Monday, August 23, 2010

Part two Early Days of Diving: Wade Doak

IN DECEMBER OF 1955 I started a regular diving logbook. By then my manic
obsession with diving was fully developed and all other aspects of life such
as schooling, team sports and courtship, had to take second place. By April
I957 even my logbook entries were beginning to suffer. A breathless note
appears: 'In the past I5 weeks since 2 February I have been away diving I4
weekends in a row.'
From the outset, I must confess, my primary aim was to catch something.
I really don't believe it was bloodlust. The romantic questing spirit had led
to devising the means for ocean entry but our culture conditions the explorer
to achieve something practical. In those halcyon days of skindiving the sea
was viewed as a huge stock pot, teeming with limitless resources just begging
to be harvested. We saw no end to it. Skindiving was a very rare aberration
and there seemed little danger of a goldrush when to most sane observers we
risked a dozen horrible deaths with each descent.
I don't believe I was alone in contracting the obsession. At that time similar
cases were occurring all over the planet and in odd areas such as Sydney, Perth,
California, France, Florida and Whangarei, there were people who had
succumbed several years in advance of this Christchurch schoolboy.*  But the
pathology of my case was fairly typical. Perhaps the early stages of the
condition may be judged from a selection of logbook entries.
Logbook: I8 December I955: 'Craig, Grant and I took the morning train
to Lyttelton and met members of the newly formed Canterbury Underwater
Club on Diamond Harbour jetty. There were about fifteen divers, five with
aqualungs** (the first such gear I had seen). Mr Clark had a Pirelli dry suit.
Two of the lungs were Australian 'Porpoise', the others Siebe Gorman, but
Jimmy White from Belfast, makes his own!
'I swam around in the kelp for a long time with my speargun. I saw a fair
sized herring in a shoal, shot and missed it. Due to uncontrollable shivering
I had to quit. I caught a seahorse for the biologist, Mr Wisely, who gave us
a lecture on marine life amongst the rocks, pointing out interesting features.
Later I had a talk with him by myself -a very interesting man.'
During five years at high school my log is crammed with entries. Obviously
I was only a part-time scholar. But those high school years were incubatory:
there I met up with an equally fanatical bunch of embryonic divers like lifetime
friends Jaan Voot, Ian and Tony Athfield, Roger Hunt and the sons of archaeologist Dr Roger Duff, who founded the Schoolboys' Underwater Club.
Like gunpowder plotters we were especially bonded: each day the divers
met for lunch in an out-of-bounds part of the school grounds, to sunbathe
and even swim illegally in the school stream. None of us smoked. Our
underground was devoted to making diving gear in the science workshop and
testing it after hours in the school pool. The prototype of my diving helmet
had been an inverted bucket: while David MacKay pumped furiously I'd walked
the length and breadth of the pool.
At a meeting of the Canterbury Underwater Club Jaan Voot and I got to
know Jim White, a diminutive, cheery Irishman, a skilled aircraft engineer
who became our
 [*I2 September I954: John Samazan sets scuba record with near fatal descent to 350 feet
            off Catalina Island.
**This was Cousteau's trademark. Later when competition arose a generic term was created: scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus].
hero, our New Zealand version of Jacques Cousteau. Jim
knew how to make scuba regulators and was prevailed upon to bring one to
our school pool one weekend.
23 October I956: 'First aqualung dive: two widths and a length of the pool.
Marvellous sensation. Slight difficulty in breathing. Feeling of momentum,
strolling along the bottom, flying, too excited about it all to analyse my
Twelve months later I was to try it again in the sea at Taylors Mistake,
the handiest diving spot to Christchurch.
5 October I957: 'Jim White lent us his twin cylinder lung. Jaan used one
tank and got two crays. I used the other and caught a couple of four-pounders.
I enjoyed the lung even more this time, swaying along the seabed effortlessly,
propelled by my new flippers. I explored the whole area thoroughly and swam
back to the beach submerged.'
Jaan and I prevailed on Jim White to show us how to make scuba regulators.
I am sure my English teacher suspected I was committing an unspeakable act
under my desk when he caned me severely. Fearing confiscation I preferred
a smirch on my character to admitting I was emery papering to a very fine
tolerance the delicate levers that would regulate my life's breath.
At every opportunity, even on school days if conditions were too perfect,
we would borrow a car or truck and head over the hills to Taylors Mistake
or one hundred miles north to Kaikoura Peninsula, a diving paradise.
Our twin strivings were fish and diving gear. Our biggest battle was with
the cold and several times it brought us quite close to death. I only realised
in later years that four hours of uncontrollable, body-wracking shivering is
a sign of advanced hypothermia.
But worse was the day at Taylors Mistake when I nearly went down for
good with Hugh Spencer.
24 May I957: 'Jaan and I took Hugh Spencer to Taylors Mistake for his
first dive. A heavy sea was running and visibility was about four feet. There
were patches of calm so we gave it a try. Jaan helped Hugh enter and he swam
out to me very strongly through the gap. We did a couple of duck dives while
I watched his style underwater. On surfacing we heard Jaan yell that we were
drifting out. We started for the shore but could barely hold our own against
a strong rip. I yelled to Jaan and started towing Hugh. When Jaan arrived
we each took a hand. For an age we seemed to kick without gaining any
ground. Hugh was very tired and wanted to relax. That jolted me. Suddenly
I realised that the warm, cosy feeling invading my body was death. Just then we caught a few waves and managed to escape the current. A breaker swept
us on to the rocks in a bleeding heap.
'We should have observed the tide was falling but our system of having
one person on shore for emergencies paid off.'
Jaan and I had a big think about diving safety. We concluded: '(I) When
snorkeling in white water, look up frequently and get your bearings, because
in a surge you don't know when you are moving and could be swept on to
rocks. (2) Get in on an incoming wave just when it is almost spent and swim
out strongly. (3) Don't tread water when avoiding currents-they grip you
better then. (4) Before getting in ensure there is a safe landing. (5) Watch
the waves for a time beforehand to see how big the biggest are. Then decide.
(6) Take care not to be swept on to rocks when surfacing from a dive.'
In those keen, teen days we were diving in cold Southern waters from
September through to late May.* Winter was only three months of non-diving.
I find it almost impossible to believe this now, after years of wet-suit comfort,
but during the winter following our near-death, Jaan and I made our first
diving suits from a mould Jim White lent us. We used sheets of raw rubber
glued with white spirits solvent and then cured in the ovens at Empire Rubber
Mills by a friend who worked the night shift.
I5 June I957: 'Tested our dry suits in the school pool. A marvellous sensation
to swim underwater without feeling cold. It seems like flying in the thick soupy
atmosphere of another planet.'
Donning these suits was a ritual like preparing a knight in armour. It required
three assistants to insert or extract the wearer. Beach strollers must have
thought some weird orgy was in progress.
A manufacturing problem meant we could never foretell where the crotch
would end up after curing, when the rubber shrank tight on to the mould.
My neighbour Keith Gordon had his crotch between his knees while my own
was so high my legs descended in a series of corrugations. We looked like
spastic monsters in our rubber pelts. A school mate tested his newly cured
suit for size while at home alone. Without any assistants poor David nearly
died of asphyxiation dangling from a door knob. But our dry suits gave us
up to two hours of diving time in midwinter and convinced us to work hard
in factory jobs during school holidays until we could afford one of the proper
Siebe Gorman dry suits just appearing in the sport shops.
And had it not been for my homemade suit I would never have gone on
a bizarre expedition to a mountain lake, in search of some legendary Maori
war canoes. And on that trip I was to meet Kelly Tarlton who was to have
a major influence on my diving career.
We had heard a story that a tribe of Maoris once lived on an island in Lake
Moana, on the western side of the Southern Alps. The route to the beautiful
greenstone jade, so highly esteemed as an ornament and cutting tool by Maoris
throughout New Zealand, lay across this wide lake. From their fort on the
island the lake tribe allowed toiling travellers past to hew and carry the
greenstone out of the bush, but on the return journey they would ambush
them, kill them and seize the stone.
So when Kelly and I first met we were seeking treasure-big lumps of
greenstone and carved Maori war canoes, which we intended to raise for Dr
Roger Duff, curator of the Canterbury Museum.
7 December I957: 'A dozen divers got off the railcar at Te Kinga and half
of us, with all the expedition gear, embarked on a very dilapidated launch
for a peninsula out on the lake. Recent heavy rains had made it an island.
Nearby the old canoes are supposed to lie.
'As we were crossing the lake a great wind scurried the surface and threatened
to sink our frail craft with twelve-inch waves. We had to land in the swamp
with all the gear as well as that of the walking party on their way to rendezvous
with us. The launch could not hold us all. Each diver carrying twice his normal
gear, we set out through the flooded bush to find a camp site. Keith Gordon
looked so funny when he disappeared, just his black hair awash by a floating
log. With a pack on his back, scuba tank on his chest and lead weights on
his hips a diver can keep right on walking underwater...
'We had a brief dive, the rain sluiced down and Peter Hewson was bitten
by an eel.[*I0 -I5 degrees C or 45 - 60 degrees F.]
 No place to camp. Nowhere for a fire. The dog was desperate. Then
the long slog back with all the gear through dense bush and water up to our
chests. That night we celebrated our escape with a party in the local school
house and all got to know each other.
'Next day it rained and rained, the blue tree frogs whistled in the bush and
I had a dive wearing three jerseys, two pair of socks and three pair of pants
under my dry suit. The lake floor was thick with sawdust, slabs of timber
and thousands of sunken logs-each one a potential war canoe.'
Somehow our Lake Moana trip sparked a love for diving expeditions in
Kelly, Keith and myself but I still had one more adventure with that dry suit.
3 January I958: 'Kaikoura peninsula. Jaan and I awoke to drizzle and rough
seas but the west side of Lighthouse Reef was calm enough to dive. I donned
my suit and walked across the reef to the point, where I shot seven butterfish.
The tide having risen I had to swim all the way back across the bay. I was
snorkelling along steadily when suddenly out of the blue void a huge, sleek
head appeared, followed by a streamlined, five-foot body. Another and
another. I watched in wonder, poised on the surface, as a dozen torpedoes
finned past me silently, eight feet away on a parallel, opposite course.'
(Now my conditioning intervenes.) 'Realising I had a gun I moved in and
fired from six feet range. The spear planted itself in the flank. I was spun
around and started to move off. The spearline snapped and I watched helplessly
as my precious shaft and the silvery fish vanished into the blue. Was that
a kingfish?'
More than anything this entry reveals the attitude we had to marine life
in those days: I see my first school of kingfish, creatures almost my equal
in size. In awe I admire their beauty and then I try to kill one. The failure
of my equipment set in train a major effort to improve my chances next time.
Jaan Voot and I toiled in a rubber factory for several vacations and
eventually we had enough to buy our first proper Siebe Gorman dry suits for
I9 pounds ten shillings each. And then I bought the basic components, coiled spring and heavy
spear shaft, to fabricate an extra powerful speargun which was so hard to
load we called it the Hernia and so heavy it had to have flotation packs. The first time I managed to load it something slipped. The shaft vanished through
our hedge and startled Keith Gordon on the other side. But this gun was to
have its moments...

Testing the new suits was sheer ecstasy.
3 February I958: 'Jaan and I dived for four and a half hours, rolling, gliding,
spinning and performing every imaginable evolution. When I removed the
suit my ordinary street clothes were bone dry.'
That year I managed to buy a Draeger scuba tank for eighteen pounds but for several
more years I had to persevere with my school-made regulator, which fizzed
and hissed and delivered unhealthy gulps of water at unexpected moments.

At Kaikoura drysuit clad
Testing the new suits was sheer ecstasy.
3 February I958: 'Jaan and I dived for four and a half hours, rolling, gliding,
spinning and performing every imaginable evolution. When I removed the
suit my ordinary street clothes were bone dry.'
That year I managed to buy a Draeger scuba tank for eighteen pounds but for several
more years I had to persevere with my  highschool-made regulator, which fizzed
and hissed and delivered unhealthy gulps of water at unexpected moments. Good training!

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