Red Sea Liveaboard Holiday 2006

MV Whirlwind is the new flagship of the Tornado fleet in the Red Sea for which Tony Backhurst Scuba are agents. When we joined her at Sharm she was only a couple of months old and gleaming- 130 feet and four decks of Gin Palace. It was all a bit of a shock to the system after dear old Oyster which the club had chartered before but which sadly is now an 80-metre wreck herself.

‘Team K+E’; Julie Ansell, Cynthia Doughty, John Rapley, Bret Champion, Jemil Alqadhi, Ros Hepple, Pete Smales, Mark Robinson, Gren Hamlyn, Sarah Jenner, Brian and Shirley DeLuce, Alex Morris, Paul Eyden, Len Hards, Kevin Keepin, Ted and Paul Sutton, Mark East and Howard (Howie) Hope.

We were joined on board by two other divers, Alec from Cambridge and Steve from Salt Lake City- (not a noted diving destination; in fact they don’t make weight belts heavy enough for conditions there). Our guides were Aussie Steve and his partner Malin from Sweden- (and yes, it’s a girl’s name). Malin’s mugshot on the printed information for the trip had suggested that there was Valkyrie blood in her veins, so we were relieved to discover that the photographer had simply made an unfortunate choice of angle when taking her picture.

Pandering to our needs was a crew of twelve- the captain, two engineers, three chefs (yes, you read that right!) three deck hands/dive deck assistants and three boat boys.

Ted, through the square window (Photo: Paul Sutton)

Our five-hour direct flight out of Gatwick left promptly at 11.00 on a Saturday, which left us relaxed enough to endure the chaotic arrival procedure that only Egypt seems capable of providing. This begins with a queue to buy your own visa entry stamp from a kiosk window and self-affix it. Then comes queue two to present the passport. Just as you automatically pocket your document as you leave the booth- what is this?- not six feet further on a further policemen checks that his colleague has, indeed, stamped the darned thing. As if that were not enough, we next pick up bus to take us the short distance to the military port where our boat is moored. We are again asked to have our passports ready for the official who will come on board at the gates. He does so. Is this the end? Of course not! He asks us to take our bags and passports into the secondary customs hall in the port complex for inspection. Is it surprising that once on board we are asked to surrender our documents to the guides for safekeeping. The poor exhausted passports deserved their own week of peace and quiet.

Within two hours of coming on board our clothes are in the cabins and our dive kit is set up ready for the morning dive. We are all famished and now sit down to a wonderful supper under the shy self-effacing smile of head chef Mamdur. Our guides ask how we feel about the first dive on the next morning. Had we not spent hours on the last bureaucratic stage of our journey we might have volunteered for a seven o’clock start on the Sunday, but we vote unanimously for a nine-o’clock ‘shout’ and pile off to our frozen cabins as the aircon’ has seemingly been on ‘HIGH’ all day in anticipation of our arrival. Ironically it’s the only thing that keeps some of us awake!

John R had already anticipated the obligatory ‘weight-check’ dive on a safe and shallow area of the Ras Mohammed National Park just a short steam from Sharm town, and dubbed it ‘Muppet Reef’. Gren had brought his new underwater digital video camera and his laptop with The Muppet Theme already downloaded ready to add as soundtrack.

Sure enough, within hours of surfacing the ever-capable Gren had put the two together and for the rest of the week he magically found time to download and order the scenes he took on every available dive. Now a fifteen-minute edit of the results can be seen on the club website if you have a broadband connection. If a picture’s worth a thousand words a movie’s worth a million. (Wow, I said that!). So good is the film that I am not going to report the dives longhand. Just take a look. You’d never guess that this is Gren’s first serious attempt at underwater filming. It’s stunning and gives a really good impression of the atmosphere on all the wrecks visited.

The late start and need to ‘move along’ meant that Sunday held only three dives whereas all the others Monday to Thursday offered four per day including a night dive each evening and two on the final Friday when the boat docked mid afternoon.

The week was offered as ‘Get Wrecked 2006′ or what is more formally described as ‘The Northern Wrecks Itinerary’, taking in- in order- The Dunraven, Carnatic, Ghiannis D, Chrisoula K , ‘The Barge’ and finally the unmissable, classic Thistlegorm. The only downside to the week lay in the wind levels which made the crossing of the Straits of Gubal stomach-churning in each direction. Somehow Gren managed to keep his feet and record the violent movements of the boat by filming the orange-juice levels in the clear Perspex cooler- very telling. Finally the Whirlwind moored up in the lee of the reef which had proven the downfall of so many great ships, but the wrecks themselves mostly needed to be visited by Zodiac, sometimes in quite demanding conditions. In between wrecks, or when the weather prevented safe access to them, there was always a stretch of reef to be accessed directly from the boat’s dive platform. On one such occasion an initially unpromising swim was suddenly interrupted by a magnificent eagle ray which swooped very close to the divers. Only yards further on a large turtle was found resting by a small pinnacle and shortly afterwards the divers saw what all agreed was the biggest moray eel that any of them had ever seen- and that included John who’s seen a fair few in his time.

As is obligatory on every dive holiday there had to be a running joke or two, and in this case it was provided by the two Pauls- Eyden and Sutton. Whereas most of us found the forty-degree heat a cause for celebration and T-shirts, Paul E amazed us all by retaining a blue fleece for the first few days. His love of the Police Service clearly means that he is a little lost without some article of bulky blue clothing to remind him of home. On the other hand Paul S, who is a keen outdoorsman, repaired to the top deck each evening with his sleeping-bag to brave the relentless wind. Each morning he would descend to the saloon for the dive briefing in tracksuit and bobble hat with his sleeping bag bundled under his arm to a chorus of ‘Big Issue! Big Issue!’ Both took their teasing with customary good grace.

Although few divers passed up any day diving, not all decided to take up all the night dives on offer. An alternative to sitting out on deck in the warm evenings was to watch a movie on the boat’s 42Ó plasma screen. There was quite a decent library of titles on offer. On two evenings guide Steve organised party games. The first consisted of a manic version of ‘Name That Tune!’ with forfeits, obliging rotating team captains to humiliate themselves with bursts of pole-dancing and other physical exertions. The evening was rounded off by a contest to see which half of the guests could sing the chorus of We Are the Champions loudest. Whatever- it was bloody loud. The second evening’s entertainment might best be described as ‘Blue Pictionary’, with players required to illustrate words and phrases normally found on toilet walls. Here Shirley and Cynthia revealed a disturbing ability to pre-empt the ‘artists’ with well-judged guesses. It’s certainly good to know just how far equality has taken women over recent years.

The last day (Friday) afternoon and most of Saturday was spent decompressing at the Eden Rock Hotel in Nama Bay, where the staff have clearly been specially selected for total cluelessness. Let me give you an example; there is a Pool Bar with a Perspex-fronted fridge displaying beers and Cokes. You request one from the attendant who first has to be lured away from umbrella-pitching duties elsewhere. Can you buy the bottle you can see? No. It is locked in the fridge with no key to release it. However, your selection is relayed to another member of staff who in turn has to be dug out of semi-retirement indoors. He disappears back into the building. Twenty minutes elapses. He subsequently reappears with no idea of who actually ordered the drink. The bottle is offered for general inspection. A claimant comes forward- but also another claimant whose order went in not eighteen, but twenty minutes ago. British Fair Play emerges. The beer is ceded to the Old Pretender. But what is this, now?! The very sight of a (rare) beer excites a new order from a body on a sun-lounger, and the process starts all over again!

Not surprising, then, with our limited lifespans on earth, that we sought out the pleasures of Nama Bay for Friday night. Twenty places were reserved for us on the roof at the popular Camel Bar, where, strangely, camels are refused entrance. Drinkers sit on low benches and cushions in the warm evening air three floors up with a backdrop of mountains behind, the street scene in the opposite direction and the World Cup at eighty decibels one floor below. John ordered a traditional Shishk or hubble-bubble pipe with his favourite apple-flavoured tobacco and generously shared the experience around. His sheer pleasure with the pipe confirmed that one would be a good thank-you gift for organising another very successful holiday. On Saturday morning Jemil and Cynthia disappeared into town to buy a smaller version than the bar’s metre-high monsters. John received it in the afternoon before we departed for the airport with typical shy pleasure- he never enjoys being thanked publicly.

And so to the airport, and a final Jolly Jape worth recounting. As we all pass through the security arch, Paul E sets off the alarm. Removal of his belt and small change do not remedy the situation. Paul is asked to put his shoes on the security belt alongside the arch, which is not advancing, but static. He still sets off the alarm. Intrigued, the security officer asks to see Paul’s hat, and- lo and behold- it has wire re-enforcement in the brim. Mystery solved! Smiles all around. Meanwhile- out of sheer devilment- Kevin K has whipped one shoe from the (still static) security belt, which is now activated, so that when Paul goes to reclaim his shoes- only one is there! Kevin has passed security with the ‘missing’ shoe up his jacket. Paul is convinced that the machine has ‘swallowed’ his shoe. Standing with one bare foot in a departure lounge- he tells the Egyptian customs-officers, who are perplexed and apologetic. One climbs inside the machine up to his waist. Sensing an International Incident looming- (this is real ‘bombing’ territory after all) – Cynthia hurries forward to explain that it is all a joke gone a bit out of hand. By this time two officers are half inside the scanner. Kevin holds up the ‘missing’ shoe. The other officers see the joke and laugh openly. Relief and laughs all round.

Another great week, John. Thanks again from all of us.