Scapa Flow 2008
Part trip report, part review, part comedy of errors.

It was such a good idea
After a summer of getting blown out again and again both in Brighton and on every single sea trip I planned I was getting annoyed so when I saw James, of The Atlantic Divers Club, offering a place on his Scapa Flow trip to replace a drop-out I decided to go for it.
p9140910.jpg Now I've had a hankering to go back to the Orkneys because that is where I first started diving just ten years before. Now most people have the sense to do a try-dive somewhere warm, be it a pool or on a sun holiday but sense never seems to feature too strongly in my life. We were in the Orkneys for an Archaeology trip. My wife, my fifteen year old son and me. We arrived to bad weather and the promise that it would get worse so we rushed round like mad seeing all the archaeology A-list sites and then... the weather got better. As a result we are in the Visitor Centre in Stromness sorting through the B-list historical spots when my son found a leaflet from Scapa Scuba offering a 'try-dive'. He had put up with a lot so I said 'do it' but by the time I've got them on the phone he's a bit dubious so I'll said I'd do it too. By the time Friday came round I'm doing it first.
I won't do the details again but let's say that we ended up back in the hire car looking at one another and saying "we've got to do more of this".

Travel plan
Right. My normal dive kit box is built by Land Rover and does 18 mpg on a good day. That's not on for Scapa. That would be over two hundred quid of petrol each way and, since it's fourteen hours behind the wheel, there's going to be a night's accommodation each way and the obvious ferry tickets. This adds up. Plus that amount of driving sucks.

Last time we went we flew but then I wasn't carrying rebreathers and stages just a couple of changes of socks and stuff... Well why not send the kit freight and fly? Now that began to appeal.

I bought a box - a huge box nearly a meter long and rated at lots of gallons, I wanted the one with wheels but they were out of stock. Then I packed 90kgs of kit and sent it off DHL on their three day (two day plus one extra for 'Highlands and Islands'). DHL's magic tracing system tracked it as far as Glasgow where it seemed to stop but when I rang they had an explanation and I was assured it had already arrived.
Cost? £141.21 each way for the box, £273.30 for air fares and some taxis. Compared with £400 for petrol, say another hundred plus for accommodation and extra meals, a ferry ticket and we're already over the airfare, the DHL fees and we're well into paying for the box and buying Sofnolime rather than throwing a tub I already have in the truck. This one is working nicely...
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Karma abhors the smug
I suppose it was my fault. I was sitting at Gatwick listening to the announcements "Will passenger X travelling to Y please come to Gate N as it is closing."
"How can people do that?" I wondered "It just seems so stupid."

OK I claim I have an excuse. I flew to Edinburgh on the 6.30am so with the new railway time tables that meant I left Brighton the evening before to make sure I was there in time so I wasn't very awake but there I was, sitting in the heart of Scotland slap bang in front of the sign board watching BA8891 to Kirkwall advising me to "Wait in Lounge."
Finally we get a "BA announces..." intro and it's gate 13. So I gather my laptop and trot off to gate 13. Only there isn't a gate 13 at Edinburgh. So I find another sign board but it is still advising me to 'wait in lounge'. Second call for gate 13 so I'm clearly mishearing it. 'Wait in lounge'. Begin to panic. I run because I can see the time slipping away and look at every gate board, there are over 20, and none say Kirkwall. I ask after gate 13 and I am told there isn't one. Finally I get some poor man on a gate to look up Kirkwall and he decides it's 15. They have already 'last called' me by name but I still have some run left in me but too late.

The girl on the desk was very apologetic but the computer isn't working and the sign boards aren't obeying orders so gate 15 was indeed saying 'Gate Closed' when I ran past looking for Kirkwall. That's why she announced it several times. Well I can't complain about her accent because I'm the foreigner here, my regional accent is pretty thick, I grew up a mile north of the centre of Oxford, but I know it is just a regional accent when you come down to it. So I did it: I missed a flight I was sitting waiting for and I have my own personal "Will passenger Hewitt..." memory.

OK. There now follows a protracted wait at Edinburgh and a later flight. At Kirkwall I ring James and my box is at an address in an unlocked garage so I get a number for a taxi firm and ask for an estate car.
Taxi driver is a nice lad, well probably half my age, with a strong 'we can fix this attitude'. He drives to the address, backs straight up to the garage and we load my box. I phone ahead and am directed to the pub where four strong men take charge of my box and load it aboard Sunrise. Thank goodness the tide was reasonable. I still unpacked the stages before we passed it down.

Sunrise Charters
You'll probably know from reading my stuff that I'm not afraid to whinge in public but Sunrise was quite a lucky hit for an 'impulse decision on the web' kind of thing. It's a bit more basic than some but a lot better than many. My club tend to do a trip every year on some tub and they come back and tell horror stories, well to my mind horror stories, about the conditions they endured. This was simple but civilised.
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Sunday 14th September
I set the rig up and hit snag one: my Oxygen SPG is hissing. The crimp at the first stage end of the hose has let go. I wander up the road to Scapa Scuba but they don't open until the 3.00pm in the afternoon on Sundays. Thankfully you don't actually use the O2 SPG in the water so it gets swapped out for the shortie from one of my stage reg sets. It only hissed in certain positions so this is probably the intermittent oxygen drain if the valve is left open problem that I've had for quite a long time.

p9140909.jpg It's oily flat today. I regret taking the Stugeron as it may make me feel better but it also makes me stupid. I'm diving with Toby as a nominal buddy. Nice guy, knows his trimix, dives with rebreather divers, sympathises with the relaxed approach to buddy separation. Nice and simple I think. Good thing too as my guess on how much lead I want leaves me about 4Kgs underweight and after the usual denial session pulling on the shot line telling myself the suit will compress I realise that I'm shrink wrapped and it isn't working. Do a buoyant ascent from 14m and people will call you a fool, do it from a 34m wreck full of gas and they will call the coastguard. I wave goodbye and pop up the blob. I am annoyed with myself. I have failed to dive the SMS Dresden. So I stuff 4Kgs more in the rig and have a quiet sulk. Incidentally I forgot to untie the rig before putting it on and nearly forgot my fins. <sigh>

p9140912.jpg At two o'clock we're diving the SMS Karlsrune. It is still flatter than flat. My nice cheap 85m reel on the DSMBi manages to get snagged in the slatted benches and snaps off the face of the reel. I dump it in the big box and dive. The vis wasn't much and I lost Toby pretty early on. I liked this one. It's big, broken and tall so I mooched about and just chilled out. I'm here to play not do serious archaeology so coasting along the sides for half an hour worked for me. Everything worked well and although I seemed to have under filled my spare blob when I found it but the spool spooled. This was the first time I used the spare live, I've only done it for practice (play) before with the other reel still hanging on my wing clip and I under filled it from the AutoAir so I need more practice. A good dive so I feel set up for a good week. Incidentally I forgot to untie myself again but at least I did remember the fins this time.

I'm not keen on the ladder on Sunrise. It's one of the old style spine ladders with alternating, well separated rungs. I'd be wary of doing it with stages. James suggests a clip off line. We shall see.

The large size tub of silicon in my spares bag has leaked so everything is just a bit tacky. I think some creative cleaning will be called for when we get home.
I walked up to Scapa Scuba and pick up some of my pre-ordered Sofnolime, an SPG hose (not quite as long but the gauge sticks out the top of the case so at least I can check it before I dive) and a new reel.

Monday 15th September
Today we're diving the Cöln, usually this seems to be anglicised at Koln. It's not so silly calm as yesterday but a bit of chop and no roll is pretty OK to me. I kit up with my VeeCam, remember to untie the rig before strapping myself in, remember to put on my fins and sit there prebreathing. Toby has already gone so I'm spared the problems of loosing/not loosing him. However since I've forgotten to plug in the drysuit hose I would have appreciated some buddy as finding the hose and connecting it in gloves is a bitch. Sad that as I remembered fins, untying myself and all.

A nice dive. I carefully kept reading the VR3 in the VeeCam's line-of-sight and did wonder if it would show up my ppO2 monitoring on the other side. It was a reputed 34m to the seabed but I mooched about on the top and no stopped for half an hour before breaking out my new reel and the blob. The new reel isn't right. I didn't check it out to my requirements and it's not a ratchet but a pull to free-run.

The VeeCam had failed. It was in the file select state mode but restarting it put up the dreaded 'Camera Not Connected' message. I suspect a flood but you can't see into the thing so it will have to go back. It won't even let me see what it did get as it seems to be locked up. As it refuses to switch off I have to leave it for later investigation. I've heard they have a new head so we shall see. It's not a year old and this is the first time it's been in the water.

We lay over at Lyness and then went out to SMS Brummer. I fell asleep and when I woke up I felt totally washed out so I passed on that one. I decided to ease off on the Stugeon seasickness remedy and see if I had enough sea-legs as it is pretty flat again but I'm not coping with the stupidity. I took the opportunity to retop my cylinders from the stages and change out the Sofnolime. I know I'm chilled out diving when I have over two and a half hours on the can and the temp stick is showing one-third used.
I probably picked the wrong dive to fade out on as everybody raved about it. Oh well. That evening we stayed at Burray and ate in the restaurant there. I'm no gastro-connoisseur but I liked it.

Tuesday 16th September
Right. Now you've had my excuses for not diving the Dresdan (too light), not diving the Brummer (felt grotty) so what's the excuse for not diving the James Barry?
Well the skipper briefed that he wanted to drop us as one group as getting several drops in can be problematic so, not wishing to be the party pooper I got ready, finned up, prebreathed well in advance. Check check check, nothing missing.

Well it's a popular site so there are three boats there so we drop in and look for the permanent shot which is only a bunch of about 8 inch balls and it's gone. Somebody has pulled it under. However some of our party see it and we start a massed descent. Well I can't see it but I can see lots of bubbles so I'll descend on the bubbles. However at about 20m those huge expanding bubble clouds fade away and I'm on my own. However the vis is good and I think I have the direction.

p9140911.jpg I hit a huge plain of shingle in 25 meter vis but no torches, no divers and definitely no James Barry. I trim out and the skipper has definitely hit slack so there is no current to swim against which is the usual trick and I don't have a compass so I could easily just swim in circles so I pick best guess direction and swim of in the fond hope that I'll find something but with not much expectation. I didn't and when the VR3 started putting in some deep (helium stops) at 24 and 15 meters I decide that watching crabs wandering about at 40 meters by natural light might be a change from the rest of my year's diving but it's not worth cranking up a load of stops for so I put up the blob and ascend.

The dump of the ascent won't be pretty. I added another 2Kgs back on the boat as I was still a bit light. The VR3's "I will flash at you to make it hard to read what I'm trying to tell you" mode doesn't help much. However I only had deep stops not 'real' stops from the Bühlmann model so I cleared them.

We laid over at Longhope to gas off for an 18 meter afternoon dive. I borrowed some Zip Wax from James to do the suit as mine is in my dive tool box on the workbench back home. At least I'll be able to get in and out now with a little less struggle.

Our afternoon dive was the F6 and the salvage barge that sank next to it apparently because they roped it in tight with those enormous ropes salvage people use but they did it at low tide and... well you can guess the rest. I started out with James but we ran through some other divers and I lost him. I wandered away from the wreck and tracked slowly across a debris field and, surprisingly, found a small dive torch that actually worked.

We ran back to Stromness for the night and I walked down to Scapa Scuba to pick up some zip-wax and the rest of the Sofnolime they have for me but the 'lime is on the van but they are fixing two drysuits for us and they'll drop it off with them tonight. Then, after the cordon-bleu of the previous night we sampled the chip shop of doom. It was nutrition but probably enough calories for a family of five.

I transfilled my tanks by the light of my FaMi torch and went to bed. The repaired suits and my Sofnolime were on the boat in the morning just as promised.

Wednesday 17th September
I confess I didn't fell too good but I started kitting up well in advance so it wasn't too painful. We dived the SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm but it's 26000 tons and 177 meters long so perhaps it's better to admit that I dived a very small part of the Kronprinz Wilhelm. It has some huge guns sticking out from underneath as it capsized as it sank. It was only about two or three meters vis and dark and as I was at the alpinist solo trick again so I didn't delve far inside and settled for poking about on what I thought was a barbet but might not have been. It was a good dive. I felt rough before I went in, rough on the dive and rough when I came out so I guess I wouldn't have felt any better if I stayed on the boat.

You know the big snag with the books on the Scapa wrecks is that they give you the big picture. As divers in limited vis we just never see the big picture so it can be quite hard to assemble the details we see into an overall schema of what is going on.

Our afternoon dive was the SMS Brummer again and I did manage to dive it this time. It was a quite interesting dive but I had a growing problem with the gurgles. It wasn't too bad at first but I seemed to be clearing the loop rather too often and I had a definite gurgle developing in the scrubber. I did the drills each time and that seemed to cure it for a while but then it came back. Finally I decided that this was far enough and as a solo-alpinist it was time to chicken out so I did, ascended and got picked up early. The exhale counter-lung was pretty full, the hoses had quite a bit in and the scrubber fell over and made a puddle and still had half an inch in it when I stood it up. Finally when I dumped the scrubber contents out it wasn't like the usual uncooked rice it was more like rice pudding. <sigh>

We chugged back to Stromness and wandered up to the Co-op for some food. I bought premade junk but I think it would be safer than another visit to the chip shop. Then it was time to start pulling the Inspo to bits, refill the scrubber and regrease all the significant junctions and do the pos/neg tests. I also dumped the Inspo onto the laptop.

Everything worked so I refilled, well re-transferred, the onboard cylinders from my bail-out stages. I'm looking like doing the whole week on the gas I brought. I bought too much Sofnolime so I'd like to take some home so I need to think out how I pack things. Probably the rebreather comes totally to pieces this time.

Thursday 18th September
Time to not dive the Dresden again. After all that messing about lat night I did not actually pressurise the HP side and the O2 DIN wasn't tight and hissed at me. James helped by pulling the back cover off and tightening it but when I hit the water the O2 second stage free flowed and by the time I had dug the reg out from my back I was down to 60 bar indicated (50 bar actual). Rebreather heroes might dive it knowing they're only going to use 30bar on the dive but I'm not a rebreather hero. I called it and swam back to the boat.

Actually it wasn't all bad as I developed a bunch of aches and pains during the day, probably due to climbing the ladder in a bit of a strop, but developing aches and pains after a 40m dive and after a stride in and swim back carry two very different emotions. Après dive you're worried but after what I did you just reach for the Ibuprofen.

Our afternoon dive, the Tabaka, was a complex straight-down entry and the recovery looked like it might be hard so I passed on it. Actually the recovery didn't look too bad but we hit some bumps as we retreated from the site and things went flying.
I topped the O2 back up to about 130 bar and then did the same for the DIL plus putting it in the queue for an air top. I think that will give me about 20/23 for the James Barry tomorrow morning. I won't plan on the second dive to give me 24 hours before my flight time.

Friday 20th September
Well Friday didn't happen. I felt snuffly and had a bit of a funny tummy so I elected not to zip myself into a drysuit and stayed on the boat shooting pictures and a bit of movie on the camera.

At least it does give me the chance to introduce the other guys. Here they are. Just press the play button.

Saturday 21th September
Time to go home...

Well compared to the trip up it was pretty uneventful. I got home and on the Monday phoned DHL and my box came home. I really appreciated the Sunrise Charters people who were very helpful with this and took it back to, I assume, the unlocked garage for me. After the usual cleaning and servicing job the rebreather was ready to dive again.

I ordered a nice new Oxygen gauge on a hose to replace the short one and I sent the VeeCam back and they swopped the old style hexagonal head for a newer style round one. I had to zip-tie it to the clip as the new one isn't magnetic but I took it in the club pool session and it recorded an hour of messing about freediving and stuff.

So what overall? Well Sunrise with its enclosed changing area is quite a nice diving platform. I missed the comfort of full board and bedding which is worth paying for, power in your rooms and permanent power would be a big boost. My biggest whinge about the boat would be the ladder but that's just me being old and grumpy. I don't think anybody else had much problem, even those with stage bottles.

As ever with diving you take your chances with a dive site. We had it calm while, apparently it was too rough a few weeks before and nobody else went out all week and Sunrise only got one dive in. The vis never exceeded four meters, except on the James Barry, while we were there and if I had wanted to know something about the wrecks rather than just potter about I thank I would have found that disappointing. I'm glad I went and for a chance grab on the internet I was really lucky with the Atlantic Divers Club as they were a great bunch. I'd be really happy to dive with them again anywhere but the boat maybe not. It was a good economic choice but I'd pay more for more facilities.

Will I go back to Scapa? Probably yes. I think my DHL/BA plan was good but the implementation was flawed. I could do better.

Atlantic Divers? A good bunch to dive with. I'd happily do that one again.

The pictures can be accessed by clicking the thumbnail but they tend to be 900K+ files
Pictures by Nigel Hewitt.
Thumbnails by Easy Thumbnails