I wasn't exactly 'eased' into day three of RedTec. I was abruptly awakened, greeted only by complete darkness and the frantic movement, of what I hoped was Wifebuddy, in the midst of an earthquake.
A moment later my mind digested the information and remembered I was on a ship. This in turn allowed me to determine an earthquake was unlikely, and I was, in fact, experiencing a hurricane.
"What's happening? Where are the life jacket things? ... Shit; I paid no attention what so ever during the safety briefing ... we're going to die!"
As I slapped the walls in the looming darkness, somehow hoping a lifejacket was mysteriously hung there, I could hear Kerri in her own private hell. "Arghhhhh!" she cried, as the bed lunged up one more time, and then bounced down again.
Then I could hear the sloshing of water. In the name of Christ; we were sinking.
All of a sudden the room was bathed in harsh light, there it was; the gates of heaven ... har! - all my debauchery, heavy metal, smoking, drinking, minor bouts of Satanism; and I was still getting to the pearly gates!
No; Kerri had found the light switch.
In proper light we assessed the situation a little more accurately; determining an earthquake and hurricane may have been a slight over reaction. Further analysis revealed it was choppy seas that caused all the crap we had left lying un-stowed, to migrate around the posh cabin.
Also, as we were on the outside of the ship, our door had been unfortunately placed in the path of surge, and a little water was lapping around the floor.
DIVE SITE: SS THISTLEGORMAt 5am, or some other beastly hour, I found myself donning my drysuit, twinset and 50% stage bottle, then leaping from the dive deck onto The SS Thistlegorm.
Not that The Thistelgorm needs an introduction, but for those who aren't familiar; it was a British armed merchant navy ship, built in 1940 and sunk on the 6th October 1941. She was bombed by a Heinkel He-111 aircraft, which dropped 2 bombs on hold 4, near the stern of the ship.
Hold 4 contained the majority of the ammunition which amplified the blast, sinking The Thistlegorm, leading to the loss of 4 sailors and 5 members of Royal Navy gun crew. (see wiki for more detail)
The enormity of the wreck was quite a shock. I knew it was big, but it was something else as the hull faded up from the soft blue of The Red Sea.
It was massive.
As per the plan, we followed the shot directly to the mooring point, mainly so we knew which one to ascend; The Thistlegorm is a popular site and ascending the wrong shot is a strong possibility. Once on the wreck, a quick sanity check and we were on our way.
The liveaboard had moored to the stern, so we descended to the sea bed and attempted to locate the giant prop. Within 4 mins of our big adventure we stumbled upon Jim Dowling and his group. Kerri signalled to me and I knew at once what she was thinking; “Bugger this – let’s follow Jim!”
So, our 3 month prepared dive plan was binned, and we tailed The Dowling Party around the wreck. It was a phenomenal idea, and we wouldn't have had half the dive skulking around on our own.
Due to the moderate current Jim led us to one of the locomotives. The locomotive had been blown off the ship during the explosion; despite being welded to the deck. Seeing a train sitting upright on the sea bed was nutty, and the power of such a blast must have been ferocious to send a hulking mass of steel 30m from the deck.
The Dowling Party drifted back to wreck, encircled the rear guns, and made its way to the prop. Amazingly I didn't see the huge guns poking off the stern section. I do recall wondering why everyone had stopped at an apparent steel wall, but thought nothing of it.
I don't know how I didn't see them; Jim was completely disgusted. I blame him entirely, he's a crap guide - he needs one of those underwater shakers and a pointy stick; like a proper guide.
The prop was pretty much as expected; genormous. A little swim led us to the holds. I knew that penetration was common practice, and exits were riddled throughout, from the accelerating deterioration of the super structure. Entering the hold was simply awesome; I really felt like a technical diver. Nonsense, I know, but all of a sudden I felt I was doing something normal folks didn't get to do; ever.
Kerri was leading, so I followed her into a corridor, dropped down a level into hold 3 and through a hole in the bulkhead into hold 2. Hold 3 had originally contained coal, and was subsequently empty, but hold 2 was mind blowing. It was littered with welly boots, rifles, and finally motorbikes.
The bikes were fantastic. They leaned against each other in perfect rows; as if parked outside some underwater biker bar. What really got me were the tyres. I know rubber doesn't degenerate, but they looked fully inflated and ready to go; as were the tyres on the upturned trucks outside.
After far too long investigating the motorcycles, it was apparent The Dowling Party was leaving us behind; and that was the last place I wanted to be - navigating on my own. We caught up with Pat and Keith, who were in the process of considering penetrating the next hold.
Clearly Pat and Keith shared the same thought process as they turned and exited from hold 2; having witnessed where Jim departed.
Back on the main deck the bright sunshine lit the wreck as if on dry land; you could see everything. We moved to the bow section and Kerri investigated another possibly penetration point; what is it with her wanting to go into dark overhead places?
As Wifebuddy peered into a doorway, a thumping big South African tech diver appeared; it was Pat. With Pat exiting, there was no way Kerri was getting in; Pat is a giant man, but more on that later.
Jim spied us and excitedly waved us over to the bow, taking the obligatory "Kate Winslet moment" photograph. Dutifully we took position, staring to the sea bed; it was a long way down and again the enormity of the ship became apparent once more.
As per usual our lack of gills terminated the dive, as turn pressure was reached. We followed Jim to the shot line; switched to 50% and initiated the decompression sequence. I wasn't convinced the shot was where it was on our descent, but placed full trust in the dodgy Brit, following The Dowling Party to the surface.
As we broke the surface it was clear it wasn't the same shot, arriving at the stern of the liveaboard. I bloody knew it. I guess it was all part of the master plan, we simply let go of the shot and drifted effortlessly go the stern and climbed aboard.
"Yes please Samir!"
... and then headed for breakfast, treated to Paul Toomer smearing egg over himself. “E-G-G…”
DIVE 2Prior to dive 2 on The Thistlegorm, Wifebuddy and I conferred, deciding it was definitely advantageous to follow Jim.
The plan was pretty much the same as the morning dive, minus the locomotive. We were totally happy with that; no doubt we had missed loads of cool stuff on the first dive anyway. We left the deco bottles behind, as the other couple weren't bringing any, and figured it would be more sensible to gas match and dive the same plan.
We made it to the big guns, again, and Jim made quite an exaggerated signal, ensuring I saw them. Yes, yes, Mr Dowling; I saw them, 2 big guns ... yeah, yeah.
They were awesome in all fairness.
It was especially interesting to learn from our dive guide, there had been no ammunition aboard The Thistlegorm for said big guns; rendering them useless during the attack.
Midway through hold 2, the wheels came off the party slightly. As Jim was pointing out a very cool nudiranch, one of the other divers in the group decided she wasn't particularly keen on the overhead environment after all; lost buoyancy, and basically wanted out.
It was a little fascinating to watch Jim suddenly 'switch on' to the matter in hand. He calmly signalled, to the increasingly agitated diver, to breathe slowly, then reached out his hands, and provided her with the stable platform every diver yearns for when things get a little edgy.
Crisis averted, the party exited into open water. Jim signalled he was terminating the dive with the other couple, and we should continue on alone. Unaffected we continued our dive, enjoying a little more of the big wreck.
I have to admit, after 60 mins I wished I’d brought my deco bottle after all. I'm not a fan of deco-ing on back gas, so with NDL maxed out; we headed to the shot and returned to The Blue Voyager.
OFF GASLunchtime and we had already completed 2 fantastic dives on The Thistlegorm; it was phenomenal, and I couldn't wait to get back on her.
A serious amount of off-gassing was required before we could go diving again; so the group enjoyed lots of splendid food, purple juice, a clear sky and great company.
The diver that developed the issue in the hold apologised profusely for ruining our dive. To be honest, although we didn't get to penetrate hold 3 as planned, we weren't bothered. Once a diver isn't happy it's time to call the dive; them's the rules.
Both Kerri and I assured her we didn't mind, and hoped she was ok, and told her not to worry about it.
DIVE 3 - WHAT ARE YOU DOING TONIGHT?
A dive with Paul Toomer, at night, on the SS Thistlegorm; oh hell yeah!
We had charged our primary lights, checked, then double checked our reserve lights and were set to go night diving.
We descended the stern shot line as before, and upon reaching the wreck Paul made an exaggerated OK signal with his light. Our team reciprocated and the dive commenced. I finned along with the procession of double tanked divers, chuckling as I recalled Achmed 'advising' us “No decompression, no penetration, and a maximum dive time of 45 mins.”
I held that thought in my mind as we followed Toomer deep inside the wreck.
I know many divers that have penetrated The Thisetlegorm, and it has become par for the course on the safari boats; but I beg to differ that your average diver conducted a penetration quite like the one we did.
The chain of divers went: Paul, Dave, Me, Kerri, Laura, Geoff, Dimitris with Ben up the rear; and we delved deep into the Thistlegorm, lit only by 8 dive lights. My EOS really came to life!
I recognised some parts from the earlier dives, until we swam through a break in a bulkhead into the unknown. It was stimulation overload. We saw motorbikes, sidecars, rifles, boots, huge trucks, parts of aircraft and various other military paraphernalia.
After 20 minutes or so we ended up in a hold above rows of huge troop carrier type trucks. There was just enough room above the trucks and the roof of the hold to get a diver along, if in pretty much flat trim.
I recall at that point thinking; "Jesus, we're pretty far in here. I'm not sure I want to go much deeper." The problem with that thought process was, I couldn't find my way out; even if I did develop the testicles to leave on my own. I was at Toomer's mercy; I had no option but to continue following.
The Thistlegorm night dive became a little bit of an endurance test after that. I'm not a huge fan of long overheads, especially when I don't know where I’m going, or how to get out; add into the mix, I’m also a bit claustrophobic ... on land…
It appeared Paul would not be content until we had seen every square inch of metal inside of the wreck.
Entry points became tighter, and tighter. I had to help Dave as his light cord got caught, when he squeezed his rebreather through a particularly tight spot.
The clincher came when I saw Paul up ahead detaching his bailout cylinder, and throw it through a 'hole' in the bulkhead. My eyes widened, and I heard my own voice through the regulator; "He can get fucked if he thinks I’m taking my kit off."
A few more squeezes, ups, downs, rounds, throughs, and unders, we finally exited into open water.
I have to admit I was bloody glad, and it felt like a breath of fresh air as our technical squad finned past the blank stares of a recreational group on the main deck. It did feel pretty cool though.
We all centred on the shot line, Paul waved a big OK once more, and we ascended.
The night dive was a perfect way to end a phenomenal day on SS Thistlegorm. I could happily spend a week on that wreck. It was absolutely huge, and I’m sure I missed plenty of cool stuff; but I saw a bloody good proportion of it in 3 dives spanning 189 minutes.