Hard Hat Diving, Stromness
Stromness is a great sea-faring town on the main island of Orkney, its winding main street studded with plaques celebrating feats and heroes of maritime exploration. Steps lead down from the pier to the lip of the high tide. My own directions for exploration were basic. Go down those steps, and turn right.
It sounds simple enough, if drastic. A zipper allowed me to squeeze my body into a rubber suit. I pushed my feet into boots, each weighing 20lbs, wooden affairs encased in shiny brass. Lead weights were bound to my back and my chest. Belts strapped me so tight I bent double, staying that way till undersea water would work the leather to let me stretch again. A ‘hard hat’ was screwed onto my shoulders and its round glass screwed in front of my face. All set. Bar the huge difficulty of now rising to my feet and walking.
Divers stream into the Orkneys to explore the wrecks in Scapa Flow. Their dives follow tables first formulated in Scottish waters a hundred years ago. Before that, divers returning to the surface were in danger, at best, of getting the bends. At worst, their heads exploded, pieces of brain bubbling back up the airtubes.
The Scottish scientist John Scott Haldane led the naval expedition that solved the problem. In the deep waters of Loch Striven world diving records were broken daily. Haldane’s genius taught divers the skills of staged decompression. They should rise a certain distance, pause to let the nitrogen bubbles clear from their systems, then rise again to the next level. In 1908 the Admiralty adopted those diving tables – making this year the centenary of modern diving. Divers could now manage dives of new depth and duration, knowing at last how to avoid the bends on their ascents.
Dives were done in those ‘hard-hats’, globes of helmets like spacemen use (and indeed Haldane adapted a divesuit to invent the first ever spacesuit). Andy Hamill of Leviathan International helps divers tread across the seabed of Stromness harbour in the gear of those diving pioneers. I like a good swim now and again, but I’m no diver. No problem, Andy assured me, so off I went.
A Russian handpump, looking antique in its boxed wooden cart but actually made in 1970, stands on the edge of Stromness pier. A dive suit, plus belts and boots, are ranged on the floor beside it. Struggle into 100lbs of rubber, glass, brass, wood, leather and lead weights and anyone can journey back into diving history.
Andy’s wife and son manned the wheel to send air down my tube, the first puffs fragrant with the olive oil that greases the 1970s Russian handpump. A nozzle at the back of the helmet releases that air. You work it by tilting back your head. Let the air out, you sink. Leave it in, and you rise. I let the air out as I turned right. Time to launch. I stepped from the pier and plummeted.
The start was a little like birth. Flat on my back on the seabed, finding focus on a strange world of diffused light, I had to learn the new trick of getting to my feet and walking. I kept my head clear of the nozzle, let the air fill my suit, and back up to my feet I went.
Right beside the pier the seafloor is hard. I pressed my helmet against tubular white forms that reach out from the pier, while pink tendrils of anemones brushed against the glass. Orange lichen streaked brightness into the pier’s underwater colour. I had kept on my clothes but removed my spectacles, so the view was pleasantly blurred. Here’s a shoal of tiny fish just an inch from my nose. There’s a sand-coloured crab darting up stone, fleeing my appearance. I walked, with fewer tumbles now, into a patch of sunlight then into shade again. ‘You’re under the lifeboat,’ a voice spoke into my helmet. ‘Way under the lifeboat.’
Time to turn around. The seabed grows muddy as you step further out. I stood for a moment while the fog kicked up by my outward journey settled again. The pier came back into view. I had my direction. Off I marched. The walk was cumbersome, but relentless, somewhat like a toddler’s. I was getting the knack. The trick was to watch out for the tube rising straight above my head. This was where to rise. I stopped hitting the nozzle with my head and my tube inflated. Up off the ground, my body turning so it could float on its back, these were blissful moments free of weight and effort. I started panting for the first time. It would be fun at this point to bob in the harbour like a boat. Instead Andy took the logical step of hauling me from the water.
Treading the seabed leaves you no time for exhaustion. That comes later. Andy was beaming. I’d done very well, he told me. They had worried as I kept on marching. ‘Is he fit?’ they asked my onshore friend. In my twenty minutes I had broken records for distance and time.
J. S. Haldane had thrown his thirteen-year old son Jack overboard to prove that diving cadets could hurry through their descents. Jack’s body was too small for the suit. He worked the valves so that just his head kept free of the water that flooded in. Back on board he was given whisky and sent to bed to grow warm again. I was proud of my dive, but came to admire Haldane with keener ferocity. My own dive took me to the giddy depth of four metres. Crippled by rheumatic pains throughout his life, Haldane strapped himself in a hard-hat suit and plunged forty metres. And he was not just a non-diver. He was a non-swimmer.
I welcomed a whisky but didn’t need one. Hard-hat diving is one of few outdoor activities in the Orkneys that guarantee to keep your clothes dry. While my hands grew cold, I had worked up a sweat. It’s hard going to be sure, but in some ways hard-hat diving is a stroll. It was the most remarkable short walk of my life.