Skills and thrills

Boys in the blue

Andy Clark had always dreamed of being a police diver. It took eight gruelling weeks in Glasgow to see if he was cut out for one of the toughest jobs going

Seven years ago, I joined the police force so I could become a frogman. It took some time before I was able to apply for the appropriate training, but in October last year I finally embarked on an eight-week Health and Safety Executive basic diving and surface-supplied diving course run by Strathclyde Police in Glasgow.

I’d been diving for about eight years and was a BSAC sports diver. Much of the first week was spent in the classroom, studying physics, physiology, decompression illness and injury, search patterns and HSE regulations, among other things. There were only two of us on the course – Steve Bradfield from Devon and Cornwall Police, and myself representing Thames Valley Police – which meant we were going to get some close attention. We had two mornings at a local swimming pool, practising underwater communications, mask clearing and trapped diver routines, then we visited the recompression centre on Great Cumbrae island for a 50m ‘pot dive’ in the chamber, followed by an oxygen administration course.

Our first ‘real’ dive took place at Bardowie and Clyde Cruising Club in the second week. There was a heavy ground frost, but once we were in the water it was okay. Next, we learned the basics of compressor operation, before spending the following three days diving in Inverkip Harbour, overlooked by the disused power station and the spectacular, snow-capped mountains. The last day of the second week took us to the icy waters of the Forth and Clyde canal, in Cadder, Bishopbriggs. The plan: a jackstay search for ‘anything interesting’.

Breaking the ice with the back of my head, I swam to the opposite bank, then descended all of two metres to the bottom. This was my first-ever nil-visibility dive and the going was slow. The jackstay was a fixed, ten-metre weighted line and, in five or six sweeps, I guess I covered about a three-metre area, encountering traffic cones, oil drums, lumps of concrete, plastic piping, rope (which handily wrapped itself around my knife), fishing rods and lines. Scenic it wasn’t. But I was happier than a pig in shit (true on both counts).

Week three: I emerged from a cold hotel room with no hot water into heavy rain and high winds. Monday bloody morning! It was boat-handling day and I was expecting a dunking. We spent much of the morning thrashing about the lake doing the occasional emergency turn – great fun! After hot chocolate, we anchored up the larger inflatable and were introduced to the emergency capsizing procedure. Our instructor Davey hammered his way across the lake and at given signals we took turns standing on the side of the RIB and launching ourselves into the water. Once the last ‘casualty’ hit the water, we practised the ‘huddle and help’ procedure, in which everyone basically huddled together and waited for help! I certainly got my dunking.

Obviously, one of the main parts of police diving is searching for things. In the manual, there are 11 different techniques and, bit by bit, I was going to have to master them all. We learned how to inspect every inch of a ship’s bottom. We tackled jackstay ladder searches, circular sector searches and circular sweeps. At times, I doubted whether I could find my own backside. If we were lucky, the searches were in great water with reasonable visibility and plenty of marine life. (The dancing scallops were pretty amazing.) But others were in black sludge with only scaffolding poles and supermarket trolleys for company.

A search in King George V Docks was particularly memorable. The weather matched my emotions – cold, wet and grey. From the dockside, the thick, greeny-brown Clyde was five metres below. I was in first and, at 11m, the blancmange-like bottom cushioned my landing. Never before had I experienced such thick, black, nil viz. The 28lb shot I was searching for was somewhere beneath me, totally enveloped in mud. Eventually, I located it and gingerly lifted it above my head, only to feel myself sinking into the mire. I was waist deep with 28lb above me. The final move was a well-choreographed collapse to one side. Totally exhausted, I wanted only to be…anywhere else! But, when the dive was finally over (and the contents of my glove returned to their rightful place), a strange sense of fulfilment, of achievement, swept over me.

Dock green: top, getting used to wearing a Kirby Morgan helmet, with instructor Dave McHardie in the background; above, preparing to dive into murky waters for a ‘search and recovery’ mission; right, PC Bill Leishman using the communications unit
The one job everyone asks a police diver about is recovering bodies. Well, the first thing I had to learn was how to put one in a bag – thank God it was a dummy, albeit a rather large dummy, weighing, I would imagine, 18 stone. Somewhat unceremoniously, it was kicked over the harbour wall into the less than inviting water below.

Now I’m of the opinion that anyone who’s experienced a Kirby Morgan diving helmet must have either loved it or hated it. Out of water, trying desperately to position it on my head and at the same time balancing the weight, I hated it! However, once submerged, I almost forgot it was there and, having mastered the demister, nose-bar and air regulator, I found it to be a fabulous piece of kit.

But maybe not for the type of dive that followed. Victoria Harbour is an underwater junk yard. We couldn’t move without an obstacle – scaffolding poles and other building materials, bikes, vehicle parts, carpet, some very large thing with a wheel and, somewhere near, the body!

My buddy Steve was in first and, after a short time, he found the body and attempted to put it in the bag, without success. His time was up and mine began. First I swam past the body, but an about turn put me right on top. A good feel-about failed to decipher how the body lay – nevertheless, I got my hands on the bag and the fun really began.

Body bags are, as you would expect, roughly made to accommodate the average human size and shape. They have two handles and a zip. The zip, however, is about the size of your jean flies. Bearing in mind this body lay in absolutely nil viz, you may not be surprised that it took some considerable time to locate the bag handles, let alone the zip. The bag was supposedly left unzipped, although I’m still not convinced. It proved too much for me – I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Defeat admitted, I clambered back to the steps and struggled out. It took a few more goes before I got it anywhere near right.

Of course, there were tons more things packed into the eight weeks. Decompression skills, underwater navigation (good for a laugh), searching and identifying cars underwater (spooky and more miss than hit). Some dives were unforgettable for all the right reasons, others equally memorable for all the wrong reasons. I’ll never forget just how cold Loch Lomond felt as it rushed through my ripped-open neck seal (I couldn’t dump in time), nor how beautiful the loch looked as afterwards I cupped a warming mug of hot chocolate in my numbed hands.

The day came for my final exam. I had been up since 5.30am with a bit of last-minute cramming and was just a bit annoyed when they cancelled at the last moment. I was silenced when I was told a boat had been lost overnight in Iona and three people were missing.

The exam finally went okay – I got 82 per cent – but my last dive was a disaster and everything that could go wrong did. Nursing a beer a few hours later at an Indian restaurant with the rest of the team, I was honoured and surprised to be presented with a Strathclyde Police Underwater Search Unit badge. I had passed, I had realised my dream.

And now, a few months on, having dived the Thames, the Kennet, the Cherwell, the Grand Union, and more pits than I could name, I long for my refresher course. Only two years and nine months to go!

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