Wreck 'tec in a day
“DISCOVERY IS JUST THE BEGINNING” we are told in the first line of PADI’s “Wreck Detective” student manual. Only recently launched, this “distinctive” PADI speciality course is produced in conjunction with the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS).
I’m sitting in a roasting-hot classroom at good old inland-dive attraction Vobster Quay. The manual goes on to inform me that “the goal of the course is to teach students to become ‘wreck detectives’.
“By exploring and understanding the wreck sites that divers love to visit, student divers will develop their knowledge and techniques involved in investigating a wreck site while diving within their recreational limits.”
Well, I had rocked up at the dive centre with no real idea of what this inaugural course might involve. I did however wonder how or what we might be investigating wreck-wise in Vobster’s flooded quarry. The course was originally to be run in the sea from Portland in Dorset, where several “proper” wrecks familiar to me can be found only minutes from shore by boat.
The wind had put paid to that plan, however, so here we were with plan B.
I was pleased to hear that revered PADI Course Director Dale Spree would be leading the day’s events, supported by NAS Training Officer Rachel Quick.
WHILE WE WAITED for everyone to arrive, I considered what type of people might wish to enrol on such a course, and as the five students trickled through the door that morning I realised that they were an interesting mixed bag.
One or two stood out immediately as super-keen archaeology types, while the other guys and gals struck me as simply curious about the subject.
Dale introduced the programme, highlighting from the off that this course was simply an “introduction to marine archaeology” and that the format had been designed to “spark imagination”, with a view to newly qualified wreck detectives then taking the subject further.
He suggested that the course might make us look at a wreck-site we had dived on countless occasions with a “new set of eyes”.
I’m sure many of us dive on wrecks to absorb the surrounding marine habitat, observing them more as reefs than as anything of historical value.
Accompanied by a video prompt, Dale went on to suggest the questions a wreck detective might ask in the field, such as: “What happened to the vessel?” and: “What are we actually looking at?” With such questions in mind, we referred to the student manual, and its chapter “Main Shipwreck Features and Identifiers”.
Essentially the manual lists 16 clues that will assist amateur marine archaeologists in their quest to identify the type of wreck on which they are diving. Identifying features includes the anchor, armaments, the ship’s fasteners (rivets and bolts), ballast, steering gear and the bell.
A photograph accompanies each of the items listed, along with a brief explanation of what the identification of that piece of evidence might tell us about the wreck’s history. I wondered how realistic it might be for a wreck detective to discover any remaining ship’s bells, but you never know!
Dale and Rachel asked us to consider whether we might be diving on a metal, wooden or composite wreck (made from both wood and metal).
The course had never intended to suggest that PADI instructors teaching it would necessarily be wreck experts in their own right, which was why Rachel from the NAS was on hand to provide any deeper knowledge that might be required. The PADI instructor’s job here is to promote question-asking and develop the skills for investigation.
Dale, I thought, added interest to the beginning of the course with a generous helping of her own anecdotes and tales, drawing on years of UK diving, and making what the group was learning feel more relevant. She also referred regularly to some of the UK wrecks she had dived and the sort of questions she might ask herself when diving them.
THE SECOND STAGE of the classroom section gave way to how we should go about documenting and recording our findings at a wreck-site, and we learnt the importance of how and why we would begin sketching a wreck.
The manual suggests that you need not be an artist, and gives several examples of wreck sketches and the five key elements a diver should include when drawing them.
Looking at this element, it was easier to understand how this course would be flexible enough to work either at sea or at an inland dive-site, because the diving part of the day would include sketching out a wreck on a large slate.
As the classroom session drew to a close, we started to think about getting our kit together. The last part of the manual and video briefly explained how we might take an investigation further alongside our freshly collected diving evidence, conducting Internet research or searching local and national archives and perhaps historical newspapers or museums.
A PADI course wouldn’t be complete without a certain amount of diving, so we were to carry out two dives on one of Vobster’s attractions, the Jacquin II.
This 15m timber cabin cruiser lies at 20m on the quarry floor so students must be qualified at least to PADI Advanced Open Water or the equivalent and able to maintain neutral buoyancy.
The emphasis of Wreck Detective is not on improving your diving skills, so beginners would have a lot more to think about on top of sketching wrecks.
All the students were armed with a “wreck-site guide” slate and pencil.
The task for dive one was to identify the site’s key features and the surrounding environment of the wreck, which involved ticking off a list of pre-selected features while cruising around it, with an additional box for any notes at the foot of the slate.
The depth and 10° water temperature made for a reasonably short dive and, because of the number of divers at Vobster that day, made for pretty poor visibility too.
After a decent surface interval and something hot and “healthy” from the snack-wagon, it was back to the water for the second and final dive.
DIVE TWO’S TASK was to sketch out the wreck-site, and in a cold environment with limited visibility this was no easy undertaking.
Thankfully there were only the six of us on the course; any more than that might have risked overcrowding the wreck.
Dale finned up and down the Jacquin on both dives to keep tabs on her students, but each buddy-pair appeared more than comfortable diving in that kind of environment and didn’t require much baby-sitting, if any.
Back in the classroom we thawed out and the gang compared their slates. Everyone, it seemed, had brought back something different, but it was of good quality and they had followed the brief.
From the evidence now collected, the students discussed the main identifiable features and the wreck’s construction. The idea was that this evidence could be used to age a ship through investigation, with the real work beginning on dry land.
A quote from the manual concluded the course: “Whether you are planning to carry out a more in-depth project or are just out for a single dive on a wreck-site, the more features you are able to recognise, the more fun and exciting your wreck-dives will become.”
While putting our kit away I talked to the students about where the training might take them next.
“The course was a fantastic introduction to wreck archaeology,” frequent UK diver Martin Simmons told me. “Before, I’d look at a wreck without knowing where the clues were that
might point to any real information. Now, I’m quite sure that wreck-diving will never be the same.”
I asked Jane Maddocks (a BSAC National Instructor and the club’s underwater cultural heritage advisor) why she had enrolled: “I always like to keep up to date so that I can advise members about what’s on offer,” she said. “I’ve always believed that the more I know, the better my advice is.
“BSAC has always enjoyed a good relationship with the NAS,” she went on. “The course was great fun, the level was introductory and a very simple way to get people learning about wrecks”.
BSAC itself runs what I was told was a more advanced Wreck Appreciation course, and RAID?has just launched its own Basic Wreck Course.
Student Dave Midwinter agreed that the course had inspired him. “Even on the first dive on the Jacquin II I was looking at it in a different way, rather than: oh, it’s another wreck of a boat.”
SEVERAL OF THE STUDENTS already had plans to extend their knowledge further. Wreck Detective is an inspirational course rather than in-depth learning, and Dale’s initial comment that the day was about “sparking imagination” hit the nail on the head.
For me, the jury is still out on the course title, although Wreck Detective does line up with PADI’s “fun for all” angle on all things diving.
The classroom work was minimal but informative, with a light knowledge review to complete and emphasis on recording what you see on a dive rather than pinching souvenirs from a wreck, with further investigation in your own time suggested.
The students’ comments spoke volumes and I certainly enjoyed this introduction to the subject.
If you’re looking for the opportunity to investigate a new wreck, many UK dive-clubs, dive-centres and boat-charters will run “lumps and bumps” dive trips on which skippers locate unexplored mounds on the seabed on which you can dive.
You never know, you may even discover one of those highly prized and exceedingly rare ship’s bells!
The PADI/NAS Wreck Detective course price depends on individual dive centres – call your local dive centre or the NAS, which has plans for an interactive map on its website showing where all qualified instructors are located. www.nauticalarchaeologysociety.org