The Marathon Swimming Challenge

It’s been a while since I’ve written an article and in some ways this picks up where the last one left off as it is again related to open water swimming. To recap, after some years out of swimming I had got back in the water and we had started doing some long distance open water challenges again. Despite my inactivity, endurance swimming remained a defining activity. It’s why my primary video channel is named after it… However after the swims in the last article, things were put on hold for longer than I had planned, It would be late 2018 before we could again continue with this series of personal challenges!!!

A couple of things happened that temporarily brought things to a grinding halt. Firstly on a career front circumstances arose that caused me to somewhat change my direction and out of necessity this had to be my main focus for a while. Secondly, and this can unfortunately be a common issue for distance swimmers, I had the first real shoulder problems I have had during any time in my swimming career. It’s still a little unclear what the issue was as it seems to be under control now but I knew it was unwise to push on without some caution. The training I had been doing was not excessive by any means so I had some doubts that it was just caused by swimming. The bigger culprit was probably an inflammatory auto immune condition that I’ve been managing since 2009 and I’ll discuss it in more detail down the track as it probably warrants an article by itself. It also occurred to me that in addition to this, simple things such as my sleeping position could be contributing. I’ve slept on my left side for the last few years and this meant that my body’s weight was on my left shoulder. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that this was where I was having the problems. Anyway, I made a few adjustments to how I was sleeping and what I was doing in my training sessions and over time things seemed to resolve, or at least improve.

Injuries and distractions aside, I need to digress for a moment because the actual catalyst that got us talking about this project again and actually planning some swims, evolved from something totally separate from any aquatic based activity – the need to replace my car! I had a little Hyundai Getz at the time which had been a terrific little vehicle. It had taken me places beyond what it was ideally designed to do but by 2017 it started showing the signs of strain and I had a series of reliability issues that brought the matter to a head.

I weighed up what my options were. I’d always quite liked the economy of small cars and it seemed to me that I had two options that my budget could accommodate. I should either get a brand new small car or instead go for a well kept second hand four wheel drive, the latter being a lifestyle decision. I discussed this in some length with my partner SJ and we both started weighing up the possibilities that might exist if we had a proper off road vehicle at our disposal. It ended up being an easy decision and I traded in the Getz and bought a second hand 2012 Nissan Navara which we affectionately named ‘The Beast’ (as it was a beast of a car compared to the Getz). Over the next few months we did a number of local trips, made some small modifications to ‘The Beast’ and quickly were in a position to consider doing a trip I had long wanted to do – Fraser Island, in Queensland.

I had visited Fraser Island as a teenager with my parents in 1994 and I had loved it. What I remember most is that it had a number of fresh water lakes. One day we did a drive where we visited three of them in a row and given that at the time I was right in the middle of my swimming career, I was very comfortable swimming off into the distance in open water environments by myself. I decided to swim to the other side of each of them, where nobody else was. It was an exhilarating experience, but particularly at the last of the three which was the island’s most stunning lake – Lake McKenzie. I remember clearly swimming through the clear blue water, being able to see the light reflect off the bottom in places and standing alone on the other side on a beach that was inaccessible to tourists. Being on the far side (which I now know to be 1.2 kilometres away) I couldn’t see the people on the side that I had come from except maybe as little dots. It was quiet and peaceful. I spent all of a few minutes standing there by myself before swimming back. I knew that someday I would go back and maybe do a more significant swim there… So in 2018 we started making plans for this trip and it re-ignited the open water swimming project but with a more challenging defined set of guidelines and Lake McKenzie became the initial focus.

Let me preface this with a bit of history. Ever since the 2008 Olympic Games there has been a 10 km open water swimming event . This had some impact on the re-definition of what a ‘marathon’ distance was for swimming. It was decided that any distance of 10 km or more would be classed as a ‘marathon’ (it had previously been 25 km). The new definition actually made some sense because when you compare the time it takes for an elite swimmer to complete 10 km and an elite runner to complete 42 km, there is only a difference of about 15 – 20 minutes. By comparison the former official marathon swimming distance of 25 km takes a number of hours more to complete. On this basis I decided this new marathon distance was achievable for me even with moderate training. Therefore rather than just swimming across Lake McKenzie and back I should aim to do at least 10 km. As a bonus, I was also reasonably sure that nobody had done it there before. If this was the case then it may very well be the first ever marathon swim in Lake McKenzie.

I measured the distance of the lake along it’s longest stretch on a mapping application on my smartphone and confirmed that it was 1.2 km. 8 laps wouldn’t quite cut it so I decided on 10 (which was nice round figure). This made this swim a 12 km challenge. In the process the defined goal of the marathon swimming challenges became established – “to swim a marathon distance or greater in as many different bodies of water as possible during our travels”. It is an ongoing challenge, a lifestyle of sorts. Like everything else it’s a journey in progress and I see no reason why health permitting, that I couldn’t continue to do this during my entire active life even if they become less frequent down the track, and I do them more slowly. So long as I am enjoying doing them I’ll continue.

Whilst we were planning our trip to Fraser Island and working out the logistics of the proposed swim in Lake McKenzie it became apparent that it would be in our own best interests to do a marathon swim prior to this closer to home to practice dealing with a few of the logistics. With this in mind our first official ‘Marathon Swimming Challenge’ took place about a month prior to our trip to Queensland. I picked Encounter Lakes which is located near Victor Harbour in South Australia. This lake snakes around a residential area and measures 1.68 km from end to end so 6 laps is over the required 10 km. As mentioned in the earlier article I decided wetsuits would be worn where possible in all of the challenges, mainly for sun protection but also so we could test different wetsuits down the track and open up the possibility of doing it in much more frigid locations. This first swim was between 12 – 14 degrees so it was a pretty good first test of that. Notwithstanding the fact that I also wore a neoprene cap under my silicone one for this swim, it still took a few minutes for my face to get used to the temperature. After a few laps my fingers were pretty useless but as far as my core body temperature went I can’t say that I really felt cold.

Another important goal was to test the new kayak we had acquired to accompany me. One of the challenges with the proposed Fraser Island trip was that we worked out quickly that we were not going to have enough room on the roof to fit our much larger Tarpon 120 kayak. We needed something that would pack into a much smaller space. This ultimately led us in the direction of Advanced Elements and their Advanced Frame inflatable hybrid kayak. If you’d asked me a few months before I would have been a bit skeptical about such a design. My prior experiences with inflatable kayaks led me to believing that they were all like paddling a floating marshmallow and the Advanced Frame was not going to be cheap. But after a lot of research I decided to bite the bullet and get it. We quickly found that for an inflatable craft that is light and packs up in a small space, it’s absolutely phenomenal and solved the space issue overnight. Encounter Lakes was probably the 4th test we did with it but the first with me swimming and putting a camera on the kayak so we could get footage during the swim for a video. It worked perfectly. The swim went without incident and gave us plenty of confidence for Lake McKenzie a month down the track.

A couple of weeks before leaving we did one final trip during the Easter long weekend. We needed to give our camping gear a final check out. We didn’t know it at the time but this short trip also ended up being important in the planning of the marathon swim we would do after Lake McKenzie. We went up to Barmera which is located next to Lake Bonney in the riverland, a place we have visited a number of times in the last few years. During one of the days we were driving around the lake taking pictures we noted that despite being Easter, which one would assume is a busy holiday period, there was ample space to camp at a number of the number of free camping sites around the lake. We took a mental note of this and decided that it was likely any further trips to Barmera would not involve staying at overcrowded, over priced tourist parks if we didn’t have to. This would be where we would end up spending our Christmas for 2018 but I’ll come back to this later.

Mid way through October and with ‘The Beast’ packed to the limit, off we went across Australia. Three days later we boarded the ferry for the forty minute journey to the Kingfisher Bay Resort landing on Fraser Island. There are actually a few places you can get onto the island and for most seasoned four wheel drivers the southern most point is the favourite. I was aware however that there was soft sand there and sometimes you had to also put your wheels through the salt water getting onto and off the ferry depending on the tide. You also have to consider the tide when driving around the bottom of the island. None of these were deal breakers but as it was our first trip to the island and I only had limited sand driving experience before, we decided to remove a few of the potential early issues by taking the Kingfisher Bay Ferry. As it turned out during the 7 days on the island ‘The Beast’ proved itself to be a impressive sand driving machine and I think there would be little doubt that we would use the Ferry at the southern most point in the future.

Within minutes of reaching the island we were on our way to Lake McKenzie to check it out. We were staying a further short drive away at Central Station Campground and the swim was planned for the following morning so the plan was to have our first look at the lake and finalize our plans for it. I should say that the first thing we noticed was the terrible state of the inland roads. The recent bad weather had washed away a lot of the sand and it made them incredibly bumpy and slow to traverse. We would find in the days ahead that the roads that were used less were in much better condition and the beach on the easter side (which acts as the main highway of the island) was as i remembered it. As luck would have it, a visit by some of the British Royal Family was planned during our stay there and we noticed the quality of the worst inland roads improve dramatically as they were graded and fresh sand dumped on them. The Royal backsides were to benefit for the efforts of the locals but as it turned out so did ours!

Seeing the lake again brought back a lot of memories. Notwithstanding the fact that it does attract quite a lot of tourists, it is still a stunning lake. We realized that we had a bit more of a walk than we thought. We would have to carry the kayak down a long path and then to our starting point was at the far end of the beach. We also decided we would need to put up a temporary shelter there. After a look around, a few pictures and a bit of videoing, we drove off to our camp, set up and settled in for the night. The next day was going to be a long one.

Being aware of the state of the roads we got up extra early and arrived at Lake McKenzie at about 7 am. We were the first ones there and set about inflating the kayak, I put on my wetsuit and we then carried everything down to our starting point where we set up our temporary shelter to store some things. When we were ready we got started and I quickly found out that this swim was going to be harder than the Encounter Lakes one. Most of the first lap felt like a proper open water swim due to the wind and choppy water on the lake. This however was to change continually during the swim. It went from windy, to calm, to overcast with heavy rain, to clear with searing sun and this was all within a few hours. While most of your body is protected from the sun in a wetsuit the bottom parts of your legs are not and I ended up getting quite notable sunburn down there. Liberal amounts of sunscreen are discouraged when swimming in lakes on Fraser Island but I had been perhaps a bit too sparing down there. After 4 laps I was not finding this one easy at all and realized it was going to be a bit of a slog. When the lake was flat however I made better progress. I tried to tune out of the discomfort and take in where I was. This was perhaps the most stunning lake in the country and it had long been a goal of mine to do a swim like this here. During such moments I noticed small turtles on the bottom of the lake. This came as a bit of a surprise as although I know they live in some of the lakes, I hadn’t heard of them being in Lake McKenzie. Certain the acidity levels mean that very little aquatic life is able to live there which in turn ensures the pristine water quality. The turtles seemed to be quite happy there though. When the last lap finally came about it was somewhat of a relief to get out of the water. Encounter Lakes had been a bit of a doddle by comparison. This was a bit longer at 12 km but it felt harder than that. SJ commented on more than one occasion that the path I was swimming was less than straight. I put it more down to the changing water state. Either way I slept well that night. There had been tentative discussion prior to the trip about possibly doing a second marathon in one of the other lakes there but given that this one had consumed a whole day with the setting up and slow progress travelling to and from the lake, we decided against it in the end. We were on holiday after all. The other lakes would have to wait for another trip.

A few weeks after returning home we started discussing what we would do for the Christmas period. We discussed a few options but in the end decided that we should go back to Lake Bonney and camp in the free camping zone at the far end of the lake. This time we would go with our four wheel driving friends Chris and Marketta. We’ve had a number of good trips with them and have a few stories to tell which are best told with a few drinks! As soon as we started discussing this trip I raised the possibility of swimming another marathon. Like McKenzie, Lake Bonney was another location I had long wanted to do a significant swim. I knew this location well as I used to race here in my youth. They used to run a 1,500 meter swim along the foreshore infront of Barmera. It was a handicap event but usually most of the faster swimmers were handicapped out of contention for line honours so we were racing for the trophy for the fastest swimmer. I did this event twice and both times missed out on getting that trophy, getting second fastest on both occasions for which you got nothing!

But this time it wouldn’t be a short 1,500 meter swim along the foreshore. This time it would be 2 laps of the entire lake at it’s widest point. In all it would be a 13 km swim. This one definitely depended on good conditions. McKenzie could get a bit choppy in strong wind but Bonney was nearly 6 times the length and as such the water in the middle is massively exposed. It’s no coincidence that sailing regattas can be popular at this location. Another snag that had arisen was that SJ would not be in a position to sit in the kayak for a swim of that duration owing to a back complaint but Chris kindly volunteered to take her place and so he paddled with me on this occasion. This left SJ free to take some footage at either end of the lake for the start, turn around and finish of the swim. All that remained was a suitable weather window and it turned out that it looked like it would be calm early in the morning of Christmas Eve so that’s when we did it.

As we started I couldn’t believe our luck. It was absolutely flat as glass. I doubted conditions would remain as favorable for the entire swim but for the first lap it was like that throughout. We had decided that our turn around point would be a little pillar at the other end dedicated to Donald Campbell’s 1964 attempt on the World Water Speed Record here. This was next to a cafe named after his boat ‘Bluebird’ (the cafe is in a shed that was used to house the boat during the record attempt).

Just digressing again for a moment, Campbell who set numerous world speed records reached the pinnacle of his career in 1964. He broke both the land and water speed record in the same calender year and remains the only person to ever do so. The land speed record was achieved on Lake Eyre in South Australia and the water speed record was achieved on Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia. However what is not as well known is that prior to Lake Dumbleyung he first tried to set the record at Lake Bonney. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, the speed he achieved was still well over 200 mph and as I understand it remains the fastest a boat has ever traveled in South Australian. As a result it is still of historical significance. I actually factored the record attempt into the backstory of this swim. I’ve long been interested in the achievements of record breakers such as Campbell and as I wanted to swim at the broadest point in the lake, it turns out that this was also the same course that he drove the Bluebird up and down on his high speed runs. One of the local residents who had been working on a community project promoting the historical significance of the record attempt was kind enough to supply me with some stock footage to use for our video. I was particularly grateful for this as it brings the our video to life more and further illustrates the size of the lake.

When we got to the far end for half way point I could see SJ standing on the bank when we got there. Up I scrambled, walked up to the post turned round it and headed back to the water.  The trip back was also reasonably uneventful. I picked up the pace as we approached the three quarter mark in the swim. Then the wind started to pick up. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. I was greatful that it had held off this long. As it turned out we only had about 30 minutes of choppy water to get through and it wasn’t too bad. Then the wind dropped again and it was flat water for the finish. By starting early we also finished early. We had benefitted from the best weather window and also had been able to avoid other recreational boats on the lake which can present a bit of a hazard to a swimmer if they don’t see you. We had the rest of the day to relax and many an alcoholic drink was consumed in the hours that followed. It was Christmas Eve after all. That night it was nice to sit at our camp next to the lake and reflected on one of my more memorable ones.

So that brings us to now. As I write this it’s mid 2019 and with 3 marathon swimming challenges down, and more in the works there is much to look forward to. With time I’d like to increase the challenge by adding some further distance and possibly swimming in some more hostile locations. I have some intriguing ideas as to just how to do that so stay tuned.

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Open Water

For the last 3 years I’ve occasionally got some raised eyebrows about the name I chose for our website and various video channels. Indeed considering they have been notably devoid of any reference to distance swimming until recently and have instead been focused more on other aquatic activities, particularly cave diving and freediving. I will admit that to those who don’t know my past it must seem like a bit of an anomaly. But that’s set to change now as I return to my roots in order to undertake a series of open water swimming challenges. Open water distance swimming was quite a consuming passion for me both as a youth and at various times through my life subsequently. It’s been a constant feature in my life; even if there have been some dormant periods where I’ve gone away and focused on something else for a while. Consequently you could say that it’s the activity that most defines me.

Open Water swimming is defined as swimming that takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as open oceans, lakes and rivers but when discussed in a competitive sense it is more often than not also associated with distance swimming. By way of a brief history lesson, the beginning of the modern age of open water swimming is often considered to be May 3rd 1810 when Lord Byron swam several miles to cross the Dardanelles from Europe to Asia. Another benchmark of note took place In 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel between England and France. Despite the notoriety of being the first to cross that famous body of water, of far greater relevance to the modern era was the achievement of 19 year old Gertrude Ederle in 1926 when she became the first person to swim the English Channel using front crawl and as a result dramatically reducing the record, the technique that’s been used most of the time ever since.

I became involved in the sport in 1992. At the time I was competing regularly in the pool but felt that the nature of racing in that environment was not really to my liking. Being separated by lane ropes seemed somewhat sterile compared to what I felt during my other hobby at the time – go kart racing, which was wheel to wheel and quite dynamic. I had a few swimming team mates who had done some open water competitions with varying degrees of success and so gave it a go. My first couple of attempts were nothing to write home about (in fact the first one was a complete disaster) but I learnt fast and over the next few years became one of those regularly contending for decent results in South Australia. I enjoyed the strategy that was a big part of the sport and found I was more suited to the physical challenge of the longer races in excess of 5 km rather than the mad dash around the buoys in the shorter ones. Eventually youth gave way to demands for work and when I joined the Navy I found I wasn’t able to train enough to compete at my previous level and eventually I stopped altogether. When I left the Navy in 2000 I found I had a bit more of an opportunity to do some swimming and from time to time I’ve trained and competed in some of the Masters events to a reasonable level. But by the time 2013 came around the passion was no longer there and my interest had diminished to the point where I was ready to give it away for good. After a few particularly humbling results I felt the time was right to move on to other things.

While I hadn’t totally shut the door to future involvement I knew it would take fresh motivation to put on a swimming cap and goggles again. After all distance swimming is arguably one of the most physically and mentally challenging activities there is and takes a significant amount of preparation to be even moderately successful. I was more focused on the idea of eventually working towards underwater exploration through cave diving and felt my endurance background might serve me well. Progress was fast initially, but cave diving isn’t a cheap sport and early in 2016 I had a few setbacks (including a bout of decompression sickness). With the demands of work and the lack of opportunities to dive new sites, progress stalled to the point that now it was diving that I was getting a bit frustrated with.

The flip side of this is that even though my own diving ambitions haven’t been progressed much during the last year, I’d been doing more activities with my long suffering partner, who one generally refers to as SJ (an abbreviation) or ‘Wookie’ (a Star Wars reference that I’ll elaborate on another day)! I don’t even recall the exact occasion but as is often the case for us, we were having coffee somewhere and the subject of my previous pre-occupation with distance open water swimming came up. Both of us were looking at doing some regular exercise together and we recognised that we weren’t quite the unbreakable spring chickens we once were. With a combination of the normal knee, back and soft tissue issues that come with being 40 something, it didn’t take a genius to see that regular impact based training was less than ideal. I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t find the idea of distance swimming nearly as appealing as I did but we had both enjoyed a day kayaking on the Coorong together and she did enjoy that. I don’t think the possibilities as to how we could combine the two activities was lost on her. I don’t recall who suggested it first (or if either of us was entirely serious at the time) but the idea of me swimming in an open water environment with her paddling along beside me in a kayak (and hence also being physically active) was eventually raised. The more we discussed it, the more sense it made and it seemed like an activity that both of us might actually enjoy.

SJ and I were to discuss this a number of times over coming weeks and it also didn’t escape my attention that an opportunity to feature videos and articles on this subject would likely be a good fit for our various social media pages (given their name) and one I can speak with some experience on. The more we discussed it, the more the idea gathered momentum and before I knew it I was dragging myself out of bed early in the morning again to start doing some early morning swimming training – something I hadn’t done for some time and didn’t exactly relish but I needed to know whether I still had the desire to do the necessary training before we started investing in the equipment we needed. If you’re serious about following through on these things there is no getting away from the fact that you have to put in the time. To my relief, despite some suspect shoulders (probably partly due to lugging scuba tanks in and out of dives sites) most of the issues appeared to be muscle related and manageable. If anything swimming and the associated stretching I do, pre and post training, seemed to be rather therapeutic.

At about this time we also started wondering through outdoor shops looking for a suitable support craft. This was both a necessity for SJ and a safety consideration. Memories of being nearly run over by a single sculls race boat, who didn’t see me whilst I was swimming in a lake a few years before, were still pretty fresh (I had literally passed under the oars and was lucky not to have been struck by the hull) and I was not keen for a repeat of that. SJ needed something comfortable with solid back support for what was going to be long periods on the water. It needed to be practical and as streamlined under the water as possible for efficiency whilst being very stable. As luck would have it I came across an advert on social media placed by a shop called ‘Adelaide Canoe Works’ for a second hand ride on top kayak. The Wilderness Tarpon 120 was in essence designed for fishing but unlike many other fishing kayaks was longer which spread out the water displacement more across the length than the width. On top of the water it had all the carrying features we needed but below its streamlined profile was more reminiscent of an ocean kayak. It took me little time to realise it ticked all of the boxes and I quickly put down a deposit to secure it.

Now that we were actually starting to invest in this project it made sense to start considering some goals to work towards. It’s easier to keep focused if you have something tangible to aim for and in the past that would always have been some kind of open water competition. While I’m not ruling out the occasional race in the future I felt the framework may have changed a bit for me in recent years and am now more interested in personal challenges. I’ve always been interested in some of the epic solo achievements of English Channel Swimmers and the like, and was inspired in my youth by people like Des Renford (who interestingly only discovered his suitability to open water swimming in his 40’s). I discussed with SJ a series of solo efforts that we could do together by ourselves (me swimming and her paddling the kayak). I remembered I’d always wanted to swim a full 25 kilometre marathon in my youth and decided it was as good a medium term goal as any so the first incarnation of our series of challenges has us working up to this and beyond that we will re-evaluate if we can take it further (I’m interested, just need the body to cooperate). As for where we could do these ‘work up’ swims, there are a number of lakes within a short distance that are suitable and so I got to work mapping out the courses that we could do to achieve a series of distances at South Australian venues like West Lakes, Encounter Lakes and Lake Bonney. When we actually get to doing our first proper distance over 25 kilometres I suggested I’d like to try swimming on the River Murray between Blanchetown and Swan Reach (closer to 28 kilometres actually). It just so happened that I was familiar with this course as back in 2003 I was involved in supporting a charity swim at this very location which took place over 2 days between Blanchetown and Swan Reach. I thought maybe we could do something similar except swim it non-stop.

Next came a decision that wasn’t easy and is a bit of a contentious point within open water solo efforts particularly to those who consider themselves purists – whether or not to use a wetsuit. Triathletes have been using them for years and have been a large driving force for developing the technology so that proper swimming suits are actually faster to use than swimming without. Some open water competitions permit them under certain conditions (normally frigid water temperatures) in sanctioned events but in order to have a ‘solo unassisted swim’ officially recognised, they aren’t permitted. This is why to this day you see English Channel Swimmers swimming without them and covering themselves with grease instead. In the past I actually would have been pretty strongly against using them too in order to ensure parity but have recently changed my position on this.

The controversy of performance enhancing suits isn’t restricted to neoprene wetsuits. In fact you may recall that in the early 2000’s there was a bit of a trend that arose in international pool swimming surrounding full length ‘fast skin’ swimming suits which even to the uninitiated were completely unnecessary. Eventually they were banned but rather than returning to conventional material swimming suits, shorter versions still persist to this day which are still expensive and unnecessary. But at the same time that this circus was going on in pool swimming, nobody had considered the benefits full body covering could have for open water swimming.

To this day skin damage due to sun exposure is a very real risk in marathon swimming and that’s not all. Swimmers regularly have to contend with swimming through other nasties like poisonous jellyfish. Many of us have marvelled at the accomplishments of people like Diana Nyad, Chloe McCardel and Susie Maroney as they struggled through epic swims well over 100 kilometres in length. However the sobering reality is Nyad and McCardel have on occasion been stung so severely that it caused them to abandon swims and receive medical attention. Maroney has also been subjected to the perils of swimming with jellyfish but perhaps more seriously recently had to have a malignant melanoma removed. Such instances are common in the sport and while we can all marvel at their mental strength in overcoming such adversities , one has to wonder whether it’s a good practice and whether the rules don’t need a bit of a shake up. After all it’s during these mammoth length solo swims where swimmers are subjected to the sun and the environment for the longest duration and where the most damage is done.

To use an analogy, in perfect conditions it’s possible to climb high on some of the highest mountains in the world in just a pair of shorts (it’s certainly been done). Sure it’s an impressive feat but it’s not the norm and you’d be hard pressed to find anybody that would argue it’s a smart practice. Conditions can (and do) turn very quickly and then it becomes a life threatening situation. Swimming in an open water environment exposes swimmers to more risks that in pools and it seems to me that some of those risks can be partially or totally mitigated. It is for these reasons that I decided to pursue full body protection on this occasion. I briefly considered full length neutrally buoyant suits similar to fast skin suits and also full body lycra suits but neither were practical options. With the former there is currently no existing non-performance enhancing design available and the later is like swimming with a loose fitting bag over you (it might be fine for diving in the tropics but for swimming it’s a different story).

Therefore after much consideration I purchased an Orca S5 wetsuit. Orca has been making competitive racing wetsuits (mainly for triathlon) for over 20 years and as such are world leaders in the area. I had previously owned an early model Orca suit which I got some good use out of for a number of years. The S5 is a descendent of it. It’s an entry level (and hence comparatively better priced) triathlon suit in the Orca range but gets good reviews. That is what I’ll wear for the majority of our swims although I’m interested in trying out some of their other designs too down the track. If we manage to accomplish anything of note then we can debate the legality of that then. While some open water ‘purists’ may thumb their nose at the idea of swimming in a suit, what I’m hoping is actually we might start a broader conversation on year round open water competition where swimmers’ health and safety is the biggest consideration.

So with all this in mind, on Sunday 11th November 2016 we packed the car for our first open water test of all our equipment, not to mention myself and SJ. First item on the agenda was to pick up our kayak from ‘Adelaide Canoe Works’ and pay off the remaining balance. We then headed down to the northern end of West Lakes which is a well known feature in South Australia that winds itself past a series of waterfront residences. The plan was to do a lap of Delphin Island which when added to the double crossing of the northern boating lake comes to approximately 6.8 kilometres. A modest achievement but first time out was plenty long enough to get an idea whether both swimmer and support paddler were sufficiently prepared for the longer efforts to come. By this stage I’d been doing regular training again for about a month and knew the steady pace to swim at that that I would be able to maintain for longer swims.

We set off and I settled into a comfortable rhythm. Approaching halfway I realised I was
actually doing it rather easy and was quite encouraged. Periodic checks with SJ informed me that she was equally comfortable and our newly purchased (albeit second hand) kayak was a pleasure to use. About the only thing of annoyance in West Lakes was that it’s also home to jellyfish, particularly on the eastern side of Delphin Island. I’ve never actually been stung in there but apparently when they are most common at the end of summer it’s not unknown. For the first half of the swim, there was nothing but as we came around the eastern side of the island that familiar (and not particularly pleasant) sensation of occasionally feeling soft slimy things during the stroke. When they were most common, SJ started seeing them too from the kayak. I’d hear her call out and a second later started seeing them go under me, occasionally bouncing into them. But there’s not a lot you can do other than grit your teeth and swim through them. It’s a totally different situation when diving as you’re generally covered and most of the time you are moving slowly enough to see them and avoid them but as a swimmer you’re more exposed, and even with a suit you don’t wear gloves, boots or a hood. I’ve never got used to swimming with them and probably never will but as an open water distance swimmer there is no getting away from the fact that at some stage you’re going to come into contact with them and have to develop a mindset to deal with it. We finished the swim, headed to a cafe for our routine debrief and coffee and attention quickly turned to extending the benchmark beyond 10 km.

The following weekend therefore we were back at West Lakes and this time the aim was to swim the perimeter of the entire lake including the rowing strip on the other side of the island. This was intentionally done much earlier in the morning to avoid the sun (a strategy that’s going to become central to future swims) and hopefully avoid as much of the rowers that train there as possible. This swim wasn’t quite as easy. The extra distance aside, when we cleared the island and entered the rowing strip we were hit with rather strong headwinds, choppy water and then heavy rain which made initial progress slow and a hard slog. We also weren’t even close to being early enough to avoid the rowers so had to be vigilant as we made our way to the far end but after the turn we benefitted from being in clear water and having a fair tail wind for the first time. The rest of the swim was basically a re-run of the previous weekend except for the additional satisfaction of being able to know that 10 kilometres was well within my comfort zone too.

This brings us up to Christmas of 2016 and we had a bit of a break, ate way too much junk food and spent a few days out of training. Now back in the pool in early 2017 I’m hoping we can make some real progress in the next few months. I’ve got no idea how far we can take this but that’s part of the challenge. Like the motto for our website and blog you could say that this latest adventure is ‘a journey in progress’. I want to find out just how far I can go. Stay tuned for further instalments…

Along with this article, which is a bit of an introduction to our latest adventure I have included a link to a presentation by veteran open water swimmer Diana Nyad which I found rather inspiring. I believe anyone out there who has ever wanted to achieve a difficult goal that requires perseverance will benefit from watching it. By way of introduction Nyad was a very accomplished marathon swimmer in the 1970’s but unable to achieve her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida. After 30 years out of the sport she returned for another go. In 2013 after 4 further failed attempts and at the staggering age of 64, she became the first person to achieve the 180 kilometre feat without a shark cage. By anyone’s standards she should be considered a remarkable athlete.

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Is Australian Swimming Falling Short of its True Potential?

I have just taken the delayed step into retirement at the age of sixty-nine, after being a full-time swimming teacher and coach for forty-eight years. My passion for the sport remains, however, and I still run clinics and I am also involved in advisory work.

The bonus of retirement is that it gives you time to look back and see how far swimming has moved forward. It also means that I can speak my mind and not worry about losing my job or water space. In my opinion, from a swimming teaching point of view, we have sadly regressed and in a major way. This also affects coaching as numbers coming through to club level are, on the whole, lower and of poorer quality. Competitive swimming has been built around a pyramid type system where we have a huge base with the cream at the top. I believe that the huge base has been eroded and we need to take action. To my knowledge South Australia, where I live, has only three clubs with a competitive membership of over one hundred! In other states it may not be as bad as this, but I know from conversations with other coaches that their states are also badly affected.

Humble beginnings and a brief introduction to standards

Before my memory lets me down I would like to take you back to my humble beginnings. I came from a very working class London background where both my parents worked to try and put food on the table for myself and my two brothers. The primary school that we attended was, to put it politely, very ordinary. We did however get taken to our local pool once a week for our school swimming lesson. In contrast to the quality of schooling, the  standard of swimming lessons we received were ahead of their time and importantly technique based. Students made excellent progress and most could swim in deep water before moving on to senior school. In order to attend that lesson we were required to take a twenty-five minute bus ride to and from the pool. Then there was the swimming lesson itself which was about forty-five minutes long. So all in all a good portion of a primary school morning was committed totally to a swimming lesson. During this era, students in public primary schools (similar to state schools here) nearly all received one lesson a week.

My first full-time swimming teaching position

I spent fifteen years teaching full-time swimming for the education department in the UK. I worked in a large town called Reading (which is part of Berkshire County) and at the pool where I worked we had thirty-five primary schools that attended our pool on a once-a-week basis. Our curriculum was technique based, with survival skills taught over the last five to ten minutes. When I say ‘taught’ I mean properly and comprehensively (these days in Australia how often do you see even a basic skill such as a head first surface dive broken down into a series of progressive practices, to develop a skilful efficient movement?).

Our philosophy was ‘if you want kids to survive, teach them to swim with good technique first, then add survival skills to deal with unusual situations’. The last year we did this program, back in the 1970’s, we only had five swimmers from all thirty-five schools from our primary leavers, who could not swim with good skills in deep water.

Changes in U.K. education funding

With government funding cuts, the full time swimming teachers in the county, of which there were only six, were all summoned to the PE advisor’s office. We all thought we were being summoned to be told we had lost our jobs. The budget had been cut by nearly 50%. We were told that our forty weeks a year public pool programs would be cut to twenty weeks and only operate in the winter. In the summer all six of us were to become advisors of swimming and service the schools in our area which had heated pools on site. The county was split into six areas, one for each of us. We were all given casual car allowances. Our brief was to run demonstration lessons for the school teachers and advise principals on the curriculum to be covered and assist in making sure that teachers were suitably swimming qualified. To my amazement, despite the cold climate of England there were plenty of schools with pools, so much so that I never did get to all of them in my area!

The standard school pool was 12 ½ metres by 12 ½ metres and only about 0.9 of a metre deep. The big advantage of these pools was that being on site meant that the time and cost that would have been wasted travelling to the public pool was saved. Now schools could benefit not only from the external winter program but also their own private lessons run during summer after school without leaving their respective school premises. There was also the opportunity to lease their pool out to other private lesson providers and run concentrated school holiday lessons.

The challenge of heating the water was genius in it’s simplicity; school buildings had central heating plants for the winter. In the summer, this plant was also used to heat the pool. A radiator pipe was simply fed from the plant room around the bottom of the pool. Add a pool cover and shallow pools like this were easily held at thirty degrees. For some schools this was quite profitable and it could fund various school activities that may or may not be related to swimming (like school music rooms for example). However, the big winner was swimming and the standards it produced.

Current standards

I look at the schools in South Australia where I live and you would be lucky to find 5% of primary school leavers who could swim in deep water, (unless they had received lessons at private swim schools that were technique based, mainly ASCTA approved swim schools). I am sure that in a state like Queensland there is still a good base of swimmers coming through. Children there obviously have more exposure to swimming with the many backyard pools that exist and I would be surprised if most schools did not have their own pools. However, even in Queensland swimmers still need skill development by knowledgeable, swimming teachers. I am sure the problem with schools’ swimming is not confined just to South Australia, I remember when I first came to Australia giving a lift to the great Forbes Carlisle and he commented on the poor standard of swimming teaching in the schools in New South Wales.

How standards can affect your local club

My last UK swimming club was a country club called Bracknell Swimming Club. I was with this club eight years. When I started, we had three hundred recreational swimmers and three hours water time a week. When I left we had six hundred swimmers, four internationals (one 4th placed Olympian) and twenty-four hours water time a week. What hit me during this period was that once a month we would have an entry trial night for the club where it was normal to have seventy to eighty swimmers turning up to be assessed. The standard of schools’ swimming and private swim schools in the area meant that we were spoilt for choice, often turning away swimmers with good skills due to limited water space. Oh to have that choice now!

Saudi ‘National’ team standards

Due to the success of my UK program, I was lucky enough to be appointed as Saudi Arabian National Coach based in Jeddah on the Red Sea. This was a great experience and a real honour. Although challenging in many ways, the program and the coaching staff I worked with were an excellent team.

Also of note were the facilities which were state of the art but having almost no swimmers at the outset meant that I had to go back to grass roots and teach non-swimmers to swim and from there develop them up to ‘National’ standard. Amazingly, in three years some of those beginners actually swam for Arabia, all due to a technique based program. Of course standards were much lower in Saudi Arabia but I am trying to illustrate the importance of a technique based program.

Ideal teaching conditions

Following this, I worked for the Continental School in Jeddah (an English sponsored international school; I believe they have changed their school name now). At this school, we had over four hundred primary school aged children from sixty-eight different nationalities. In my last two years working there, all of these students could swim and the standard at the top level was unbelievable. In my last year, there were only five non-swimmers from our three hundred infants (4-6 year age group). Swimming in Jeddah was a bit like being in Queensland – a very warm climate and pools everywhere, therefore whenever possible the children almost lived in the water. The school facilities were good too with a 25 metre 8 lane pool plus a shallow teaching pool. To cap it off, all of the school’s students under the age of 15 had at least one technique based lesson a week.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our challenges. With sixty-eight nationalities we still had swimmers from countries where there was no culture of swimming, often parents had to be educated as to how important it was for a child to learn to swim. When it came to school reports, all students had a dedicated section related to swimming, where I had to advise parents as to their child’s progress and swimming grade. Progressing these students became a special challenge for our program. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to say we had much success. We had swimmers from countries like Uganda and Pakistan who even made our school swim team. Teaching these swimmers often required one on one teaching and this area alone, probably requires another article, as many swimming teachers face the ever increasing challenges of teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students in Australia too these days.

Australian teaching challenges

In 1988, I emigrated to Australia to coach a South Australian club, which included having the swim school rights for the pool. In 1991, our pool was taken over by a Leisure Management Group who took over our swim school rights (with no discussion) and chose to run a ‘Royal Life Saving’ based swim school program. Our club relied on being fed by this swim school. We decided that the program that was put in place would not deliver the pupil base for our club, which was essential for the club’s future development. After giving this some thought, two of us set up a small private swim school at a local physio pool (17 metres long). In two years, our private swim school grew to five hundred swimmers and of course we taught a technique based curriculum. In an average year, seventy to ninety swimmers graduated from this private swim school to our club and with good skills. Meanwhile, comparatively few swimmers came through from the Leisure Management Group’s program. I have always used that private swim school figure as a bench mark. When I left the club, it was the largest club in South Australia with two hundred and seventeen competitive swimmers.

When I left, I went to coach in New Zealand. By the time I returned to South Australia, just four years later, the club program I had left was down to eighty swimmers! The connection with the private learn to swim school had been lost and because of this there was almost no feed in at the base of the club.

My return to Australia

On my return to Australia, I worked at setting up a swim school and competitive program at a private school twenty minutes away from my old club and was there for eleven years. When I handed over the management of the swim school, which again was based on all the technique programs I had developed over the years, it was turning over $1.2 million a year. I believe technique based swim schools not only deliver a better product but they also make more income.

Back to my Aussie roots

As if to come full circle I then returned to the club where I first started coaching in Australia. By this time, the club’s numbers were down to only seventeen swimmers from that high of two hundred and seventeen! The club was also in debt by well over $10,000! Sadly, the decline had continued during my absence. During that eleven years, very few swimmers came through to the club from the Leisure Management Groups swim school. So many things were wrong with the swim school program. The head of swim school did not support the club, we were not allowed to talk to the teachers, any approach towards a swimmer or a parent in the swim school resulted in me being summoned to the centre manager’s office to answer complaints from the swim school manager etc. Luckily, the swim school manager left and the new manager who took over was more approachable. Gradually, we started to rebuild the club again. Even so, the Leisure Management Group’s swim school had over two thousand students in the summer! Based on my bench mark figure we should, if the students had been taught properly, be receiving close to three hundred swimmers a year, instead of around thirty!!

The need for ASCTA to be proactive

I believe the base and the potential future of Australian swimming is under threat and even ASCTA, (an organisation that I greatly admire) who I believe, as an education organisation is the market leader, is not dealing with the difficult issues that need addressing.

Political involvement

I see the Labour opposition (by the time this goes to print, maybe the government) has pledged forty million dollars for schools’ swimming to ensure every child learns to swim. Read the small print – this is based on the schools’ programs teaching a ‘Royal Life Saving Society’ survival based program! A good idea wasted on using the wrong provider.

South Australian schools’ swimming

In South Australia, the education department’s advisors for the schools’ swimming program, have now been revising their curriculum based on a Royal Life Saving program and they have recently gone so far as to even remove freestyle and backstroke completely!! Even before this, owing to the fact that students had a mere one week’s swimming a year I think most prudent swimming educators considered the program a waste of time and money (consider how good would their maths be with only one week’s tuition a year)! But this decision is baffling to say the least. Since when has freestyle not been a survival stroke? It gives you the ability in a survival situation to economically swim a long distance. It also gives you the speed to quickly avoid a potential hazard. Did I say at the beginning of the article that swimming teaching is going backwards in Australia? This is taking swimming back to the curriculum my mother experienced in the UK in the 1920’s!

I have been in communication with Susan Close, the Minister for Education in South Australia and my communication has been passed down the line, as you would expect. The answer I am receiving is that they have consulted a team of experts and that this is what the schools want! Is it what the parents want? With the bulk of the child population living in close proximity to the sea or Murray River system, this is a disaster waiting to happen. I tried to find out if they have any figures that show their success rates and in particular what percentage of students at primary school leaving age could swim. I also asked if the team of experts included ASCTA. There was no response to either of these questions.

Teacher’s point of view

To be fair, my wife who was a teacher for many years did make the valid comment, that the curriculum in schools these days is undoubtedly over-crowded, to the extent that they are trying to include far too much and there just isn’t enough time to fit everything in, particularly where the basics are concerned. Principals may well be happy with only a week of swimming a year, but what exactly are we trying to achieve?

Royal Life problems

In my opinion, the Royal Life Saving Society is a well-meaning organisation and over the years I’ve found some branches that are excellent in teaching life saving. However, they are not, in my opinion, a swimming teaching organisation. Many Leisure Centre management operators, who appear to know little to nothing about swimming, are using Royal Life Saving programs on which to base their swim schools’ curriculum. Local managers are often enlightened, but are dictated to by head offices that are out of touch and insist on Royal Life Saving programs as opposed to those that are technique based.

Outstanding market leaders

Some clubs are very lucky and are fed by market leading private swim schools that have moved swimming teaching to another level. I have worked in the past for the market leaders in Queensland and Auckland. In Queensland, the swim schools’ manual was excellent and the standard of the teaching staff outstanding. If my memory serves me correctly, the managers and supervisors used to meet every three months to review the curriculum and see if the program that was being offered could be improved. New drills and changes in technique were discussed and if we were in agreement they were added to the program. Drills in the program were reviewed as to their effectiveness and if they were not delivering the quality required, then they were deleted from the program. As a result of this, clubs that were fed by these programs had excellent numbers of skilled students to work with. Even in South Australia, there are market leaders, clubs around these successful swim schools, are all keen to gain the benefit of signing up swimmers from these correctly taught swim schools. It seems a pity that competitive clubs can’t rely on the standards of all swim schools in their area.

Teacher and supervisor training

On the whole, standards are appalling and children’s lives are being put at risk. We need to raise standards. Austswim, the benchmark certificate for swimming teachers, is too easy to achieve. New teachers passing this certificate need to carry ‘P’ plates until they have received in-house training from the swim schools/education department where they are working and have been trained over a minimal period of time by qualified supervisors/managers. Swim schools and education department programs need supervisor/manager training too. Perhaps a new swim school/education department supervisor’s certificate needs to be put in place to enable them to mentor our “P” platers.

Royal Life damage

I believe Royal Life Saving should be really concerned at the potential damage they have allowed to develop and children they have put at risk by using their good name in a misguided market that looks upon them as the benchmark of swimming teaching. In my opinion, ASCTA is far and away the market leader in swimming teaching and should be recognised as such.

Challenges for swimming

  1. To develop a technique based ‘National Curriculum’ based on a series of progressive practices and teaching points. A program set up like this would educate the teachers while they were teaching the lessons.
  2. Also a standardised swimming certification system needs to be set up for the whole country. This would go a long way to raising standards. It would also highlight problem areas.
  3. Results to be reportable.
  4. I think government money should be set aside to tackle this issue.
  5. Get a representative group of industry leaders together to meet regularly and work out a plan to try to move Australia forward. Include the government of the day, ASCTA, Royal Life, Austswim, private swim school market leaders, education departments and the Leisure Management operators.
  6. All operators under law who teach swimming need to then be licensed – to show that they are teaching the ‘National Curriculum’. Failure to conform should mean that they should be closed down. (I am sure this would need government intervention to make it happen).
  7. While some states appear to have an excess of pools, others like South Australia have very few all year round facilities. All states have a good number of summer open air pools. We need to look to find a supplier of moderately priced buildings to cover some of these pools.

I have deliberately left out names of clubs and centre management groups. This article is not meant to antagonise this part of the industry, but is aimed at protecting the youth of tomorrow. Like Laurie Lawrence, I have a goal that all children need to be safe around the water and that national drowning statistic become a thing of the past. This dream can only be pursued if we all put the children first and give them the best possible start, educating them how to swim properly.


Australia is a great swimming nation with excellent coaches at the top level. At the moment, I would estimate that our base is about seventy thousand registered, competitive swimmers. Imagine if we could multiply that base by four! Clubs would be much larger and have the membership funds to employ teams of coaches to meet the swimmers’ needs. From that bigger base would come a greatly increased pool of talent at elite level.

Grumpy old man!

If you have managed to struggle through my epistle, I trust you have read into it my passion for the sport and the challenges it faces and not put it down as the ramblings of a grumpy old man. I am a great believer that if you criticise something you need to offer a better way of operating it. I have tried to do that and would be more than happy to discuss the future of our great sport and help in any way I can to move it to a new level.

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Hobart in Hindsight

Back in 2001 I was involved in what was to be a fairly short lived career in the recreational diving industry. I had spent the previous 5 years in the Australian Navy and during my final year my weekends were totally consumed with diving in the Sydney area. I’d had so much fun with it in my spare time that it seemed to be a natural progression to become an Instructor and move into this as a full time occupation after my planned discharge. My chances of securing a position at what was South Australia’s premier dive business, took a decidedly positive turn when a decision was made to sink the Guided Missile Destroyer HMAS Hobart as an artificial reef just south of Adelaide.

Hobart had been my second sea posting so I was set to have the unique perspective of being the only active South Australian instructor at the time who had served on what was to become the state’s biggest dive attraction. On paper it looked like dynamite but the reality was it never ended up being the cash cow that the industry hoped it would and as such my previous experience on it served me little benefit except on a personal level. I’d put the main drawbacks down to it being located about 45 minutes drive too far south compared to where it really should have been sunk, in order to make it more readily accessible. Also it had the misfortune to be in an area where you really had to pick dodge tides to give customers the ideal experience on it. Not withstanding the shortcomings in where they chose to sink it, and the fact that one isn’t really able to make a sustainable career solely as an instructor anyway, it matters little to me now. It was and still is a site that I have a unique relationship with. You have to pick the right day but when it’s good it can be a sensational dive.

Several months before the sinking I was approached by the owner of the business (where by that time I worked) to write what would be my first ever article. None of us knew at the time how the Hobart was going to effect the industry but we were all optimistic. I set to work on putting down on paper some of my experiences living and working on the ship and what we could look forward to as divers. Initially it was just for the club newsletter but I later had it published elsewhere. It was to be the first of a series of articles and I ended up archiving them in boxes and there they sat for the next 15 years. However during a recent clear out I came across them again so I thought I would re-visit those times and share my first ever article with you, albeit slightly ammended. So here it is, appropriately titled ‘Hobart in Hindsight!’

July 2001 – whilst working at Glenelg Marine and Scuba

I joined HMAS Hobart in November 1997 as a Naval Combat Systems Operator, having just returned from a 5 month overseas deployment to Asia on another ship. My previous vessel had been more modern and decidedly more comfortable to live on, so it was to be a notable change in my Naval career. As a Guided Missile Destroyer (DDG), Hobart formed part of Australia’s front line of defence and was particularly useful in anti-air warfare, whilst remaining capable in the anti-submarine area too. It had been used extensively in these roles over its 35 year service career, including 2 tours to Vietnam during the 1960’s. As with the other two DDG’s that have served in the Australian Navy, Hobart was crewed solely with men and over 300 of them at that, making it a cramped working environment to say the least. It was approaching the end of its service life and despite the affection that many of the crew had for her, the ship was really starting to show its age.

The Junior Sailors Mess that I lived in, known as 163 Mess (the number is a reference to the frame in the hull), berthed 80 sailors in sets of 3 tier bunks. As such communal living was a skill quickly learnt, especially when it came to showers (a maximum time of 90 seconds was a limit that we were meant to keep to in order to conserve water). Meals also were an interesting logistical feat. After a three week stint doing cafe duties during a deployment to New Zealand in 1998, doing the dishes back at home no longer seemed like such a chore (3 meals on Hobart translated to over 900 sets of dishes and cutlery to wash every day)! In saying that, for the most part I was employed in the Operations Room.

As a Combat Systems Operator my job was to form part of a team of sensor operators who would amongst them, provide a tactical picture of movements of other ships, aircraft and submarines which Command would then use to make tactical decisions. When not on watch, all members of the crew would try and get rest whenever they could, as there was always the possibility of going to a higher state of readiness. You never really knew when the next opportunity would present itself and in short, sleep was an over rated commodity which we seldom got enough of. Instances of going to action stations during exercise periods were common and the crew members who were ‘off-watch’ would proceed immediately to their damage control stations ready to fight fires, stop floods or eliminate toxic hazards. It may have been all for practice but we had to take it very seriously and any departure from that would not be well received! As a member of one of the fire fighting teams in my ‘off-watch’ time, I can remember us sustaining a simulated missile hit. Minutes later I was descending down a ladder into one of the boiler rooms whilst wearing a thick fire retardant fearnought suit and breathing apparatus. Given that the boiler rooms could exceed 50 degrees centigrade, toasty is perhaps not a sufficient way of describing the sensation! Luckily I was extremely fit at the time and not carrying much in the way of body fat so was somewhat suited to such drills but that’s not to say they were particularly pleasant or welcome for that matter!

As luck would have it, when I posted ashore for what would be my final posting in the Navy I became heavily involved in wreck diving in my spare time around the Sydney area. Meanwhile Hobart was decommissioned and plans were being made for it to be sunk as an artificial reef about an hours drive south of Adelaide. When I got wind of this I was already a Divemaster and was becoming rather intrigued as to the possibilities. It wasn’t long before I was in contact with South Australia’s premier dive business and I made sure I mentioned my background! A month later I was spending my leave period doing 3 weeks work experience there to seal the deal. I’m not a believer in fate but all the stars seemed to be lining up at this point! I also had the good fortune to spend my remaining time in the Navy at a training establishment, located at a stunning vantage point at the end of South Head. A few months before leaving, I watched with interest next to some of my former shipmates as our ship was towed out through the heads and out of sight towards South Australia. A few months later I would follow. After leaving the Navy in late 2000 I moved back to South Australia and soon after found myself working at Glenelg Scuba. I think I speak on behalf of all the staff when I say we are very much looking forward to what is to come…

As a potential artificial reef, what the Hobart has to offer is very varied and exciting in terms of the nature of the varied compartments and also in terms of the different challenges they each present. In short what this translates to is a diving site that is suitable as a very diverse training ground. At a maximum depth of 29 metres, Hobart will be a prime Enriched Air Nitrox site whilst also offering divers the opportunity to get advanced wreck and overhead environment training. That being said however, with the modifications currently being made prior to the scuttling, most of the wreck will also be accessible to those with recreational wreck training. In particular interest to the advanced wreck diver would be the 4 engineering compartments located deep within the hull of the ship, although at present it is uncertain as to whether these will all be left unsealed. Over time the engineering spaces may also become a haven to underwater photographers and videographers, as the various boilers, engines and steering gear machinery begin to play host to a vast array of marine life.

Over time, we who frequently dive the wreck will be able to see time gradually take its toll. What is now a bare steel hull will eventually become totally encrusted with sponges and soft corals, much like the Glenelg Dredge and Barge have become. As is the case in many overhead environments in the ocean, we can expect shoals of Bullseyes and Old Wives to eventually fill corridors that were once walked by hundreds of different Australian servicemen. Where once sailors and officers slept in their bunks, may lie a sleeping wobbygong or a large cuttlefish in their place. To most, this transition is what wreck diving is all about as it is linking the present with the past in a dynamic visual extravaganza. For myself in particular this transition will be unusual. Drifting through the Operations Room will no doubt bring back memories of the monotonous hours of tracking shipping. In dire contrast would be the memories of the totally frenetic periods associated with tracking inbound aircraft doing simulated air raids, whilst we struggled to keep up due to the inadequacies of the ships aged sensor equipment. Meanwhile I will no doubt also remember the familiar sound of the general alarm sounding in the background to send us to action stations.

Descending onto the quarter deck may bring back the recollection of tending berthing lines when coming alongside and in particular, the unfortunate time when we got it all wrong and crashed stern first into the wharf in New Zealand, creating a large hole in the back of the ship (which gave the waiting media some good material for the following days newspaper)! In the cafeteria no doubt my thoughts will turn to the countless meals and the equally countless number of dishes that I had to wash. Whilst drifting through the bridge it will be the time I spent at the helm and the feeling of steering what amounted to a 4,720 tonne warship, without straying more than a couple of degrees off course (or else buying the Leading Coxswain a slab of beer)! All memories, and in hindsight all precious, particularly considering the role I now play as a Diving Instructor here in South Australia.

The future for wreck diving in Australia looks quite encouraging. We have seen how successful the Swan project has been in Western Australia and pretty soon the Perth and Hobart will join her as the country’s largest and most intact accessible wrecks. Added to that chain of three we have the majestic beauty of the Yongala in Queensland, the wreck graveyards in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria and those off Long Reef in New South Wales. The conclusion one can draw is that there is real merit to the scuttling of decommissioned vessels for the purpose of being re-born as artificial reefs. I find this much more appealing than sending them to the scrap yard to be disassembled in a manner not fitting their previous grandeur. Perhaps the success of the Hobart project will assist South Australia in securing other attractions for the diving community and if so then it can only be a positive step and in every diver’s best interest.Share on Facebook

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Reel and Guideline Use

Recently, when speaking to a non-diving family member on the subject of reel and guideline use whilst diving, I was met with the following somewhat sarcastic reply. “So you are basically talking about swimming around with a ball of string?” Whilst this tongue in cheek, throw away comment may not in any way adequately explain the importance of good reel and guideline skills, it did occur to me that this in fact wasn’t very far removed from how the development of using reels and guideline in wreck and cave diving started. On just about every wreck and cave diving course around the world now it’s likely that your instructor will continually stress the importance of using these tools until it’s second nature. But only a few decades ago, this wasn’t the case as the development of technical diving courses was in it’s infancy. Divers instead were making it up as they went along by trial and error, innovating using such things as drums of plastic cable, heavy buoyant line or other such totally inadequate things. Like many other innovations things tend to go through a process of evolution with many innovations going through a kind of ‘natural selection’ that exists in adventure sports with only the best ideas, equipment and (unfortunately in many cases) divers surviving.

Anatomy of Diving Reels and Guideline

The Difference Between Reels and Spools

There are many different types of reels available on the market with most manufacturers who make technical diving equipment producing them in many different materials and sizes. To broadly separate them out however, let’s distinguish first between those that have a spool of guideline, frame, handle, a knob for winding in and a locking screw (or nut) – known collectively as reels, and those that are just a spool of guideline by themself.

Most divers will have uses for both reels and spools as they progress through their training (both in and out of overhead environments) but I’m going to focus on the basic use of the reel here.

The material from which the reel is made is varied and plastic is not uncommon, however there is a special thermoplastic used in engineering called ‘delrin’ which has become a popular choice due to it’s high stiffness, lower friction and general resistance to damage. As stated above, a reel will have a spool on which a length of guideline is attached round, this spool is in turn connected to an axle which connects to the reel frame. The frame will also have a handle, a guide through which the guideline goes and a locking screw to stop the spool from turning when desired. Connected to the spool is a knob which a diver uses to reel in the guideline, generally when exiting the wreck or cave. There also needs to be a clip to attach the reel to the divers BCD or harness.


The guideline that goes on the reel is generally braided white nylon due to it’s tendency to be more visible, it’s negative buoyancy characteristics (a sinking line) and resilience to wear and tear. Most reels come with what is known as #24 line (or 24 gauge line) although thicker lines are sometimes preferred by some divers (particularly when fixing a more permanent line in a large cave system). Essentially the main purpose of guideline is a reference a diver can (preferably) see to find their way out of an overhead environment to safety, or if necessary in the event of catastrophic multiple light failures or silt out (albeit not preferable) feel to find their way out. In addition to preventing divers from getting lost, guideline can also be useful in measuring distance. For example, when mapping a wreck or a cave, a diver can tie small knots every 3 metres or so and record the distance between notable features (along with bearing and depth).

The guideline is wound around the spool, with one end attached to the axel and the other end with a loop large enough tied in it that you can comfortably fit the entire reel through. This ‘End Loop’ gets threaded through the line guide. Most reels normally come with some sort of small plastic ball that also gets threaded on this ‘End Loop’ thus preventing the guideline from being pulled all the way through the line guide. Some choose to remove this ball and instead attach the loop round the locking screw instead.

Reel Size

There are many different reel sizes available but extremely large ones are more cumbersome and are generally used more in exploration for fixing large quantities of guideline (as commonly done in large cave systems). More commonly a technical diver has in their possession smaller to mid-sized reels. Reels around 120 metres in length are common and serve numerous purposes. Smaller ones may also be adequate.

Enclosed Reels V’s Open Reels

Like with so many things in diving some things just come down to personal subjective preference. Some favour a reel that has some sort of cover on the frame that completely encloses the spool, whereas others favour an entirely open reel. However most technical divers favour an open reel because in the event that a line becomes slack and inadvertently a loose loop comes off the spool (yes it does happen, even with an enclosed reel) then they can sometimes fix this underwater. This is not possible with an enclosed reel and one has to take it apart when out of the water to address the problem.

Securing the Reel to your BCD/Harness

There are two ways of attaching the reel to a D ring on your BCD or harness. The preferred way is using a double ended bolt snap clip. You remove the reel from your harness but then can remove the clip itself and clip that back on your harness. The other way is having a one ended bolt snap clip attached to the reel in a more permanent way and and unclipping the reel and clip in one go with them subsequently staying attached to each other. Most technical divers prefer to have a double ended clip that they can totally remove from the reel frame and place back on a D ring by itself. This way it is out of the way and is not able to snag the guideline as you are deploying or retrieving it. Whereabouts on your BCD or harness you connect the reel is totally a matter of personal preference. There are normally numerous D rings from which to choose but generally it needs to be somewhere you can easily reach and somewhere sufficiently out of the way that’s not going to easily entangle guideline (not hanging down in front of you). A popular place with many technical divers is the back of the crotch strap, but other D rings to the side rear can be acceptable too. Divers may need to attach an additional D ring if none are already in the desired location. Gate action clips (often referred to by the technical diving community as suicide clips) are NOT recommended due to their ability to trap guidelines easily by merely brushing against them.

Laying the guideline

Before discussing how to attach guideline inside a wreck or cave (tie off’s) it’s probably worthwhile mentioning that although there’s no single definitive method of laying line, there are certainly a few ways not to do it. Many divers will develop their own tie off’s and the way that they handle a reel and there is no problem with this. As long as tie off’s go on easily, stay on without slipping and come off easily when desired then they are generally suitable. The laying of guideline should be able to be done in a timely manner and the person reeling should be able to feel almost as comfortable doing this as if they were following as the second diver.

Generally guideline should be deployed so it is taught but not overly tight. Even guideline has a certain inherent flexibility in it and although it should present as a straight line between two fixed objects underwater, there is no necessity to tighten it beyond this. Guidelines that are too tight will more easily come off an object they are attached to or even break under strain. Conversely the line should not be too loose. Big drooping lines between tie off points are a clear indication that the guideline is too loose and this can present an entanglement hazard that can snag a divers equipment. In the event that such a line presents itself (perhaps the person reeling and fixing the line, has not done a tie off properly and it’s come off) the second diver can always address this by re-attaching it or further wrapping it around an object to take out the loose line. Generally the diver leading has the job of handling the reel itself, tying it off to features within the wreck or cave (be it by tie off’s, wraps or line placement) and the other following diver(s) may assist from further behind if something has not been done properly. The leader also needs to consider the features within the wreck or cave and ensure that a line placed around a feature is not likely to become dislodged into a tighter area above or below that is hard to remove it from and is too tight for a diver to pass through safely. Such a feature is often referred to as a line trap. It’s also preferable to attach a guideline near a deck or floor to allow the diver to more easily locate the line in front of them and reduce the chance of entanglement. This is particularly relevant if a diver were to accidentally come off the guideline in a low visibility situation (or multiple light failures) as otherwise re-locating the guideline by using a lost line search can be extremely difficult.

The diver immediately following the leader is in a good position to provide additional lighting to make it easier for them to see what they are doing. As for who reels and who follows (not forgetting that sometimes it’s more than two divers in a group) divers should be encouraged to swap duties on different dives so that everyone has opportunities to gain experience at this important skill. Often it is actually better to have the least experienced diver reeling as they can make a decision as to where you as a group go based on their comfort levels and experience (it is sometimes harder to communicate one’s reluctance to enter a compartment from the back of a group if the person reeling has already entered)! Lastly be familiar with communication methods both by using hand signals (for use when you have good visibility) and tactile signals (for use if you have extremely poor or zero visibility). It’s important for a buddy pair or team to not become too widely separated in case of emergency and for all members to know what the plan is, particularly when an unexpected incident arises.

The diver(s) following don’t necessarily have to have their hands on the guideline but should position themselves so that they are diving above it (never below it due to the risk of snagging tank valves and other parts of divers equipment that are not easy to reach and resolve). All divers should be close enough to make contact with the guideline should it be necessary (total silt out). In the event of a silt out then having your hand around the line in a loose cup formation is the preferred method as pulling hard on the guideline could either dislodge tie off’s or damage the line. As long as you are in a position to feel it and it is taught you should have a reference out of the wreck or cave to safety.

Wrap’s and Tie Off’s

Wraps and tie off’s are the main way that a guideline is attached to features within a wreck or cave (or even out in the open water). They offer a non-invasive, non-damaging way of connecting your guideline to features of the overhead environment itself, hence marking your way in and out without leaving a permanent trail of destruction in the process! Often you’ll hear a diver refer to the process as ‘tying off’ the line but this generalisation may be referring to either using a wrap or a tie off (it is actually more common to use some form of wrap). Wraps generally involve taking the line (and sometimes reel itself) around a fixed object. Most technical divers like to end the wrap by locking it off against itself as this utilises friction to make it less likely for the guideline to slip. A tie off (in the proper sense of the word) is usually slightly different and involves using a bight of the guideline and tying this onto or around an object as if the bight was a single piece of line.

The following are by no means an exhaustive list. There are many others and different divers will have their own preferences. There are also some variations of these as well, some of the variations making the particular wrap or tie off more secure. There are also some different names for the following out there in the diving community so don’t be surprised if you hear divers call it by another name. But this is a reasonable starting point in your repertoire of Wraps and Tie off’s when learning the basics of reel and guideline use and it should serve you well.

  • Basic Wrap (non-locking)

This first wrap is not really considered a proper wrap by most experienced wreck and cave divers. You just take the reel and line around a fixed object once (hence the term wrap) without locking it off and continue onwards. This is often one of the first wraps people are taught by others early on in their diving career but without locking off the line it will probably slip. Although you can get away with doing one of these every now and again amongst other properly locked wraps, it’s generally discouraged and I’ve included it here more for comparison than anything else.

  • Locking Pull-Around Wrap

A significant improvement to the basic wrap is to take the reel and line around a fixed object once but then lock it off by also passing it under the line on the side from which you came in from. This added friction means that the wrap is less likely to slip. You then pull the wrap taught and continue onwards.

  • Single-Handed Wrap

If the object you are trying to wrap the guideline around is small enough and if it has a protruding end (something sticking out as opposed to something enclosed like the rung of a ladder or similar) then you may prefer to put the Locking Pull-Around Wrap on by using a single hand to take a bight of the line, turn it a full 360 degrees and placing it on the small protruding object.

  • Double Single-Handed Wrap

For a more secure version of the Single-Handed Wrap you simply do it twice, placing one wrap directly on top of or above the other on the same protruding object

  • Locking Double Pull-Around Wrap

One of the most common wraps used in wreck and cave diving is a more secure version of the Locking Pull-Around Wrap. Instead of taking it around an object once though you take it around twice before passing it under the line on the side from which you came in from. This has both the friction of line against the object it’s wrapped around and also against itself by locking it off.

  • Over-Under Wrap

This is actually pretty much the same as the Locking Double Pull-Around Wrap but it’s just applied a different way. This method is suitable though only to protruding objects, not enclosed ones and when the wrap is attached fairly close to the end of the object. You take the line twice around the object and and then with your other hand go to the line coming into the object (the side of the object the direction from which you have come) and take that line back over the top of the protruding object and hence locking off the two wraps.

  • Tie Off (Secure)

There are times when there may be insufficient large objects to wrap the guideline and entire reel round and no suitable small protruding ones. However an opportunity may present with small holes or eyelets that although you can’t fit the body of the reel itself through, you can fit a bight of the line. Such a situation is suited to using a proper tie off. Extend a suitable length bight of the line. You may then wish to secure the reel by tightening the locking screw so that no loose line falls off whilst you are tying off (although this is personal preference). Extend the bight of the line over or under the object (or through the small hole or eyelet). Pull taught and place this bight back round and over the line going into the object, round and through the gap you have made between the line and the object, pull it through and then do a further half hitch on top to secure it. No need to pull it excessively tight as this should be sufficient and just remember that you will need to get it off on the way out again.

  • Quick Release Tie Off

If you want to do a tie off that you can get off easily there is a few different variations of a Quick Release Tie Off. You extend a sufficient bight of the line with which to do your tie off and again if you prefer, you can secure the locking screw so no loose line falls off the reel. Extend the bight of line, pass it over or under the object (or through the small hole or eyelet). Pull round and taught and place this bight over the line going into the object to which you are attempting to tie off, however you then create another bight (a bight in the bight if this makes sense to you). It’s this second bight that you take through the gap this time, with a tail sticking out the other end. With a bit of practice you should be able to simultaneously apply enough tension to both ends to secure this tie off and move away with it still in place but it is a little bit of a juggling act to get this one right. I’ve seen some divers take the bight around the line a second time before putting the quick release bight in the hole. This provides more friction and ultimately both versions done properly permit a quick release tie off that is easy to remove on the way out. However it’s also a bit unreliable in my opinion and you may recall how I prefaced this section:

“If tie off’s go on easily, stay on without slipping and come off easily when desired then generally they are suitable”.

This being the case the quick release tie off can easily fail on at least two of those points! In practice I don’t use them, but feel free to experiment and see if you can address those other two points and develop a better version.

Primary and Secondary Tie Off’s

The terms Primary and Secondary Tie Off’s refer to the actual first place you attach your guideline and the one immediately after.

The Primary Tie Off is normally a suitable place to attach the end-loop of the reel by placing the line around a fixed object and then taking the body of the reel itself through the end-loop and subsequently pulling it tight. Voila! Consider your primary tie off done! I’ve seen some wrap this end a further two or three times around an object but aside from providing some sort of tactile reference this doesn’t really make the primary tie off any more secure. A primary tie off is normally done outside of the overhead environment so on a wreck an old bollard or something similar is more than adequate as one generally expects them to be pretty well secure. One of the rules of cave diving is maintaining a continuous unbroken line to the surface so generally the primary tie off is either done around a feature at the water’s edge itself, or if one first needs to descend in a sinkhole like formation before entering the overhead environment, it’s equally acceptable to do the primary tie of to the bottom of a shotline.

The Secondary Tie Off is equally important and is the next tie off one does. Ideally this is in the vicinity of the entrance to the overhead environment itself or perhaps the first one when reaching the bottom of a sinkhole like formation (daylight should still be clearly visible). This tie off needs to be good enough that if the line between the primary and secondary tie offs was to break or be cut, that the secondary tie off would remain firmly in place. A double single handed wrap works well because it has the tendency not to slip at all, with one wrap working against the other. Doing 2 locking pull around wraps (one on top of the other, ultimately causing the secondary tie off to be locked twice) works equally well. Many other variations work too. Some people like to do a set number of wraps at their secondary tie off to provide a tactile marker. This has more merit if the location coincides with a decompression stop and the area is prone to silting out, that way despite not clearly being able to see the tie off the divers will know they need to stop at this location as a matter of safety. Practicing in the garden is a good way of working out the best and most secure secondary tie off’s and establishing what does and does not work, despite the bemused looks you may get from others!

Retrieving Guideline

Having deployed your guideline you will at some stage get to your turn-around point. You may have got to the end of your line, you may have reached a feature within the wreck or the cave which you and your buddy decided would be your turn around point or more likely either you or your buddy will have signalled that you have got to your agreed safe turn around point of air (or other mixed gas in the event that you are not using air) with a conservative safety margin (at least 2 thirds left each, sometimes more depending on the circumstances).

On turning around the diver(s) following then become the diver(s) leading the way out, while the reeling diver who was previously leading will be at the rear, reeling in the guideline as you all work your way out of the wreck or cave. The person reeling still tries to keep the line reasonably taught as you work your way out. The other divers may assist the reeling diver by removing tie off’s in front of them (this will not be possible for all wraps as with enclosed objects the entire reel may have been threaded through but for protruding objects it may be possible). It’s best to discuss this before the dive as the diver controlling the reel may prefer to remove the tie off’s themself. In the event of bad visibility in particular sometimes this is a better option to ensure the line stays taught (removing a tie off pre-maturely may result in loose line and additional hazards).

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Using a reel and guideline in diving is like learning any other skill, the more you do it, the better you get at it. If you have a particular weakness in any area of diving then it’s important to try and turn that identified weakness into a strength by practicing it enough so it becomes second nature. You may recall when you started diving that there were probably some skills you found more difficult than others, however by repetition of those skills with the correct technique (as opposed to reinforcing poor technique) you probably achieved mastery of them. Make no mistake about it, good reel and guideline use can save your life and that of your buddies in overhead environments. So practice carrying them as standard equipment (even in the ocean as they can be useful there too sometimes to help with navigation or deploying lift bags and surface marker buoys from deeper dive sites). Practice removing them from your BCD/harness, deploying line from them, tying off to various objects with different wraps and tie off’s, practice retrieving the line without letting it get too slack and practice re-attaching it to your BCD/harness. By doing these skills often enough you will find that you are able to quickly master using a reel and guidline whilst diving in overhead environments.

I also explain and demonstrate the core skills discussed in this article in the video ‘Reel and Guideline Use’. I encourage you to watch it and practice the various wraps and tie offs as you go.

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“He Supports Solo Diving – Burn The Witch!”

I’m going to preface this article by making an assumption that most of the readers have watched at least one of the Harry Potter movies and as a result will be familiar with the term ‘he who must not be named’. It’s a strange concept where an idea (or a villain in the case of the Harry Potter movies) is considered taboo to the point of even preventing open discussion on the subject. It should be pretty clear that this practice is actually counter-productive, particularly as much can be learnt in the arena of debate. Nevertheless, in the real world I can think of a few good examples where sub-divisions of society exhibit the same behaviour, discouraging the discussion of certain subjects which they deem controversial. Unfortunately this also extends to the sport of scuba diving. Yes, we have something nearly as taboo as bringing up ‘Lord Voldemort’ and it goes by the name of ‘Solo Diving’!

What is Solo Diving? I think the most commonly held perception is the one similar to what you would find on Wikipedia which simply states: “Solo diving is the practice of scuba diving alone without a dive buddy.” Interestingly enough you will also find this passage following it: “Solo diving, once discouraged, is now (since the late 1990’s) beginning to gain acceptance among experienced divers who have skills in self-sufficiency and redundant backup equipment.” This sort of sets the scene for the tone of this article in which I will further bring to light some of the division on this subject and in the face of adversity, some of the arguments that actually support solo diving. I will also speak to some of the weaknesses of the buddy system. In fact many of us in the diving community think that in addition to the above, a more comprehensive definition would also include something similar to the following: “One should consider solo diving risk management even when diving with a buddy if there is any part of the dive in which your buddy would not be able to render effective assistance.”

If you are anything like me and are totally unapologetic and outspoken in supporting solo diving (assuming certain provisos are met), then you’ve probably met with some conflict from time to time. In fact I think it’s fair to say that there is a small proportion of the diving community who are pretty quick to condemn anyone who so much as suggests that solo diving is an acceptable practice. The responses can sometimes be so out of proportion to the subject matter in question, that I have occasionally thought it a metaphor for the kind of mass hysteria that took place in the 1600’s. You might even imagine the screams. “They’re witches. Burn them!”

Ok, so that may sound a bit melodramatic (admittedly I did write it with a wry smile). But when I heard the ‘witch’ analogy used (again somewhat in jest) by well known British Technical Diving Instructor, Mark Powell, whilst presenting on this contentious subject, it struck a chord I could relate to. When it comes to the diving community it is no exaggeration to say it is massively divided on solo diving. In my own experiences I’ve found a plethora of different views that fall anywhere on a sliding scale. At one end are people like myself who openly support it, or explorers that endorse it (generally because they require it). Then as you progress towards the middle of the scale there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily oppose it but are nonetheless rather uncomfortable about admitting their support for it in public. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that totally oppose it and this includes some that will go so far as to publicly criticise the individuals making a case for it (no matter how well defended their argument may be). This article is not intended to make such divisions wider but rather encourage more open discussion on the subject. I strongly feel that no subject should be off limits and that everyone should feel able to openly express their views without the fear of being on the receiving end of vitriol for daring to have a different opinion.

I first started diving in 1996 and since then have gained broad experience in different areas of the sport. I was once an instructor but let that lapse after moving out of the industry. In fact I actually spent several years completely out of the water during this time. Just before I left, one of the hot topics of discussion was that Scuba Diving International (SDI) had just released the first solo diver course for recreational divers. There was talk of other training organisations following suit and people were starting to accept that solo diving had a place providing the following considerations were adhered to:

  1. Undertake the specific training or gain the relevant experience necessary.
  2. Carry a totally independent redundant source of air capable of getting you to the surface with a margin of conservatism.
  3. Avoid ‘Pinnacle Dives’ (dives where you push beyond your experience and training).
  4. As with all diving, be extra disciplined to properly plan your dive in advance and stick to the plan.

Other considerations that were highly recommended included: Carrying redundancy on other items too (ie 2 masks, 2 cutting devices, 2 dive computers etc), being extra vigilant with equipment maintenance and staying fit and healthy. If one was diving only within the recreational SDI framework there were also a few other areas not recommended, as those required technical training. It was a work in progress but to my relief people were finally openly discussing the subject.

I had already developed a view that I was in favour of solo diving, having come from a background in distance open water swimming where a great deal of my training had been by myself. I noted that pilots, sky divers and many other individuals undertaking activities with significant perceived risk were not just permitted to go solo but were actually required to, in order to demonstrate full competency. I also noted that just about every diver that I recognised as a real pioneer, would not have been able to do some of their exploration without being totally independent, due to the tight confines they often found themselves in. In just about everything I’ve done I’ve always worked quite well joining the dots by myself so it was only a matter of time before this became my direction with diving too. It wasn’t long before I started researching the most effective way to do it as safely as possible. It was refreshing that the diving industry seemed to also recognise that it was important to have this discussion with people. We were on our way forward, or so I thought…

So fast forward to 2013. After being sidetracked by other adventure sports for a while, I found myself back in the water. In the process of acquiring new equipment I visited a number of dive shops and wanted to pick up where I left off, developing a set up and philosophy based on being independent and self reliant. However I quickly found that the subject of solo diving was again being frowned upon by many in the industry. Out of curiosity I spent a few hours one afternoon contacting a handful of dive shops located in various locations around the country via social media (shops I was already somewhat familiar with), just to find out their position on the solo diving question. The responses ranged from a minority of shops openly supporting it and permitting it on their boats, to those who were somewhat nervous about it but at a push agreeing that they too would support it for suitably qualified individuals, through to those who did not permit it at all.

Interestingly enough those that fell into the ‘may permit’ category weren’t prepared to state their opinion openly on social media and asked me to ring them up to discuss. Clearly despite recognised training being in existence, there were a lot of external pressures being exerted from other sources too, most of which were generally negative.

From my observations, when solo diving was spoken about in public it was still often in hushed tones and off the record. “Yes, we know it happens but shhh don’t speak about it too publicly because we don’t want new divers to know that.” To say the least, it was an immense source of disappointment to me that the industry had reverted to this way of thinking. This clandestine approach has always been a source of tremendous hypocrisy and in my opinion is part of the problem compared to having an open and properly regulated approach. However back in 2013 I was more perplexed by what could have caused this turnaround in attitude after the promising signs a decade before. Was it the rise of a few major technical training organisations that had sprung up whilst I was away which had stated views opposing solo diving? Perhaps in part. Or was it that we have just become so much of a risk averse society due to the growing fear of litigation, that nobody was prepared to endorse activities deemed to be even slightly more hazardous than the norm? Very likely! Even if the latter has some truth, is it a valid argument? Well… it might be if such activities were in actual fact significantly more hazardous, rather than that being an opinion arrived at with no particular basis.

Out of those of us who support solo diving (and privately there are a great many), nobody I know is condoning or suggesting that anyone should use a standard recreational set up (single tank, single first stage) to do it. In such instances clearly one’s redundancy is their buddy and that is the way they should continue to dive. This is a point lost on some individuals and even organisations that use statistics when such divers have come to grief to support their agenda that solo diving should be banned. Far from an example of the short falls of properly equipped solo diving, when you look at the case studies in more detail it becomes clear that many of these were more accurately examples of buddy diving where the divers had become separated and the buddy system had broken down. Statistics are frequently misused and cherry picking particular aspects of one case study to support ones view, whilst overlooking all the other aspects is rather disingenuous.

Someone who started objectively looking into the statistics in the local South Australian scene earlier than most was well known diving personality Peter ‘Puddles’ Horne. In the book “South Australian Diving Fatalities 1950 – 1985” (which was updated in 2005) he established that most South Australian diving fatalities (and at the time all cave diving ones) involved dive buddies being nearby or present. Only 4 deaths occurred whilst actually solo diving and they all involved people diving beyond their limitations and without the appropriate equipment.

Evidence Based Fact or Opinion?

The buddy system has long been advocated by most training organisations as the best system to use for managing risk. Done properly it is indeed a good system and I have no argument with that. There is also much pleasure to be had by finding good buddies and enjoying diving together. In fact I would go so far as to say the social side of diving is one of the biggest attractions to diving in the first place. But when divers assert that the buddy system is the only system that is acceptable, I think this is demonstrably wrong and has to be challenged. Like so many ideas that have been around for a long time, if they are repeated with conviction often enough by figures of authority, those ideas can be accepted as fact when it reality they are more likely to be opinions passed down in turn from others who have used a similar amount of conviction.

You may scoff at some of the following assertions but remember they were also considered statements of fact once too:

  • “The Earth is flat”
  • “The speed of sound can’t be broken”
  • “Mount Everest can’t be climbed without supplemental oxygen”

This list could be extensive (see what other ones you can think of based on your own subjective experiences).

The same goes for diving. You may remember these if you’ve been diving long enough:

  • “Dive Computers are Dangerous”
  • “Buoyancy Control Devices are Dangerous”
  • “Using Nitrox is Dangerous”

We now regularly accept that the above 3 statements are incorrect. With time and ongoing development the use of dive computers, buoyancy control devices and nitrox have become so accepted by the majority that they are now part of the landscape when one is talking about scuba diving. I would assert that solo diving (providing it is done with correct equipment and training) should be no different when you look at it objectively. It’s not for everyone (it’s certainly not for beginners) but I believe it should be an option for experienced divers. That’s not to say that properly equipped and trained solo divers are bullet proof because they aren’t, but neither are those diving within the buddy system. Any activity done in an environment which we would not be able to survive in without special equipment comes with some risk. You try and mitigate that risk as much as you can but you cannot totally remove it.

Many training organisations are nervous about condoning solo diving but some have gone one step further and actually have a stance against it as one of their core values. Should you wish to fully embrace their methodology there is a certain amount of peer group pressure to accept such views too. You can see how it would be difficult for an individual who has done all their courses with such an organisation to stand up in the face of such group solidarity and state that their own independent research had brought them to a different conclusion!

The Buddy System Done Badly

While I’ve agreed that done properly, the buddy system has merit, it is also important to point out that it can and all too often is done extremely badly. When that is the case, contrary to what many will assert, it actually provides a false sense of security. I’m sure we can all relate to the following examples:

Example 1

Imagine you are buddied with a complete stranger on a dive charter and you have no idea of the capabilities of that diver or how well maintained their equipment is. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?

Example 2

Imagine you are buddied with a complete stranger on a dive charter that doesn’t speak the same language and you have no idea if they were trained to use the same hand signals. As it happens this diver’s alternate air source is integrated into their inflator which means that you need their cooperation in the event of an emergency (as obtaining air from such an equipped diver involves them donating their primary regulator whilst they go onto the shorter inflator integrated one). The middle of a life threatening out of air situation is a poor time to find out that you have some misunderstandings. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?

Example 3

Imagine you are diving with someone who is more focused on the photography they are doing. They are after the perfect shot to show their friends and families and have little interest in discussing with you the various contingencies should something go wrong with your equipment. Predictably, during the dive your buddy’s focus is seldom on you. Is this the diver you really want to be depending on should you have an emergency?

Example 4

Imagine a diver, who despite your best efforts, has little interest in waiting for you and in their impatience disappears out of sight, despite signalling them to slow down on several occasions. You end up physically exerting yourself more than you normally would and go through your air quickly. Is this the diver you want to depend on as your only back up in the event of an emergency?

 Example 5

Imagine you are buddied to a diver who is well matched to your ability and experience. You plan your dive together; however during your dive the conditions are so clear that you end up 10 – 15 metres apart. Now imagine you are the diver behind and you have a failure to an upstream first stage (fails in the closed position). Without a separate redundant air supply you need to try and catch up to the diver in front in order to share their air whilst holding your breath. It will probably take at least 25 metres of hard swimming in order to do it (assuming the diver in front remains unaware of your plight and doesn’t turn around to meet you halfway). By diving without a redundant air source close at hand (which is the norm for most recreational diving) you are totally dependent on your buddy should such an emergency occur. Such instances (even if this amount of separation is only for a moment) are buddy diving in name only and yet they are common place. Is this a situation you want to be in?

Truth be told we’ve all got our nightmare buddy stories and it’s not always due to ability. Even two well intentioned and otherwise well trained divers can make mistakes. We’re all guilty of occasionally misunderstanding the rather crude hand or tactile signals that come with diving. Two brains can be a benefit if they are working together, but it’s not uncommon for two divers to misunderstand each other which can lead to further complicating a situation. As a solo diver you have only your own thought processes to concern yourself with which means that it can often simplify problem resolution. It’s counter intuitive for most divers to think that though, because of the constant reinforcement they have had throughout their diving career that anything other than diving within the buddy system is unsafe.

I couldn’t write an article like this without also bringing up the typical recreational diving professional. It’s very common for an instructor teaching a basic open water course to have up to 8 students by themself, all of which have no prior diving experience. Are these students realistically expected to save the day if the instructor has an emergency? It’s wishful thinking but in practice I doubt it! The reality is that the instructor is effectively solo diving. They are also diving with the extra impediment of looking after 8 students!

I struggle to understand how so many of the outspoken critics of solo diving (even when done with proper training and equipment) are so quick to overlook these situations that are common place in the diving community which carry more apparent objective risk.

Attitudes Towards Solo Diving

In my experiences I believe there are roughly speaking 4 types of divers. When it comes to our dive practices and attitude (particularly when considering solo diving) we can all identify with one category or another (or in some cases more than one category). It’s not uncommon to move between categories in a diver’s career either:

  1. The Open and Honest Solo Diver – Because of all the stigma that currently exists these are rare, but I believe this is the best category to be in if you advocate solo diving. These divers are generally extremely experienced divers who openly admit they solo dive. They have done appropriate training and have significant experience. They are diving with the correct equipment (in particular redundant air sources, but also back-ups of anything else that could be important). They dive within their training and experience using significant risk management and planning. These divers believe that solo diving is an acceptable practice when done correctly and think it has an important place within exploration. They are happy to engage other less experienced divers in conversation about it and make a point of explaining the proper protocols that are necessary before considering it. These divers don’t tend to encourage others to do it but are not in denial that it takes place.
  1. The Closet Solo Diver – Due to the stigma that currently exists these divers are quite common. They are generally dishonest about their solo diving exploits to the masses. They will solo dive when they feel like it but tell most others they don’t. Indeed many of them will assert that solo diving is not a safe practice whilst in public in order to be accepted by the masses. Many recreational instructors fit in here and their employment may depend on them staying ‘in the closet’ on this issue. One day they are teaching a course saying, “Never ever dive alone!” but the next day they are out diving alone! They commonly apply a double standard on the subject. While I think it would be massively more productive if they were open about it, the reality is that their attitude needs to be changed from the top down. If diving businesses everywhere accepted solo diving (providing the safety requirements were met) then many of these divers would ‘come out of the closet’.
  1. The Recreational Buddy Diver – These are the majority of pleasure divers. Those who have always tried to dive within the buddy system as they understand it. They generally use the standard single back mounted tank and single first stage, complete with a primary second stage and octopus (back up) second stage. Nevertheless on closer inspection they will normally admit that they haven’t been as disciplined as possible throughout each and every dive they have ever done. Whether through being distracted by photography, poor conditions or through inadequate diving discipline (not keeping track of where their buddy is), in all likelihood at some stage they have been in a situation when they had sufficient separation from their buddy, that they would not easily have been able to get to them quickly enough in the event of an emergency. Most divers I know would admit that they have been in this situation at some stage even if it was earlier on in their diving career, and without redundancy it’s this group that are most at risk. C’mon people, be honest and think of times when this has applied to you. We’ve all been here!
  1. The Technical ‘Team’ Diver – This training model really surged while I was on my decade away from the sport. Those divers who have specifically chosen to do most of their technical diving training with an organisation that has a strict ‘team diving’ policy with standardised equipment. The organisations they dive for strongly oppose solo diving and it’s no real surprise to me that many who undertake such training end up adopting the same view. One’s mentors after all, have a profound effect on an individual’s career direction in many sports and diving is no different. These divers usually have excellent dive skills and practice them regularly. Indeed within a good buddy system these are probably the best divers to have with you due to their discipline. They rigorously promote the buddy system and may acknowledge that some Recreational Buddy Divers occasionally do it inadequately, but in my experiences I’ve found that they seldom condemn bad buddy diving nearly as much as they do solo diving (even when it is done properly)! Despite their strong preference for diving in a team of well trained divers, occasionally they still have obstacles to deal with where they don’t have immediate access to their buddy. In such situations they are effectively relying on their own training and equipment.

In essence I am asserting that ALL divers at some stage have dived (even if for just a portion of a dive) in a situation where they are wholly and solely dependant on their own skills and equipment should an emergency occur. I am asserting that some people are honest and open about it and others are not. It is my strong opinion that open honest conversation about this subject is always preferential compared to pretending it doesn’t happen.

As things stand Scuba Diving International (SDI) is probably still the most well known organisation that teaches a Solo Diving Course. So shortly after getting back fully into diving, I decided to do it. I wasn’t really under any illusion that this course was designed for extreme diving or exploration, as it is much more basic in nature (which just serves to underline the need for more advanced solo courses focusing on exploration too). The SDI Solo Course can be done in a single day but I felt it would be worthwhile. My main motivation was to start a conversation on the subject with other like minded individuals without being constantly being told that it was unsafe. That being said, I’ve never thought it’s a subject to be taken lightly. There are many considerations that need to be put in place and there’s no room for short cuts.

During the course the most valuable thing was the discussion where we were encouraged to challenge our own view on our dive practices. This was important because in many respects safe solo diving is about attitude and keeping ones ego in check. In addition to the redundant equipment and training, a few other new points came up which I have since adopted. One involved servicing considerations and the realisation that if a regulator is going to fail it’s most likely going to be at one of two different times;

  1. Just before it’s due for service (having gone the longest time without attention).
  2. Immediately after service (in the event of human error during the service or faulty parts).

As a result I now offset the servicing of both my primary regulators by at least 3 months so they are done at different times. I also take this one step further (although admittedly this arose by a bit of a happy accident that I’ve decided to keep in place). I have a different make of regulator for both of my primary sidemount tanks. They are both high performing, balanced and environmentally sealed but as they are from different manufacturers they require different service kits. The chances of a faulty kit being installed on both of my primary regulators, is therefore almost non-existent.

Another solo consideration that we discussed was extra levels of conservatism with air management. If a dive site is more complex then consideration should be given to using more conservatism than rule of thirds. For those of you unfamiliar with what the rule of thirds is in the first place, it’s one of the golden rules of overhead environment diving where you penetrate using no more than a third of your air source to allow for a third to exit and an additional third to deal with something unexpected (or in buddy diving to donate to your buddy if they have a problem). Using a quarter for example, is clearly more conservative but if for some reason you lost a tank you would still only have just over double the air that you need for the exit. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds if you are doing a more complex dive, staging your tanks as you go then you are assuming they will be there when you exit. On the way back what will happen if you find that somebody has accidentally taken your tank by mistake (it does happen unfortunately, albeit normally not in Australia). A more likely situation is that one of your first stages fails which may render the tank virtually unusable, or that you haven’t shut your tank valve with just your hoses pressurised (which is recommended) and a free flowing second stage has drained it. Just having the extra air whilst solo will make it more likely for the diver to remain calm, be able to think more clearly and make the correct decisions to safely exit the overhead environment.

Another consideration that I have put in place is to use 300 bar DIN valves for both of my sidemount tanks despite using 232 bar steel tanks. The valves are actually 2 sides of a plugged manifold (a practice that is common in sidemounting in order to have two tanks set up opposite to each other with handles pointing in the same direction. The additional thread coverage gives me some more security if any accidental bumps take place with the environment. This is not the case for 232 bar DIN valves where some of the thread on the first stage is normally exposed. I’m actually considering doing something similar to all my additional stage tanks (although when overseas you have to make do with whatever you can rent, so it pays to practice with a less than ideal set of tanks occasionally, just to work out how to optimise them).

In researching this topic I wanted to touch a bit deeper on the subject of solo diving within overhead environments, which can be an even more divisive topic. I made contact with a number of underwater explorers that have needed at times to dive solo in complex cave systems and wrecks. One of those was Dr Peter Buzzacott who was kind enough to send me some great information regarding some of his travels. In one of his articles, that was released to a local cave diving newsletter, he described a course he had done which focussed on solo sump diving (a term for caves with a series of water filled chambers and air chambers in between). As a point of amusement I have to include a picture he sent me from an Italian cave. In it a sign states “No Diving With Other People”. Apart from an inner desire to get a T-Shirt made of this particular sign, I thought the whole attitude espoused in that particular story by the training organisation and local authorities (French and Italian in this case) was a breath of fresh air. It was a good illustration that its not just a small group of isolated divers or noted explorers that feel solo diving has its place in cave diving. A number of organisations around the world also endorse it as being the more practical (and sometimes less risky) option due to the unique nature of some of the caves. This is a point lost on some people who will claim otherwise and that a blanket approach of non-allowance should apply to all sites.

Some of the most valued insights I received whilst doing the research for this project was from the well known Australian cave explorer, Chris Brown. Brown is a bit of an icon of the sport and amongst his many achievements was a dive he did in the mid 1990’s. He was a member of one of the first teams to properly explore the elusive third sump of a cave system on the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia called Cocklebiddy. This sump extends to over 6 kilometres from the entrance making it one of the longest in the world. When the cave got too tight to continue in the normal method, he proceeded by himself, pushing his air supply in front of him (a practice known as ‘no mounting’). It should be apparent to most that trying to squeeze a second diver into such a place would have only added to the risk, potentially blocking the path out or at the least having the potential to cause complications. In any case when you are that far extended as an explorer, if a catastrophic problem occurs what is the more likely outcome? That a second diver saves the day, or that there is a double fatality? This same point comes up time and time again when considering any number of fatalities involving solo exploration. Thankfully it’s been rare but when it does happen it becomes highly emotive and those who don’t support solo diving can be quick to point the finger of causation in that direction. In the sober light of day it always needs to be raised (morbid as it may sound), that the even worse consequence of a double fatality would often have been a very real likelihood.

There is no doubt that many discoveries (in cave diving in particular) would not have been possible without solo diving. This makes it all the more unusual to me that for the most part the main cave diving authorities in Australia don’t permit it at this time. Underwater explorers who break new ground, understand that they only have their own equipment and training to depend on. Some have used terms like ‘temporary buddy separation’ when describing how multiple divers can get past tight restrictions, but in my opinion that’s just a way of avoiding bringing up the dreaded ‘S’ word. I believe it’s more useful to call a spade a spade and spell it out for what it is – solo diving masquerading as something that sounds a bit less controversial!

Diving is for enjoyment and while I have acknowledged that there is definitely enjoyment to be had by finding like minded buddies to share the experience with, sometimes there is also much enjoyment to be had by diving solo. Once an experienced diver has put into place the various safety and planning considerations necessary, it is my firm opinion that they should be permitted to dive by themself if they so desire. The attraction is similar to going for a walk in solitude for peace and quiet. It’s not for everyone, it’s not to be taken lightly but solo diving has its place and done properly I don’t see any real evidence that it’s any more hazardous that buddy diving. It is my stated hope that diving businesses and charters will follow in the footsteps of the well known ‘Mike Ball Diving’ boat, ‘Spoilsport’ which has permitted it for some years. It is also my hope that the authorities that oversee cave diving within Australia eventually re-evaluate their position on solo diving. Of interest to me is that the highest current certification currently offered by the dominant cave diving organisation in the region, was derived from a previous course, initially written around the demands of solo exploration. Somewhere along the way it would seem that its purpose took a different path. I live in hope that will change someday, with an advanced course around solo cave diving exploration being offered. Privately I know I’m in good company with this desire…

Many thanks to the following people for their assistance in researching this article:

Chris Brown

Dr Peter Buzzacott               ‘Solo Cave Diving – Just How Safe is it?’ (Issue 8)

Bob Halstead                         ‘On Your Own – The Buddy System Rebutted’

Peter Horne                          ‘South Australian Diving Fatalities 1950 – 1985′

Mark Powell                          ‘Solo Diving – Coming Out of the Closet’ on Facebook

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“This Dive Will Change Your Life!”

Who can remember when they truly got hooked on diving? With every true enthusiast there is a moment when the sport went from being a mere hobby to a consuming passion. That’s what often separates people who have but a passing interest and those that keep doing it whenever they have an opportunity with it becoming a fundamental part of their life. I’m most definitely one of the latter. I’ll dive until I physically can’t anymore and my spare time revolves around it much of the time. But it wasn’t always like that. I was polarised by a particular dive and I’ll wager that many of you can relate to similar moments yourselves. That moment when diving becomes life changing is a poignant one and that’s what this article is about.

Recently I’ve had cause to look back and reminisce, probably because I’ve been going through a process to assist my partner who is at the beginning of her journey. She would probably be the first to tell you that diving doesn’t come easily for her, nor is it yet a passion. But I’m trying to encourage her to persist to a point that she feels comfortable enough in the water to truly appreciate that ‘magic’ moment if and when it comes along. I believe it will at some stage given her appreciation of the natural environment in all its diversity. Being underwater just takes a bit of time to feel equally at home as the avid naturalist does when they walk through a nature reserve or something similar

Let me tell you about when it happened to me. I need to go back 16 years, a time well before I was a cave diver, before my time as an Instructor, even before I became a wreck diving enthusiast. Right back to when I did my PADI Advanced Open Water Course at Jervis Bay with the staff from Pro Dive Sydney. Given it was during my early diving days, I think it likely that the experiences felt all the more vivid as everything was new and exciting. I’ve gained all kinds of satisfaction from courses I’ve done over the subsequent years, particularly the challenging technical ones but I still look back to this one as my favourite.

I was already a diver of sorts but not from an inner desire to go sightseeing. Whilst in the Navy I had done a 3 week course, which in addition to my main day to day role, enabled me to also do some maintenance tasks under the waterline whilst my ship was alongside in various ports. Far from pleasure diving, visibility was normally pretty limited and instances with all manner of waste floating past was not uncommon. An anecdote from this time that I’m fond of telling is a story that allegedly took place on another ship where a diver in a filthy overseas port managed to somehow accidentally swallow something foul (most likely some sort of excrement) floating on the surface when he took his regulator out of his mouth. When he subsequently asked the ship’s medic to give him something to help him throw it up, the response he allegedly got (amidst fits of laughter) was this: “If that didn’t make you throw up then there’s nothing I can give you that will!” Not withstanding the humorous side of this story, it paints a picture of the environments we sometimes were required to dive in, particularly whilst overseas. Partly out of necessity, I became reasonably comfortable diving in low visibility (which has proved useful for my current interest in cave diving) but as I hadn’t had any exposure to proper pleasure diving at the time, I wasn’t really aware how good it could be. I thought diving in 1 – 5 metres visibility was fairly normal and the course I had done, whilst physically demanding placed little emphasis on the small idiosyncrasies that come with good buoyancy and trim. With no other diving background at the time the course felt like it had been raced through and while it focused on important skills like search and recovery techniques, I hadn’t really developed a particularly good feel for diving itself during the 3 weeks. I dived with all the subtlety of an overweighted bull in a china shop. The equipment felt awkward and clunky in comparison to what I use today. In my imagination I had already developed my own idea of what the freedom of diving should feel like in an ideal world and this wasn’t it! It served a purpose for the crude work we were trained to do but I didn’t immediately think this would be an ideal activity for relaxation!

This changed however when I was considering what I would do when I left the military, particularly as at the time I had a friend who was looking to become a commercial diver and one day he ended up telling me about it over a drink at the local bar. After doing a bit more research into it and asking him lots more questions, I became intrigued in some of the possibilities of where it could lead. I found out that for the most part commercial diving schools trained you from scratch and the only diving pre-requisite was to do a basic Open Water Course. With that, I decided to make use of a few days I had off during the week and so walked into the nearest dive shop which was Pro Dive Sydney and signed up to get that tick in the box.

The Open Water Course was not life changing but I did enjoy it, doing pleasure diving for the first time in the Clovelly Ocean Pool and adjacent Gordons Bay. By sheer fluke I also had the luxury of doing a one on one course with an experienced instructor, Nikki, who was just a couple of months away from changing to a totally different career path. In between dives I had the chance to hear about some of her experiences teaching over the years and while they didn’t sound nearly as profitable, I became equally intrigued in the world of professional recreational instruction as that of commercial diving. A seed had been planted.

Throughout the Open Water Course we had at least 10 metres of visibility and there was plenty to see by following the signed underwater nature trail that existed in Gordons Bay. While I was still focused on the prospect of becoming a commercial diver, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a little detour. It took little convincing for me to sign up immediately for the next step on the recreational diving ladder, the Advanced Open Water Course. As luck would have it there was one happening two days later.

That Friday afternoon I showed up out the front of the shop and was introduced to my fellow course mates for our weekend of adventure. More than a series of local dives, this course was to be done during a trip away to Jervis Bay. Our instructor was a Canadian diver with a very calm disposition called William (Will). Also along for the trip was Rod de Groot (somewhat of a Pro Dive icon over the years), who would be driving the bus and teaching his own separate course that weekend. I would get to know both better in the following months in subsequent courses and trips. We got on board and off we went on a 4 hour drive to Jervis Bay.

Things got off to a rocky start when one of my course mates had all his diving equipment stolen from the bus when we stopped for dinner on the way. We later worked out that his window had not been latched completely shut and his bag which was on his seat would have been easy takings for any would-be thief. Nevertheless, I’ll give the poor guy credit as somehow it didn’t dent his mood or enthusiasm for too long. We worked out that there would still be enough surplus gear to go around and after a couple more hours driving we eventually arrived at Jervis Bay, and pulled into the dive lodge that we were staying at.

The next morning we woke up to glorious weather and the full grandeur of Jervis Bay was revealed. We had only tantalising glimpses of this the night before with the white beaches barely visible from Huskisson disappearing off into the distance, but in broad daylight the full ‘reveal’ did not disappoint. Jervis Bay can be stunning.

For our first 2 course dives we headed to a secluded beach located near the point where the bay joined the open sea. This was to be the one and only time I ever dived at Murrays Beach but after lugging our gear through the trees and dunes, when we emerged it was clear it was worth the effort. It was a pretty special place, resembling something you’d see in a movie set on a remote island. Flat clear water, beautiful clean white sandy beach with thick healthy vegetation hanging over it. The serenity was quickly brought to an end however, when another personality of the time roared past and ran into the water complete with his students around him amidst laughter and yelps when the brisk water temperature became apparent. They then slowely got out and started the process of kitting up for their course dives with various banter being thrown around. This was my introduction to the Pro Dive Drummoyne Instructor Tyrone. He was certainly a bit of a character. Loud, flamboyant but well meaning and full of enthusiasm. He was popular with his students and a solid diver himself.

Then it was our turn. Will gathered us around for our dive briefing. The first 2 dives focussed on navigation and naturalism. I was buddied with an English diver called Tamsyn, who was on a year working visa at the time. She took everything with good humour and as it turned out was enjoying the diving and sailing so much in Australia that she ended up extending her stay. We were to do numerous dive courses together over the coming months and she became my first regular dive buddy. Once below the surface we were greeted with beautiful gin clear water. It almost made navigation a bit too easy as you could see from one marker almost to the next without the aid of a compass. When it came to identifying various forms of marine life on the next dive, we drew a series of pictures on a slate to discuss with our instructor afterwards. We’d already drawn a few and were getting near the end of our dive. Whilst looking for our last subject we came up behind another buddy pair (unbeknown to them at the time). Tamsyn started scribbling away and then showed me the picture she would later present to Will. It wasn’t a species I recognised on our marine life slate but that yellow tank on the back sure looked familiar! Despite the serious side of making sure everyone was doing the skills required, which comes with being an instructor, he appeared equally amused with Tamsyn’s drawing as the two of us were!

We headed back into Huskisson to refill our tanks and had lunch overlooking the bay. What better to have than fish and chips from the local cafe, particularly when you know that the fish was pretty fresh. At the same time we were able to take in the scenery looking over the stunning beaches at Huskisson. It felt like we were a million miles from the hustle and bustle of Sydney. No doubt about it I was enjoying this trip. Our instructor Will joined the group and started to brief us about the plans for the evening. Prior to dinner we were to do a night dive at the Hyams Beach boat ramp, then dinner at the local pub before relaxing with everyone else back at the lodge and covering any last minute theory.

A few hours later as the sun was going down we geared up at Hyams, which many have claimed has the whitest sand in the world (not sure if that’s substantiated but it is indeed pretty white). Before we entered the water, I remember him saying something that stuck with me to this day; “This dive will change your life.” We then got in the water and did our dive. It was indeed another good experience but I’ll be honest, it didn’t exactly change my life. Hyams is nice, and it’s convenient for instructors because it’s so accessible but it isn’t the Bahamas! Nonetheless I remembered the phrase he used because the next day it was to ring true.

The date was Sunday 11th July 1999. Not withstanding the social occasion at the lodge the night before which ran into the early hours of the morning (where we exchanged many stories of our different life experiences), we still all woke up pretty chirpy and ready to go again. I recall the delicious serving of pancakes we had at the lodge prepared by Luciano (who looked after us on that and subsequent Jervis Bay trips). We then headed back into Huskisson to meet our dive boat. Our course was to board the local dive charter ‘Avalon’ which was a comfortable well equipped 10 metre twin hulled boat. It was owned and operated by the local dive business which these days is known as ‘Dive Jervis Bay’. We had 2 course dives remaining, the first of which was to be my deepest to that date. After boarding the boat and stowing our gear, we travelled across the bay and then outside the heads before turning for a short trip down the coast to the temporary residence of a seal colony. Being a lovely fine day, the ride itself was pleasant but even more so when we were greeted by the sight of a few humpback whales breaching nearby. It was all very surreal and exciting and as we neared the seal colony expectations were high.

When we pulled up at the dive site and dropped anchor, you couldn’t miss the pungent odour or the sounds of the seals. They were everywhere and the smell permeated the air. After another dive briefing, this time by the skipper of the boat, we entered the chilly water in our buddy pairs and I chose to immediately immerse my face in order to adapt to the cold. I was blown away by what I saw, it was absolutely gin clear and I could clearly see the bottom 30 metres below. When Will gave the signal we started to descend the anchor line to the sea floor and the majesty of the environment we were moving into became more apparent. In addition to the clarity we were also surrounded by dramatic underwater topography, with steep walls protruding from out from the cliffs above to form a gully. Reaching the bottom, we did a few course skills but then attention turned to the seals that had joined us and the display they were putting on around us and between us. It was just spectacular, a delight of nature. They moved around with such grace and speed and it appeared effortless. Occasionally one would get curious and would come in closer for a look. As they barrel rolled you would see streams of bubbles trapped in their fur stream out, which in itself added to the spectacle. Their behaviour reminded me of dogs due to their almost playful nature and at times they would get to within inches of our faces, take a long look before disappearing off at great speed again. But how time flies when you are enjoying yourself underwater. All too soon the experience had come to an end and we were signalled by Will to start heading back up to the Avalon. As we waited at our safety stop I was just buzzing and could hardly wait for more of the same. Looking at my course mates they appeared equally intoxicated with this experience.

After a surface interval and a warm cup of soup we were back in the water with the seals again and this time did a slightly shallower dive profile where we ascended bit by bit pausing for a while at different features. This was to be classed as a multilevel dive and our last elective requirement for the weekend. All too soon we were again back at the safety stop and whilst hanging from the bar Will came around to shake each of our hands one by one, signalling the successful completion of the course. Sadly that also meant that this particular experience was over but I was keen to come back soon. As I reflected on what we had witnessed that day; the clear water, the dramatic topography, the spectacular show the seals had put on, I remembered Will’s comment from the night before. “This dive will change your life”. It may have been one dive premature but it was totally applicable now. I had been totally caught up in the moment.

We headed back in to Huskisson and I can remember standing on the front of the boat with the guy whose equipment had been pinched two days before. It must have been the furthest thing from his mind as we both reflected on what a good experience the weekend had been. My only regret was that I didn’t have any photos of it so I need to sincerely thank ‘Dive Jervis Bay’ for allowing me to use some of their photos to hopefully bring this article to life and give you an idea of what we experienced that day.

I went round the back of the boat to find Tamsyn similarly grinning like a ‘cheshire cat’ and before we even got back to the wharf the two of us had hatched a plan to come back the following weekend to participate in Rod’s Deep Course. That was to be the sign of things to come. Most weekends in the coming months were filled with courses or pleasure diving. Several months later we were both qualified Divemasters and I’d made a decision to focus, at least for a while, on the prospect of becoming a recreational instructor after leaving the Navy. I never ended up doing any commercial diver training, content instead by being hooked along the way on something more enjoyable.

“That dive will change your life” – Damn right!Share on Facebook

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Cave Diving via a Hole in the Middle of a Road

Ask anyone about a dive site that comes easily to mind and you can bet that it has some sort of feature that is unique amongst others. Whether it’s the aquatic life you’re likely to see, dramatic topography or stunningly clear water, something is likely to set it apart. For this entry I want to discuss a well known site in Mount Gambier. Ask divers about it and you can bet that one of the first things they are likely to mention is where it’s located. Allendale Cave is not located in a forest or the side of a hill or a coastline or even in someone’s paddock. No, it’s located slap bang in the middle of a road!

Like most South Australian Cave Divers I’ve had numerous dives at this site and apart from its unique location it doesn’t hurt that the water is normally stunningly clear. It’s not a huge site in comparison to some of the others, with a length of approximately 35 meters and a maximum depth of about 28 meters (assuming you don’t squeeze into a crack at the bottom which goes a little deeper). But it definitely has enough to hold a diver’s interest over the course of a dive.

The history of this dive site isn’t as clear as you might think, in fact anything before the mid 1900’s is pretty sketchy. I need to thank Peter ‘Puddles’ Horne in particular, who has spent many years documenting the numerous cave diving sites, for kindly sharing some of the information with me and the work done by the Cave Exploration Group of South Australia (CEGSA) who were also a key reference for some of the early information. After all, diving is only part of the appeal. Much like wreck diving there is a real attraction to linking the past with the present and seeing how overhead environments change with time. If only the walls could talk, they would have some interesting stories to tell!

The site (and the small township it’s located in) is named after founder, William Allen Crouch with Allendale being derived from his middle name. What we do know is that the cave’s existence was known dating back at least to the 1800’s when it was used as a watering hole for bullock wagons using a hand pump and trough. However actual details of how the site looked back then are not really clear with no known pictures being available. All that’s known is some questionable anecdotes that have been passed down over the years. Allegedly the site was originally discovered when a bullock and wagon disappeared into it, but then it gets fatuous by suggesting they reappeared somewhere else. Although I have little doubt that the site probably did claim a few bullocks or even wagons over the years, I’m somewhat skeptical as to any subsequent re-appearances! We do know that the cave used to be larger in size, more closely resembling some of the other sinkholes you might find in Mount Gambier. It was described like a “cavity of a double tooth” with one passage heading in a south easterly direction and the other towards the Allendale Hall. This is reminiscent of other sites that have overhangs and/or passages leading from them and a central mound due to the initial collapse.

At some stage a decision was made to try and fill in the sinkhole, presumably with little knowledge of the extent of the water filled section, with the intention to build the road over it. Initially large boulders were brought in and later smaller loose ones. Despite over 9,000 tons being deposited into the site, it repeatedly opened up and eventually they gave up and the road remains around it with opposing lanes passing on either side. Only the one passage remains now, which is the one we dive in (the one described as heading towards the Allendale Hall) and there are no records of anyone ever diving the filled in side. Nor have any connections been found to what may or may not exist there but many are intrigued as to the possibilities. I’ll return to this point later.

When I first dived Allendale Cave, my initial impression of the site was of how steep it was. Entry is down a roughly cut rocky path and a rope is of benefit to hold on to in the event of slipping. Once in the entrance lake which is rather small, you descend underwater down a similarly steep passage with the floor filled with loose rocks (the result of the attempted fill). The passage narrows somewhat before you emerge into a much larger chamber at the bottom. Assuming nobody has already stirred it up, the water is extremely clear and visibility is usually in excess of 30 metres. Light permitting, you will easily be able to see details from one side of this chamber to the other and this is normally where you spend most of your dive looking around. You will more than likely notice a stepped roof and quite a bit of etched graffiti that was done during the earlier days of the CDAA (Cave Divers Association of Australia). In fact if you read through some of it you may even come across some that show some of the resistance to the formation of the Association and the subsequent regulation of diving activities. Shall we just say that at the time some people weren’t very happy and that’s evident in some of the comments! Whilst unsightly on one hand, it does link the past to the present and gives us an insight into events of the time.

At the deepest point is a small opening at the bottom. Initially described as a “crack in the rock.” A look inside shows that it’s no longer merely a crack but rather a very tight passage and not for the faint hearted should you consider squeezing into it. This feature is the source of some speculation as there is a noticeable flow that comes from deep within it but divers are not encouraged to penetrate it. Nonetheless it’s a fair assumption that the opening of this crack over the years was more likely caused by decidedly non-geological activity and probably has more in common with Charles Bronson’s character in ‘The Great Escape’ than what one generally associates with cave diving. Underwater explorers, if nothing else, can be a determined bunch!

As you ascend back up the steep slope of debris, if you didn’t notice it on the way in, you’ll find an interesting feature just after you leave the main chamber at approximately 12 meters. Off to what will now be your left you should see a tight flat passage. We appropriately call features like these ‘flatteners’ in cave diving (a term originally inherited from dry caving). It’s pretty tight in here but if you dive in sidemount configuration like I do it’s actually reasonably easy to pass through without ending up covered in limestone. In fact you can almost do it without touching the roof or the loose rocks below if you are very careful. In the past this area was known to be extremely unstable with the rocky slope banked up on one site. To my eyes it actually appears reasonably ok now but it’s good to be mindful of how the rocks got there and not cause an avalanche by being reckless. I feel pretty comfortable drifting in, looking around and drifting back out. If you come out in clear visibility you know you did a reasonably good job negotiating it. From there it’s back up to the entrance lake and out to warm up. Like most sites in Mount Gambier it’s a bit on the chilly side but I’ve not experienced it ever being less than 13 degrees. An hour or so in a decent exposure suit should be fine (nothing a decent cup of coffee or soup can’t fix anyway)!

Returning to an earlier point of interest regarding the filled side of the cave. While it’s true that after even the closest examination of the site during a dive, no obvious leads or even notable holes are to be found in the rubble that may join up to it, the original map (by Stan Bugg and Brian Cornell) does show an intriguing possibility that was first discovered by Peter ‘Puddles’ Horne and Andrew ‘Grovel’ Cox some years before the site was surveyed. This feature is a separate entry pool that is adjacent to the main one. On first glance it doesn’t appear to exist anymore, but the map is a bit deceiving as the pool is not exposed to open air. What’s required is a tight squeeze through a tiny dry cave opening some metres up the steep entrance slope. Curiosity got the better of me on my last visit so after our dive I climbed up the slope and squeezed in there to see for myself. Once inside it opens up into a small cave and looking down the steep slope you can see the pool in question with a torch. My understanding is that this intriguing little body of water was looked at more closely some years after it’s discovery by ‘Puddles’ but due to the visibility being so bad at the time, nothing could be seen and another visit would be required. As far as I know it still hasn’t happened. While the little pool is likely not to lead to anything, the mere possibility that it is something more, makes it worthy of further investigation.

While you’re in the Allendale area it’s easy and convenient to fill your tanks at the local store which is literally just down the road. I’m rather fond of the hot dogs there too (every time I fill my tanks I seem to end up getting one)!

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Go With The Flow – Drift Snorkelling Eight Mile Creek

Unusual for me but this is going to be an article that actually doesn’t involve diving at all! This may be unusual for mad keen divers but truth be known my affiliation with the aquatic realm for much of my youth was distinctly non-diving related, rather an obsession with distance open water swimming which is the origin of the alias that I often use on social media and in the credits of my videos. Not withstanding that fact, once I had gotten into diving I always saw myself making the 5 hour journey to Mount Gambier from Adelaide where I live, only if I was to dive in the spectacular array of caves and sinkholes. Despite a one off competitive race in the Valley Lake in 1995, I never bothered to look around the area in depth until relatively recently.

I got involved with the Cave Divers Association of Australia (CDAA) in 2013, a full 17 years after I first put on scuba gear. I wrongly thought that unless I was diving caves and sinkholes it wasn’t worth the journey. Ewens Ponds, of course is accessible to all qualified scuba divers but I was only moderately interested at the time and didn’t dive it until I was a member of the CDAA. Already a keen wreck diver, I just doubted it would hold my interest. How wrong I was and how quick to discount what would be an aquatic wonderland. In more recent years I have found that occasionally one can easily fail to consider what is easily accessible and right in front of them because of misinformed preconceived ideas. Some of the most interesting aquatic attractions in Australia are actually accessible not only to entry level divers but in some cases to the general public without the need for any dive training whatsoever. Such is the case of the spectacular experience that can be enjoyed by snorkelling from Ewens Ponds all the way to the coast via Eight Mile Creek.

Ok so first things first, let me reassure you that the journey is nowhere near the length that the name would lead you to believe. My understanding is that the creek actually got the name because it is located eight miles to the east of Port MacDonnell and not because of its length. I make it out to be less than 2 kilometres in length from Ewens Ponds and a quick look at Google Maps should corroborate this. It was thanks to this piece of technology that I became aware of this opportunity in the first place, while I was looking at the aerial view of Ewens Ponds to view the elusive 4th Pond which is rarely visited. The first 3 ponds are comparatively well known to divers and snorkelers. Unlike most of the dive sites in the region which require extensive training to get access to, they can be explored with an entry level Open Water Certification as there are no accessible overhead environments. There are floating pontoons and ladders to assist entry and exit in the 1st and 3rd ponds with people moving between them via shallow connecting channels (called races) and then making the journey back to the car park via an adjacent walking track. These ponds are stunningly clear and abundant in aquatic plant life. Zooming out on Google Maps it became apparent that not only was there a channel leading to another pond but that there was also a further channel beyond which meandered all the way to the coast. Of course the fact that there was an existing channel by no means meant there was water flowing in it year round or that the water remained as pristine as that in the ponds. However all it took was a few queries on social media and some responses from some long term CDAA members to confirm that there was and that there is normally considerable water movement in it, so that once beyond the ponds you just relax and enjoy the ride. This was clearly a trip worth taking so I quickly made plans to do it during the June long weekend.

After numerous recent trips to Mount Gambier, here was something that any member of my non-diving family and friends could join me on if they wished. The same can be said for other diving enthusiasts with non-diving family members. All you need to enjoy snorkelling Ewens and Eight Mile Creek is to feel relatively comfortable in a mask, snorkel and wetsuit. The water of course is a bit on the chilly side, not normally getting much warmer than 15 degrees year round, but as long as you keep moving you’ll adapt quickly. You’ll find that you are more than compensated for the water temperature by the sights you’ll see below along the way.

Unlike most of my weekends to Mount Gambier, on this occasion I divided my trip into two parts. I was joined by my ‘long suffering’ partner (my parents description, not mine), Sarah. Maybe the ‘long suffering’ reference is that she’s not nearly as keen on diving as myself but does join me sometimes and is generally quite supportive of some of the hair brained things I do. I had enjoyed a couple of days of looking around some of the cave sites with a friend who was a former diving colleague many years ago. Meanwhile she had patiently waited for us on the surface, sometimes camera in hand, sometimes a cup of coffee. The planned snorkel down Eight Mile Creek marked the turning point in this trip. In order to do this snorkel you will need a bit of planning and my friend was kind enough to drop us off at Ewens Ponds after we had left our vehicle at the coastal end as it is a one way trip. There’s a couple of suitable areas to park just beyond the Eight Mile Creek Rd bridge crossing and it’s this bridge that tells you that the mouth to the ocean is coming up near the end of the snorkel. The journey takes just over an hour in length (apparently, depending on flow rate it can sometimes take up to 30 minutes longer). If the tide is coming in you may be prevented from reaching the mouth itself but it matters little as you are within sight of it and there are numerous places that you can climb up the bank.

During your journey you’ll get to enjoy the diversity of colours as light refracts through the shallow water against the various aquatic plant life and visibility will be amongst the best you are likely to see. You may also see numerous fish which could include varies types of Pygmy Perch and Lamprey that thrive in flowing water, River Blackfish, Shortfinned Eels, Congolli and Crayfish. A number of these species are regretfully endangered. I should also mention that the quality of life and water clarity deteriorates a bit as you get closer to the coast and this is partly due to dredging that has taken place in this part of the creek in the past. Nevertheless, it is still reasonably clear water, a great experience and one that I thoroughly recommend.

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