There’s something rather wonderful happening in Somerset - and there’s a sentence you don’t see that often. I’m allowed to say that by the way, as I come from Somerset, and it’s a little known law of journalism that you are allowed to take the micky out of the place you hail from.
Anyway, I digress (which in the third sentence of the first paragraph of an article is a record even for me). The miracle that is occurring is a group of enthusiasts pulling a diving brand up by it’s boot straps, breathing life into a piece of kit that was seen to be on the way to the knackers yard. But it’s more than that, it’s a triumph of optimism over expectation, it’s doing something that flies in the face of logic and reason, but doing it nonetheless because of a passion and a conviction. It’s the sort of thing that had it appeared on “Dragons Den” would have resulted in the contributors sobbing uncontrollably on Evan Davies shoulder having just withered under the gimlet gaze of Duncan Bannatyne, so ludicrous was the initial scale of the ambition.
I have a particular interest in this story, as I have a particular interest in the bit of kit involved. The VR Sentinel was the rebreather that I used to film the Dive Mysteries series in 2013, and I loved it. It had it’s quirks, but the basic body was sound, and the “breathe” (as us ruggsy tuggsy rebreather divers say - the breathe being the ease of taking a breath) was spectacular. I worked that unit (oh yeah, and we call our dive kit a “unit” - pretty cool eh?) very hard, as a newish rebreather diver pushing my training and experience to their limits to make the series. There were a few points when my breathing rate rattled along, when I was in unfamiliar places multi-tasking, and yet the Sentinel sat reassuringly on my back delivering a comforting whoosh of air and / or trimix whenever required. The fact that the scrubber was the size of a wheelie bin, and the hoses the diameter of a Kazakhstan oil pipeline really helped too. I loved that unit.
But then all manner of things happened behind the scenes, and the Sentinel fell out of favour. I’m not going into the politics here by the way, but suffice to say that I think it was an unfortunate series of events, and don’t particularly feel that anyone “sold out” as has sometimes been said. The fates conspired to make the Sentinel economically unviable for many owners, and it looked as if all that development, all that craftsmanship, and all that effort and time would be consigned to the scrap heap.
And then a little miracle took place in a little room in a wee building in a quiet county. Martin and Amy Stanton took over Vobster Quay in 2008, and through a combination of quiet drive, grim determination, hard work, and considerable marketing flair created a vibrant inland dive site. If you haven’t been I urge you to go - fun, friendly, accessible and full of interesting bits of kit to crawl over in the lake. As it happened Martin was also a fan of the Sentinel, and decided to breathe life back into the unit (see what I did there?).
This has not been easy, and is very much an ongoing process. When I visited last week, I found Martin in what can only be described as his laboratory, up to his elbows in electronics and exciting pieces of plastic. I had bought my own Sentinel in for attention - well, perhaps “attention” doesn’t really do it justice. If it had been a hospital casualty unit, and my rebreather a patient, it would have been run in by several panicking paramedics, at least one of whom would have been vigorously pumping it’s chest whilst shouting “Stay with me, come on, don’t go into the light.” There would have been a priest waiting at the bedside, and weeping relatives in a room nearby. In short, my rebreather was knackered.
But Martin seemed completely unfazed.
“Just pop it over there” he said, “and I’ll show you round.”
What followed was a wondrous display of ingenuity and creative vigour. He proudly held up bits of moulded plastic, toggle switches, batteries and neat electronics - all painstakingly developed either on site or under contract by him and his team. The only faint glimmer of disappointment throughout was that at no point did he say “Will you pay attention 007” in a grumpy voice, but maybe next time.
The enthusiasm of Martin is commendable, infectious, and heart warming. It’s also highly effective, and the Sentinel has risen Lazarus-like from the ashes of the last two years. From a personal perspective it is particularly satisfying, as I’m about to plunge back into my rebreather career with renewed gusto. I shall keep you posted, but the plan is to use it for an expedition to Newfoundland in May, and possibly to explore some wrecks closer to home in the Summer. Time will tell, but for now I’m just particularly grateful to an enthusiastic man in a small room who decided to single handedly save a marvellous bit of dive gear. Martin, take a bow. Done it? Good. Now get back to work - that rebreather of mine might take a while I think."