The Thames may not be renowned for its underwater attractions, but Saturday [14 October] saw a flotilla of dive boats making their way up the river to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC).
Founded in 1953, BSAC today has a membership of around 25,000, spread over hundreds of scuba diving and snorkelling clubs, with the Prince of Wales as their President. The flotilla comprised various RIBs, or rigid-hulled inflatable boats. These adaptable, hardy vessels are essential tools for exploring the UK’s rugged coast.
The point wasn’t to dive under the swirling waters of the Thames, but to celebrate with a display of boat handing skills under the autumn sun. London was, after all, the birthplace of BSAC, when a coterie of adventurers met at the Waldorf Hotel, Aldwych, on 15 October 1953 to discuss the newly available Aqua-Lung, which was being sold in Piccadilly for £40.
The flotilla joined the Thames after setting off from Erith Yacht Club in southeast London, led by BSAC Vice-President Tony Marshall in the role of coxswain. Also on board were Edward Haynes, BSAC Chair, with ex-Chair Eugene Farrell. Gravesend RNLI travelled with the boats part way before a crew from Tower RNLI took over.
Gravesend RNLI's Thames Commander Karla Thresher said it was a privilege to accompany the BSAC RIBs inbound:
It was a unique sight for passers-by to witness BSAC RIBs on the Thames, passing landmarks such as Greenwich, Canary Wharf, The O2 Area, Globe Theatre, Tate Modern, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge.
Taking part was BSAC’s CEO, Mary Tetley:
What a great way to celebrate BSAC’s 70thAnniversary, with a big visual celebration of our clubs and their boats on the Thames,” she said. “There’s a lot of pride associated with our RIBs because they enable our members to dive independently. This self-sufficiency is part of our identity, so it’s wonderful to see it being celebrated here on the Thames.
The flotilla peeled off at Tower RNLI station, where BSAC’s Chair, Edward Haynes, presented a £1,001 cheque to the charity. It was gratefully received by Nick Fecher, a long term BSAC member and RNLI diver safety campaigner and champion, along with Tower Lifeboat Duty Crew for the RNLI. The return voyage included a stop at Butler’s Wharf for refreshments and an opportunity to admire Tower Bridge from river level. In addition to the UK-based clubs taking part were representatives of BSAC Japan and BSAC Korea, both of whom are affiliated to BSAC, and use its training methods.
Among the flotilla was a group from Bingham Sub-Aqua Club, including paralysed athlete Dan Metcalfe, who has inspired his fellow members by recently qualifying as an Open Water Instructor. On another vessel were members of East Cheshire Sub-Aqua Club, who led a project to recover two experimental ‘Highball’ bombs from Loch Striven.
BSAC grew from a select, London-based coterie of explorers in the 1950s to a network of thriving scuba diving clubs, renowned for the thoroughness of their training. Branches were formed all over the world by expat communities and local groups who wanted to scuba dive the BSAC way.
The club differs from other diving agencies in that its courses are devised and instructed entirely by volunteers. It has a strong ethos of self-support, as well as stringent safety standards designed for the rigours of British seas. BSAC divers have been at the forefront of underwater exploration since their early days, having been responsible for locating the wreck of the Mary Rose [by Southsea Sub-Aqua Club in 1971, led by Alexander McKee], and countless other exploration projects.
BSAC boats take part in a similar event along the Menai Strait, which gave organisers Lisa Shafe and Adrian Collier the idea for a convoy along the Thames. Lisa said:
As a RNLI volunteer as well as a BSAC member, I knew it was feasible. The organisation certainly had a few challenges but we worked with the PLA (Port of London authority) to find solutions that were both practical for RIBs designed for diving as well as meeting their requirements.
RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager and longstanding BSAC member Neil Withers said:
It's been a real honour for our charity to assist BSAC today. We have a proud partnership with them and hold workshops that aims to refresh existing safety and rescue skills as well as introducing techniques for improving surface location and survival skills for divers in an emergency.