Trip Report: Lochaline, August 2013

When: 24 Aug – 1 Sept 2013

Who: Gareth J, Emma K, Chris A, Soo P, James M, Ross P, Dave K, Alex M-R, Stephan B, Rachael C, Vicki H, Paul S

Organiser: Chris A

Accommodation: Lochaline Dive Centre

Boat: Sound Diver

Skipper: Alan

Deckhands: Mark and Annabelle (dive centre owners), plus mystery man in waterproof trousers

Cost: £750 + drinks


SUSAC usually travels to Lochaline, just off the Sound of Mull, once or twice a year and there’s at least one very good reason we continue to make the near 400 mile trip again and again… it’s a near-perfect dive destination. The Lochaline Dive Centre provides great boats, good accommodation and friendly service, the Sound of Mull and the surrounding waters provide more wrecks, walls and drifts than you can shake a line cutter at and SUSAC provides the company, the banter and the booze.

After loading the van the night before, we travelled up to Lochaline on Saturday. I was in the car with Chris, Raymond and Ross and with the help of cruise control we pressed on, making only the one stop besides the obligatory wait for the ferry at Corran, and arriving in Lochaline before any of the others. Once everyone else had arrived, we unloaded kit and cracked open a few drinks before tucking in to some awesome Costco pizza. After dinner we played a few rounds (the first of many throughout the week) of the card game s**thead, which saw me branded the s**thead almost immediately. Everyone was pretty tired after spending the day travelling, not least of all the drivers, so no one had too late a night.

Sunday was the first day’s diving (this is the point in the report where I need to get out my log book and pick out what we actually did from the amazing blur of awesome that is the whole week in my memory). Our first dive was on a wall not far from Auliston Point near the mouth of Loch Sunart, but we quickly got on to some metal and dived the wreck of the Hispania for our second dive of the day. The Hispania is one of my favourite wrecks in the Sound of Mull (did I mention it sank on the same day of the year as my birthday?) and it offers opportunities for some fun and easy penetration… into some of the holds below decks and through some of the superstructure above. The Hispania was a 1300-ton steamer from Sweden that, according to the dive boat skipper Alan, may or may not be haunted by the ghost of the captain, who went down with his ship after refusing to board one of the lifeboats. We headed back to the dive centre to be fed various barbecued delectables tended to by grill-monkeys Emma and Gareth and this was followed by the obligatory evening of drinks and cards, including our first port o’clock.

On Monday we steamed east out of the Sound of Mull to dive at the Falls of Lora in the mouth of Loch Etive, just north east of Oban. This dived promised to be an interesting drift through various churning eddies and currents and definitely called for descending with an SMB pre-inflated. Alan, the skipper, gave us a ten to fifteen minute window for entering the water and said anyone feeling particularly heroic (or mad) could enter towards the end of this for a stronger drift – a quick check with Dave Keogh revealed that ‘we’ had already decided to be the last pair in for maximum current. During our surface interval we stopped in Oban for the boat to fuel up and, after resolving an issue of an unpaid fuel bill, we popped ashore for important diving supplies… namely ice cream. Our second dive once again satisfied the metal-heads among us as we dived the Breda, a near-7000 ton Dutch steamer, sunk by German bombers just before Christmas in 1940 and found just north of Oban in Ardmucknish Bay. At nearly 130m long there’s too much of the Breda to take it all in on a single dive, but there’s plenty of opportunity to get inside the wreck safely and lots to see above decks too. Back at the dive centre we tucked into some stir fried vegetables, prawns and noodles, courtesy of myself and serving-wench Stephan. We also found out that Scottish midges REALLY like American rye whiskey, despite any expected predisposition to spirits from their native lands.

Tuesday saw us make an early start for the journey up and out of the Sound to the Isle of Coll, where rumour had it there were basking sharks. Our first dive was on the wreck of the Tapti, a just over 6500 ton steamer that went down in the early 1950s near the southern end of Coll. The wreck has collapsed outwards to starboard, leaving the keel almost perpendicular to the bottom up against the rocks where she grounded and spilling superstructure, boilers and other bits and pieces out on the sea bed. On a side note, while exploring this wreck I discovered that Ross loves to commentate on his dive as he goes along – at first I thought that he (or I) might be suffering from some kind of heretofore undocumented shallow water narcosis, but it turns out that this is perfectly normal for Rosstifer. Shortly after getting out of the water after this dive, the aforementioned basking sharks were spotted and a number of us donned masks and fins and piled into the water. Needless to say, basking sharks, like many other creatures, aren’t too fussed about hanging around for a boat-load of noisy oafs to thrash around in the water next to them and promptly buggered off…. at least this gave me and Gareth the chance to take a few profile-picture-worthy selfie shots in the water. Whilst the weather had been good so far on the trip, venturing out of the Sound had meant we’d encountered more chop than the previous two days, so we decided to head back to more sheltered waters and make do with diving the Hispania again… what a tough life it is. Before our second dive we stopped briefly in Tobermory (Balamory for all you kids) for lunch and back in the Sound it was flat calm once again. Most of us got in a good hour or so on the wreck, with a few of us racking up a little (definitely planned) deco. At the dive centre, ‘Uncle’ Dave Keogh cooked up some delicious chicken in white wine sauce, followed by an apple and almond pudding. We were also reminded how important it is to manage your fibre intake on dive trips when you are regularly loading up on too much tasty dinner in the evenings – regular movement is essential. Later on there was more s**thead, some backgammon – turns out Wee Jimmy is quite the backgammoner – and more port.

It’s Wednesday already?! Time flies when you’re surrounded by awesome diving and divers! On the middle day of the trip we dived two more great wrecks in the Sound of Mull, the Shuna and the Thesis. The Shuna was a near-1500 ton steamer that sank in 1913 and it can be found roughly midway between Lochaline and Tobermory in the Sound of Mull. One of the highlights of this wreck is that both the main and spare propellers are still in place – on many wrecks propellers have been salvaged for their value as bronze – and it also provides some more easy opportunities for penetration. If you’re lucky you might find your very own chunk of coal that’s spent 100 years at the bottom of the Sound of Mull! Woo! We came back in to Lochaline for lunch and a number of us took the opportunity to sample the grilled delights of the local snack bar. The food, as it turned out was delightful, however, the woman running the place was definitely not delighted by my apparently off-piste request (according to Uncle Dave) for cheese on a venison burger. The Thesis was an iron steamer than sank 1889, running aground after trying to take a shortcut through the Sound in dense fog. It is quite a lot smaller than some of the other wrecks we’d dived up until this point, but it is a very atmospheric dive, especially when swimming through areas where just the ribs of the hull remain and light penetrates through the gaps in the structure. On this occasion we combined diving the Thesis with a bit of scalloping and a number of us came off the stern to snag a few of the tasty shellfish at the end of our dives. The Keeleyfish came up with the largest haul, but alas due to her vegetarianism never knew what a tasty death she had ensured for the little critters. Back at the dive centre Gareth baked the scallops to provide a tasty side to Chris’s salmon and this was all followed by a selection of baked gooey puddings – plentiful lip smacking all round. You can probably guess what card game we played after dinner, but for a change of activity we also watched some animated spy fun courtesy of Sterling Mallory Archer.

Thursday was groundhog day. No, we weren’t visited by Emmy award winning actor Bill Murray for a live action re-enactment of the 1993 film of that name… I am instead referring to the fact that we revisited the wrecks of the Shuna and the Thesis that we dived the previous day. After diving the Shuna in the morning we once again had a lengthy surface interval back in Lochaline, during which we took the chance to further annoy the owner of the snack bar, in particular Paul Snary and I went completely off-piste by ordering venison burgers with haggis and black pudding. Back up at the dive centre we watched some more Archer and the amount of quoting really moved into dangerous territory… good job I’ve got Kenny Loggins on speed dial. Eventually we headed back down to the boat and steamed over for another good dive on the Thesis. That evening we were catered for by Ross who cooked up some tasty beef burritos, they didn’t weight 3.5lbs but they were tasty, and these were followed by a monster bread and butter pudding. After dinner we relaxed in the usual way… cards, whisky (and whiskey) and some more Archer.

On Friday we planned to dive what may be my favourite wreck in the Sound of Mull, the Rondo. This is the wreck of a near 2500 ton steamer that broke anchor in stormy weather in 1935 and drifted down the Sound, eventually running aground on a small island between Lochaline and Tobermory. As the Rondo was salvaged and the tides beat against it, the balance of the wreck shifted and it slipped bow first over the far side of the island upon which it had grounded, as a result the Rondo lies in an unusual position with its bow on the bottom at 50m and its rudder at the top of a slope at around 5m. The unusual nature of this wreck also makes it one of the safest places in the UK to do open-circuit air/nitrox dives in the 40-50m range (remember kids – Dive Leaders and above only please), as the wreck provides a continual reference point right down to the bottom and a number of us took advantage of this opportunity to get some deep dives in for another coveted signature in our books. Our deep morning diving called for a nice long surface interval and we headed up to Tobermory to stop for lunch and some supplies from the Co-op. We didn’t have far to travel for our second dive on the wall at Calve Island. This made a change from all of the wrecks we’d been diving over the previous few days and, whilst I’d sooner have been dropped in on some more metal, it did give me a chance to do some more depth progression and have a chuckle at a narked Gareth ‘Babby’ Jones at 45m. For dinner, a nondescript, but very tasty, chicken curry was served by Uncle Dave and this was followed by some mixed fruit tarts with cream. Also, in case the curry wasn’t enough to get certain persons’ bowels moving again, I made sure that Big Raymond received an altruistically motivated, but perhaps slightly surreptitiously deployed, dose of Senokot (a natural laxative). It turns out ground up laxative kind of stands out in beer… who knew? Later that evening, under the encouragement of interloper Laura Davison, some of our number decided to brave the Lochaline (anti-) social club that evening, but most of us opted to remain at the dive centre with our own booze and company.

It was Saturday and our last day of diving seemed to have come around way too soon. To top off the week’s diving we headed to two familiar dive sites, the wrecks of the Shuna and the Hispania, and I would happily have continued to dive these wrecks over and over again for weeks to come. Between dives we once again stopped in Tobermory for our surface interval, this gave us the opportunity to grab an ice cream, pop in the museum and pose like idiots on the foredeck and roof of the boat. We had a great final dive on the Hispania (not the Thesis Ray!) and headed back to the dive centre for the last time. That evening we headed to the Whitehouse Restaurant in Lochaline and we were once again joined by Laura, who really contributed to the conversation around the table and the number of things in the restaurant that were on fire. The food was excellent, especially the wide variety of fish and shellfish that was on offer, and together we got through a good number of bottles of Pinot Grigio. Also, to be completely fair, Laura wasn’t the only one who managed to set something on fire with the poorly placed table lights briefly igniting my napkin… let’s just say that the staff may have breathed a sigh of relief when we departed. The merrymaking continued back at the dive centre and, although a few of our number retired early, a core of dedicated divers stayed up and we did our best to live up to the standards of SUSAC’s good old days. I don’t know how well we did, but I do know that whisky, mescal and whipped cream left us with a few stories to tell.

On Sunday, tired out from an awesome week of diving and fun times, we travelled back down to Sheffield. In particular, I’d like thank Chris for organising the trip and Emma for pulling her usual trick of making sure pretty much everything went smoothly, but I’d also like to thank everyone who came along on the trip for making it the best trip I’ve been on this year. Congratulations should go to all of those who’ve progressed in their training over the past year, especially Vicki and Jimmy, and I’m going to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back for finally making Dive Leader. It goes without saying of course that none of us could have achieved any of this without our diligent Training Officer, Ross. Other mentions go to Gareth Jones for winning the ‘DUI Fanboy’ and ‘I can fit’ awards, Ray Coyle for winning the ‘This Ain’t The Thesis’ award and Paul Snary for being Paul Snary.

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