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Hack Away The Inessential

Satirical wrecker turned caver Roger Williams waxes poetic on the techno-jetsam and detritus of a diving life well-lived. What does that dangling doohickey do again?? Find out.

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by Roger Williams
Header image: The Williams’ shrine to the Dive Gods—where gear goes to afterlife. Note the forlorn ForceFin, jilted Jetfin and the SOS “Bendomatic.” All photos by Roger Williams.

My very first mask was an Oceanic Bi-Vu4.  It didn’t just have side windows, it also had little prisms at the bottom of the front lenses through which it was supposed to be easier to see your chest and, thereby make it easier for you to find and manipulate anything you had clipped off there.  The mask had the very best possible reviews from a well-known periodical and, because I didn’t know any better, that was good enough for me.  I figured I’d done my due diligence and bought one for my open water (OW) class.

What actually happened was between the front lenses, the side lenses, the prisms, and the refraction from the water that kept filling the mask (because it didn’t fit worth a damn), I got to experience multi-imaged compound sight, which is the way many insects see the world.  And this is why you have never, ever, seen nor heard of a Bi-Vu4.

I suffered through the use of that mask during my first dozen dives, until a kind shop owner handed me a simple two-lens and suggested I throw the Pink Floyd album cover in the trash.

Like most divers, I’ve got a whole bin full of old crap.  The current bin is of the most storied, the most recent, or the most novel junk.  This junk bin has been emptied many times over the years of snorkels and fins and tank bangers.

Doesn’t fit on a calf, but almost cool.

Retractors and coiled lanyards and knives the size of sabers and plastic gewgaws that seemed like they were a great idea at the time.  Certain types of hoses and old regulators and reels with funky locking mechanisms.  As much of a pack rat as I am, or as much as I hold the belief that I’ll find use for it someday, much of this stuff is eventually purged as the waste of space it almost all is.

Don’t know whatever happened to that mask, though.

I’m not just talking about having made the transition from 80s diver (80 feet deep, 80 foot viz, 80 degree water) to tech diver.  Of course, as 80s divers, we all went through a phase of, “Will four different pockets on my BCD be enough?” and “Which dry snorkel comes in my favourite colour?”  So having gone through THAT junk is to be expected of every single diver on the planet.

Slimming Down

I cut my teeth as a tech diver in the Northeast US. Without meaning to disparage many perfectly competent (and sometimes exceptional) divers, there is a certain commemorative pride in the Northeast of atypical behaviour or gear configurations.  I suspect it is a long resonating holdover from the 80s and 90s when tech diving was still an inchoate technique and everyone was casting about for the “right” way of doing things [Oh, George? Inside joke!].  But for whatever the reason, the way I was originally mentored and trained to start venturing past traditional recreational limits was anything but traditional.

At least I was encouraged to get rid of my first BCD.  It was a semi-tech-looking contrivance that was supposed to be good for single or double tanks, which is why I bought it in the first place.  I figured from the start that IF I ever started using doubles I would be ready.  But, as with the mask, I didn’t know squat.  So what I wound up with was, as is frequently the case with tools designed to do two different things, a BCD that wasn’t terribly good at either of those things.

So I bought a backplate and wing (BP/W).

That it was a BP/W was about the only normal thing about it.  I was never shown how to configure it properly, having figured it out from online “How To” guides.  I was told (and presumed by watching everyone on the boat) that everything would be easier if there were d-rings all over the place.

The way I was shown to wear my stage bottles gives me a paroxysm of embarrassed winces.  The way I was shown to switch to those stage bottles was non-existent.  Everything about everything I did in those first years was just “good enough.”

The artefacts from that era in my diving career are still found not only in my junk bin, but also in various hardware bins. Huge D-rings fixed at various angles. Two-inch rings with a bolt snap the size of brass knuckles welded in.  Speaking of brass, I probably have about enough of it still kicking around to restart the bronze age in double-ended bolt snaps alone. Carabiners and quick-links of a variety of sizes. I never actually owned a “slob-knob,” but I can’t say in all honesty that I never thought about it.  

D-rings anyone?

Basically: all manner of useless goddamn flotsam: stuff that, one by one, slowly but surely, continued to get stripped off of my harness or rigging and to find its way into the bin. Something like the chopper or bobber motorcycles of old (before “chopper” meant $150K custom jobby), if it was just aesthetic or served no practical function, off it came.  If it wasn’t actually necessary for the completion of a dive, off it came. If it was a gimmicky solutionx to something that was already perfectly functional in a more ordinary configuration, off it came.

It took more than a decade and thousands of dives, as well as countless conversations with mentors and peers and students to finally, gropingly stumble into what should seem an obvious truth:

Simple, standardized, and streamlined is best.

This holds true for a variety of reasons.

As they say: safety first.  No matter how often you might dive with the same buddy who knows (and maybe even matches) your screwball configuration, sooner or later you’re going to be diving with someone who has no bloody idea what they’re looking at on you.  In an emergency, do you really want this stranger trying to figure out what you have clipped where and why?  Or what the hell this thing is?  Or what this regulator might be attached to? 

Just as worrisome: what happens when you’ve made just one more change?  Do you trust your own muscle memory to deal with the fact that now you’re running your alternate wing from your pony bottle that’s mounted pyramid style between your back mounted doubles?  Or that if you can’t reach that pony-bottle knob in a place where it might roll off, you might as well not even have the tank.

There is a good handful of fatalities due to experienced technical divers using unfamiliar or unusual kit.

Safety In Streamlining

I wonder if there’s a good place for these on a rebreather?

The safety in streamlining should be perfectly obvious, as well.  It is hard to ignore the fact that if you’ve got all manner of protuberances sticking off of you at all angles and dangling from you as if you were some sort of neoprene-wrapped Christmas tree, you might as well just stay home and tie yourself to the couch with a tangled reel. There, at least, you can breathe.  

And this is to say nothing of how much easier it is to move a streamlined rig through the water instead of flailing your way forward like an injured frogfish with acute heartburn.

And this is to say nothing of how much easier it is to move a streamlined rig through the water instead of flailing your way forward like an injured frogfish with acute heartburn.

Once loved techno-jetsam and detritus!


“I like all the D-rings,” I’ve too often heard, usually from our 80s diver friends with the dozen plastic rings and pull tabs, “I wouldn’t have enough places to clip things off otherwise.”

I like to point out to these folks that I’ve done dives with as many as seven or eight tanks, two scooters, reels and lights and tools and backups of absolutely everything with exactly five D-rings.  Only four if you account for the fact that one of them only ever has the primary scooter clipped to it.  So it follows that if more crap is NOT better, less crap IS better.

“But when everything is clipped to its own D-ring it makes things easier to see and find. Learn better muscle memory.”

I know for folks who only dive a couple of times a year this can be a sore subject; but seriously, you’re going into a potentially dangerous situation in what is objectively a hostile environment.  Be prepared for that.

“I like air integration, I can just look at my computer.”

“Well what happens if your transmitter craps out or the signal is interrupted?”

“I still have an SPG.”

“So you have an expensive extra thing which is giving you information you should actually already know, that you might have to resort to the analog thing you’ve already got?”

I suppose the argument could be made that it’s a redundant monitoring system… but I think we both know you’d have to squint real hard to make that argument convincing, much less valid. The truth is you just wanted it and could afford it; it’s neat, but sorta pointless. Chop it.

“I like a pull tab that dumps air from my wing over here instead of over here.”

“I like wearing ankle weights because it keeps my feet down.”

“I like having a chest strap that holds my whatever against my whatever.”

“I like having my regulators hooked up backwards because that’s the way my instructor said is better.”

“I like using quick disconnects for everything so I can hook anything to anything else.”

“I like tying this bungee around myself because it keeps everything tight.”

Everyone was using white line. Then everyone was using orange line. So I bought purple line… which turned out to suck in every single way.

“I like wearing my drysuit inside out because then it’s easier to find leaks.”

OK, I made that last one up.  But how many times have you heard people excusing the daffiest goddamn shite and all you can do is shrug because you’d rather just go diving than stand about having a debate?

For my part, for many years, I’ve been using atypical regulators.  I’ve liked a great many things about them; I’m used to them to the point I strongly prefer them.  Not the least of the things I’ve liked about them is “I have them.”  I started accumulating a horde of them while I was still in New Jersey where they were very much in vogue.

Recently, however, I’ve been dragging myself, reluctantly, to the conclusion that their unconventional nature is outside of what I should consider acceptable.  This culminated when, just a few days ago, I was asked by someone I’d been diving with for weeks, “Where is the purge button on this?”  

It was like a gutshot. I’d thought I’d told them at some point… but whether I had or not was irrelevant.  Because in an emergency it would have been unfair and potentially fatal to expect someone who needed a breath RIGHT NOW to remember, “Oh, right, Rog said the purge was over here somewhere.”

In the fullness of time, all these regs, too, will be finding their way one by one into the junk bin.  I obviously don’t think that they are de facto deadly; who knows how many safe dives have been made using these exact things over decades?  But into the junk bin they will still, inevitably, go.

Simple, Standardized, And Streamlined Is Best.

There are some groups and clubs and agencies and cliques which may take the standardization thing to a weird, logical conclusion.  Who would demand that something atypical be thrown onto a ceremonial pyre at once!  Some folks go so far as to start inventing non-standard equipment, plunging themselves down a rabbit-hole in the pursuit of standardization.  I am not much of a joiner myself and, therefore, am not suggesting here that there is only one right and true way of doing any of this scuba stuff.

Other manufacturers legitimately do make some odd odds and ends that, at least, can make inconsequential tasks a hair easier.  At most, these can drive innovation and create market and industry movements toward something better which may very well become the standard.

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of dives that happen every year all over the world are made by 80s divers  who probably have every variety of crap clipped off to their dozen plastic D-rings and are hand-finning around like a drunken eagle ray as their split-fins dangle uselessly beneath them.  And they’re going to get back on the boat just fine.  We don’t all have to look exactly the same and all carry our spare mask in the same pocket; there are limits where it all starts going a little overboard.

But how much more comfortable would those vacation divers be if someone told them not to get split fins in the first place?  And if someone had shown them how to correctly configure a backplate and wing and shown them how to balance themselves?

How much less would people struggle personally and as a team if they were trained on similar equipment that is configured safely and simply?  Ergo: enjoying their precious bottom time much, much more.  And, in the event of an incident, be far better prepared to either anticipate, avoid, or deal with the effects without having to get bailed out by an underpaid divemaster.

If only there were some way to have pockets on one’s exposure suit.


How much more comfortable would I have been if, when I tried to buy that marginal mask, the checkout page on the website just said, “NO!  YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE THIS.  IT’S A PIECE OF S***.  PICK SOMETHING BETTER.”  Same goes for that old BCD.  Or all that stainless steel.  Or the 30+ regs that now need replacement.  How much emptier would my junk bin have been over the years if I’d had more people along the way to drive home the message:

Simple, standardized, and streamlined is best.

Yeah, there are different environments.  The scenery here of the Mexican caves is very different from the shipwrecks off Long Island.  But whether you want to admit it or not, the only practical difference in the water needs to be thermal protection and having an SMB in your pocket.

And dramamine.  A lot of dramamine.

For more information you can visit:

www.XOC-Ha.com
www.facebook.com/xochabnb
https://www.instagram.com/xochabnb/


Roger Williams isn’t interested in many things that aren’t dive-related.  Even non-technical-dive-related is on shaky ground. He first discovered tech diving while living in his native New Jersey and used to be an ardent diver of the NY/NJ wrecks.  He used to tell people that it was the best place in the world to dive for years while working as a full-time instructor in Hawaii.  But that was a long time ago; before he found his heart in the caves.
For some years he was the Dive Safety Officer for the WCS New York Aquarium in Brooklyn.  Currently (and for the foreseeable future) he and his wife, Nelly, own and operate XOC-Ha, a divers’ BnB near Akumal, in the heart of Mexico’s cave country.  Roger teaches cave, technical, and CCR diving while Nelly creates sorcery in the kitchen for their guests. If you see him staring off into space and ask, “What are you thinking?” he’d probably say, “Safety, balance, stability, and team problem solving.”  And you would be perfectly within your right to say, “About dinner!  I meant what are you thinking about ordering for dinner!”

Community

Brits Brew Beer Booty

What do you get when you combine British divers’ proclivity for shipwreck exploration with their strong affinity for beer? A tasty treasure hunt on the “Wallachia” that resulted in swilling 126-year old reconstituted British beer. GUE Scotland’s detective chief inspector Andy Pilley recounts the tale.

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by Andy Pilley
Images courtesy of
A. Pilley

Header Image: GUE Scotland’s brewmeisters enjoying their brew (L to R) Top: Owen Flowers, Andy Pilley, Wayne Heelbeck. Middle: Steve Symington, A. Pilley, O. Flowers, Bottom: W. Heelbeck, Sergej Maciuk, S. Symington

“Give my people plenty of beer, good beer, and cheap beer, and you will have no revolution among them.”

Queen Victoria

I never thought when I started diving 10 years ago, that one day I would be able to sit down for a pint of beer with the team from GUE Scotland recreated from a brew that has been hidden under the waves for 126 years. Let me explain.

The Wallachia was a single screw cargo steamer that was owned by William Burrell & Son of Glasgow, and employed on regular trips between Glasgow and the West Indies. On 29th September, 1895 she left Queen’s Dock, Glasgow at 10am bound for Trinidad and Demerara. On board was a valuable general cargo including whisky, gin, beer, acids, glassware, and earthenware plus building materials and footwear. By 1pm that afternoon she had settled on the seabed of the Clyde Estuary after colliding with another ship in a fog bank, she was forgotten until 1977 when a local sub-aqua club rediscovered the wreck site.

The wreck of the Wallachia lies on an even keel in approximately 34 metres of water on a sandy seabed. The wreck itself is largely intact and has six holds in total, three forward and three aft. In the rearmost hold there are thousands of bottles of beer, some still inscribed with the name of the maker, McEwans of Glasgow. This is where myself and the team from GUE Scotland enter the story.

The Wreck of the Wallachia 

The Wallachia is one of the more accessible sites on the west coast of Scotland, where we carry out most of our diving. Depending on weather and tidal conditions, visibility on the wreck can be +10m/33 ft on a very good day or less than 2m/6 ft if there has been a lot of rain due to the amount of particulate in the water. Other elements to consider are the tide as this can vary in its intensity, as well as surrounding boat traffic. The wreck lies in close proximity to a ferry route and care must be taken not to dive when the ferry is closeby. However despite the challenges, the wreck is very rewarding and offers a diver plenty of places to explore and items to look at. 

The main point of interest for most has been the rearmost hold, where the bottles of whisky and beer were stored. The majority of the whisky was removed in the 1980’s however a few bottles can be found on occasion, depending where you look. What remains are thousands of bottles of beer, still with the corks and contents intact. Over the course of 2018 & 2019, the team at GUE Scotland dived on the wreck and recovered a number of bottles from the hold. 

After a chance discussion with a friend at dinner one night, I was given contact details for a company called Brewlab, which is based in Sunderland in the north east of England. Brewlab specialise in the provision of specialist brewing training, as well as laboratory services such as quality assurance, product development, chemical/microbiology testing as well as long term research options. I made contact with Keith Thomas, the Director of Brewlab, to discuss whether he would be interested in analysing the beer and investigating whether it could be recreated. Needless to say the proposal piqued his interest and arrangements were made for the bottles to be shipped to his lab.

Unbeknownst to me, the recovery of historical beers is rare, due to various sources of degradation/contamination which can affect any residual microbial cells and chemical components left in the beer that were used as part of the brewing process. So these samples are a valuable source of information on past brewing and microbiology. Over the course of 2019/2020, Keith and I kept in regular contact over the progress of the investigations and the full analysis of the beer has recently been published.

A Brewing Interest

Between 1850 and 1950, the application of scientific principles to brewing was becoming increasingly prevalent and microbiology was playing an increasingly important role. A pertinent issue in brewing microbiology around 1900 was the application of pure Saccharomyces yeast cultures developed by Hansen at the Carlsberg laboratory in 1888. These were readily adopted by continental breweries as providing more controlled production and purer beers. Application to UK brewing was, however, less positively received, in part because of the belief that British beers possessed particular flavours arising from mixed yeast cultures and, specifically, the involvement of Brettanomyces species. This was especially believed to be essential for the character of ‘stock’ ales which were matured for extended periods.

While a number of breweries did try pure culture yeasts, UK brewing was resistant to change and, with the intervention of World War I, retained its indigenous yeast cultures. Since the 1940’s a more biotechnological approach to fermentation demonstrated the value of pure culture and was progressively applied to the larger breweries developing at that time. 

During the formative period of brewery microbiology after Pasteur, brewing yeast were identified as Saccharomyces species based on morphological features of shape, filamentous propensity and spore characteristics. Non brewing, ‘wild’ yeast was recognised and termed ‘Torula’ if non-sporulating. Of these Brettanomyces strains were identified as contributing important character to stock ales. It is also clear from brewing texts that bacteria were recognised as spoilage organisms in beer, as had been initially demonstrated by Pasteur in 1863. These species were mostly categorised as bacilli and typically portrayed as rods and associated with sarcina sickness – generally producing sourness. Some studies, nevertheless, identified lactic acid bacteria as indigenous components of standard beers.

Contemporary breweries are increasingly interested in using novel microbiology, either unconventional yeast strains or mixes of species and strains for sour and natural products. Identifying the specific strains and species of yeast and bacteria present in Victorian and Edwardian beers is directly relevant to this and has particular value if cultures of authentic microorganisms can be retrieved. Reports of retrieved historic brewery microbiology are limited but hold interesting promise for identifying novel microorganisms.

The specific parameters of the analysis are contained in a published research paper, Preliminary microbiological and chemical analysis of two historical stock ales from Victorian and Edwardian brewing.”

As I mentioned, the primary objective of the analysis was to confirm whether detail could be provided on the original brewing ingredients and the fermentation microbiology. The analysis confirmed the use of Brettanomyces/Dekkera bruxellensis and Debaryomyces hansenii, which are brewing and fermentation yeasts respectively. The presence of Debaryomyces is interesting as this genus has not been noted as a historic feature of historic brewing, but has been identified in spontaneous fermentations, for example in Belgian lambic beers. Although the strain was reported to the brewing industry in 1906, it has not featured as a major contributor to beer fermentations since.



The analysis has also provided relevant information of the beer character and has confirmed that the beer recovered from the Wallachia was a stout, close to style expectations of the time and had an alcohol content of c. 7.5%. The colour gravity was high, resulting in a much darker beer however a much lower level of bitterness. Again this was typical style of the time and differs from other modern stouts.

More interestingly is the presence of various types of bacteria, which will likely have been picked up during the brewing process. The table below lists these for reference. Needless to say, historic brewing was not a sterile process in comparison to modern methods!

Bacillus licheniformisPlant and soil bacterium
Finegoldia magnaCommensal skin bacterium
Fusobacterium sp.Possible pathogenic bacterium
Kocuria roseaPossible urinary tract pathogen
Mogibacterium pumilumPossible oral cavity bacterium
Shigella sonneiEnteric pathogen
Staphylococcus epidermidisCommensal skin bacterium
Stenotrophomonas maltophiliaSoil bacterium
Varibaculum cambriensePossible pathogenic bacterium

Table 1: The bacteria found in the Wallachia beer bottles

Due to the relatively stable conditions on the wreck, being in near darkness and at a relatively cold temperature (between 6º–14ºC/43º-57ºF depending on the time of year), the live yeast structures within the beer were protected from sources of stress and allowed them to survive over the past 126 years. Luckily, Keith was able to extract these samples and begin to recultivate the yeast, specifically the Debaryomyces, with the hope of being able to rebrew the beer.

Cheers Mates

Just before Christmas, I finally received word from Keith that he had completed a trial brew and seven bottles of the brew were on their way to me. A few excitement laden days later and a nondescript box arrived at my office with the beer inside. I called the guys on our Facebook group chat to show them the case and got each bottle packaged up and sent out to them. 

A few days later, once everyone had received their sample we got together again to try the samples. There was an air of excitement after the two years it had taken us to get to this point, the most anticipated pint ever! I’m no expert in the flavour profiles of beer so you will have to forgive me for my relatively basic analysis. In summary, I got flavours of coffee and chocolate and there was a relatively low level of carbonation, which made it very drinkable. The rest of the team got similar flavours, the only complaint being there wasn’t more to try!

There will of course be slight differences in flavour since we don’t normally add the bacteria listed above as ingredients. However, the recipe we have is as close as we can make it to the original stock version.

The next steps for the project are to carry out further investigation on the characteristics of the Debaryomyces yeast strain in order to determine their suitability for fermentation and potential use in future brewing production. We are making approaches to various commercial breweries in order to discuss future commercialisation of the recipe and produce the brew on large scale. With the story behind the original recipe, we’re hopeful that the provenance would be a key selling point to consumers. It is my hope that the recovery of these samples will open up new possibilities for different types of beers to be developed, and offer something different for beer enthusiasts to try.

I have also found out that there are other types of beer to be found on the wreck, specifically an IPA style. Once we’re allowed to begin diving again, I am hoping to return to the Wallachia and recover some of these bottles so we can carry out the same analysis and keep the project moving forward.

In the mean-time, cheers!

Additional Resources:

The Brewlab Podcast, Episode 2 (March 30, 2021): Lost Beers Recreated from Shipwreck Bottles

GUE Scotland vlog -Episode 1


Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.

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