My descent, of about 10 meters, almost ended in my being impaled, arse first, on a rusted metal panel that jutted out of the sea bed. It was a small part of a old sand dredging ship which was half submersed in sand, just outside Portland Harbour.
This was our last dive of the weekend. For the trainees it was make or break. Screw up now and the 6 weeks of training and study towards achieving our PADI licence would be in vain.
For me, there was more to it than that. I had unfortunately fallen out with one of the junior Dive Masters, named Dan. He had walked into the changing room that morning to find his girlfriend, Kim, another Junior Divemaster, allowing me to inspect her tattoo covered body, in her see-through, pink underwear... You know, I am not even convincing myself here, but it was totally innocent!
He had given me evil looks since that time. Even now, kneeling at the bottom of the seabed next to the wreck I could see his narrow, blue eyes in his mask. I imagined passing shrimp being fried immediately as they crossed the space between us.
The need for levity was satisfied by Stanley, half man, half Greyhound. For comic effect he suffered the misfortune that I had managed to avoid. He came down hard, butt first, on the large triangular panel of metal. Without sound, it's amazing how much eyes give away ones emotions. That and flailing arms and legs. I laughed hard into my regulator. It almost popped out entirely and let in some cold , salty water which I immediately inhaled. It made me cough and splutter. That would teach me to laugh at others misfortune, I thought.
Steve 'Jellie', the chief Dive Master (DM) brought the 5 trainees together with some hand signals. Down the line we went, each signalling in turn our starting tank air. The trainees were buddied up and allocated a DM. I was delighted to be put with 'Jellie' himself. He was a made you could trust. We found a space and went through the final skills and drills: cramp removal, underwater swim with compass, regulator exchange and finally the one we all dreaded, mask removal, then swim, then mask replace.
This was the most awkward to tasks for various reasons. Firstly, without your mask you can't see anything, the world is totally blurred. Those with contact lenses need to keep their eyes shut, but it's not worth opening them anyway. Secondly, one has to master breathing from your regulator and not use your nose at all. This actually comes with practice, but we hadn't had much of that, so the sea water gets right up, into your sinuses and irritates like hell. Thirdly, the bubbles that come out of your regulator don't help one bit: they rush up your nose and make it entirely uncomfortable.
With eyes shut, you can't see the hand signals from the DM, so the signal to remove the mask is given and then without sight or sound you just have to presume your doing the right thing. You begin by flooding your mask and removing the strap. You keep hold of the mask, for dropping that, like losing a fin, will incur serious beer-fines. With mask firmly I hand you tilt forward and begin to swim in as straight a line as you can manage. You just keep going steadily, kicking your legs. The signal to stop is given by touch, one of the few senses still available to you, and you are grateful when it comes as the rising panic that comes with inhaling so much water and coughing continuously into your mouth-piece is almost irresistible. It is not uncommon for novice dives to become overwhelmed by panic and try to make a break for the surface. " That's how you get bent!" One of the DMs told us.
Two taps on the head. Now it's not over yet. The tricky task of replacing the mask and clearing it of water comes next. Tilting the mask and blowing air out hard from your nostrils usually does the trick.
Another double tap on the head to indicate a clear mask and hey presto, it's done! Thank God.
Jellie's large hand was offered to me as I opened my eyes finally. It was the signal that said 'well done'. I was delighted.
Soon we were back in our group and, as promised, at the end of the skills session we were allowed a little, 'free time' to swim around. After a quick air check, I was buddied up with Stanley and off we went to explore the length of the dredger. This felt great, we had all but passed the course and now we we had some freedom to go discover.
Stanley and I swam in touching distance, side by side. Inquisitive small silver fish flashed around our masks and below I could see translucent shrimp darting to and fro over the sea bed. We followed the skeletal hulk of the former proud ship. A ribcage of steel, like the Caracas of some extinct sea monster protruded from the yellow sand. We reached the bow of the ship and turning the corner we saw another diver. They had a string bag attached to their waist in which I could make out a collection of scallop shells. It was Dan and as soon as he saw the two of us approaching he stopped what he was doing and with a swift kick from his fins he had closed the distance between us.
'What now?' , I thought. The my eyes caught sight of what glinted in his right hand. It was a menacing-looking, diving dagger. Stanley and I exchanged a look, he too had spotted the knife and I could see uneasiness in his expression.
We were both relieved when Dan's first act, when he approached us, was to reach down and return the knife back in its ankle holster.
However,we were perplexed when, with free hands, he gave us the kneel signal. We stared at him for a second and he repeated his command, which was unequivocal.
The two us adjusted our BCDs to create negative buoyancy. Air bubbles escaped and we both came to rest on the sea bed.Was Dan going to ask us to help him look for scallops? That was too much to hope for. The guy was an asshole and he was about to take his natural, gift to a new low level.
Dan turned to Stanley and showed him the flat of his hand. It was the signal to 'stay' where he was. Then he turned to me. Those eyes drew level with mine, again they spoke of his intentions. They were filled with dark and wicked mischief. He was clearly savouring the moment. I hoped my eyes were giving away nothing, except , 'Yeah, what?'
Finally, Dan raised both hands and gave the unmistakably mask removal sign followed by swim, my first thought was to say , " But I've already completed that task, and with the Chief DM." Firstly, I didn't know the hand signals that would communicate that sentence and secondly, Dan knew full f***ing well I had already completed it.
I didn't react, I just stared at him. I hated this drill as much as anyone else. He signalled again and his eyebrows knotted together in his mask. 'Bastard!' I thought. I'd show him. I reached for my mask and started the flooding. Water rose up to my nose, then up to my eyes and the last thing I saw before closing them was Dan's eyes. Once again they were wickedly narrow.
The mask was off and a stream of cold bubbles went straight up my nose carrying with them their stingy prickle which hit the back of my throat. I coughed violently through my reg. Nevertheless, I got on with it, with those butterflies of fear and uncertainty riding in my stomach, I tilted my body forward and started to swim slowly. With my head forwards and down the bubbles were less of a nuisance. I focused on my breathing. That was the crucial thing and I kicked slowly on.
'Come on you sod, that's far enough right?' anger welled-up inside me. 'Where's the rap on the head'. It didn't come, I swam on. Still nothing, I had no idea if he was still with me or not. What do I do? Do I stop or keep going? I was no longer scared, but severely pissed off with him.
Thank God. There it was. I immediately stopped and retuned to the kneeling position. The bubbles were back in my face, but I managed, despite everything, to breathe slowly and deeply. I felt around my mask and pulled the strap over my head. I took my time. There's no way I was going to show this idiot that he' d got to me. I took a huge drag of air from my reg and cleared the mask in one long nasal breath, which evacuated the remaining water in my mask.
I blinked expecting to see that nasty expression again, but instead I looked into a mask with held a much more agreeable visage. It was Kim. She was checking the seal around my mask. She signalled 'OK?' and I returned the sign.
She then asked me to follow her, which I did unhesitatingly, then soon realised that Dan and Stanley were no where to be seen. I had no idea what had just happened in the time my eyes were closed. Soon Kim tuned back to me, she looked distracted and concerned. She gave the signal for a slow and safe ascent and together we made our way to the surface.
Stanley was mouthing something to me from the opposite side of the powerboat as we skipped and bumped our way over the surface of the waves at high speed. I couldn't quite make out what he was trying to say to me, but the ' Are you ok?' bit, I understood perfectly.
Dan was alone with Kim at the very front of the boat, but it was far from a romantic Titanic moment. Dan seemed to be desperately trying to explain something to her and she, remaining statuesque, was giving him the cold shoulder, staring straight ahead.
Back in the cafe it was hot drinks all round. Stanley, came up along side me just as I was ordering a second round of unhealthy fried meat in a bread roll. He spoke in hushed tones, " You ok mate? What was that bastard Dan playing at? He just let you swim away. Without a mask! You need to say something to Jellie mate."
"Nah" I said, " just leave it!"
"Then, I'll say something," he was clearly concerned.
"It all turned out ok, Stan. I'm sure it was just his idea of a bit of a joke. He must have known Kim was around."
"I'm not sure about that," said Stanley. "They were just having a blazing row the car park just now."
"Look , " I smiled at him," Forget about it. We've just passed the course mate. Here's to us" I raised my mug of tea towards his and they clunked together.
I didn't want to make a big deal of it, but I couldn't lie to myself, it did bother me. I think the experience had aged me 5 years.
3 weeks later my PADI license was posted through the door. My birthdate was wrong on the card, it made me 5 years younger. ' Bonus' I thought, 'I've got those years back already. :-)