As well as being an armourer I was also qualified as a naval diver, and during my time at Culdrose was a member of the dive team there. At some stage the officer in charge of the divers was drafted to a ship and a new guy took over.
Lieutenant Commander Alan Baldwin, the new diving officer, was a really nice guy. Firstly, he was a really good diver with lots of interesting experiences. Secondly, he proved to be friendly with the divers in the team, yet still retained the authority of his rank. He was an officer who commanded respect, and in return treated each diver with respect, consideration and occasionally a little humour.
When he took over at Culdrose, he realised that the morale of the team was low, so he decided on a strategy to improve the esprit de corps while at the same time getting to know each member of the team better.
Alan’s idea was to take two divers at a time on a recreational trip, known in the navy as a banyan. He suggested camping, tramping, sailing, fishing or a recreational dive around the Cornish coast. The boys were all for it; a banyan was always preferable to normal work routine.
When my turn came around, the diving officer suggested we try an idea he’d been thinking about for some time. He invited me and another diver, George Hedley, for what seemed a most interesting diving expedition.
The idea, Alan explained, was to dive in the Halford River Estuary for scallops and flatfish. He’d worked out a timetable for us to follow that would allow us to travel a good distance downstream and then back up again using the tide.
By entering the water at 7pm on the following Wednesday, we would catch the slack water, just as the outgoing tide finished. This would allow the river flow to move us downstream in a leisurely pace towards the open sea. Within a short time the incoming tide would assist us back up the estuary against the river flow to our starting point.
Allan’s plan allowed us to travel several miles along the sea bottom, collecting scallops and spearing flatfish without actually having to expend much effort in swimming. The ebb and flow of the tide would carry us along effortlessly, down, then up, the river.
It was such a good plan I couldn’t help wondering why some other genius hadn’t thought of it before. I was soon to find out.
When we got down to plan the trip in more detail we decided that we would probably collect more scallops and flatfish than it was possible to carry. We overcame this difficulty by deciding only two of us would dive while the third man would paddle a small rubber dinghy above us. From the dinghy would dangle two lines with coal sacks tied to them. We agreed that when a diver had filled his sack with scallops and flatfish he would signal the dinghy by pulling on the line. The sack would be pulled up, emptied and dropped back for the diver to refill.
The plan sounded brilliant and foolproof, but it didn’t take account of the limited intelligence of the dipsticks who were doing the planning.
On a fine summer evening we unloaded all our gear in the car park of the Shipwrights Arms, blew up the dinghy, donned all our dive gear, and then climbed over the back fence onto the bank of the Halford River.
Alan and I were wearing wet suits, but George, who’d elected to paddle the boat, had decided to wear an admiralty pattern dry diving suit to keep his legs dry. As George would be in the dinghy all the time, he didn’t bother to fit the neck seal and neck ring to the suit. This meant that George could not for any reason get into the water to swim. If he did, water would enter his suit through the unsealed neck, he would become heavy, sink and drown. But in our planning we considered this was a safe practice as we could not think of any possible reason why George should ever have to get into the water…
Unless, of course, the boat sank.
The boat sinking was virtually impossible as it was very strong and very safe, almost impossible to puncture. It would take a very sharp dagger and considerable force to pierce the fabric of that type of boat, which was actually a pilot’s rescue dinghy that we’d borrowed from the safety equipment section.
Both Alan and I were carrying sharp daggers to stab flatfish. Alan had only recently paid some exorbitant price for an Italian diving knife, and I carried a similar, if less expensive, one.
However, we were both very experienced divers and both had enough common sense to know that drawn daggers and rubber dinghies don’t mix.
George settled himself into the one man boat and pushed off from shore, paddling out into the river current. Alan and I splashed in and followed along underwater, holding onto a sack each.
When we reached the centre of the river, the current was so strong that we were raced along far too quickly to gather scallops or catch fish. We both surfaced and directed George to row over to the edge of the main flow where the water travelled less fast.
Eventually we found a good leisurely pace, allowing us time to pick up shellfish in the rather muddy brown water. Our technique for scallops was to just drift along on the bottom, steering with our fins, and holding onto the coal sack. As a scallop appeared we picked it up and flicked it into the sack. It was easy. When a flatfish came into view, usually a plaice, a dab or a flounder, we’d let go the sack and allow it to drag away along the bottom. Then we’d position ourselves above the fish, hold our breath to avoid bubble noise, then, with dagger raised, sink down until within striking distance. We’d then quickly stab the fish between its eyes, then catch up with the sack and put the fish right in the bottom where he couldn’t get out.
After three-quarters of an hour, we’d nearly filled our sacks with scallops and an assortment of fish. However, and this was beginning to worry me, we were still going downstream at a fair rate of knots. If Alan’s calculations were correct, we should have been in slack water by now, or even feeling the reverse thrust of the inflowing tide.
I was considering making signs to Alan indicating we should surface to see where we were when he swam over and gripped my arm. He pointed into the murk and made signs indicating he’d seen a very large fish. We allowed our sacks to drag away and Alan drew his new, expensive Italian dagger. With the knife poised and his breath held he glided down, and then quickly stabbed at the fish I still hadn’t seen.
There was quite a struggle as the large fish tried to wriggle from under Alan’s weight, but eventually all was still and the mud drifted away in the tide. What was revealed was a very large halibut, a most uncommon fish for those waters, a good catch and worth a lot of money. Alan grinned broadly at me and gave me the thumbs-up signal to show how pleased he was.
Unfortunately, he signalled with the hand that had been holding the dagger. The halibut, far from being dead, was waiting for just such an opportunity. Instantly it flitted away and disappeared into the gloom, taking Alan’s expensive, exotic knife with it.
The look of utter astonishment, shock and disbelief on Alan’s face was so funny that I started to laugh. Not a sensible thing to do 40 feet down in a muddy river estuary.
My mask filled with water and more flooded into my mouth from around my mouth piece. I coughed and spluttered but couldn’t stop laughing at Alan as he frantically took off, looking for his knife and fish.
By the time I’d composed myself and cleared my mask of muddy water, Alan was nowhere to be seen. When, eventually, I caught up with him, he was once more in sight of the fish and his knife. I waited, holding my breath, as he glided down to almost touching the hilt of the knife. But the halibut once again glided silently away and disappeared into the murky realms. Bubbles burst from around my mouthpiece as I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d never had a fit of hilarity underwater before, but I realised if I didn’t get a grip on myself I was in real danger of drowning from laughter.
Finally, after two or three more attempts, we cornered the poor halibut and Alan secured it by holding the hilt and the blade of the dagger above and below the fish.
Once we’d secured the fish and could turn our minds to other things, we realised we had a problem. We’d completely lost contact with George and we were still moving downstream at a quite alarming rate. According to the plan, we should be going back up the river and be nearing our point of entry into the water. But we weren’t.
Alan nodded towards the surface with his head, indicating we should surface, rejoin George and reassess the plan. I nodded in agreement and we started for the surface. It was then Alan realised his big catch was making him too heavy and he couldn’t get off the bottom. I grabbed his shoulder strap and together we overcame the weight of the halibut.
When we surfaced we got a horrible shock. We were nearly half a mile out at sea and still moving in the outgoing tide. George and the dinghy were some distance away and he was paddling frantically in the other direction.
Something had obviously gone wrong with our carefully laid plan but now was not the time to ask what. I used my whistle to attract George’s attention and he paddled towards us as we swam towards him.
When we met I could see George was annoyed with us. He’d been frantically trying to signal us to come up for the last half-hour, but, because of the halibut chase, we had let go of the sacks and his signals were not received. We were still in the flow of the outgoing tide and needed to quickly get over to the western side before attempting the long swim to shore.
Both George and I realised we had some very hard swimming and paddling to do if we were to reach the shore before dark, so we wanted to get going immediately. Alan’s mind was on other things. He’d captured a large, expensive and unusual fish and wanted to get it on board. So we had to wait impatiently while he attempted to heave it over the side of the rubber boat.
He lifted the halibut half out of the water, but it was far too heavy to get into the boat in one swing and had the effect of sinking Alan beneath the water. Being unable to complete the heave-ho into the boat, Alan did the only thing possible and rested the fish on the rubber pontoon of the boat.
This was a big mistake.
Sticking out of the underside of the halibut was several inches of very sharp Italian dagger, which pierced the fabric of the boat with ease.
George immediately recognised the signs of his impending doom, but Alan, who had missed the ‘pishhhh’ sound of escaping air because his head was underwater, did not.
George, not waiting for anything, started paddling towards shore like a berserk egg whisk about to self destruct, while Alan, not yet aware of the emergency he’d caused, swam frantically behind complaining that he had to get the fish on board.
The situation for George was serious. If the boat deflated and he was obliged to swim, he’d soon get waterlogged, sink and drown. Alan wanted to know what was happening, but George didn’t have time to explain.
I found the whole thing extremely funny and started to laugh again. I laughed and laughed until I was in danger of choking or drowning.
Eventually, Alan got his fish on board and George explained that the boat was deflating and I swam fast to catch up with the boat. We decided that we two divers should position ourselves at the back of the boat and push while George paddled as we headed out of the tide flow and towards the western shore line of the estuary.
We paddled and pushed, and swam and toiled but after 20 minutes we didn’t seem to have made any progress. It was then someone remembered the lines with sacks tied to them. They were being dragged along and acting rather like dual sea anchors, preventing us from making any headway. Once we’d pulled them in and got them in the boat, we started to make some progress towards shore, although it was still touch and go whether we’d make it before the boat sank.
Soon the little boat began to sag in the middle and some of the smaller fish and scallops floated free. I was convinced that George was jettisoning cargo to lighten his boat and wondered what would happen if he ditched Alan’s prize halibut. To increase our worries it was rapidly getting dark and we were having trouble seeing the shoreline ahead. Finally, when the boat could no longer hold up George’s weight and he had to abandon it, we were fortunate to be in water shallow enough that, with our assistance, he could wade without getting too much water down his neck.
Exhausted, we dragged the waterlogged boat up the beach and dumped our diving gear alongside it. Alan made sure his halibut was under the boat before we climbed over the fence and walked back along the lane to the pub. It wasn’t until we reached the pub that someone remembered that for safety’s sake we’d secured the car keys in the dinghy. We had no choice but to return to the beach to collect them.
When, much later, we returned with the car to collect our gear, the halibut was missing. Whether someone had seen the pile of gear and taken the fish while we were absent we never knew. Alan was convinced someone had stolen it, but I wasn’t so sure.
When we held a post-mortem later, we discovered that the tide table we’d used had its front cover missing. Had it been there, it would have alerted us to the fact that it was last year’s table.
Fish aren’t known for their intelligence, but I considered that that halibut had outsmarted and managed to elude three highly trained naval divers, one of them a lieutenant commander. I believed the big fish had forced its way out from under the boat, flipped and flopped back into the sea, and swum off to safer waters where it wouldn’t be bothered by the less intelligent underwater species: the naval diver.
As a team-building exercise, the banyan was a great success. The three of us became firm friends. We found we had a great deal in common, and a few secrets we shared. Secrets of the goings-on at the fools’ banyan, which we were quite keen to keep from the other members of the dive team, and from the navy in general.