Diving Legends - Remembering Bret Gilliam

Diving Legends - Bret Gilliam

Photo: https://www.tdisdi.com/

It was the late 90s in post-communist Poland - the crack of dawn unveiled a brilliant autumn morning, with the sun casting a golden hue across the landscape, promising a perfect day for cold water diving. The drive was a tranquil one, a few hours on a near-deserted road in my Soviet-era UAZ Jeep, a relic from the Warsaw Pact that our scouting group snagged on the cheap. This old warhorse had seen many a troop during its time, but now it dutifully carried my dive gear, stirring up a flurry of golden leaves in its wake.

On reaching the beach, I unloaded my equipment and sat back to wait for my diving partner. My eyes were drawn to my brand-new Faber Twin 12s with Scubapro manifolded valves and my first wing, backplate and harness setup. All had arrived earlier that week, and today was its maiden voyage. There was a sense of pride in me - technical diving remained a mystery to many, but for my buddy and me, it was an exciting venture, a chance to explore depths beyond recreational limits. The setting was enchanting - a remote sandy beach, the crisp morning air, and, far into the distance, the haunting silhouette of Torpedownia (Torpedo Lab), a World War II relic, a deserted German torpedo launch station in the Baltic Sea, now serving as a training ground for local divers.

Torpedownia Babie Doly: Author Filip Wojciechowski WIKIPEDIAPhoto: Filip Wojciechowski ( Source: Wikipedia)

Nearby, a group of PADI divers were gearing up. One of them glanced at the manual in my hands and quipped, "Hey Dude, that stuff will get you killed. It's a devil gas." Despite PADI offering a nitrox course for a few years, there were still sceptics who viewed nitrox diving as hazardous. The book I was thumbing through was 'Nitrox, A User-Friendly Guide to Enriched Air Mixtures' by Technical Diving International, authored by Bret C. Gilliam and Jan Neal (1994). Gilliam, Tom Mount, and Dick Rutkowski were our heroes, the Argonauts of the modern day. We devoured their books and films and aspired to emulate them.

Bret Gilliam, one of the most influential scuba-diving pioneers and a successful entrepreneur, sadly passed away on the 8th of October 2023 in Maine at the age of 72. His diving exploits spanned most aspects of the sport. Unperturbed by deep-diving on air and mixed gas, he explored the Andrea Doria shipwreck off Nantucket, an area notorious for its strong currents and rough seas. He visited one of Britain's deepest wrecks, the Empress of India, at 86 meters below surface level. He was also a considerable force in cave diving and is highly respected among his peers.

Gilliam's illustrious career saw him join forces with Dick Rutkowski, Tom Mount, and Billy Deans on the board of directors for the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD) in the early 90s. During his stint, Gilliam also held the position of company vice president. Alongside his duties, he co-authored books and worked on the training materials for IANTD courses. Most technical diving materials, books and manuals are inspired and take wealth from these first publications.

However, perhaps Gilliam's most significant legacy lies in his instrumental role in popularizing mixed-gas diving. Recognising the potential and necessity for specialised training in this area, he co-founded Technical Diving International (TDI). Founded in 1994, TDI was the first of its kind, a training agency dedicated to offering courses and certification in technical diving, including the use of nitrox and other mixed gases. TDI's establishment was a groundbreaking moment in the history of scuba diving, opening up new frontiers for exploration and safety in the sport. Today, it stands as a testament to Gilliam's vision and pioneering spirit, continuing to train the next generations of technical divers and further expanding the horizons of underwater exploration.

But Bret Gilliam's contributions to the scuba diving industry were not only limited to pioneering diving techniques and authoring influential publications. He also played a pivotal role in the success of UWATEC, a leading manufacturer of dive computers. In the 90s, almost every diver's dream was to own a UWATEC Aladin, a testament to the company's success and appeal in the market. In 1996, Gilliam assumed the position of president and CEO of UWATEC USA. His visionary leadership and industry expertise were instrumental in guiding UWATEC's journey to becoming a dominant force in the market. Even today, a mere glance at the UWATEC Aladin sends me on a nostalgic journey, transporting me back to the early days of our technical diving careers. It sends back to that unforgettable day at the German Torpedo Station on the Baltic Coast, a tangible reminder of Gilliam's enduring legacy in the scuba diving industry.

Looking at Bret Gilliam's illustrious diving career, I am filled with nothing but profound respect and humility. His career in diving stretched across an astonishing fifty years, during which he is estimated to have conducted a staggering 19,000 dives. Gilliam was not only a renowned underwater photographer but also a highly accomplished writer. His literary contributions to the diving world are vast, with numerous books and around 1,500 articles on diving to his credit. From 1992 to 2000, Gilliam either published or edited several of the United States' leading diving magazines.

In addition to his diving exploits, Gilliam was highly skilled across several other disciplines. He was a certified aircraft pilot, deep submersible pilot, master mariner, and recompression chamber supervisor. His impressive roster of awards and recognitions is a testament to his contributions to the diving world. He was a member of the esteemed Explorer's Club, and from 2005 onwards, he was consecutively named a Legend of the Sea five times by the Beneath the Seas Foundation. His life and career serve as an inspiration for all divers, reminding us of the boundless opportunities that diving presents and the heights that can be reached with passion and perseverance.

Contemplating Gilliam's astounding success, it is evident that his business principles were remarkably simple yet profoundly impactful - treat customers as you would want to be treated, provide good value for their money, and never hesitate to take that leap of faith to expand a business. These principles, seemingly basic, have proven to be an effective formula for success and have deeply resonated with me throughout my journey. Looking at the business I am working in right now - it strives to emulate these values, fostering relationships with its customers built on trust, respect, and genuine care. We firmly believe in providing excellent value for every penny spent and are always looking for opportunities to improve our services. Gilliam's legacy continues to inspire and guide not only technical and recreational divers around the world but also us as we navigate the tides of the diving industry.

Torpedownia Babie Doly Panorama - Author Arttu79

Photo: Arek1979 (Source Wikipedia)

As my buddy and I practised valve drills at Torpedownia that day, we could hardly imagine the thrilling experiences technical diving had in store for us in the future. Definitely pioneers such as Bret Gilliam have transformed lives of many young people in Central Eastern Europe and around the World who seeked adventures and found them in technical diving.