Jeff Clay: A dive in the 1950’s

They say it’s a sure sign of old age when you start writing your memoirs! I catch up with Dive New Zealand occasionally, and with the plethora of new dive gear and methods available I thought it would be good to put on record where us old buggers have come from, before it’s too late.

I turned over and switched off the alarm before it went off at its set time of 5am. It was always like this before a day’s diving – the sense of excitement and anticipation of another aquatic adventure. Today I had to catch the first bus at 6am. This entailed a half-hour walk carrying my gear, so there was no time to lose.

The year was 1957. I was just 17, and scuba diving was very much a pioneer sport. Always a keen swimmer, I eagerly read Cousteau’s The Silent World and every other article about diving that came my way. Two years previously I had acquired my first mask and snorkel and embarked on what was a lifelong love affair – or, as my father called it, a ‘bloody obsession’ – with the sea.

I eased my latest scuba set out from under my bed. My bulky dive gear was the bane of my slightly-built mother, who despaired of vaccuuming and cleaning around it. This set was a big improvement over past units: two 27 cu ft aircraft oxygen bottles with the wire binding removed, strapped together and joined with a common manifold. The harness was attached to the joining bands and a quick release at the waist. The bottles were buoyant when empty but negative when filled to 2200 psi. Because contents gauges were rare, the drill was to use one bottle at a time, switching over to the other tank when breathing became hard.

I had teamed up with an old school mate, Peter Johnson. Peter’s father had a large house in Landscape Road, Mt Eden. He was a showman and used this property to store his merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, octopus, chair-o-plane and various other rides. In the off season, they carried out maintenance work, and Peter became a skilled engineer and welder at a very early age. I remember visiting when we were about eight years old, watching him use a large war surplus lathe while standing on a box. The Landscape Rd property was Aladdin’s Cave to a schoolboy. One day while ratting around under the house, Peter and I came across a large box. We pried the lid off, and there in the torchlight was a corpse! It was a plaster cast of a two-headed man from Kathmandu or something, anyway it frightened the hell out of us. I slept with the light on for about a week.

Peter had made a regulator out of a welding gauge, using bent nails for levers. With this unit strapped onto a small oxygen bottle, he had swum the length of Huia Wharf underwater – not, I might add, in great comfort. However, we were much encouraged, and things could only improve. Suitable dive cylinders were a major problem, and we didn’t have much money while we were apprentices – me as a mechanic and Peter as a printing engineer. One weekend, on a tipoff, we snuck around the back of the Carbonic Gas premises in Beaumont Street, where they had dumped all their reject bottles. We sorted through the pile and came up with four tanks that were less rust-pitted than the others and had less of a coating of rust inside. We took them home, put a handful of nuts and bolts inside, then rumbled them on the lathe until all the rust and scale was removed. The outside pits were easily dealt with: we plastered them with spot putty (this was before ‘bog’ was invented), left them to dry, then applied two coats of primer and one of gloss paint.

I was a bit concerned about the safety of these bodgied tanks, but Peter was adamant they would be OK. ‘They have a high safety factor built in, Furry,’ he said. ‘Remember the boxes we made in our welding class out of sheet steel, and how much pressure we pumped into them before they burst.’ I was still doubtful – my welding was not so hot, and burst at a fairly low pressure. (Events in later years confirmed my fears. A tank exploded in a South Auckland garage, blowing off part of the roof and one wall. Another exploded at Auckland Automotive Engineering, a filling station – it knocked off the valves of three others, and they flew around like missiles punching holes in a block wall. Alf Dickinson, the owner and a pioneer diver, had his leg broken in two places by exploding fragments, and his partner Thomas Tucker who was talking on the phone had it blown out of his hand by a piece of shrapnel: a narrow escape. Peter was working there at the time. This incident shook us badly and we started handling tanks more carefully. However, this was all in the future.)

‘How are we going to get these tanks to pass the test?’ I asked Peter. ‘Not a problem,’ he replied, getting out some number punches and stamping a current date onto the tanks. Down to Mesco for the maiden fill. We handed them over to the compressor operator, and ‘Just going outside for a smoke’ I said. We didn’t smoke. We waited outside nervously, standing as far away as possible. No bang. ‘I told you they would be OK,’ said Peter. We paid our ten bob each and away we rattled in my old Model A Ford.

My first regulator was made by some engineer out in West Auckland. It looked OK and more importantly it was cheap, so I fell for the sales pitch. But design flaws soon became apparent, especially when the steel spring behind the main jet rusted and jammed closed while I was diving in the rip at Whatipu. I was dragged ashore just before I shot over the Manukau Bar bound for Australia. Lever height was critical; if it was too low the reg was hard to breathe, and if too high it would bleed off when in the water. As the main jet bedded in, it was necessary to build up the back of the jet with solder and carefully sand it off until it was just right. At night school on Thursdays I would sit at the back of the class carefully sanding down my regulator jet under the desk. The instructor was sure I was some kind of sexual deviant.

Swimming behind Peter one day, I noticed a fine stream of bubbles coming from rust pinholes in his tanks. This was too much even for us, and we decided to upgrade our gear. Alf Dickinson sold me near-new tested tanks, and I bought a regulator made by Jack Hansen of HECO Engineering in Great South Road. It was an excellent unit based on the Siebe Gorman Mistral regulator. Jack used to fill our tanks with a horrible old compressor with the paint peeling off from the heat. One day I expressed concern over the black fluid coming out of the valves. ‘Is that oil?’ I asked. Jack looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘That’s a lubricant I put in the air to keep the taps free.’ I literally swallowed this line, and for the next year swam with an oil slick following me. When we first started diving we dived in old school sweaters and long woollen underwear. After nearly dying of hypothermia in the winter I scraped up enough money to buy a Parelli so-called drysuit, made out of very thin rubber in two halves and joined by a cummerbund at the waist. They always leaked to a greater or lesser degree, and the slightest abrasion punctured them. No need for a logbook, just count the patches, divide by two and that was about the number of dives achieved. Later we took to wearing overalls over the suit. This afforded a degree of protection, but wet overalls were another item to carry.

To combat the squeeze at depth, we placed a small air bottle chest-high inside the suit. A slight twist of the valve through the rubber inflated the suit. It was also handy on the surface when swimming back to shore with a full sack of crays. Peter overdid the inflation one day at Whatipu and popped to the top looking like the Michelin man, arms and legs outstretched. The wrist and neck seals locked under pressure and he was unable to bend his arm to turn the tap off. He cartwheeled in the outgoing tide shouting for help, and we were hard-pressed to clamber around the rocks to assist him. ‘Should spear the bugger,’ panted one of the boys. We dragged him ashore still clutching his bulging sack.

Anyway, back to my dive trip. A failed battery, rego time, and no money had grounded my Model A. This meant a trip to town by bus. I lumped all the gear to the bus stop. The plan was to meet Peter at the Ferry Building and catch the Baroona to Waiheke. In those days the Sandringham bus only went to the St James at the top of Queen Street so I had to lug all my gear down Queen Street to the Ferry Building. Diving was still a novelty in those days and I was given many curious looks. It was a pleasant trip on the Baroona, with a light sou’westerly blowing; perfect for the outside of Waiheke. Once there, we approached the Waiheke bus driver, who looked at our gear a bit askance. ‘Let us off opposite W Bay, mate,’ said Pete, ‘and we’ll give you a cray on the way home.’ The roads were rough, dusty metal and the dust poured in as we rattled and banged up the hill to Oneroa. We made the unscheduled stop; ‘Pick you up at three,’ the driver said as we started the long haul across the paddocks to W Bay. We had a walk of approximately two kilometres until we reached the steep clay cliffs that bordered the flat rock shelf below. By the time we kitted up, the sun was well up and it was with relief that we slid into the water. In 1957 there was very little industrial runoff at the site, and no sediment. The water was clear and fish life prolific. Reef fish were everywhere.

A school of small kingfish cruised around us and large trevally nosed through the weed. We moved out to the 30 foot mark to a large overhang where a solid mass of swaying cray feelers greeted us. As we pulled out the big bucks, big snapper darted in unafraid and picked up the cray legs that had been knocked off. It didn’t take long to fill our sacks, hardly making a dent in the population. We surfed the slight swell back up the rock shelf and dumped the bags ashore, chattering with excitement about the dive. As usual our suits had leaked and the woollen underwear was soaked. We pulled them off, laid them out in the sun and lay back on the hot rocks to eat our lunch before starting back.

Getting back up the clay cliffs dragging the full sacks of crays was an effort worthy of Sir Edmund Hillary, and the gentle slope of the paddocks seemed like Everest. The large cray legs and claws poked through the catch sacks, gouging our legs and backs. By the time we arrived at our bus rendezvous point we were sweating bloody wrecks. The bus trip back to Oneroa was a mission in itself. The large cray we gave to the driver kept scuffling across the bus floor and getting under the clutch and brake pedals, and the driver kept having to look down and boot it out of the way while driving around the steep corners of the dusty metal roads.

It was with relief that we finally staggered back onto the Baroona. The other passengers gave us a wide berth; it must have been something to do with our dust-covered bodies and faces, bloody legs, and two large sacks oozing jellied water and cray legs over the cabin floor. A trip home on the bus was out of the question; I rang Dad and pleaded with him to pick us up. He agreed, but wasn’t too keen – he had a new car, a Vauxhall Wyvern, and wasn’t enamoured about having wet dive gear and smelly crays put into his pride and joy.

We slumped against the Ferry Building walls to wait. Girls dressed in their best party frocks were disembarking from the ferries on their way to various dance halls, so we amused ourselves by letting off the remaining air in our tanks in loud blasts as they passed. The resulting shrieks were most satisfactory. Our enthusiasm for this ran out at about the same time as the air, and by the time Dad arrived we were almost comatose. After dropping Peter off I handed over the catch to my long-suffering mother. In those days all state houses had a copper to boil up the washing – ideal for cooking crays. I left her to her task, had a shower and staggered off to bed. Next day, I carted the cooked crays around the neighbours, almost pleading with them to take one. For most people, they were an unknown food item, and the neighbours were dubious. They certainly wouldn’t have cooked a freshly caught one. How times have changed!

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