Where: Lochaline and the Sound of Mull, Highland
When: 28th December 2014 – 3rd January 2015
Who: Alex Muhl-Richardson, Ross Peel, Tom Donald, Alana Dempsey, Ray Coyle, Gareth Jones, Jimmy Montgomery, Jenny Hardy, Emma Gilhooly, Karl Warburton, Chris Taylor and Phil Carpenter
Organiser: Alex Muhl-Richardson (with a little help from Phil and Ross)
Accommodation: Lochaline Dive Centre
Boat: Sound Diver
Skipper: Simon Exley
Cost: £545 including everything but drinks
The hills of Sheffield are covered in white and grey compacted snow that crunches underfoot and makes the back roads of Crookes near unpassable by car on a cold, post-Christmas December afternoon. What on Earth could have convinced a dozen of SUSAC’s best to go diving at this time of year? As much as I’d like to believe it was a combination of my rugged good looks and charismatic personality, realistically I think the attraction of some of the UK’s best wrecks in and around the Sound of Mull and the stunning scenery around Lochaline had more than a little do to with it.
The meticulously put together plan was for the twelve of us to assemble in Sheffield on Saturday the 27th, giving us plenty of time for food shopping, picking up the Sport Sheffield minibus and a rented van and packing kit into the vehicles, before travelling the 380 miles up to Lochaline the following day and having our first day of diving on Monday the 29th. Unfortunately, fate took a step back and delivered a solid and immaculately timed roundhouse kick into the slack-jawed teeth of this plan, in the form of poor weather and traffic conditions on the motorways. This delay meant we were unable to collect the van on the Saturday as planned and had to postpone our departure from Sheffield until the Monday… all in all, and combined with the ominous weather forecast for the week, off to a good start.
In an attempt to console ourselves, and after a quick sojourn to check that the minibus wasn’t snowed in, we assembled that evening in The Harley, where we proceeded not only to drown our sorrows, but to smother them with extravagant burgers and large helpings of fries. We later moved on the Cobden View Inn, where we made the best of a bad start to the trip with the help of a few more drinks and Phil, Monty and I were able to frolick in the snow on Cobden View Road. The next morning brought a late start and a mildly hungover shopping trip for all of the trip’s supplies – Lochaline, whilst set in beautiful surroundings, is many miles from the nearest supermarket – and a few hours and about £500 later, Alana’s car was quite literally full of food (and booze). There was also some good news in the form of confirmation that, despite our delayed departure, we would still get four days of diving by abandoning our New Year’s Day rest day – the equivalent of our plan sharply sitting up and screaming “But enough of this!” through a cloud of blood and teeth.
Seeing as our departure was delayed, we decided to hold our New Year’s celebrations a few days early on Sunday. With the supreme hospitality of Tom Donald, we all gathered in Crookes to chow down on a haunch of venison, coq-au-vin, some bloody amazing roasties… and I think there was some veg somewhere too, all washed down with more than a few bottles from Tom’s wine rack. Somehow SUSAC actually managed to be reasonably efficient in loading the van and minibus on Monday morning and we set off at about 9am for the drive up to Lochaline. The drive went well, with only a small amount of bowel loosening overtaking, and we reached our destination at around 7pm. That evening we dined on a selection of pizzas and garlic bread and delicious baked goods provided by Chris.
The plan for Tuesday was to rope off at 8am to dive the Breda, so this required an early start to account for kit loading and general first day faff. This start time also made the primary downside to diving at this time of year very clear, nope not the temperature (it was actually fairly mild), but that in Lochaline the sun rises at about 9am and sets before 4pm. This meant we were regularly loading and roping off in the dark and on at least one day we were in the water before the sun was fully up. The Breda is one of my favourite wrecks in and around the Sound of Mull and for a number of the group it was a great first opportunity to get back in the water after some time off from diving. Of course, there are those (not to name names) who have spent large portions of the past few months diving in the glorious waters off the Central American coast for whom I imagine this served more as an experience in low temperature sphincter tightening. Sitting with the deck around 25m, the Breda is approximately 127m long and has five large cargo holds; this is a lot of wreck to cover, especially on a single cylinder, but everyone managed a good dive. For our second dive of the day we dived the wreck of the Thesis, a small but very atmospheric wreck with excellent opportunities for penetration and some good swim-throughs; one can easily swim through the wreck almost from end to end and still have plenty of time and gas to come back across the deck. The current started to pick up a little towards the end of this second dive, but that was mainly our own fault for a little (unheard of in SUSAC) tardiness in kitting up. In the evening back at the dive centre, we tucked into Alana’s prize-winning chicken Badonk-a-donk and then promptly demolished our servings of Eton mess.
On Wednesday morning, again in the dark, we headed north-west up the Sound to dive the Shuna, a steamer that sank in stormy conditions just over 100 years ago. One advantage of diving at this time of year is that there are rarely any other divers out there on the wrecks and this means that as long as you beat the other fat oafs from SUSAC to your desired locations on the wreck you are pretty much guaranteed a dive free of silty low viz. Phil and I managed exactly this on the Shuna and young Philip eagerly explored some of her holds. Unfortunately, this proved to be Tom’s last dive of the week due to ear problems, but he remained on the boat for the rest of trip. During our surface interval we headed further up the Sound and dived the wall on Calve Island just out from Tobermory for our second dive – this wall descends to over 100m, so divers can simply pick their preferred depth. When I’ve dived this wall before during the late spring and summer, there has been lots of life within the cracks and crevices that scour the rock face, however, it seems that during the winter months there is decidedly less to see. It was still an enjoyable scenic dive, but nothing on the great hunks of metal in our preceding dives. After diving, we went ashore at Tobermory and munched on some fish and chips for lunch, as well as quickly topping up our supplies at the Co-op and Gary and Tom even found a few minutes to spare for the distillery. Our catering that evening was orchestrated by Phil, who whipped upon two enormous batches of lamb and chicken stew, and Jimmy, who prepared delicious individual banoffee puddings. We all remained up until midnight to mark the New Year with some champagne, but not many stayed up much longer than that given another early start the following day.
New Year’s Day brought diving on another of my favourite wrecks in the Sound, the Rondo. I’ll always remember the first time I dived this wreck back in 2012, particularly due its unusual resting position with the rudder in 6m and the bow all the way diagonally down in the sea bed at 50m. This unique position makes the Rondo an excellent dive for depth progression and on this occasion Alana and I took advantage of this to get some experience diving to 50m with Ross. We all coped well with the depth and the associated nitrogen narcosis and Alana and I were able to enjoy the sweary chuntering of Radio Ross for the deeper portion of the dive. Gareth had taken the day off diving and remained at the dive centre, so when our second dive changed from a scenic wall to the Hispania, I can only assume that he began to regret his extended stay in bed. The wreck of the Hispania is very intact and there are many opportunities for penetration in the holds, as well as through parts of the superstructure on the deck – Ross and I took full advantage of this and spent a long time enjoying the interior of this wreck. Back at the dive centre that evening we dined on nachos and fajitas followed by an incredibly decadent bread and butter pudding prepared by Ross and helpers. The planned ropes off time for the following day being a bit later, a number of us stayed up late playing s**thead and Cards Against Humanity and a significant portion of our port selection mysteriously vanished into the ether.
On Friday, our final day of diving, we returned to the wreck of the Thesis for just a single dive. The weather was forecast to be the worst of the entire week and both Ross and Tom chose not to dive. The ride out to the wreck was fairly smooth, with a couple of near-misses due to loosely attached cylinders on the deck, and all divers were safely deposited into the water. I had an excellent dive with the Dive Leader Dream Team (Alana and Gareth), but on returning to the surface there was a significant amount of chop in the water. Returning to the boat required a bit of swimming in these difficult conditions, but I’d once again like to thank our skipper Simon and crew Libby for safe pickups in rough water very close to land. The journey back to Lochaline was at times one of the roughest I’ve experienced and all cylinders and kit were separated and stowed flat on deck for safety. The biscuits in the wheelhouse weren’t so lucky and I caught a flying packet of Rich Teas right in the chops. Everyone coped pretty well with the conditions apart from me apparently and, after making my way gingerly to the back of the boat, I unloaded my breakfast of porridge oats and syrup into the Sound of Mull. I don’t think anyone regretted the decision to only dive the once with the sea state as it was. We got back to shore fairly early that afternoon and had plenty of time to get all of our kit back up to the dive centre, washed and loaded into the van. That evening Simon and Libby joined us for dinner, which was spicy chicken wings followed by a Thai curry and a delicious apple crumble all prepared by Jenny and Emma. After dinner we played the largest round of Cards Against Humanity I’ve ever been part of and even introduced a few of our own cards, such as the timeless “Oh mama, I’m gonna smash dem _______”.
Saturday morning and it was time to go, with a final sweep around the dive centre and a last few bits and bobs loaded into the van and minibus we were away at around 8.30am. The drive back down through the Highlands was glorious in the morning light and we could all take in the stunning views that had been obscured by darkness on the drive up. Both vehicles made a stop for second breakfast at the Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum, with a number of us enjoying a bit of haggis and lorne sausage, before pressing on for the rest of the journey down south. We made it back to Sheffield in pretty good time, finding ourselves in a city that was distinctly less white than when we had left it but also colder than our diving home away from home for the week in the Highlands. We unloaded the van and minibus with a more characteristic (of SUSAC) lack of coordination, but eventually both vehicles were in a fit state to be returned. An evening meal at Casanova (not Casablanca) in Crookes was arranged and we all dined heartily on Italian food. We were all back safe and sound – nobody died!
This was the first trip that I’ve arranged that has actually gone to plan (apart from the hiccups at the start) and for that I would like to thank all of those who came along for making it all work. It is always a pleasure to see a group of divers get to the stage where they are all competent and experienced enough to dive interchangeably with one another and I will always enjoy introducing divers to the wrecks in and around the Sound of Mull, it remains one of my top UK dive destinations. Thanks again to Simon and Libby for driving us around and taking care of us and to Mark and Annabel for accommodating us at the Lochaline Dive Centre. I hope no one is suffering too badly from the post dive trip blues, but I know that I’m already missing SUSAC and looking forward to the next chance I have to dive with you all.