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What a Palaver!

December 26, 2014

Few people realise that the little boy of Hans Christian Anderson's story, who declared that the Emperor had no clothes, was hung, drawn and quartered. Sometimes there's a conspiracy of silence and you'd often do better not to disturb it.
My introduction to the readers of Diver Magazine was a gradual one but by 1993 I had become a regular. The publication was a gentlemanly affair in those days. With no real rival to speak of, the publisher had a free hand to do what he liked but in fact became beholden to the BSAC, the club that had given him a contract that was almost a license to print money in those days.
His Technical Editor was among the BSAC committee that had awarded him the contract so what he said held sway. It didn't seem to matter that the man was also drawing a salary from a well-known manufacturer whose products also became de-rigeur in diving clubs. However, he was getting old and curmudgeonly and soon I, in mere middle-age, was able to replace him.
I saw the monopoly afforded to the magazine as an advantage in that it could afford to offend advertisers if need be, if it was to the advantage of its readers and I believed that building the readership beyond club membership was the secret to a successful future.
The proprietor asked me to explain to him what PADI was. I did. He was obviously shocked. He hadn't heard of PADI but even in those days it was certifying more new divers with British addresses than the club was enrolling new members. Once the proprietor came to understand that there was a future beyond the cosy confines of the club circulation he decided to give me a free hand to write features that might have been a little more controversial and informative than in the years before.
I started comparing regulators side-by-side underwater. There were some shocks among the results. Lawyer's letters began to arrive. We weathered the storm. The proprietor told me to carry on. Advertisers withdrew their advertising revenue but with nowhere else to go, they were soon back.
Next I did an in-water side-by-side comparison test of seven popular dive computers. I went to Sharm el Sheikh where there was deep water directly off the shore and enlisted the help of Sarah Woodford, who was working as the local rep for Regal Diving at the time. (Sarah still lives in Sharm.)
The plan was to take the dive computers, strapped together on a rig, down to 50m deep, put them into decompression-stop mode and see how they differed in the information they dispensed during the ascent.
It's impossible to remember fast changing displays so key to the operation was the facility to take pictures of the displays at crucial moments whilst under water.
Alas, during the initial moments of the descent, it was discovered that the camera had gone faulty. We retreated back to the beach and Sarah went off to find an alternative underwater camera.
It was more than three hours later that we able to get back in the water and by this time all the computers had recovered from their brief dip in the sea and their displays were clear.
In those days computer algorithms varied widely. Nobody seemed to know what was correct. One particular computer gave hours of no-stop time when compared with the others before flipping almost instantly into a very long deco requirement indeed. There was no way we had enough air to accommodate that.
The whole exercise, including the aborted initial dip, was reported accurately in the magazine. My whole MO was to tell the unvarnished truth to readers despite regular howls of protest in those days from manufacturers.
I then received an ocean of criticism from readers who said that I had broken a cardinal rule and should not have done a deeper dive second. It was if they were saying that when I discovered the camera wasn't working, I should have gone down beyond 50m deep so that my second dive to 50m was shallower. I preferred to turn back before I'd loaded much nitrogen. History bears me out that I was right but that was not what it said in the BSAC manual at the time.
More seriously, the manufacturer of the computer that was so far out of step with the others that it was almost laughable decided to threaten to sue me. It was only when it occurred to its Chairman that the other manufacturers would be enthusiastic witnesses in court on my behalf (they were hardly going to admit that their algorithms were dangerous) that it backed off.
So it seemed I had upset both readers and some advertisers. They would have all hung, drawn and quartered me if they could. I was an irritation to what had been a rather cosy relationship with the club's magazine.
Meanwhile, those who bought that out-of-step brand were often seen leaving them hung on ropes at six metres deep  under the boat to decompress and to clear their deco requirement whilst the owners ate lunch on board.
I'm pleased to say that the failure to sell as many units as it would have liked  encouraged that manufacturer to eventually offer a different algorithm with its computers and all the different computers available in dive stores twenty years later are much more in agreement with what will keep the user safe - although none can legally guarantee it.
Equipment testing is not as exciting now as it was!
Happy Diving - John Bantin

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