Divernet

CAMPING AND GETTING UP BEFORE 6AM ARE TWO THINGS I DONT DO ANY MORE. So I felt confused to be listening to the 5am news as I pulled out of my drive with a tent in the back of the van along with my dive kit. This trip was just starting and already I had broken two of my own rules!
I had, however, chosen wisely to leave so early. Two others who were supposed to be on the boat never made the first dive. They left an hour after me and were held in the vice-like grip of the M25.

the one and only
Our boat left just as most people were getting to work. We headed for one of the rarer sites on the West Sussex coast, Nab Tower.
You can just see it from the shore at Bracklesham, jutting out on the horizon like a branchless tree in a desert. The structure was clearly big and as lonely as Wordsworths cloud, and this breathed some life into my enthusiasm.
It takes around 20 minutes in Wittering Divers RIB to reach the tower, which was originally intended to form part of Britains submarine defences in World War One.
While the Germans and Austrians quickly realised the potential of submarine warfare, Britains Admiralty was a little slow on the uptake. But as ships started to disappear, it became obvious to Winston Churchill, then First Sea Lord, that something had to be done.
Sonar had yet to be invented, so the only forms of defence available were ability to read German naval cipher codes to find out where the U-boats were heading, and a pair of binoculars. Not the greatest defensive plan, especially when your enemy sneaks up and runs a torpedo into your hull before you can say: Is that a periscope
So, to prevent U-boats running in undetected on the approaches to the south coast, it was decided to construct watchtowers and string metal cables between them. Building work started in 1918, which the historically astute will recognise as the year in which the Germans threw in the towel.
A couple of towers were finished, but only one ever made it to the water. The rest were eventually dismantled, a shame considering that 21 years later the U-boat threat returned.
The remaining floater was towed out to Nab Reef and sunk close to Nab Rock, with a light attached to warn ships of the obstruction close by. The light was manned by three men, joined for a short time during World War Two by a gun crew which shot down three and a half (the other half was assigned to a boat crew) enemy aircraft.
I tell you all this to show how old the tower is and to indicate the kind of action it has seen. It looks knackered.
There is still a light on top, operated by Trinity House, and it looks like a shiny new bonnet on an abandoned car.
The Nab Tower has been at sea for 84 years, been shot at by aircraft and boats and even struck by a freighter which failed to see the light in 1998, so you have to feel a little sorry for it.
Below the waterline, the tower sits on a hollow circular pedestal of concrete that steps down to the sea floor at 24m. Because of its location east of the Isle of Wight, tidal currents make diving tricky.
It is best done on slack water during a neap tide; the smaller the tidal range, the better. Slack during a spring is virtually non-existent, and you wouldnt want to be swept off the structure, as it could be a while before anyone found you.
The first ledge is in 6-8m, depending on tide, the next at 11-13m. The last is in around 16m and then the sea floor is reached at 24-27m. There is little growth on the smooth concrete, only a covering of sediment, but that hasnt stopped a lot of fish congregating. As soon as we reached the second ledge a shoal of bib closed around us.
We carried on over the ledges in 6m viz to the shell-covered bottom. This was flat and featureless, so after a couple of minutes we returned to the ledges and almost immediately were surrounded by bass. Fishermen would give their right arms to sweep this area.
The healthy fish flitted about like six-year-olds on a sugar rush. Among them were a couple of big mullet and the odd wrasse, but they were like that bloke who walked the marathon in a Standard Dress diving suit compared to Paula Radcliffe.
Bass are a magnificent athletic species and should not end up served with string beans and half a lime. Would we treat Linford Christie like that
We circumnavigated the tower twice while ascending slowly. A part of it, on the south side, was a bit of a junkyard - the remnants of that collision five years ago. But the tower remains a testament to the Sussex workmen who built it.

bread and lemon curd
The tide was turning to come in as we reached shore. The sun shone and the day couldnt have been better. I took my cylinder to be filled and contemplated lunch.
I hadnt been camping since I was a nipper, when my mother sorted out the culinary arrangements. The night before I had stood perplexed in Tesco, wondering what one takes camping.
I had no stove or kettle, so hot stuff was out of the question. I had none of those blue things that come out of the freezer and stay cold, so no fresh produce either.
I had ended up with two large bottles of water, four Granny Smiths, a loaf of granary bread and a jar of lemon curd. It seemed a good idea at the time, but sitting in my van cutting a hunk of bread onto which to smear yellow goo, I realised my error. Man cannot survive on bread alone, even with lemon curd on it.
I ate it, then went and bought a proper sandwich. It was infinitely better.

were the romans here
Because of the strong tidal influence on the area, our second dive wasnt until 3pm.
The area around Selsey Bill was dry land 2000 years ago and the site was thought to have once been the mouth of a river. Archaeologists have traced the remains of a Roman road which connects with the existing Chichester road as well as an old quarry. The Mixon Hole, as the dive is called, is more like a basin now and is geologically fairly odd.
The seabed around the Mixon is 6-8m deep and much of it dries out on a low-water spring, but the hole descends steeply to about 26m. The top of the reef is covered in algae and fish life, but once over the lip the rock face is barren.
Archaeologists believe that the Mixon had a Roman fort on top, because stones in the wall appear to have been cut by human hand. The sides are straight and the corners at right angles. And on the bare, almost flat seabed sit several huge, rounded stones, thought by some to have come from a catapult inside the fort - a Roman artillery piece.
The current is fierce here so the Mixon is a slackwater dive only, but even on a neap the dive window is short. When the current starts to run there is only one thing to do and thats to go with it and surface.
After an interesting dive on which we discovered a one-clawed lobster, the boulders and the wall, the current started to pick up, so we launched the delayed SMB and surfaced.
When all the divers in sight had climbed aboard, we were still missing one pair. Wittering Divers Jan Van Der Oust guessed that they had been carried by the current towards the Isle of Wight, the suns glint on the water preventing us seeing them clinging to their buoy. Luckily his theory proved right, and they were eventually picked up about two miles away. It gave my respect for the sea an instant boost.
The tide was still out when we got back to shore, so we could not moor close to the jetty. It meant trudging back in full kit. Why is this so much harder than going out to the boat
My legs started to wobble as I reached the bottom of the ramp, and by the top I must have looked like a 90-year-old woman with her shopping. It was a pathetic sight, but I managed to find some vestige of dignity and kept going, rather than slumping into a heap on the car-park floor.

I hate camping!
After dumping my cylinder I had one more important job before dinner - putting the tent up. A notice at the campsite informed patrons that anyone not signed in would be asked to leave. I am always tempted to test such signs, but the thought of spending the night among wet dive kit in the back of my van didnt appeal, so I paid£24 for two nights (who told me that camping was cheap) and found a quiet spot under a tree.
The tent I had borrowed turned out to be huge, and it was a bitch to erect. I laid everything out and tried to put it up the way I thought it should be. Ten minutes and a lot of swearing later I looked at the instructions. Always make sure you practise erecting the tent before actual use... they began.
Now they tell me. Who would think youd need Stephen Hawking-like intelligence to assemble some poles and drape canvas over them PADI should do a Camping Diver speciality.
Others around me seemed simply to pick up a small bag, throw it in the air and before the bits and pieces hit the floor they had morphed into a fully functioning tent.
Had I been as incompetent at diving, someone would have offered to help. Did any campers raise their heads and offer friendly advice Did they hell!

is that a cannon
I didnt get a lie-in because a crow cawing in the tree above woke me at 4am, but I was looking forward to a morning spent diving an early 18th century shipwreck.
Such an opportunity is rare. A handful of such wrecks are accessible to divers but the regulations are rigid.
For HMS Hazardous you must be added to the licence from English Heritage for the day, and can dive only with an accredited dive centre, in this case Wittering Divers.
The Hazardous is in very shallow water near the beach, so a bit of wind and you can forget it.
2002 had been windy, and Wittering Divers had yet to dive the Hazardous that year, so it was an exciting prospect, if problematic. However, as someone whose projects are usually blown out, I was surprised to find that conditions were suitably calm.
I could go into the vessels history as it was explained to us, how it came to its resting place and how two blokes out looking for shellfish found it 20 years ago, but its too good a story to get lost among these ramblings, so Ill write it up for a future Diver.
To most divers, a 6m dive on a glorious Saturday would seem a little pointless. The viz was never going to be any great shakes and, after 300 years, little of the vessel is recognisable.
Yet thanks to the pre-dive lecture, in-water info cards and numbered pegs at points of interest, kindly weather and current and decent visibility, the Hazardous came together as one of the most interesting dives I have done.
After the dive, the Englishness of the project hit home. The HMS Hazardous Project team is doing a wonderful job against great odds, but suppose this was the USS Hazardous, in a bay off South Carolina. How many millions would the Americans throw at preserving such a vessel In 20 years the HMS Hazardous Project has received a handsome£130 from the British Government, which was quick to slap a protection order on the wreck but then turned its back.
That hasnt stopped the team detailing and preserving the site and restoring many artefacts. After the dive you can see its interesting exhibition, but it is tucked away in a small room at a local tourist attraction. These finds are worthy of a dedicated museum. In a country in which we trip over history, we are still wasting some serious resources.

once there were sharks
A seam of clay runs off the South Downs and swirls into the waters around the Isle of Wight. A large part lies inside Bracklesham Bay and is known as the Fossil Beds.
The clay was once the sediment held by a tropical sea full of sharks and manta-like rays. Something catastrophic must have happened, like the sea drying up, leaving a large concentration of these predators. This dive site earned its name from the number of sharks teeth and manta mandibles found there.
The teeth are brilliantly preserved examples of a number of species, including raggedtooth, requiem and even mackerel shark. Youre supposed to find them all over the place, if you know what to look for. They are not white like normal sharks teeth, but black and brown - in fact, rock in the shape of sharkss teeth.
I didnt find one. The beds cover a large area and I found a place that seemed to have been picked-over already. The best time to find the most fossils is in the early summer, after winter storms have broken the clay up further.
The seabed has plenty of critters to keep you amused if, like me, you come away empty-handed.

upended
Also in the bay, sheltered from raging currents and in shallow water, is the wreck of a WW2 US landing craft. The vessel was strafed by a daring German E-boat while undergoing training and never got to drop GIs on the beaches at Normandy.
Riddled with bullet holes, the flat-bottomed vessel sank, turning turtle as it did so and settling on the 7m bottom. A buoy line is tied to the prop-guard, the wrecks highest point.
Visibility looked good at 4m and I was bathed in glorious sunshine as I rolled off the RIB. There was no current and at 3m I could see the outline of the wreck.
It was bigger than I expected. I have played Medal of Honour II on Playstation and the landing craft looked smaller. Even in Saving Private Ryan they didnt appear to be so long, but its difficult to get a sense of size under water when looking at a crumbling structure lying upside-down.
We swam along the starboard side from the stern and much of the wreckage was broken to the seafloor, although it rose towards the flat ramp which took the place of a pointed bow. The bow is relatively intact and its possible to swim inside the open hull. Sunlight streamed in, illuminating numerous bib, pollack, mullet and bass.
It was glorious, yet the true horror of war has been lost to my generation. What must it have felt like to be a young man standing in such a boat under fire from a large-calibre machine-gun
Im not sure that enough divers recognise the sheer violence that occurred in order to provide them with something to do on a Sunday afternoon.
Those were my thoughts as my hand settled on the seabed - and started to vibrate. Startled, I quickly raised my arm and a Dover sole shot from its hiding place. When it comes to camouflage, theyre good!
It settled closer to the wreck and proceeded to blend its body, Invisible Man-style, into the background. No wonder I hadnt seen it!

how long have I been down
The hour up, we surfaced into a different world. Gone was the sun or any hint of blue in the sky. Soon after, as we waited for the last divers, the heavens opened.
Zipping along in a RIB in the pouring rain offers the advantage that you dont have to worry about washing the salt from your gear, but the sensation is akin to being shot-blasted. I was glad to get ashore.
My underwater journey had been a swirl of history, a damper version of watching BBC2. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if the British weather had tested my resolve to live under canvas again.
As if to say farewell in style, as I left the confines of Selsey Bill and the Witterings the sky turned the colour of a deep bruise and, like a popped water balloon, emptied its contents all over the Sussex countryside.

Part
Part of the frame used by archaeologists on HMS Hazardous
what
what is suspected to be a slingshot ball at the bottom of the hole
Bib
Bib on the Nab Tower debris field
now
now thats what you call a warning buoy!
Wreckage
Wreckage of the landing craft in Bracklesham Bay
one
one of the cannon from HMS Hazardous

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Wittering Divers is located in the small village of East Wittering on the eastern side of the Selsey Bill headland. From Chichester take the A286, then join the B2198, signposted the Witterings, and follow it almost to the end. Turn right at the garage as you reach Bracklesham, which is where the slipway is. The dive centre is off to the left as you enter the main part of the village.
DIVING & AIR: Wittering Divers, 01243 672031, www.witteringdivers.com. Diving takes place from Bracklesham slipway. Parking costs£3 for the day. Diving HMS Hazardous is strictly controlled and Wittering Divers runs several courses a season, best booked in advance.
ACCOMMODATION: Gavin Parsons stayed at Stuarts Farm campsite, a five-minute walk from the dive centre and the rest of town. There are other sites and for those less optimistic about outdoor survival skills some B&Bs, but these get booked up in the summer.