Expedition Leader Michael Rickard's report for BEGS Grant made on behalf of: Sub-C-Divers BS-AC Branch 1206, Bury SAC BS-AC Branch 601 and Chaumont SAC BS-AC Branch 1149.
In 2011 Mike Rickard, Alf Draper & Bob Charles got together with a view to moving on with our diver training. As Advanced divers and open water instructors the next logical step was to look at undertaking the Advanced Instructor course as a basis for the 1st Class Diver qualification.
We agreed that a necessary element to our further training had to be organising an expedition. This would serve two essential purposes. Firstly, it would give us the opportunity of working together as a team to examine the logistics, enabling us to gain more practical experience in training, dive planning and organisation. Secondly, it would give our branch a ‘blueprint’ for organizing further expeditions.
A few problems surfaced almost immediately: where should we go; who should we take and how could we guarantee maximum safety and ensure value for money?
Alf, Bob and I (now known as the core group) could not agree on our destination. We wanted to provide good leadership and a democratic environment for our potential expedition members. Accordingly, we decided to each put together a 10 minute power point presentation of our three choices and invited an audience of divers from two different BSAC diving branches: Sub C Divers 1206 and Bury SAC 601, with whom we have enjoyed some diving activities in the past, and who like us also had a RIB.
Following the three presentations a general discussion resulted in us deciding to opt for the Summer Isles as our 1st expedition destination. Whilst the core group would lead the many facets of the expedition, our method of leading and decision making would be transparent and upfront and include all members with the leader overseeing and taking responsibility for settling any identifiable controversial matters. I was nominated as expedition leader.
Members of each branch were asked to apply stating what they could bring to and what they would hope to gain from the expedition. This enabled the core team to choose the final expedition team, ensuring a good balance of diving experience and life skills useful to this type of expedition. Subsequently, Jim Donbavand from Chaumont SAC 1149 agreed to act as a mentor and join our expedition, fulfilling the criteria needed to apply for a BEGS grant. The expedition would be run over 10 days from the 8th to 17th July 2011 coinciding with neap tides. The expedition totaled 17 (16 divers and 1 non diver). We also had a reserve list. The decision to take 17 people caused some headaches as this was more than we had originally envisaged. However, based on the quality of the applications forms, it was clear that our expedition fulfilled a desperate need in each of the branches. The core group, although initially hesitant with the numbers, chose to see it as a challenge, a hurdle to be overcome rather than a barrier!
- To undertake a week of high quality, challenging and adventurous diving involving members of three BSAC clubs, Bury SAC, Sub C Divers SAC and Chaumont SAC and to provide an inclusive expedition experience for a range of divers from Trainee First Class Divers through to Sports Divers in a safe but remote and adventurous environment whilst still conforming with BSACs safe diving practices.
- To explore, identify and where relevant document details of dive sites around the Summer Isles, North West Scotland. This would include detailed documentation of the seabed, which was of interest to the Seasearch organisation. Hence, our seabed surveys would be conducted to scientific standards that could be reproduced at a later date and would add to the body of existing knowledge.
- To seek out new and old dive sites and conduct surveys on wrecks and reefs and then to document our research.
- To increase the expedition’s understanding of the group and enhance members’ diving skills in a challenging expeditionary environment whilst increasing their confidence, capability and experience.
- To assist 3 Sports Divers & 6 Dive Leaders to complete any shortages in their Diver training programme to enable them to attain their next Diver grade, a BSAC imperative, so that they could further progress in the BSAC by playing a pivotal role in their branch by cascading these skills and experiences to other branch members. This will be aided by a concentrated training programme of courses and SDCs both prior to and during the expedition.
- To learn from the type of cooperation required in such a large group to ensure success. This was particular important as we had 17 people with probably 19 different personalities. To be self-sufficient in terms of the transportation of boats, compressor gear, food and other equipment and within budget.
- To promote inter club relations between Bury SAC, Chaumont SAC and Sub C Divers SAC by the joint running of the expedition. To produce a methodology and standards that could be reproduced at a later date by others following our example.
- To dive with impunity and have fun!
- All divers to be BSAC Sports Diver or above and be a current diving member of BSAC, at the time of the expedition. This included assisting Ocean Divers to reach the above.
- The expedition was open to members of Sub C Divers BSAC 1206 and Bury BSAC 601, who have had experience of UK diving.
Non-diving members were welcome and actively involved in non-diving tasks, of which there are many. Currently, one expedition member is a non-diver. However, she is a BSAC Snorkel Diver and has attended courses in First Aid, VHF and Boat Handling. One aim of the expedition will be to increase her proficiency in boat handling.
The expedition was primarily funded by a contribution from every member of £450. This figure was calculated to cover the major costs i.e. accommodation; vehicle hire; fuel; compressor hire; food and sundry expenses. The costs of SDC s were borne by the individual. Additional funds came later from sponsors and the interim BEGS award.
We wanted to ensure that our method of planning could be replicated by those who planned expeditions after us. Regular monthly meetings commenced to enable the logistics of the trip to be discussed. We painstakingly wrote minutes and even recorded verbal debates. Unfortunately, minutes taken from these meetings were lost through a computer crash. Training became a key consideration. We needed to make sure that the members would be up to the grueling task of both preparing for the trip and be sufficiently resilient and dive-ready during the trip.
A table of the SDC’s needed was created following questionnaires given to expedition members to find out the existing skill base. Training courses commenced in November 2010 and it was expected that a total of 82 SDC’s would be completed by the expedition members and a further 15 from the general population of the two branches. On the whole we successfully achieved the majority of our stated objectives. However, due to time constraints during the expedition the planned Wreck Appreciation and Underwater Photography SDC’s were unable to be completed therefore the final figure for expedition members completed SDC’s was 64. In addition to this, Sports Divers and Dive Leaders completed a total of 9 elements towards their diver training program, which included completed qualification for three new Dive leaders and one new Sports diver. The 15 SDC’s taken by non expedition branch members took place successfully before the expedition began.
The expedition was scheduled to commence on 8th July and finish on 17th July 2011, a total of 10 days. Since October 2010 we have held monthly meetings to report on the progress of planning and logistical arrangements. At these meetings, expedition tasks were allocated, goals set and distributed to all members, who were then charged with reporting their progress at the next meeting. Prior to every monthly general meeting, the core group met to ensure focused steerage of the general meeting. All plans were finalised by the departure date. Most activities had been completed in good time but problems with van hire and the compressor meant a nail biting final few hours. We will started our journey on the 8th July with pick ups from both Bury SAC and Sub C divers SAC. At the final pick up I gave a briefing covering traveling and arrival procedures. We anticipated arrival for transfer to the island at 14:30h on Saturday afternoon. On landing on Tanera Mor all kit was stowed and checked. A full briefing outlining our accommodation and base of operations was given.
Months of planning for our expedition to the remote Summer Isles culminated in hiring: a compressor; 7.5 ton truck to carry all our kit; a minibus to tow one of the two RIBs and carry our passengers, and the use of Martin Bradbury’s van to transport the food and to tow the 2nd RIB, ready for departure on the Friday evening.
It all sounds so simple but departure day was not without its problems. The van we had hired came without a towbar. Frantic calls were made to resolve this, together with the threat of legal action (Bob Charles our resident barrister and Steve Gaskell our transport guru) was pivotal in ensuring the correct van was delivered. Not to be outdone, Tommy Johnson and Alf Draper (both skilled and talented mechanics) discovered that our compressor did not work! This was potentially a catastrophic disaster. Having purposefully ordered a state-of-the-art machine, we were very disappointed. However, after even more frantic phoning, we eventually had the promise of another (albeit smaller) compressor being delivered on the evening of our departure. Alf and Tommy worked their magic most of the afternoon and got the original compressor working again. We took both compressors but left the smaller unit in the truck on the mainland as a backup. Fortunately it wasn’t needed. The upshot of these problems was that we could not rest, as planned before the long night drive to Scotland. Nevertheless, it was just before midnight that the expedition started on its long journey north.
We took the main route to Ullapool north along the A74 (M) via Glasgow, and then followed the A9 towards Inverness and then the A835 to Ullapool. From Ullapool, there is a single-track road which leads to Achiltibue, Badentarbat and Dawney harbour.
We launched the RIBs from Dawney harbour, carrying the extremely heavy and cumbersome compressor, some kit and 4 persons each. The journey to our base from here was about 2 nm. Dawney harbour was chosen because of its proximity and due to its sheltered geography, it can be accessed under conditions which would make a longer and more exposed journey, dangerous. The 2 boat trailers were left at Dawney harbour.
The other passengers and kit was transferred form Badentarbat pier by the ferry “Patricia” (supplied by the owners of the Summer Isles). The distance to our base from here was 1nm. The 7.5 tonne truck, van and the mini-bus were parked here. We obtained fuel in our 25L cans from Achiltibue, a short distance from Badentarbat.
Periodic checks were made on all the vehicles security when we visited the mainland for fuel. It seemed a waste of resources to have the hired vehicles parked up unused for 6 days but the hire companies would not allow us to hire them just for the travelling days because of the remote location.
In order to be at the heart of our intended diving region and to fully benefit from the adventurous and remote aspect of the expeditions’ objectives we were based on the sparsely inhabited Island of Tanera Mor. We hired two main buildings still known from the names of their historical functions on the island:
The School House, comprising of a double room, a twin room (with optional extra bed) and a triple room,
The Farm House has two twin rooms and two single rooms. There was adjoining bunk bed accommodation attached to each of the two houses. This accommodation provided adequate lodgings for 18 people. We allocated the rooms amongst the members, integrating the different branches we also took account of gender and made arrangements for the one couple on the expedition. Being a remote island without mains electricity and many modern comforts captured the excitement and the spirit of adventure that was inherent in our expeditionary goals.
The accommodation was clean, comfortable, and fairly well equipped, one of the houses more so than the other. They were in an amazing location, although they were situated quite a distance apart at the top of a steep hill which was a killer at the end of the diving day.
The much smaller bunk houses were very basic and ok for one but would have been a squeeze for two. The only real criticism was the limited drying space inside the properties, had we not had good weather this could have been more problematic. Anticipating that the weather would likely be against us, we took the branch “market stall” with us and set it up near the shore next to the compressor, facilitating a temporary filling and drying station .This proved invaluable considering the limited drying room in the accommodation.
The remote location of the site meant we needed to take all our food and domestic supplies with us. We circulated a food survey to the expedition members to ensure a varied and suitable menu would be available throughout which would also avoid any known allergies. Additionally, the proprietors of the accommodation arranged to provide a set meal on the Wednesday of our stay, providing a night off from kitchen duties. Additional supplies were collected as necessary during fuel trips. The original plan was to order the food and have it delivered to an address local to Ullapool but unfortunately this wasn’t possible so plan B came into force. We needed someone from the group to take responsibility for the organisation and planning needed to feed 17 people for 9/10 days, no mean feat. We also had to take into account transportation. The food for the expedition was planned and organised by Hilary Boliss who everyone agreed did a fantastic job and here is her report:
After the expedition, members were emailed feedback forms and asked to express their honest opinions of the expedition as a whole.
On the whole feedback was excellent with everyone having good comments about the overall experience especially the way the group gelled together as a team.
The more experienced divers in the group commented that the diving was perhaps not as challenging as they would have wished but none the less found the opportunity to share knowledge, brush up on skills such as boat handling, vhf radio, and chart-work and position fixing skills very useful. On the other hand the less experienced divers, one of whom only started as an Ocean Diver 12 months ago, found the diving to be adventurous and challenging some commenting that they had learned good direct skills for the Dive Leader course and found the wide range of experience and practical knowledge of the more experienced divers invaluable. Everyone gave positive feedback about the destination, accommodation, food and the expedition’s organisation, pre trip logistics, training and safety. Everyone was happy with the information given in briefings but commented that late returns from diving followed by sorting out equipment, filling cylinders, cooking etc. pushed the next days scheduled dive management back to late in the evening. This problem was addressed and improvements were made as the week progressed and a more urgent approach was adopted.
In conclusion I would like to say that from the very first thoughts of organising this expedition back on 7th April 2010 to the writing of this report some 18 months later; there have been many hurdles that we have had to overcome with each one giving rise to what sometimes seemed like 17 different points of view! However this presented opportunities for all to learn and share diving experience, knowledge and practices. Despite enjoying a stay on Tanera Mor of more than a week, it was at times surprising how rapidly our schedule was eaten up, or complicated by various set backs.
The proprietors of the island were initially a little taken aback by the mass of equipment and provisions a group of 16 self sufficient divers travels with, and the magnitude of the logistic exercise of transporting our gear made any prospect of diving on the days of arrival and departure impractical. With the particular concern of the untried challenge of transporting the compressor back up the launch on the mainland on the return journey we were even eager to make a start on transporting our gear back on the day before departure. This made us mindful of undertaking a manageable schedule for our final scheduled dives in order to be certain of having enough time. Once the practical decision was made to have our first day’s orientation dives at the islands’ local bay, again the time available to exploring the more ambitious dive sites was significantly narrowed.
With the added complications of a series of unforeseen incidents, the schedule was put under further strain. We were saddened to find one of the “core group” Bob was unable to dive as he was experiencing pain from a pre-existing condition after aborting his introductory dive. Whilst we were still able to benefit from his seamanship and experience in dive planning, it meant we lost the underwater presence of the individual we had intended to head up the wreck surveying aspect of our expedition. As this was the first expedition for the majority of our team we had been enthusiastic to set ourselves a wide variety of goals and with the loss of Bob’s participation it was decided to focus on the training, Seasearch and exploration aspects of our expedition.
Other set backs were less extreme but still led us to reassess our diving program. A member missed a day’s diving through illness and another through kit failure. Additionally on the 2nd days dive we had the incident of one boat running out of fuel, which was unexpected as the other still had a half a tank remaining even after assisting with the tow. Previous experience was that both boats had similar fuel consumption and it seemed likely it was the result of Sub C one labouring more under a full load of seven divers with kit.
With the daily dive managers occasionally wanting to be able to give the opportunity for those divers who had previously missed out on the better dive sites the chance to experience them, the variety of the sites we could visit had to be sacrificed. This led us to favour including an additional wave of divers for many of the future dives. In hindsight, a pre-determined list of dive sites has definite advantages and it would have assisted our time management issues if I had delegated the choice of dive sites from the available menu and asked the dive managers to research the elements of the dive planning and management process before we set off on our trip. However, it would be a genuine shame for any diver to have missed out on some of the definitive experiences of the expedition such as the magnificent wrecks of The Jambo or Fairweather V, and the more democratic sharing of the daily dive managing has left all members with positive feedback and left lasting good relations between our dive clubs beyond the end of the expedition. Beyond that I would be hesitant to change anything with the expedition given its success, but if the membership had been restricted in number to the capacity of our RIBs, it could have been possible to achieve an even more extended diving schedule, perhaps visiting even more remote sites. I am conflicted on this thought, however, as we would probably have sacrificed some of the great experiences we all enjoyed and this may have led to the exclusion of the more junior branch members. As it was, we were all able to enjoy our diving, including conducting wreck, scenic and Sea Search dives and practical Diver rescue and SMB training, benefiting not only those on the Dive Leader programme but also the Open Water Instructors who gained knowledge towards their Advanced Instructor training under the guidance of Jim, giving all grades the opportunity to learn from the varied and comprehensive diving and training.
From a selfish point of view it would have been good to have done some night diving and visit Priest Island some 4NM SW of Tanera Mor which could then have included the 2 caves and the wrecks of the Guiding Star and the Silver Reward, or further afield, Isle Martin which boasts some superb wall dives, but either of these may well have been outside the scope of our most recently qualified Ocean and Sport Divers. There is in deed a trade-off between the minimum levels of driver grade allowed on an expedition and the possible aims that can be safely achieved. In future I will be more mindful of the composition of the team and its goals.
However, as our expedition comprised a varying age group and qualification range of members from three different BSAC branches, it brought together individuals with a wealth of different abilities and experiences, showing me that there is great value in inter-branch diving, creating an excellent working team from which all learnt something and who all worked together proving the adage that we might be from different branches but we are all in the same CLUB!
Beyond the expedition and as part of a sponsorship deal with Bents, a local award winning Garden Centre, we completed a survey, on their lake, with the RIB. Here one of our newest Ocean Diver branch members was also able to master his backward roll entry for the first time. After the survey some members’ children also enjoyed rides on the RIB watched by a crowd outside the garden centre café. The day was a great success and provided us with an ideal opportunity to promote the club by handing out leaflets for try dives.
Completing SDC’s for the expedition also gave us the opportunity to support the local community. As a result of Bob Charles sharing his experiences of the expedition with his children’s headmaster, we presented the 1stAid SDC to 10 ‘Brownies’ including Bob’s daughter, modified to be suitable for this age group, this was followed by a try dive night a few weeks later for a group of 12 local ‘Girl Guides’, again due to members sharing their diving experiences. This had a further snowball effect from a jealous Scout group who, not to be outdone by the girls, have also shown an interest in having a ‘lads’ try dive night in the future.
Finally, all the Expedition Members agreed that we should donate £100 to the RNLI.
Janis Jackson from the fundraising and communications department of the RNLI accepted the cheque.
Not wanting to miss a further opportunity to promote the club the local press was also invited to witness the cheque presentation, and a group photograph was taken including two new members of Sub-C-Divers (with their parents) who at 12 yrs old are some of the youngest in the country to start the Ocean Diver course
Hydrographic Chart: Loch Broom & Approaches No. 2500 & 2501 1:25,000.
Ordnance Survey: Summer Isles No. NB90, 1:25,000
Bob & Alf, for keeping faith despite the ups and downs enroute.
Divelife, Tesco’s & Bents Garden centre – for there sponsorship help.
Bury SAC members – who stuck with us, when in the early days, it seemed like all around were quitting for some reason or other.
Alan & Mike for their passage planning and wreck finding abilities
Hilary for organising the excellent food.
Elaine for her knowledge of Risk Assessment and her Expedition report in SCUBA magazine
John & Wayne for the great photographs
Heather for her work on the compressor & with Lynn for hunting ‘seals’
Tommy, for helping Alf repair the compressor and showing us all the joys of filling cylinders.
Simon and Martin, for all their physical hard work during the expedition
Nick, for his ability to capture the essence of the Expedition with his diary and his invaluable help with this report
Steve, whose military logistical knowledge proved invaluable when arranging the transport
Jim, for his Knowledge and advice during the expedition