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Hard hat diving at Megavissey

by Mike Russell

Reproduced from in focus 77 (Winter 2003)


Dateline 21st June 2003 -The time had come for a dive into yesteryear, or more accurately take a giant stride in lead boots. To dive back in time in both Hard Hat (1933) and Standard Diving Dress (1940), even down to the red woolly hat, the badge of honour. Myself and 5 friends, from Enfield RSAC, arrived at the harbour in Megavissey on a breezy but very sunny morning to find our instructors from Ocean Sports, based in Pentewan, well advanced in setting up the complete ensemble. Soon we were being given our introduction to the equipment and our dive briefing.

Everything was as though we had been transported back to the early 20th century. All the kit was authentic apart from the modern communications unit, one part in the helmet, which enabled topside to hear every breath the diver took and every syllable uttered.

Mike Russell in hard hat and standard diving dress

Mike Russell in hard hat and standard diving dress

Briefly the kit which weighs in at 195 lbs, comprises boots at 251bs each, breast and back weights also 251bs each, brass helmet at 75 lbs and an assortment of clamps bolts and f inally the divers knife all adding up the lost 20 lbs. {I'm keeping everything imperial because that was how it was} Our air would be fed down a 100-foot umbilical being from a 3-cylinder hand cranked pump built in 1906. The cylinders, it was explained, are set 1200 out of phase so that at least one is always providing air. We were pleased to hear the pump was rated for 2 divers to a depth of 200 ft, all that was needed was for 2 from the team to keep cranking.

Kitting up starts by having the Siebe Gorman suit fed on to ones feet and legs. Then you stand and squirm into the main torso. Sitting once more whilst leather gloves are donned and secured to the wrists followed by the boots, huge brass?toed, lead?so led 'affairs with leather straps and rope laces 7 ft long, just to ensure they didn't come off whilst diving. After that came the copper panel 'corselet' which passes over the heed and sits very heavily on one's shoulders, like an armoured horse shoe collar. The corselet's outer edge engages the suit's rubber neckband to form, hopefully, a watertight seal, while the circular hole provides a seating ring for the helmet. The suit is then both pulled, pushed and eventually clamped using large nuts and bolts tightened with a special spanner. Still standing further broad leather straps are added and the divers knife fixed on.

Almost there, so seated now waiting to grimace as the front and rear weights are added and tied down, just the helmet to go. Firstly a good spit on the faceplate that is not presently fitted, and with a bit of a squeeze to get it past your nose the team lock in the helmet. Suddenly you have tunnel vision. Pumping starts and you hear a rhythmic phut, phut as air enters the back of the helmet. It's still quite OK at this stage, and you feel ready for the dive. Finally the faceplate is screwed in place and you are invited to stand up and descend the steps into the water. I was pleased to find the guide rail and hear a voice telling me where my feet were and to see my safety diver, about to descend and
await my arrival.

A couple or more steps, then a right turn and shuffle to the edge waiting for the tap on the helmet, which was the signal for one giant step into the harbour.

I recalled the briefing of keeping my mouth open and toungue well back, then in.

Touchdown and I was still standing, but it felt strange and awkard, almost as though I was going to fall over. Slightly leaning forward to walk, which menat shuffling forward one fott at a time, we were tol to keep everything steadily, as you can easily get out of breath. Although extremely limited by the small window I could see clearly. I moved cautiously, not talking too much as it also seemed to take one's breath away, in reality there was more than enough air although as you are breathing in a closed vessel, the helmet, if feels warm around your face. That was to be about the only part that was to stay warm, as the suit had yielded to the passage of time and water was absorbed into the suit by osmosis. After a short walk I thought 'I'm happy with my dive'. just a bit wet I headed for the exit ladder. It seemed to take a fair while getting across to it, but once I had hands on the white stays of the ladder I felt secure. We'd been given instructions not to step up the fodder one foot at a time but use a 'bunny hop' to get both feet up together on each rung. Amazingly, with all the weight of the boots, it was much easier then I'd expected. Bunny hops up the ladder to near the top where it was painted yellow, which meant you'd arrived at the submerged platform and could step off the ladder and walk on the level back to the harbour steps.

Our collective thoughts were unanimous, a splendid day, tremendous experience and complete and utter admiration for those divers of the post who had to work in that kit. We couldn't work out how they could possibly do anything apart from just move around and breathe.

Reproduced from in focus 77 (Winter 2003)

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