Being an accountant, you become accustomed to some things. Like not working over Xmas & New Years. Thus it came as something of a shock to find that not only was the 2nd of January not a public holiday in this country , but I was expected to be at work then. And functional. Or at least as much as I usually am. What sort of a fool would choose 31 December for a year end?
The xmas period was not looking good. It soon became clear that it was going to be somewhat impractical to be at my usual New Years haunt in Masterton. A cold and miserable holiday period looked to be on the cards. This was not right. So thought long and hard about where I could go instead. The criteria, as you could imagine, were tough. It must be hot and sunny. I toyed with the idea of a bloody cold holiday in Canada, but the second criteria of being close to London kindof ruled that one out. Hot and sunny suggested to me diving, a pastime which is not very common in the UK in winter & I had therefore not been able to do since I had arrived.
So again the arduous task of researching potential trips began. To the net with the keywords of liveaboard (what better way to spend a summer holiday than on a boat) and scuba. Eventually one name popped up Explorer Tours on Royal Diving 1 (might as well give them a bit of a plug), because they had a trip in the Red Sea going when I could. Specifically it was based out of Sharm el Sheik, at the very tip of the Sinai in Egypt. So I booked it pronto.
Of course the flight could not leave from Heathrow, a mere 4 tube stops away from where I live & work, but from Gatwick. More convenient than Stanstead, but that is not saying much. So another early morning ordeal to get to the airport began. The sacrifices I make astound even me.
When I booked the trip I pretty much figured out what it was going to be. It was going to be a full on stressful time. After waking up, I was going to have to eat some to get those energy levels up, then I was going to have to dive some, and then perform the highly arduous (and essential task) of off gassing, before repeating. Now before you all start making the obvious jokes about off gassing, this is not just aimlessly sitting around talking. That is for cafes. This is serious business.
When diving, nitrogen becomes dissolved in your blood, and if you get too much then it starts to do Coke can impressions, which is bad. So after a dive, it is a matter of safety that you wait for long enough before going diving again. Extensive field tests and clinical research have identified that the optimum conditions for off gassing are generally achieved while sitting in the sun on the top deck of the boat (slightly higher altitude you see) in the sun (warm Coke fizzes less you see).
So while to the amateur, it appears that there is a lot of lazing around being done, it is in fact a critically important safety precaution.
However my initial assessment was mistaken. There was more. We would generally wake up (or be woken) by the dive guide for a briefing pretty early in the morning. We would then go for a dive for an hour. When we got back our beds were made, and breakfast would be almost ready.
We all ate like very hungry people & mentally prepared for the task of off gassing. Through the day the pattern would repeat. Briefing, dive, food ready when everyone had got themselves dried and such. Tough huh. The food was a little disappointing in that we didn’t have turkey on xmas day & I am a traditional sort of a guy when it comes to that. But that is being just a little picky, cause it was all great (Sarah, you should take lessons from the chef, he even managed to do good things with lentils & I ate them), and 3 course dinners every day on a boat are fairly impressive.
And most importantly no-one ever complained of going away hungry. Even me.
So far I haven’t mentioned the diving. Which is kindof odd for a diving holiday is it not? Well it was good. Very good. There were 11 divers on the boat, mostly Brits, but also the ubiquitous Aussie, and the Welsh dive guide Richard.
The first day was not too special. But this was the day which was planned for easy dives so that everyone could get themselves sorted out & Richard could get an idea of how everyone was. So that was cool, and it beat being stuck in London. And we did do a nice little night dive, which was pretty cool.
The next day the dives started getting better. First dive of the day was the Dunraven. Some night in the 1800s, the captain of the Dunraven found out that his best mate was doing his wife, so got pissed and while doing so drove his boat onto the reef. It is now sitting upside down on the bottom & makes a nice ship to swim through, having a look at the boiler, managing not to put your hand on the stonefish which was lying around trying to look inconspicuous (and succeeding). Not a bad wake up before breakfast.
Then we dove the Sarah H. One day in 1973, apparently unassisted by best mates and wives drove his ship straight onto the reef. This made a nice home for lots of fishes before heading along the coral wall for a change of scenery. We saw all the usual stuff: one fish, 2 fish, red fish, blue fish. Big fish, small fish, lots of fish at once, fish by themselves, big fish eating small fish, small fish eating smaller fish. Also some less usual stuff, like a turtle, moray eels. Right at the end of this dive a pod of dolphins came cruising by and swam with us. It is amazing how they can all manage to swim perfectly in sync, and almost came close enough to touch. After a little while they got bored with swimming with us slow & clumsy ones & buggered off. We all piled onto the rib at the end of the dive with smiles allover our face, and Richard didn’t seem too concerned that his rule of a max time of 60 minutes being extended a little.
After a great dive we motored over to the Thistlegorm. On 6 October 1941 the Thistlegorm was sitting with its cargo of ammunition (in hold 4 ), bren gun carriers, gumboots, bedford trucks, rifles, BSA motorbikes ( on the back of the trucks), Spitfire wings, and trains awaiting orders & trying to look as inconspicuous as a 9000 ton freighter can. To the regret of the crew and the present delight of the Egyptian government & a lot of divers, it was not inconspicuous enough and was noticed by a German bomber, and hit in hold 4 (and we remember what was in that one don’t we?) So it sank. Very quickly.
On the plane on the way here there was an article on the Thistlegorm saying that despite having far too many divers crawling over it, it was still one of the best wrecks in the world. And here we were, directly above it, the only boat around. Timeto go down for a night dive. To be wandering through the wreck and realise that because that round thing the size of a plate is one of those bumper things on a train, that means the big thing in the dark behind it is a train is something where you had to be there, but you weren’t, so you are not going to know. Sorry.
The next morning Richard dragged us all out of bed at a time which I don’t usually see when I am working, let alone on holiday. But this let us have our first daytime dive of the Thistlegorm alone again, before all of the day boats had arrived. While we were sitting on the top deck, waiting to go down again, we saw 10 other boats come in, all try to moor in a very small area, drop their divers, and generally crawl all over the thing. Somehow our 6:30 start seemed worthwhile, especially when Richard told us that the people on the boats arriving now had to leave at 4.
After all of the other divers came back up and were doing their offgas thing, we went back down for another trip, this time actually though the holds where all of the stuff was. No need to say just how cool this was.
After we came up all of the other divers went down again for their last dive before having to leave. After they had all cleared off we wandered down again. Four dives on the Thistlegorm without any other divers about. Seems that there was a bit of smart planning going on there, thanks Richard.
The days did start to haze a little after this, with lots of fantastic dives, and a few that were just there for the entertainment value of others. A couple of little pointers. Never expect to actually reach the outside reef of the lagoon at night when you are diving with people who are easily distracted and don’t have a compass. All that actually happens is you swim in one big circle seeing a whole lot of interesting little things, while everyone on board laughs at your attempts to swim in a straight line (they can see your torchlight). Lion fish (nice looking fish covered in lots of poisonous spines) will follow people with torches ( especially people with a torch which could have doubled as a searchlight during the blitz) for ages, and it gets very annoying to have a troupe of 6 of the bloody things following you for a whole dive. The most disappointing thing is that there were very few sharks. The only one I saw was a leopard shark, and it hardly counts because was asleep, and is a non big teeth variety of shark anyway. Not sure what it is about neoprene that makes people swim towards sharks rather than away, but there must be something in it. Also, trusting a grinning Egyptian crew member is not a good idea, but will result in some form of hilarity, probably at your expense.
It must also be said that getting back to a boat which is moored in the harbour at 3am after an evening sampling the local hospitality is more difficult than getting off it in the evening. We did manage to achieve this without any losses, although details on how this was achieved are still sketchy, and are likely to remain so.
On the last day we couldn’t dive, as we had to fly in the evening. On the advice of our local, we determined that the best way to soak up the cultural experience that was Egypt was by buggering off out of the bloody great resort that is Sharm, obviously not an option, so we hung around the pool all day. More good advice from Richard Mitchell, dive guide extraordinaire.
The worst part of the trip was the fact that the flight back was on New Years eve, even if we did have the midnight thing twice, once over Luxembourg at 2300 GMT , and once as we were about to land at 2400 GMT .But a cheapo airline is not the best place to spend New Years eve. And when we finally got out of the airport at lam, all of the trains & tubes had stopped. But thanks to Alex, I managed to make it home without having to resort to an £80 taxi ride.
Walking to work on Tuesday I was so laid back I was almost vertical. This lasted about 4 hours, but by then I was working on planning the next little excursion.