Chester Sub-Aqua Club was formed in 1973 as Branch 588 of the British Sub-Aqua Club, with Derek Robinson as chairman and Phil Swain as Treasurer. Early members were Alan Wood, Stuart Tattersall, Geoff Phoenix, Mark Roberts, Nigel Riley, Christine Riley and others.
The idea of setting up a sub-aqua club originated from a group of people who worked at the Thornton Research Centre, part of the Shell oil refinery at Stanlow, Cheshire. With members having responded to an advert in the local papers, early training sessions were held at Rivacre Baths, an open-air swimming pool in Ellesmere Port where those early members have a vivid memory – It was cold! However, they soon took up the offer of moving to Chester City Baths, an indoor, heated pool, located in the centre of the historic city of Chester. Ever since that time, the club has held their meetings on a Wednesday evening at Chester City Baths, where members still have access to the Pacific Pool from 7.00 pm until 9.00 pm and the social area until 11.00 pm. For most of the 1970s, lectures and social events meant a trip to the Bear and Billet public house after pool-training, while refilling a diving-cylinder entailed a journey to a member’s house in Waverton on a Thursday evening.
This was the era when divers used home-made wetsuits that were cut out from sheets of neoprene and glued into shape. You then had a choice of colour for the tape that was glued over the seams – blue or yellow! It was also the time when new members were initiated into the club by undertaking the feared ‘A-test’ whereby they had to perform various feats in the pool such as swimming along while wearing a weight-belt, or treading water with their arms raised above the surface of the water. On completing this test, a member could then move on to snorkel-training. Only when he or she had satisfactorily completed their snorkel-training could they move onto learning how to dive. These were the days before BCDs, when buoyancy was provided by ABLJs (Adjustable Buoyancy Life-Jackets) that had a small attached, and competitions were held in the pool to see how long to a diver could breathe off this cylinder. Thankfully, no members of the club succumbed to the lung disease that could be caused by this practice, of which we were totally unaware.
The club’s first boats were an 11-ft inflatable and a 13ft 6in inflatable, both made by Beaufort, and powered by somewhat unreliable 20hp outboard motors with tiller-steering. Despite this, annual trips were made to Fort Bovisand in Plymouth, the Mecca of diving on the south-west coast of England, where one member of the club located and recovered a ship’s bell marked ‘Nillus’ (pictured above)
The year 1977 brought a major challenge to the club when it was announced that Chester City Baths was to close, with all swimming activities in Chester moving to the brand-new Northgate Arena leisure centre.
The club was involved in the opening of this new facility, but soon realised the limitations of this pool, as it was mostly designed as a leisure-centre rather than for competitive swimming or sub-aqua training.
A plastic whale and a water-slide didn’t really help us to teach sub-aqua diving! Meanwhile, local swimming-clubs also expressed their disappointment with the new pool,
and a charity, Chester Swimming Association, was set up to keep Chester City Baths open from April 1977.
The opening of the social area at the City Baths in 1978 meant that lectures and pool-training could now be undertaken in the one building, and the sub-aqua club was given access to one of the disused changing-rooms to be used as an equipment-room. As a result, our 7-cfm diesel-powered compressor was relocated from the garage in Waverton to the City Baths, and the boats could be moved from a farmer’s yard in Rossett to our new club-room.
The ability to house our boats and training-equipment adjacent to the pool has long been a major factor in the club’s success, and tribute must be paid to those earlier members of Chester Sub-Aqua Club, Chester Swimming Association and Cheshire West and Chester Council for keeping this facility open despite the recent enforced closure of the pool that lasted for over two years until the Duke of Westminster re-opened the building in February 2016.
As already mentioned, the club’s first boats were two Beaufort inflatables, each powered by a 20hp outboard-motor, and trips were made throughout North Wales and beyond, even towing the boats on a box-trailer to Plymouth and venturing out to the Eddystone Lighthouse.
As the club grew, so the demand for extra boat-space increased, and an ex-army assault-craft was purchased and initially fitted with one of our 20-hp outboards. This method of propulsion proved to be totally underwhelming, and was soon replaced by a 55-hp, electric-start motor. The assault-craft was fantastic for floor-space, but was extremely difficult to re-board at the end of a dive as the sides of the vessel angled outwards, meaning that a ladder had to be hooked over the gun-whale to allow a diver to climb up into the boat. Another major disadvantage was the almost total lack of inbuilt buoyancy, and many scary times were ‘enjoyed’ when the assault-craft was taken out to sea in anything other than a calm sea, when it could easily have been converted into the club’s own submarine.
With seaworthiness being a safety-issue, in 1983, the club purchased what was to become known as the ‘Banana Boat’, a bright-yellow inflatable that measured around 16-feet long and of Italian origin. A special box-trailer was built by club-members so that the 40-hp outboard, fuel-tank and diving equipment could be transported to the launch-site, with the boat firmly strapped on top of the trailer. The new boat was soon towed to Aberdaron, a popular diving-venue in North Wales, and carefully manhandled onto the water. Engine fitted; fuel-line connected; dive-gear loaded; engine started, and off we went. We cleared the line of buoys marking the inshore speed-limit, and then opened the throttle to bring her onto the plane. Wow – Fantastic! Then there was a loud ‘SNAP’ as the two wooden stringers that provided rigidity to the floor of the boat both broke in two and the boat assumed the shape of a banana – hence the name. The new boat was then returned to the supplier who fitted new ‘improved’ stringers, and a return trip to Aberdaron was organised. Again, we carefully opened the throttle, brought her onto the plane, and yes – that ominous snapping-sound was heard for a second time. Thankfully, the supplier of the ‘Banana Boat’ took the boat back and supplied a 16-foot Humber inflatable in its place, a boat that proved its worth time and time again, and as a result, two 14-foot Humber inflatables were added to the fleet.
Our local river also featured strongly in our Sunday morning ‘Voyages to the Bottom of the Dee’, where the visibility could be measured in inches, while fierce competitions were held in collecting Victorian bottles. Codds and Hamiltons, types of Victorian bottles, were fiercely fought over, then debated as to who had found the rarest specimen over a pint at the Red House, a hostelry located on the bank of the river. Most of our members thereby gained ‘low-viz’ and ‘nil-viz’ experience as part of their initiation into our sport, and were totally astounded to later find out that you really could see for more than a few metres while diving. Then, in the early 1980s, a rubbish dump was found containing much-older bottles that dated from the late 1600s and early 1700s. Negotiations were made with the landowner, and many happy hours were spent excavating the river bed to recover these examples of early English bottles while gaining experience in the use of water-jets, water-dredges and air-lifts. Other tasks included removing a large tree that was blocking the navigation of the river, recovering an anchor for a tourist-boat, and surveying the ancient weir in the centre of Chester. However, searches for a lost engagement ring and a valuable walking-cane were unsuccessful due to the low visibility and muddy riverbed.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were no dedicated inland dive-sites within easy travelling distance of Chester, with the nearest ones being located at Dosthill, near Tamworth, and at Stoney Cove, near Leicester. As a result, what was known as ‘The Blue Pool’, a flooded slate-quarry near Llangollen in North Wales became the regular Sunday morning training venue where the ‘bottomless pit’ was flooded to a depth of around 15-metres, and was inhabited by a shoal of 3-spined sticklebacks that would escort divers around the site. Access was not easy – a steep climb uphill, followed by an abseil down a 45-degree slope to the water’s edge. Most divers were clad in 4mm-thick, home-made wetsuits as the era of professionally-made wetsuits and dry-suits had not yet arrived.
Other trips were made to ‘Twin Quarries’ near Llanberis, another flooded quarry that could only be reached by wading knee-deep for at least 200 yards along an underground tunnel to emerge on a narrow spit of land at the water’s edge. This was the era when divers would bring a container full of warm water to pour into their wetsuits in an attempt to lessen the shock of immersion in cold water.
From the 1990s onwards, the flooded delights of Vivian Quarry, Eccleston Delph and Capernwray were opened as commercial dive-centres, with on-site air and cafeterias, making them far more suitable as venues where we could introduce trainee divers to our sport. Those divers who sought deeper depths would visit the 100-metre deep delights of Dorothea Quarry where dives in the 30- to 40-metre range could be undertaken.