Editor’s Note: In Part 3 of Where Zeagles Dare, narrator James Neal takes us through his recipe for the perfect weekend of UK diving.
For me, a weekend’s diving generally starts the moment I get in the ‘Dive Wagon’ and turn the key. It doesn’t end until I get home three or four days later. It’s not just about the diving, it’s the whole thing, the company, the laughs, the fish and chips, the ice cream, the curry… I relish every single second of it.
More often than not, it’s my job to pick up the RHIB and tow it down to the south coast. I really don’t mind this at all, it makes the journey that much more interesting and I usually end up having some company during the drive down. I tend to go and get the boat on a Friday afternoon, after having loaded up my own kit, usually on my own. I get it hitched up, remove the cover, connect the trailer board, test the lights, etc.
And then I head to our pre-arranged meeting point, usually at a friend’s house en route. Load up more kit and then there’s something of a routine for the drive down, get the truck fueled up, head south until we get to Taunton. At this point, I either leave the motorway at junction 25 and head for any of a number of coastal destinations or I go past and stop at the next motorway services for a coffee and a break. Once refreshed it’s back on the motorway and onwards, usually to Plymouth’s Mount Batten Quay.
I like to travel down early on a Friday for a number of reasons, but mainly to manage the neurological fatigue that I suffer from. It gives me the opportunity to travel at a leisurely pace and hopefully avoid the worst of the traffic. Then I can get the boat unhitched and parked and get checked in to the hotel and relax for a couple of hours before the rest of the gang arrive.
Diving Rame Head
We make our way through the sound and out past the breakwater. Then I push the throttle forward, lift the engine and adjust the trim tabs and she’s on the plane and hurtling across the wave tops. My senses are now treated to the thrill of every possible sensation all at once. The wind is in my hair, the spray is in my face and the scream of the engine fills my ears as the hull pounds across the crests of the waves. I’m loving every second of this.
I’m in my happy place now.
As we reach Rame Head, I ease off the throttle just enough to smooth out the ride as we round the headland, where it tends to be a little ‘lumpy’, then it’s back on the taps and lifting the bow clear of the water as we charge for Whitsand Bay. Our destination, the wrecks of both the S.S. James Eagan Layne and the HMS Scylla. Both ideal sites for the less experienced diver and perfect for them to gain valuable experience.
Using the RHIB’s GPS and fish finder, I locate the first wreck and give the shout to throw the shot over the side. The rope snakes its way out from the forward compartment and dances over the port side tube as it makes its mad dash down to the inky depths below.
Kitting up on a rocking RHIB isn’t always the easiest thing to do. I’m grateful for the fact that the Zeagle rig is a doddle to get into, even if the boat is trying to do its utmost to breakdance beneath me!
I’m ready to go. Waiting for my buddy to finish kitting up, I take the extra time to ensure my camera is set-up and clipped on. Buddy checks completed, we get ready for the shout as the cox expertly maneuvers the RHIB into position.
I strain to hear through the hood, the engine roaring next to me. The cox turns and hollers, ‘Go, Go, Go!’ and I push myself backwards off the side of the RHIB and into the frigid water.
Finning hard against the waves, they conspire to whisk me out to sea. I reach the shot and grab hold. My buddy is right behind me. He’s happy and I give the thumbs down to descend. As I depress the deflate on the Zeagle wing the air erupts from the dump as the ocean grasps the wing and squeezes out its volume into the surrounding water, it’s buoyancy decreasing as the waves engulf me!
I look up at the exact moment that she swallows me whole, snatching a last glimpse at the sky just as the waters wash over my mask.
Turning, I pull myself down the shot to six meters. There, I stop. I check that my buddy is still with me and we run through a quick bubble check, then I signal ‘thumb down’ and I start to pull myself down the shot with my left hand, camera in my right. I allow Boyle’s law to work its magic as the wing continues to lose its lift as the gas within it is compressed, my descent getting easier and easier.
Soon the exposed ribs of the mighty James Eagan Layne appear from the gloom. I inject just enough gas into my wing to arrest my descent, hovering over the wreck I orientate myself and signal our direction of travel. We work our way into the bowels of the wreck and head aft. Picking my way through the carcass of this once mighty Liberty Ship.
My buddy has never dove this wreck before and I’d like to make sure that it’s one for him to remember. We continue pushing aft and I’m able to get a couple of reasonable photographs, but there’s a lot of ‘snot’ in the water and whilst the visibility isn’t bad, it isn’t great either. Typical UK diving really.
Moving on, we explore a little further, having a good rummage around inside the wreck, eventually we’re greeted by the seabed and the smashed stern. We turn back, checking gas, and make our way back towards the bow. Swimming back through the cavernous gaping void of this once mighty ship’s infrastructure is simply great fun. My buddy is grinning like a little kid and my job is done!
Ultimately we reach the bows and take a quick tour around them as they tower up from the seabed and can easily be penetrated through her port side. Once back within the relative shelter of the bow, her upper decks now gone, I deploy a DSMB from within and we start to make our way up to six meters. I snatch a final glance back at the wreck as she disappears back into the gloom, and we continue up to complete our safety stop.
Breaking the surface, I can see the RHIB no more than 30 meters away, we signal that we’re OK and she heads towards us. I’m really grateful for those quick releases on the Zeagle Harness. I inject a short blast of extra gas into my BARE Expedition Drysuit to get some additional buoyancy and then disconnect the inflator, as I grab the side of the RHIB.
It’s now time to relax and enjoy our surface interval. I return to the role of cox, as I’m one of two qualified to do so on board. Once the others are in the water, I keep a vigil on their position and ensure that we don’t drift too far away. It’s a time to enjoy the sunshine, reflect on the dive and let the body eliminate some of the excess nitrogen that remains within its tissues. After 40 minutes, the DSMBs hit the surface and I pick-up the other pair of divers before retrieving the shot.
We reposition for our second dive and head the short distance across Whitsand Bay to the wreck of HMS Scylla. Once again, I give the shout to drop the shot over the side and it makes its mad dash to the depths below, hitting the wreck on the port side. Perfect!
Kitted-up, I glance across at my buddy. He’s ready and we run through the pre-dive safety checks. Our cox positions the RHIB and the shout goes out for us to roll-off, I push myself backwards and once again the crisp, green waters envelope me.
Bobbing back to the surface, I orient to the shot and kick towards it. Grasping at the rope, I hold on as the current tugs at me, trying to sweep me away. I give my buddy the signal to descend and then we complete another bubble-check before continuing down to the frigate that lies on the seabed below.
HMS Scylla was sunk in 2004 as an artificial reef. Since then, the ship has become a haven for life and is now smothered in an astonishing array of species. Spiny Starfish, Scallops, Mussels, Anemones, Hydroids, Sea Squirts, Urchins, Dead Man’s Fingers, Sea Beards and Sea Fans festoon the wreck and with that an array of fish, Wrasse, Pollock, Bib and Cod can all be seen.
We’re hovering over the main deck, just behind the bridge, I take us across to the port rail and then over the side, dropping to the seabed, we had aft to the stern. My plan is to give my buddy a good tour of the wreck and to hopefully get a decent photograph of him at the bow.
We swim under the wreck itself and in between the two rudders that sit on the seabed, then looping back up around the stern we ascend to the main deck and follow the port walkway forward.
Midship, there are hatches that allow access to the interior of the wreck. I take my buddy to the main bridge and we enter from one of the forward windows. A quick glance around reveals several passageways off, many of which I have explored extensively in the past. We exit through a large hole in the roof of the bridge and continue forward as planned toward the bow.
There’s a very specific shot that I want to get. We inch our way over the deck, picking our way forward, and there it is. The anchor chain stretching out from the bow down towards the seabed: it makes for an interesting shot. I show my buddy where and how to position himself, and then I make my way further down the chain, getting the angle of the shot that I want.
If you want to become a true master of buoyancy control, buy yourself a camera. You’ll no doubt become the last person that anyone wants to dive with, but you will definitely learn Zen-like buoyancy mastery!
The characteristics of the Zeagle wing enable me to position myself in the water column with ease. By using simple breath control, I can adjust my position up or down accordingly, by simply breathing in and out. The Atomic Aquatics M1 delivers the gas smoothly and I go about the business of hopefully getting a decent shot without having to worry about my kit.
I take several shots, making a few adjustments to both my position in the water and to the camera. I appreciate the level of comfort that my equipment affords me. I can concentrate on my camera and the shots that I’m trying to get and not have to be overly concerned about anything else, save for periodically checking both mine and my buddy’s gas.
At seventy bar it’s time to head back towards the bridge, retracing our path across the deck, I get my reel and DSMB ready to deploy as we near the bridge. We position ourselves opposite each other and I launch the DSMB skyward as the reel spins frantically and the line plays out at a dizzying pace. The ‘blob’ erupts from the depths and comes to a rest and I take up the slack, tighten the line and ‘thumb’ the dive.
Taking a deep breath in, my ascent starts as the volume of gas in my lungs expands. I exhale and start to wind in the slack as we head back up toward the surface. Once again, I take a last look back at the wreck before it disappears from sight, and slowly we make our way back to the surface.
Once the other group has had their dive we jet back to the marina. After getting the RHIB back onto the trailer and unloading our kit. The boat is washed down with fresh water and all of the electrics are reattached.
We’re all ravenous and the next stop is the fish-and-chip shop! Having refueled, we begin the long drive home, heading back up the motorway as the day draws to a close and the darkness of night creeps in. We put some tunes on, kick back and let the miles clock by… a perfect end to another glorious diving weekend with friends!