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Date: 19 Feb 2011 02:35:00
Title: Exploring under the sea

Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua, Friday night

I had a really full day today and spent most of it doing my SCUBA diving course. I had to get up early to make it to the dive shop by 0830. Kali was off learning to windsurf so it was as if both of us were off for the first day at school. I decided to take my own snorkelling gear and packed towels and other stuff as well so I had two bags full of stuff.

I met John, the owner of the dive shop and we went down to his boat. It's a 25-odd foot motor boat. Pretty basic and beaten up but seemed serviceable. The mooring warps looked like somebody had got a load of pyjama cords and knotted them together so it certainly wasn't the luxury end of the market. John introduced me to Arno who would be my instructor and a couple of other guys who were coming out to do another dive. Arno, who's Swiss with a great German accent, showed me how to assemble all the gear and I was glad I'd concentrated yesterday when reading the book. It all makes much more sense in practice than it does on the page. We motored around to a sandy beach at the entrance to English Harbour where Arno and I got off the boat so that we could do our enclosed water session.

This consisted of lots of practice of putting the regulator into and out of my mouth, clearing it of water, swapping it for a snorkel and back, swapping regulator with my buddy, doing hand signals and generally getting comfortable with the breathing equipment. We did a bit of work on getting neutral buoyancy but it's hard to practice in shallow water. By this time, the boat was back so we swam out to it and got onboard. We came into English Harbour to pick up some full cylinders and I was able to point out Saxon Blue to the guys.

From there, we headed straight back out and dropped the anchor for my first open water dive. Arno told me what exercises we'd do when we got to the bottom and who I was going to follow down. One of the two divers went down ahead of me but he'd been having trouble equalising his ears so he abandoned the dive almost straight away and went back up to the boat. I continued down the anchor warp, equalising all the way until I got to the bottom and just knelt on the sand. It wasn't really until that point that I realised where I was. As I was breathing air and looking around while concentrating so hard on doing it all right, I hadn't really clocked that I was now on the bottom of the sea with the boat floating above and the fish swimming around. It was pretty amazing, if a bit weird.

Once I'd had a look around, Arno got me to sort myself out so I was neutrally buoyant. This took ages. I kept floating off and at one time even made it to the surface before I knew what was happening. The problem was that I was over-compensating with my buoyancy control rather than just letting everything settle down. The whole thing with diving is to take things gently and slowly and it's hard to do that at first. Eventually I got myself sorted and was able to just hang above the seabed. From there, John and one of the other divers came along and I went off for a trip around the area with them. We saw loads of kinds of fish and three Lobsters all together in a rocky cave. There were various bits of human debris around like some old fish traps and loads of kinds of coral.

It wasn't long before it was time to go back up so we all surfaced together and got back onboard. From there, we shot back to the dock as Arno wanted to start diving with me again at 1pm. I went off the the Grace Before Dinner cafe for a vegetable Roti made by the lovely Grace herself and then back to the boat. This time, it was just Arno and I so we stopped at the entrance to Falmouth Harbour and dived straight down. Just before we went down, I saw another boat come by accompanied by a dolphin and I could still hear it clicking when I got in. This time, I was able to get my buoyancy sorted out straight away and control it by how much air I was holding in my lungs. We did a few exercises and then just went exploring among the tumbled boulders beneath the waves.

There were loads of different kinds of fish including some Trigger Fish which came to protest at our presence and one really big fish with huge eyes. I was enjoying breathing in so I could clear the boulders and then out again to let myself sink back down to the sand. All the time, I was trying to slow myself down so my kicks were longer and more powerful and my breathing slower and more efficient. By the time it was time to surface, I was completely knackered and pretty glad to be back onboard again. We hammered back to the dock, dumped our gear in the fresh water and Arno went off to his afternoon appointment while I walked back to Nelson's Dockyard.

On the way, I met Todd and Robin, Kali's friends from the Nordhavn and Francois, Andrea's French friend who's got a catamaran parked on the nearby beach. I was still home at 3pm, in time to surprise Andrea who thought - in fact hoped - that I'd be gone all day. We went out for a coffee while I told her all about it and then back to Saxon Blue so I could watch a slightly annoying DVD on diving ready for my test tomorrow. They were setting up for a fish barbeque at the restaurant at the end of our row of yachts so we went over to that at just past 6pm. It was even more chaotic than last night's effort.

Luckily, we arrived before the crowds but there was a bunch of chefs and hotel staff standing around on one side of the barbeque looking anxious while a horde of potential customers stood on the other side looking baffled. One young woman was writing down everyone's order in long hand on a pad of paper (why?) and then adding up their bill before taking the money (she forgot to take ours). It took ages as she kept getting confused and everyone was panicking. Why not just put what you want on your own plate and then charge everyone for it at the end? That's what motorway service stations do and they know a thing or two about getting hundreds of people fed in a hurry. It does make it hard not to get cynical about the way the islanders carry on. Antigua is better than most islands we've visited but it does seem that an outsider is necessary before anything gets properly organised.

Anyway, Kali joined us for dinner so I told her all about my undersea adventures and she reciprocated with her windsurfing tales. She'd had a great day, too, learned loads and was just as tired as I was. We ate our fish barbeque and then went to a different restaurant for dessert before returning to Saxon Blue for an episode of Battlestar before bed.

One thing we did find out today was some more information about the beautiful motor yacht that I saw in Falmouth a few days ago. She's called Nahlin and is owned by James Dyson. He's spent about 25 million pounds restoring her to her former glory. She was built by John Brown's on the Clyde in 1930 just before they built the Queen Mary and was a private pleasure yacht for a super-rich widow called Lady Yule. Nahlin was later chartered by Edward, Prince of Wales for a jaunt around the Eastern Mediterranean with Mrs Simpson during which they visited various Nazi sympathising countries and removed all the books from the library to make room for booze. Their public and scandalous behaviour on the trip destroyed what was left of Edward's reputation and made it impossible for him to become king, leading to the abdication and constitutional crisis.

I think it's great that somebody like Dyson is willing to spend such a fortune on restoring a historic ship to her original state. She was rotting as a restaurant on the Danube a few years ago and here she is looking resplendent. There are precious few Clyde-built steam ships left so it's great that this one is preserved, presumably for posterity. I'm glad that our vacuum cleaner on Saxon Blue has contributed a bit to such a great project. It also works well and looks cool so everyone's a winner.

Now I'm off to bed as I've got an early appointment with Arno and more looking at fish.

Harvey

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