centre, and have a Plymouth one projected to dive the Scylla, but there are two problems.
First, UK weather – to plan everything, give up a weekend in a busy term, drive down and then be blown out is pretty miserable, and it has happened.
Somehow Weymouth Sealife Centre, although quite fun, doesn’t match up to getting up close to the sea life.
Second, with most our divers pretty limited in their experience, inland sites are generally a less risky proposition, and when you’re diving with other people’s children you need to take this into account. There are no tides, currents, boats or lost divers in your average quarry, and still lots of good diving.
And, of course, there’s always Gozo. Sun, sea and a welcome change at the end of the summer term – this is the climax and highlight of the year for our diving.
We stay in Marsalforn and dive with local guides, using the excellent facilities of Gozo Aquasports. Self-catering apartments and local vehicle hire keep things cheap and accessible, and so do mate’s rates at the wonderful Smiley’s bar and restaurant.
If you’re in Marsalforn in late July, and you see a large group of young people with a few adults at a big table outside Smiley’s, it’s probably us.
THE DIVING IS GREAT, and it can be varied to meet the needs and experience levels of any group. With every side of the island available, we’ve never yet been blown out completely.
The worst that can happen is that a favourite dive-site may be undiveable, forcing us to try somewhere else.
The underwater topography is fantastic, with swim-throughs, arches, chimneys and pinnacles.
There is plenty of life, from seahorses to barracuda, and the odd chance of spotting something bigger, while even a novice on his fifth dive (that’ll be a check-dive in Xwejni Bay, then) can find an octopus if he’s lucky.
A boat-trip gives access to the Comino Caves, and the P31 patrol-boat is a diveable wreck for all. The Gozo wrecks are accessible to anyone qualified to 40m, and you can do a good fly-by at 30m.
Importantly, too, for the UK-qualified diver, there is a lot of gentle, relaxing diving in warm, clear water. Our recently qualified divers can develop their experience of basic dive skills in a new context, and some complete the qualifying dives for the PADI Advanced certification while they are there.
For our more experienced students, in the 6th Form, there is the chance to gain experience of dive-site assessment, dive-planning, navigation and dive leadership. This should make them better divers when they move onto the next stage of life.
What do they do then Many divers who started with King Edward’s are enjoying holiday-diving or diving with their university clubs; several have qualified in the UK as Rescue Divers, and two are now Divemasters and putting something back in for the next generation.
As for the staff, it’s a lot of planning, risk-assessment, paperwork and creating of opportunities, but we get a great deal out of seeing our students progress – the huge smile after qualifying, or at the end of a good dive, pays for a lot.
And it isn’t always the best classroom students who make the best divers, so
it’s good to provide a different kind of opportunity. That goes for the staff, too.
I teach philosophy, and our diving-staff team includes teachers of physics, maths and classics. We all enjoy getting ourselves and our students out of the classroom and doing something completely different.
I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO RETIRING and taking my trips in school term, but that won’t happen for a while (even if my Head did wistfully ask in my last appraisal when I might be planning to retire!).
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of diving to be done, and we’ll maybe see you outside Smiley’s in Marsalforn.
My thanks to the King Edward’s School Dive Team – Mike Follows, Beccy Leaver, Eleanor Wareing and my wife and dive buddy Caroline Raynor – for helping to make it all happen, and for sharing in the planning, the driving, the hard graft, the laughs, the paperwork, the sausage baps, the kit-humping – in short, all the varied fun of diving.