Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Learning to dive with Bill

Sport does you the world of good. However, you have to treat it with the proper respect and minimise the risks: after all you want it to improve your health, not undermine it by causing you injury.

Scuba diving in particular is a high-risk sport. Properly organised schools ensure that you learn about them in a controlled environment and train you in the skills required to avoid the inherent dangers.

For instance, it is extremely dangerous to remove your mask while submerged. It may lead to your lungs filling with water and most experts agree that this can be career-limiting. Similarly, if you surface too quickly from depth without taking the proper precautions, you may bang your head against the bottom of the dive boat. As well as being painful, this may, if the damage to the hull is substantial, involve you in significant expenses for which you have not allowed.

So it makes sense to get properly trained first.

Most dive schools start their training in a swimming pool. This has got to be a good idea since it provides a completely controlled environment. Unfortunately, I have to admit to my shame that it doesn’t really do it for me. ‘Controlled’ is the only good thing I can find to say about that environment.

One of the two main things I loathe about swimming pools is the noise. Do architects have to take special acoustic qualifications to be allowed to design swimming pools? Have you noticed how they invariably design them in such a way that they just ring with noise, an echoing, reverberating, dinning noise which moves beyond simple sound to become pure discomfort?

The other thing is of course the smell of chlorine. Who on earth wants to spend time in those conditions? It’s a vile stench. How on earth can that be conducive to health?

But I could overcome my dislike of swimming pools if it weren’t for the actual content of the training. Often they start you off, in full kit, lying on the floor, next to the pool, not in the water at all. Well, I know safety and health are important, that life is nothing without them and all that, but frankly dignity too is not without its value. What dignity is there in flailing about on the particularly unpleasant surface they always seem to lay alongside swimming pools, with a tank on your back and a wet suit on your body? Honestly. The expression ‘a fish out of water’ to indicate inappropriateness and unsuitability wasn’t invented by chance, you know.

Then they get you in the pool itself and you swim up and down in there. Great. When did you last see any old wrecks in a swimming pool? Actually, I have to admit I was invited once to the house of a friend of mine – an acquaintance, really – with more money than taste and watching him reclining in his inflatable water armchair would certainly fit the description ‘an old wreck in a swimming pool’. But I have to say I wouldn’t go diving to see such a sight.

All this swimming pool stuff seems a bit over the top.

Fortunately, it isn’t absolutely necessary. You can learn to dive the Bill way.

Bill was an American in his 70s living in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. He had a superbly athletic body, tanned to perfection, with a shock of white hair. He could have stepped straight out of a Hemingway novel: you could imagine him battling for twenty-four hours with a marlin.

He used to drive bunches of tourists out to the reefs in a battered old motor boat. Once we were at the diving spot, he brought out two crates of Coke bottles which he deftly uncapped, tipping part of the contents of each bottle overboard. Then he brought out a plastic jerry can of industrial-strength rum with which he topped up the bottles again. He offered these basic Cuba Libres to us all. Of course, safety comes first so there was a strict limit on how much we could drink before we went diving – I think it was a maximum of two each although I suspect that we would probably have lost count after two anyway.

He then gave us the safety briefing and basic instruction. He told us to keep breathing, though not too fast. If we ran out of air in the tanks, we should head for the surface. The surface was upwards, in the same direction as the sunlight.

Then we went over the side and had a glorious initiation to the joys of diving. No swimming pool racket, no smell of chlorine. Just a reef, flamboyant water plants and fish you could feed with pieces of urchin. The sense of freedom that movement in three dimensions gives, like flying over an enchanted landscape, was indescribable. A moment in paradise, in other words.

Who could want for more? And though his teaching methods were unconventional, casualty numbers were low. Our losses were minimal.

That’s what I call sport that generates real well-being.

1 comment:

Michael said...

hehe! I vaguely remember Bill!

Another nice piece - I especially liked the misleading part where the Bends turned into bumping your head on the bottom of the ship. very amusing.

When's the next entry coming?