Scapa Flow 2009

This year the Scapa trip was more deliberate than last year's last minute 'grab a space as I don't have a diving holiday' rush. I booked onto Valkyrie which is a boat on the Flow heavily recommended on web forums I frequent. They say the accommodation is good, the food is excellent and, of course, the diving facilities are second to none. This I had to see for myself.

Please remember this isn't a review of the boat, the site or even my equipment. This is just my personal write up of what I did on my holiday. You may choose to read it as any of the above but expect to find holes in it because that was never its purpose. Also there are no underwater pictures as my VeeCam flooded again and despite an email saying they had fixed it and were sending it back 'tomorrow' dated the 21st it wasn't there by the morning of the 29th so it missed the trip. I am beginning to regret that one. You will note the total absence of any under water video anywhere on this web-site as it has not yet survived one whole dive. Incidentally it was on my desk when I got back postmarked the 28th.

I decided to drop last year's fly me and DHL the kit system and so it was a two day trip getting there. The notional ten hour drive from Brighton to Inverness took thirteen hours (really, if I see the sign QUEUE AFTER JCT again this month I'm going to have to destroy something, probably Birmingham). Then, after a night's stay in the Travelodge, it was an early start and I was in Scrabster before the ferry check in staff so I had time to go and eat breakfast and I was still first in the non-queue.

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Now some people have the ability to make simple things complicated but somehow Hazel and co made the complicated business of decanting the usual too-much-kit from the Rangie into the boat seem simple. I'd bought big stages and small stages to use with the rebreather because I just wasn't sure which I wanted yet, I'd bought spares and backups, I'd bought tools and instruments, I'd even planned to bring the decant whip even though I know Hazel pumps mix and I had a slightly sleepless night wondering why I couldn't find it before it dawned on me that the reason it wasn't in the cellar was because it was hiding in the bottom of the toolbox so it was already in the car.

My first impressions of the boat? Well I'm not paying much more than last year but I've clearly have moved up a level on specifications. Mixed gas on tap, a lift, full length bunks so the tall guys won't be sleeping on the lounge floor. Food from a galley so beautiful it might finally shame me into the refit that the kitchen back home desperately needs. It comes over as light and airy in a way that very few trawler based live-aboards never manage.

We arrived, unloaded, were pointed at the free parking just the other side of the pay-and-display and sampled the recommended chip van (Helen only cooks six days a week) and the final tally of eleven divers settled into the galley for the obligatory briefing then some went back to the pub and I collapsed into bed.
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The Karlsruhe. This was a shake down dive. I had an air fill in the suit bottle and an air top in the DIL which left it at about 20/20. I was planning to dive with the two 12/300 slings but I had problems kitting them up so I elected to do a shorter dive as solo, with no bailout on a relatively new rebreather isn't too clever. I ended up doing half an hour at a max of 24 meters and finally bagged off from 20 and only put in a token stop as I had over an hour of no-stop on the VR3.

The Karlsruhe is a 5440 ton light cruiser, 151 meters long and lies on its side in 26 meters of water plus the tide. Much of it is collapsing now but this just makes access it the interior easier and the water inside is even clearer than that outside. I mooched round and generally just mucked about having fun on a wreck rather than taking a serious archaeological interest in its state of decay and its artefacts. I got a bit cold so I didn't overstay but, unlike some of my colleagues I wasn't wet when I stripped off the suit. The only annoyance, other than my problems trying to kit up with some bailout, was the fact that I used my torch once and then left it on. It was nice and light so I never noticed it so it sat, still on, over the surface interval and went annoyingly flat.

The afternoon dive was on the debris field left from which the battleship Kaiser was salvaged. I messed up my set up and although I got as far as the top of the shot line I decide to call it there and not descend so Hazel picked me up after dropping the next pair. It was my fault and a silly error but it wasted the bulk of my DIL and I felt continuing the dive with no escape clause was daft. I had lapsed into 'diving an Inspiration' mode at a critical moment and I am having troubles remembering simple things because I am so wound up with all the Sentinel computer prompts. I suspect that I'd do much better with a nice old fashioned checklist. Also I am having problems with the displays on the Sentinel, not in the water, but in a spat and rinsed mask finishing the setup. Clearly that will have to happen later in the sequence than the Inspiration demanded where I did everything and then sat and pre-breathed it as I did the last of my kitting up and just did ppO2 checks once the mask was on. Also the Sentinel was playing hard-to-get and only lets me enter a nitrox mix for the DIL. I thought this might be finger trouble at this point.

For the next day Hazel suggested the Cöln which is 5600 tons, 155 meters long in 36 meters plus tide so I elected to get my old favourite 18/40 and an oxygen fill plus the obligatory air top on the suit bottle. It measured in as 17.6/43.2 in 210bar so within the tolerance of my analyser which is good blending when you have twelve divers, all different and it is just a 2L tank so the timing is critical.

Now came our first proper meal on board. Helen is rather known for overfeeding the guests but this was ridiculous. I ate twice as much as I should and then she rolled out a pudding. The diet is clearly going to take a beating this week.


Hazel has the engineers in to do a quick fix so we are expecting to run out a couple of hours late but they stand her up. Also it's cold... or maybe I'm just a soft southerner. We were hoping for a few days relatively wind free so, coupled with the sheltered nature of the flow, I was hoping to stay off the seasickness remedies as they only add to my narcosis and they make me drowsy.

The Cöln was fun. I ran my adjusted sequence for kitting up (if I get one that really works I'll print it and laminate it to cater for my natural stupidity) but not everything happened. I splashed off the boat and swam to the shot and milled about with some other divers then started down. Burp! Burp! Flashing Red. Now flashing red is Sentinel speak for "I'm going to kill you" so Dave and Philippe, my crossover instructors, rammed in the idea that you jump on this one at once. "Lo O2"? Since when is 1.2 low? Oh it's an HP alarm. Check and there is zero pressure O2. Dab the inject and it injects. Wiggle the valve and it is open. Pause and listen and I can hear it inject. Suddenly the red clears and I have 160 bar of O2 and the solid green "Let's go diving" happy light. Well the DIL pressure sensor died and it went back under warrantee so I suppose this is the O2 equivalent fault. <sigh>

Then the VR3 decided it was set to 20/20 not 18/40. I was sure I could remember changing it over but perhaps that was just wishful thinking after all those tries at getting the Sentinel to understand that 18/40 is not NX18. I had to change it over at depth. In gloves. Buried in my suit wrist... OK so I ended up taking it off and doing it then putting it back on. The engineer in my head begins to wonder if a 4 or 5mm plate stuck to the back of the VR3 wouldn't make the buttons more 'thick gloves friendly'. Then I start to wonder what stops I should be credited and some rough mental arithmetic say none but both computers think all is wonderful. I don't trust helium so I decide discression is the better part of valour and reach for the DSMB.

The clip is in the new place... And it feels a bit light... Unclip it and all I have is a clip with a folded metal bracket on it which used to be bolted to the reel. No DSMB and reel. <sigh> OK... So do I run up the 20 meter spool with the old self-seal blob or do I go back to the shotline which I just passed? Well I've never inflated the self-seal only DSMB from the bailout valve on the Sentinel... The shot line seems attractive as I have no obvious bubble trail, except when I'm actually ascending and dumping gas, and not coming up under Hazel's prop is considered a good trick.

The ascent was a disaster, I was playing flashing disco lights again and I will laugh at the dump for years to come but when I reached the surface Hazel was straight on the case and I was back on the boat. 32 meters, 30 minutes.

The reel was still on the bench. I was lucky on that one. The bolt must have dropped out between clipping it onto the waist trefoil and me standing up to dive. In all that clutter I missed it. I really thought it was at the bottom of the Flow when, in fact, it lived to dive another day.
Lunch. I was horrified. Nobody should serve that amount of food in front of hungry, post dive divers. They are known as a breed for having very little self control at the best of times so Helen should at least have the decency and the respect for our waistlines to make it less than totally yummy. She failed miserably.

We surface intervaled at Lyness and strolled down to the Museum there. I quite like the place as it covers the history of the Flow and the key events that happened there with simple words and period photographs. Also it just tells the story rather than the usual interpretation you often get these days. I know I am an opinionated museum buff but I've seen good and bad and this is very simply done although it does expect you to be able to read. I photographed the big gun outside that was salvaged from the Karlsruhe as it was yesterday's main dive.
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The second dive was the F2/Barge combo. The barge sank trying to salvage the F2 which was a WW2 escort vessel so they are linked. 82 meters long and only about 16 meters plus the tide to the sand. The Sentinel disgraced itself again and the O2 HP sensor put everything into "I'm going to kill you" mode but I fought my way through the menus and turned the transducer off. That killed the red light so I could see what was going on but I swam about for a bit before I decided that running the O2 on dead reckoning might be OK as a "I don't want to miss these stops" mode but it wasn't quite responsible for a solo sightseeing trip so I ascended to the top of the wreck to fire the blob but found a shot line and went up that. Only 17 meters for 21 minutes. Most people did three times that.

The other thing that bothers me is that the VR3 works with two set points and on the Inspo you could get away with one and leave it on 1.3 as you dived through the switch up point on the descent and ascended out of 1.3 only after you had cleared all the deco. The Sentinel has a very clever variable setpoint that adjusts until you get to 36 meters and does not switch cleanly so the VR3 hasn't got a clue on a more shallow dive. I guess I had better investigate Manual set points if I can't find a 'simple' mode option.

I was not very happy with the Sentinel. I reasoned I could dive on the gas kit tomorrow so I have a 7L of O2 with an SPG on it but it's the same fault I had before so I can see it going back again. I ordered up an 18/40 for tomorrow and an oxygen fill.


It's getting to be familiar already. Another day to dive. We started on the Kronprinz Wilhem, a 26000 ton Battleship in 39 meters plus tide. The Sentinel had decided to switch the intermittent O2 HP sensor back on so I got flashing reds on the swim to the shot and I got distracted and ended up going the long way round. Hazel told me later that the pellet was dragged away from me by another diver but I didn't actually notice. I just mentally logged it as 'yet more things don't like me'. My progress down the shot was interrupted by a bunch of people hanging at 6m doing deco. Well and me getting snagged up on the surface ropes. Many thanks to the guys from the Invincible, I think it was, who untangled me.

Generally it was a nice dive with a lot of it messed up by technical annoyances. I spent a bit of time learning how to select manual set point mode and finally decided that since the VR3 was showing a low no-stop and it didn't know I was on less than 1.3 bar ppO2 most of the time it was time to do a stop and go home. DSMB, proper stop, signal to Hazel and come aboard.

Hazel and Helen had spotted by now that I was having recurrent equipment trouble and spent some time to discuss it including the offer of use of one of their twinsets. I was quite tempted but I felt I was finally winning and the Sentinel was beginning to understand the deal and who was supposed to be in charge. The joke is that on the Inspiration I knew very little about in-water management of problems on the handset as my courses had all been on the old 'Classic' mode. On the Sentinel I am already well rehearsed on shutting sensors down in the water and fiddling with my gas mixes. This has to be a good thing doesn't it?

Actually this discussion was quite a relief as I was wondering if I was coming over as a total Muppet. However I might be getting faults and the ensuing light show but I was repeatably coming back alive so I couldn't be too bad. Frankly a whole batch of back-to-back dives is just what I haven't been able to get so far and the unit is actually beginning to feel 'mine' at last. The trim swimming about is effortless, something I had big problems with on the course because I just didn't believe how much weight it really needed behind my ears, and, although the amount of weight I need on my belt is stressing my back so I must aim to integrate a lot of it, it is the right amount as the buoyancy just seems to work fine with nothing blown up stupidly.

Lunch and a new scrubber fill. I control myself and only have one of Helen's Bambi-burgers... Well, and cake.

I began to wonder if the reason that the Sentinel was playing the won't download and won't let you set trimix gases game was that it had forgotten its PINs. I emailed Delta-P to see if they had them recorded as I didn't think to carry that sort of spare.

The afternoon dive was the Brummer, 4400 tons of Cruiser in 36 meters plus tide, and this time everything worked smoothly. I switched off the O2 HP sensor and manually set the set-point to 1.3 as soon as I hit the wreck. The scrubber insisted I have 18% left so it clearly didn't notice me refilling it. I had missed hitting the reset on the start up sequence. Then I had a general mooch about including a drop to the bottom and I no stopped it but did 5 at 6 just to assure myself I could. The weighting seemed spot on, which was a pity as 15Kgs on the belt is not fun. No stopping meant I was still first back. The only fun was that I had filled the DSMB crack bottle from a rather empty cylinder and it didn't blow up enough to even lift itself. I don't have a regulator on this rig and I was not quite sure enough of the shape of the DSV reg to risk wrapping things round it and doing the 'snap to DSV mode' so I tried a theory that if I hold both buttons on the CD wing inflator it will just gas flow straight out of the end. It did so beautifully although it's a bit of a three handed job. I must remember that trick for future reference.

Perhaps the problem with the Scapa wrecks is that they are all totally known. I have the "Jane's Fighting Ships" 1906/7 edition and that was, sadly, just before the Arms Race that preceded WW1 so it doesn't cover many of these ships, but there is nothing to discover. Diving a pile of scrap that is called 'Unknown Mark 17/2005' is actually more exciting because it could be anything. People tell tales of 'interesting' swim throughs and others are playing with scooters. I enjoy the atmosphere of the big wrecks but I'm not quite sure what I mean by atmosphere. I am slightly worried that I am actually enjoying having a few technical hiccups because, with them, I can't claim the holiday has been boring.

Delta-P got straight back with a PIN number but I must have had the problem wrong because that didn't fix it. I hope it isn't me doing something dumb again.

Only one plate of Lasagnia and one bowl of rhubarb crumble. I am developing some semblance of self control. My weight may yet survive the week under Helen's care.


The James Barrie is a strange wreck. It is in the mouth of Hoxa Sound and a fearful tide runs through there. OK the water is usually very clear as the bottom is sand and shale not silt but it is a 1960s wreck of a 40m, 660 ton steam trawler. Frankly nothing exciting and 42 meters to the sea bed. However it has become one of the 'Must Do' wrecks of a Scapa trip and nobody can quite explain why. My James Barrie dive this year was recorded on the VR3 as 6 meters and 1 minute.

I kitted up for a big dive with the Carbon Fibre bailouts but, even after the trip to Vobster to trim them out I was very foot light and draggy on the left. I was late in as Helen helped me kit up the stages and I arrived on the shot as the previous pair were debating the fact that one of them leaking and calling the dive but I got a bit tangled in the line and started to pant a bit. I went into hold mode on the first below water buoy and that's probably when the VR3 woke up. I hung on the shot line and sorted out all the kit into the places it ought to be and calmed down.

I could see the line going on down and I was very tempted to just kick in the autopilot and brick down it but I was aware of my breathing rate and although it was slowing down I wasn't having fun. Since very few dives ever get better once they start to mess up I did a nice controlled ascent and signalled <OK>, <Pick me up>.

I was disappointed because that was two dives I had now canned on the shot line but I guess that's far better than being at 46 meters and wishing you'd canned it. (Actually I always wish I'd canned the dive half an hour into an hour's deco.) The 'draggy on the left' might well have be down to catching the computer controller cable up in the waist band. I still have not got a sequence for kitting up and rebreathers work well for the meticulous.

However as soon as I was sat down in the galley for a cup of tea John, my room mate, became entangled in somebody else's blob and was dragged into a rapid from one of his stops. He was in an impressive knot of line when Helen brought him up on the lift. Hazel's well oiled machine snapped into gear with oxygen and orange juice rehydration breaks while wrapped up warm in the saloon. He was allowed to be upset as it wasn't his fault. Both he and the blob owner ended up on the lifeboat back to Stromness for a check. He past his neuro exam and had no symptoms but missing all your shallow stops on a helium dive isn't a happy situation. I made a careful note that entanglement equals snips and wondered if I should resite them as they are currently in the tummy pocket - easy to find but not fast to access.

We had a bit of fun recovering a stage tank that had been dropped but once we had all our divers back we headed back towards Stromness until the Lifeboat zoomed up. Thankfully it was quite flat so the transfer of divers onto the big orange rescue machine was just a good photo-opportunity rather than a exciting ride.
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Hazel made some offers for an afternoon dive. General agreement on a repeat on the Karlsruhe as a plan but I wasn't feeling much like diving again. I clambered into the drysuit but decided I was already cold and it wasn't worth it so I clambered out again. That was the first dive I'd not actually got in the water for.

We weren't even back in port before our shore party reported that they had been checked out by the chamber doctors and let go. John had a 48 hour diving ban so he made plans to go home early and updated his ferry ticket to Friday morning.

Back at Stromness we met Ivan from YD, an Inspiration diver, and as he wanted to see the Sentinel so I walked him round the salient features. I might have been less than complementary at some points.

I also took the opportunity to question Hazel about the approximate food and gas bill for the end of the week so I could walk up the bank and get some notes out of the ATM and was told my gas would be less than my food. Such is a week's trimix diving on rebreathers.


Thursday morning I felt cold and grotty. I hadn't slept well and my head was mussy and achy. Since the day before's dive statistics stood at 6 meters and 4 minutes I think it was squarely down to a massive overdose of Helen's Banoffie Pie rather than a diving complication.

I sat the day out in the galley and I was feeling very cold all day. This is, Helen suggested, the cumulative effect of diving dive after dive in 9/10C water. Next time I come here I'll bring the ice dive under-undersuit. I'm not getting wet so the recent fixes on the suit are doing the business.


The forecast was not good so I elected to do a bit of onshore archaeology. I investigated Maeshowe but discovered they were in 'guided tours only mode so I took in two stone circles and a very cold walk round the Skara Brae site to view the 5000 year old archaeology. This is why my wife and I came to Orkney in the first place eleven years ago and a try dive with Scapa Scuba started the whole stupid addiction.
You know it is impossible to take a photograph of a stone circle that shows you what it looks like on the ground.
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When I got back to Stromness, thinking I was about three or more hours early, I saw Valkyrie heading into dock. Apparently it was pretty bumpy out there and they have elected to give up. I ran across in the rain but was a bit late to photograph one of Hazel's nice neat turns onto the dock.
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I had already moved much of the diving kit into the car to save doing it next day but people started trying to change their ferry bookings from the next morning to that night and I ended up being the only diver left on board. It isn't worth me changing as I have a hotel booked for Saturday night ten hours drive down the road. Starting early and driving all night seems a really bad deal.

My trimix and food bill for the week was £110. OK the gas was about a fiver a fill so most of it was food. Knowing they get loaded heavily on the gas prices as everything has to be ferried in I thought that was excellent.

Hazel and Helen decided that cooking for just me was a waste of time so they marched me over to the Stromness Hotel and we all ate there and then shared some drinking time with some of their friends. Some of the discussion was dive boat politics and thankfully went over my head but what you do notice is that while they might bicker a bit as competitors for the same business if one of them has a problem on the water everybody jumps to help.

Saturday and home

I got up at about seven, breakfasted and then faced getting my last box and my personal effects ashore. The gap was about five feet as the wind was blowing us off the dock. Helen had offered to be woken up but that seemed a bit mean...
The trick seems to be to pull on the bow spring and wait while all the hundred and something tons of Valkyrie starts to swing in. Pick your moment and run up and move one or two bags over before it bounces on its fenders and the wind blows it off again.

For the record you are asked to check in a hour before the ferry time and check in opens half an hour before that.

After that it was a long drive arriving at Stafford at about 9pm, a night's sleep then the last drag got me home by 1pm.

Using the other VR3/Sentinel USB download block I read off the dives and prepared an email to Delta-P explaining the problems. Here's the screen shot I sent showing depth and the two HP readings. It's the one with the joke stop so feel free to laugh at me. They got back to me same day to agree that the O2 HP sensor was dead, offered some advice on downloads and asked for some details on the trimix problem.

Valkyrie  £350
Food and Gas  £110
Fuel driving up and back  £310
Ferry  £120
Two nights in a hotel  £90
Breakages  £50
Total  £1030
Spams in the inbox  10067
Threads updated on Yorkshire Divers  494
Weight gain  5.5lbs
Miles driven  1556

These are the odds and ends from the camera that don't quite fit anywhere.
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The source pictures can be accessed by clicking the thumbnail but they tend to be 5M+ files
Pictures by Nigel Hewitt
Thumbnails by Easy Thumbnails

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