The Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch allows people from all walks of life to get involved on a part-time basis with the military. Mark Evans joined them on a training weekend at Horsea Island.
In the past, Sport Diver has run several features on military divers, but these were all specialised groups within the full-time armed services, so while it made for intriguing reading, the only way that anyone showing an interest could get involved with them was to ‘join up’ and spend months, if not years, working towards these areas of the military.
However, there is a way that you can get directly involved with a diving force in the military, without giving up your current career. Towards the end of 2012, I was contacted by Lieutenant Commander John Herriman, who is the Head of the Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch. Current reservists range from saturation divers to chefs. The Branch also has a large number of ex-military divers.
The branch provides Reservist divers to support the Royal Navy Clearance Diving Branch on some of their work, primarily within the UK but it could potentially be anywhere in the world.
John said: “We have a more-limited capability than our Regular counterparts because of the training burden, and therefore only dive to 30m maximum on open-circuit scuba equipment, albeit with full-face masks and bail-out cylinders.
“We can be involved in repairs to ships, underwater searches, surface cover, all manner of operations, and we do all undergo basic bomb disposal training as well.”
He added: “I had five divers mobilised supporting frontline maritime security operations for the Olympics in London, alongside their Regular counterparts.”
The Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch will accept recruits with any formal diving qualification (civilian or commercial) and a minimum amount of time in the water. To join the Branch candidates must first join the Royal Navy Reserves, which means passing some recruitment tests before joining a Royal Navy Reserve Unit, where they will meet other Reservists and get issued with basic uniform items. They will then go off and complete two weeks of basic training to get them into the routine of Royal Navy Reserve life. During this intensive two-week course they take part in team and physical activities and have classroom instruction before a final passing-out parade. Over the course of this phase, the aim is to help them develop physically and grow in confidence as a Reservist. After they have completed this initial basic training, candidates then do a diving acquaint weekend, where they receive briefings about the Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch and do some physical training to prepare them for a selection weekend, which aims to ensure that candidates are physically and mentally prepared for diving training. The weekends are hard work but easily achievable by anyone who is relatively fit and well-motivated.
Next up is a similarly full-on fortnight of basic military dive training. While those being taken on by the diving branch must have a diving qualification, the diving – and equipment used – by the military is slightly different to civilian scuba and kit, so over this period recruits will get to grips with Navy diving. Full-face masks, underwater communications, bail-out cylinders, switching blocks and surface-to-diver rope work are the norm. The next stage is a further two-week course that trains them in underwater search techniques, an important skill for when they work with Royal Navy Diving teams.
Finally, the Reservist divers head off for two solid weeks of basic bomb disposal training, during which they are shown how to recognise suspect devices, identify them and work with their Regular counterparts to get them safely defused or destroyed.
So, basically, eight weeks of training and you can be a member of the Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch. However, the decision to sign up as a Royal Navy Reserve is not something to be taken lightly. Although you’ll serve part-time as a Reservist, the Navy still expects a high level of commitment from you and it will take roughly two years to become a fully qualified diver. You’ll need to be passionate about your job as a Reservist, keep your fitness at a consistently high level, and commit to an aggregate of about 24 days of service each year. This is made up of 12 days of mid-week, evening and weekend training. Each two-hour period is the same as a quarter-day’s training, so doing four periods will give you a day of non-continuous training. You’ll also need to complete at least five training weekends a year to keep your currency as a military diver, and it’s quite likely this will be elsewhere in the UK, away from your home location. There is a further 12-day period of continuous training, but the Navy understands that civilian commitments may sometimes make this difficult, so some courses can be attended in two one-week blocks.
It is important to remember that although you’re a volunteer, the Royal Navy doesn’t expect you to do all this hard work for free. In fact, you’ll be paid for training nights and weekends, operations (at the same rate as Regular rank equivalents) and also get your travel expenses covered. You’ll also qualify for a tax-free bonus or ‘Bounty’ when you complete a year of training satisfactorily. This can be from £400 in your first year to more than £1,500 after five years.
Training to become a Reservist involves developing skills that can be used in your normal daily life, or transferred to your civilian job. You’ll learn basic first aid, firefighting and command, plus leadership and management skills. On top of that, you’ll naturally acquire self-motivation, self-discipline and the ability to work well within a team. All of these skills and attributes are a huge benefit to your current and future employers.
John invited me down to one of their training weekends at Horsea Island in Portsmouth. As I arrived, several of the Reservists had just started a punishing series of ‘circuits’, which involved leaping off the top of the training tower into the water, putting on their fins and swimming across the water in their drysuits, then climbing out and running around the buildings at the bottom of the lake back to the tower, and then doing it all over again. John said that it was a good way to get set up for the day’s training, getting the adrenaline flowing and the blood pumping.
Then the Reservists donned their scuba kit and – pairing off into two-man teams linked by a buddy line – began swimming lengths of the one-kilometre-long lake following the main jackstay. This brought back memories of doing this several times a day twice a month when myself and six other lunatics (and I use that word in its truest sense) were training for the world’s first – and still only – relay scuba crossing of the English Channel. So as I waited on the bottom next to the jackstay, camera in hand ready to shoot some photographs of the dive teams as they passed, I knew exactly what it felt like to be finning along that seemingly endless cable!
Next up was a training session for doing an underwater search. The divers all got into the water together and fanned out into a line, with a length of rope running from the diver at one end all the way along all the other divers and then up to a support inflatable. They then worked on moving as one unit over the seabed. This approach meant that an area could be systematically and thoroughly gone over, with no risk of divers separating or missing sections of the bottom.
As the day come to an end, I took the time to speak to several of the Reservists to find out what motivated them to join the diving branch, and what they enjoyed about being part of the Royal Navy Reserves.
Petty Officer (Diver) Mick Openshaw said: “I joined the Navy in 1977 but didn’t start diving until 1981, when I completed a Ship’s Diver course. I changed to Clearance Diver in 1983 until finishing my time as a Senior Military Diving Instructor at the Defence Diving School in 2005. This is when I transferred to the Royal Naval Reserves (RNR) to continue diving and use my expertise to help with recruiting and training the new diver recruits coming through within the RNR.”
James Standley said: “I had a former career as a commercial diver, now I’m a manager for a medical device company. The Reserve Diving Branch is a brilliant way to learn a new type of diving, keep fit and work with some great people.”
Simon Morgans said: “The thought of doing a Royal Navy underwater military mission is exciting. I knew if I attempted to enter the branch, the physical fitness results I would achieve would be enormous. Plus, I also get paid to do it, and the potential for world travel is there.”
Chief Petty Officer (Diver) Chris Dello is currently an engineer surveyor and a PADI Divemaster. He said: “I left the full-time Royal Navy after completing 13 year’s service as a Submariner/Ship’s Diver and completing my final draft as a Submarine Escape and Rescue Instructor at the Submarine Escape Training Tank (SETT) in Gosport. After leaving the Royal Navy in 2008, I very quickly realised that I missed Navy life. I missed being part of a highly motivated team that in arduous, challenging environmental conditions could effectively be able to adapt and overcome an array of problems in order to conclude in successful solutions. For these reasons alone I joined the RNR and have never looked back.”
And the Royal Navy Reserve Diving Branch is not just open to men. Tasha Senn stood out at the training day as the only woman in attendance. She said: “I joined because I was a bit bored of sitting at a desk all day at work and wanted a physical challenge. I found out they had recently opened the branch to women, so I decided to try become the first female diver, which I did!”