The early years by Bill Williams

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The University of London Sub-Aqua Club (ULSAC) was founded in late 1958 by some members of BSAC London Branch, notably Don Moody, Geoff Potts, Joan Lamb and Geoff Stone. They felt that there were many instances where more science than enthusiasm were needed underwater and that the University ought to be leading the field. ULSAC was the 69th branch of BSAC, so it can be seen that it was founded in the early days of sub-aqua diving, when equipment was still very basic and there were very few experienced divers around. The now familiar BSAC training tests were just beginning to be defined. At the beginning ULSAC had no equipment at all, but some of the early members owned some kit, and I believe they did manage one or two shore dives during that first year.

Don Moody

Don Moody

The early members knew that it was essential to recruit new members for the next academic year and decided to put on a big show for the freshers' open day in September 1959. They borrowed a fair amount of brand-new diving gear from some of the early dive shops and manufacturers including Heinke and NormalAir. Heinke made robust twin-tube 3-stage demand valves, Siebe-Gorman big impressive standard brass-cased diving knives, and NormalAir produced a weird full face diving set, which in theory allowed you to talk underwater. This impressive display on the ground floor of ULU and the enthusiasm of the early members manning the stand attracted a number of new members including myself, not realising that all this gear was for show only. I joined as the 30th member of ULSAC.

Realities became more apparent at the first meetings; all that the club had was enthusiasm, no club equipment, no money and no swimming pool! ULU management were afraid that all this heavy diving equipment might damage the tiles of the Pool (which was brand new in those days) and even snorkelling gear was disallowed for normal public sessions in the pool. We did have an invitation from the also-new Imperial College Sub-Aqua Club to share training sessions in a tiny pool that they had wangled use of in Westminster. It was there that I did my basic training. Don Moody was our main committee wrangler and he first managed to get permission for us to use snorkel gear in the ULU pool during public sessions on Friday evenings, and then much later an exclusive one-hour session on Monday evenings. In the latter sessions finally we were permitted to use sub-aqua gear, but we had to wrap the lead weights in cloth to prevent damage to the pool. We were charged for use of the pool, at first a fixed fee, but later this was reduced to one-shilling per member per session. Dry training sessions took place in booked rooms at ULU after the pool, followed by social drinking in the Bar.

Borrowed equipment

Borrowed equipment

Money was extremely tight in those days, a good student grant was only £100 per term (the present system of student loans didn't exist then). Equipment was expensive, the concept of owning a club boat with powerful outboard engines was such a pie in the sky that we never even contemplated it. As far as I recall, the only scuba equipment the members collectively owned in 1959/60 was one 40 cu.ft. tank, four 26 cu.ft. ex aircraft oxygen bottles (with the binding wire stripped off!), two manifolds so that the little tanks could be twinned, one Siebe-Gorman demand valve and one Heinke demand valve. We sewed our own harnesses from Govt Surplus webbing and buckles and cast our own lead weights from scrap-yard lead, melting it in old iron saucepans over a primus stove (we splashed out on buying a mould to do the casting). There were no special lifejackets for divers then, so we used fold-up yachting life-jackets with internal CO2 gas cylinders. Geoff Potts and Geoff Stone owned ex-navy drysuits, but wet-suits had just been invented and Geoff Potts had managed to buy one for himself. Most of the rest of us had no diving suits at all, and so if you couldn't borrow Geoff's dry suit you dived in a tracksuit or jeans or just your swimsuit.

Launching the donut

Launching the donut

I missed the Easter Dive 1960, for reasons I no longer recall, and my first dive was in the summer vacation 1960 at Torbay. Here is a description I wrote earlier, for you to get some idea of what it was like:

My First Dive

My first dive was in Summer 1960, in Torbay.
This photo shows me in what the best dressed divers were wearing in those days. This included an ex-navy dry suit borrowed from Geoff Potts who had just acquired one of the new-fangled wet-suits. We used to get out of the dry suit after each dive to pass it on to the next person; it had a roll-up seal and cummerbund around the waist.

The photo shows a 40 cu.ft. tank I think, but most of our tanks at that time were former aircraft oxygen tanks. Each was 26 cu.ft. but we had so little air that each of us novices at that time was only allowed to use half a tank, i.e. 13 cu.ft., about enough for 10 minutes underwater.

The water was only about 3 to 4 metres deep off Paignton, but it was still wonderful.

I had hitchhiked to Torbay carrying one of the 26 cu.ft tanks and I remember that one of my lifts was in one of those weird Mescherschmitt Bubble cars which already had two people in it. Camping gear and most of the dive gear had been sent to Paignton by British Rail.

We re-filled our tanks by decanting from 4 big 110 cu ft cylinders rented from British Oxygen. We only had a single prong decanting rig, so it was a very tedious process.

We travelled by bus with all our tanks and dive gear from the camp site at Painton to Torquay to go diving at Natural Arch. We went the other direction to Brixham harbour to do open-water snorkel tests.

The Next Year 1960/61

Torbay - 1960

Torbay - 1960

By the next year things had got a little better. Don Moody talked ULU into purchasing two complete 40 cu.ft. Heinke Aqualungs for the club on safety grounds and had arranged use of the pool as mentioned above. But there was still the vexing problem of the expensive diving suits, so a bunch of us got together and decided that the only way we could afford wet-suits was to build our own.

Wetsuits were not readily available at that time, but expanded neoprene sheets could be bought through the rubber trade. One of us worked out the purchase details and about six of us clubbed together to buy the estimated number of sheets, rubber tape, Evostick and zips. This was a great financial adventure, it cost each of us around a third of all the money we had to live on for an academic term, yet we did not know if we could succeed as you could not get any patterns to make wetsuits. We all gathered together in one of the large rooms at ULU and laid out the sheets of neoprene on the floor. Then using newspaper we wrapped it around each other and marked and snipped it until we had something like a pattern. Then we fitted the patterns shapes to the neoprene sheets, before the first cut. We had to do that, because we had been told that a straight cut across the centre of a sheet to make the one and a half sheets we each needed could not then fit the right shapes.

Dorset - 1962

Dorset - 1962

Then we made the first heart-rending cuts and soon some were wallowing in the fumes of Evostick. It would be nice to say that it all worked perfectly, but it didn’t! We had booked the room for a few successive days so left the glue to dry for a day. The next day to my astonishment I for one found that I could get into my wetsuit trousers with my daytime trousers still on, they were nowhere near skin-tight. I don't know what any spectators who might have glanced through the door glass thought of us that evening, capering around in swimsuits and fitting and squeezing each other's rubber suits (but then I don't think rubber fetishes existed then either). Basically we had to trim about half to one inch off each seam and then glue it together again. We took the opportunity while the rubber was once more flat to correct our paper patterns too and the more cautious members then started making their suits as well. However all went quite well in the end and these wetsuits lasted each of us for several years. Mine had its last wearing many years later painted with silver scales as the skin of the monster in the show in ULU pool. That later led to me wearing horns on my wetsuit helmet on my later dives.

This year also led to the beginnings of ULSAC's interest in marine biology, because Mike Robins had joined and he led us through the first underwater Biology studies with a dive at Swanage. We camped, of course, on the hill overlooking Swanage.

I hope that this brief paper has given you all a feel for the difficulties and triumphs of the beginnings of ULSAC and probably heartfelt thanks that your own diving has been learned in easier times!

Keep up the good work.
Bill Williams

(Photos courtesy of Geoff Stone)