Soaring cliffs with the Old Man of Hoy on the right

ITS MY LAST EVENING IN STROMNESS, at the end of 10 days diving the wrecks of Scapa Flow and thereabouts. Im passing a few hours in the Ferry Inn, having dinner with fellow- divers and only a drop of Guinness, because I have to drive to Kirkwall later and catch Northlinks overnight ferry to Aberdeen.
I cant do a strong Scottish accent, spoken or written, so you will just have to imagine it at the appropriate places.
Dont forget, the name is Ron, not Eddie like some magazines would have it, says Ron, long-serving first mate and crew on the Jean Elaine, a half-finished pint in hand. He is talking about less reputable magazines than DIVER, I should add. And tell them about the soup, he insists.
Ron has a valid point. In my experience, all good boats can put you on the good dives. What distinguishes a boat in the overall diving holiday experience is the sum of all the little things, or in the case of Rons home-made soups, the not-so-little things.
The soups are big and wholesome. Its not the kind of soup you could ever drink through a straw.
I arrived in the Orkneys a couple of days early with some other diving in mind. Arriving before the usual Scapa Flow week starts would give me a chance to dive the blockships on the Churchill barriers with Kieran from Scapa Scuba, then some Admiralty trawler wrecks out of Kirkwall that Kevin Heath is researching.
By the time I get back to Stromness and board Jean Elaine, the other divers making up the mix-and-match group I am joining for the week have arrived.
Kit, from big singles to twin-sets and side-mounts, is all set up ready for the morning dive, except for that of one diver who is off hiring a wetsuit and BC. He flew to the Orkneys, but his dive kit flew elsewhere.
The general consensus on dive site is the Köln (Wreck Tour 13, March 2000), the most intact of the cruiser wrecks in the German Grand Fleet. The other divers are all first-timers, Scapa virgins. With the seabed at 36m and most of the dive between 25 and 32m, its a nice safe start with something for everyone.
For me, its a chance to check some last-minute details for the upcoming Wreck Tour book, and take some up-to-date photographs.
Back on board Jean Elaine, Ron is handing out mugs of his chunky vegetable soup. All the Scapa virgins are happy, or maybe I should say ex-virgins now. Across the board the Köln has met or exceeded their expectations.
Like most divers who make the pilgrimage to the far north of Scotland, until the first dive was safely completed there was some suspicion about whether the diving would live up to Scapa Flows awesome reputation.
With a disparate group, there was also the question of whether others in the group would all agree about where we should dive. After an easy afternoon dive on the F2, a German destroyer from World War Two, we retire to the pub for a swift one. One of the divers from Swansea confesses his fear regarding the journey north: I didnt come all this way to dive a f***ing reef.
He neednt have worried.

ITS NOT JUST ANY WEEK IN STROMNESS. Its Shopping Week. I didnt plan it that way, but by some twist of fate, every time I come here seems to overlap with Shopping Week.
I still havent worked out what its all about, except that residents and visitors alike spend a bit more time in the pub than usual - to listen to the live music, of course. Over the week, we get everything from country and western to bagpipes, though fortunately not both at once.
Rons soup gets a bit more aggressive, with a strong mulligatawny. The diving gets a bit more aggressive with a battleship, the Kronprinz Wilhelm (Wreck Tour 33, November 2001).
All three of the remaining battleship wrecks in Scapa Flow are of the same König class, and the Kronprinz Wilhelm is widely regarded as the best dive of the set. It has a bit more of an angle to the inverted hull, leaving the main guns accessible in the gap between deck and seabed.
I prove this to myself the hard way by staying on board Jean Elaine. When the others have returned from the Kronprinz Wilhelm and are making a headstart on the soup, skipper Andy Cuthbertson drops me in on the Markgraf. This is identical to the others, except that it is tilted the other way, and flatter to the seabed. I wanted to see if it was worth sketching for a Wreck Tour.
It is 20 or more years since I last dived the Markgraf. I soon remember why. Its a big wreck, but with all the interesting bits well buried its not worth the effort of further dives. For those wanting to dive a battleship, Kronprinz Wilhelm remains the best choice.
The opportunity to split our diving across more than one wreck is one of the benefits of Scapa Flow. With no slack water to worry about, Andy can fit an extra wreck after the first dive.
I take advantage of this again on a day of mushroom soup, diving the Karlsruhe, the most broken of the cruiser wrecks, instead of the more intact Brummer that the others dive first (Wreck Tour 46, December 2002).
By now everyone has given up bringing lunch. A few chunks of bread to dunk in Rons mushroom soup is more than enough, especially when he also bakes a cake. Though we cant rely on cakes, as we can the soup, it all depends on how much time Ron has in the evening for cooking, and whether his children get to the cake first.

ANOTHER ADVANTAGE OF THE LACK of tide is that we can have a nice civilised 9am start to the day. No getting up ridiculously early to catch slack water. Some boats start their day a little earlier and others later, so the most company with which we share a wreck is one other boat, despite the number of charter boats that operate from Stromness.
Pubs in the evening are a different matter. There are so many divers in town that I keep on bumping into people I know: I didnt know you were here!
I didnt know you were here either.
Whose round is it
After a few evenings, it seems I know as many locals as visiting divers. Some are already old friends. I have to stay focused on limiting my Guinness intake and getting to bed soon after midnight, to ensure that I stay fit to dive.
To get the tides right for the wreck of the James Barrie (Wreck Tour 54, August 2003), a trawler in Hoxa Sound, skipper Andy just waits for the right day. Pea and ham soup day, as it turns out. Another boat is already there, so with a long slack predicted we wait until their divers have been in for 20 minutes before starting our dive.
While the James Barrie is big for a trawler, its not big enough to absorb divers as a cruiser can, especially with the good visibility of the sound.
We stay in the area for a second dive, Jean Elaine loitering below the cliffs of Hoxa Head. Puffins splash about us as Andy and Ron fish for mackerel and pollack. I ask whether the wall continues under water, and what the marine life is like. One of the best scenic dives in the area, Im told. Mutterings of I didnt come all this way to dive a f***ing reef are audible in the background.
They neednt have worried, the plan sticks with the wreck of UB116.
UB116 tried to sneak into Scapa Flow in 1918, was detected by induction cables and hydrophones laid across Hoxa Sound, then destroyed by the controlled minefield.
The wreck was subsequently moved to its current location off Flotta and the torpedoes on board detonated in a controlled explosion by the navy. So controlled that half the windows on the island were broken.
If someone hadnt told me, I would have had a hard time working out that this wreck was once a U-boat. An old battery gives a false clue; it has the dog-end of a rope attached where it had been dropped as a shot weight.
Some curved sections of pressure hull hint at the identity, but it is not until I find the skeleton of the aft hydroplanes that the wreck becomes an obvious U-boat.
Having grown accustomed to a regular and civilised start time, an early departure comes as a shock for those staying ashore.
But Im on board, stir as the engine rumbles to life and sleep on as the Jean Elaine heads out of the Flow to the wreck of the motor vessel Manina, some 40 miles west at Sule Stack.
Its a long day, so Ron treats us to a substantial mixed-bean soup for lunch, then on the way back an even more substantial supper of spicy sausage and bacon pasta, as we watch the Old Man of Hoy shine in the warm evening sunlight.

THIS FAR NORTH, the evenings are long. The opposite applies in winter.
Yet for UK diving, Scapa Flow is reputedly a good winter destination. Even in mid winter there is enough daylight for a couple of dives to be fitted in. The Flow itself is sheltered, so the wind has to be pretty strong before diving becomes impossible.
There are no rivers, so visibility stays good. The boats are all big, with plenty of cabin space to hide from the weather.
Jean Elaine has a kit room built alongside the wheelhouse, where all the heat from the engine, compressor and generator makes short work of drying damp undersuits and provides a warm sheltered area in which to dress.
As the rest of the country suffers a week of floods, we barely make use of it to hide from a light shower or two - except for one diver, who mistakenly packed a sieve instead of a drysuit.
Our diver in the rental wetsuit is made of stronger stuff. When his kit catches up with him halfway through the week, he unpacks - a better wetsuit.
By the end of the week, the tides have moved round far enough to make the Burra Sound blockships viable as a second dive. We start the day at the usual time, with the first dive evenly split between the Kronprinz Wilhelm and the Dresden, then move on to Burra Sound while slurping mugs of Rons lentil, carrot and tomato soup.
As the current slacks, Andy drops me on the stern of the Doyle. Others opt for the simpler dive of the Tabarka, where slack begins a few minutes later.
The bow of the Doyle is just upcurrent from the Tabarka, so after 30 minutes I drift downcurrent and drop inside the second wreck, playing wreckarazzi in the spectacularly clear water as I ambush other divers with my camera.
Every dive we do is a wreck, though colourful reef is the setting for some of them, and many of the wrecks are colourful reefs in themselves.
I am even buzzed by a seal hunting pollack on the Karlsruhe.
I didnt come all this way to dive a f***ing reef has become a bit of a catchphrase, so much so that the Swansea contingent turn up to the pub with it printed on T-shirts.
While I agree with the sentiment, its another T-shirt slogan that I think sums it all up, especially during Shopping Week: Stromness - a quiet little drinking town with a bit of a diving problem.

the breech end of a gun on the Köln
cooling fins suggest that these rectangular boxes on the F2 were part of the radio equipment beneath the wheelhouse
this may be part of a high- speed cable-handling system, possibly fitted during the F2s conversion to torpedo recovery
preparing to dive aboard Jean Elaine
ammunition locker for the Kölns forward guns
Secondary gun barbette on the Markgraf.
A Stromness hotel provides an after-dive meeting place.
Cut-outs above the deck at the stern of the Karlsruhe.
One of a pair of forward gun turrets.
A seal hunts pollack above the wreck.
A small cuddy guards steps down to the cabins at the stern of the James Barrie
Aft hydroplanes on the UB116.
Prop on the Doyle blockship.
Getting into the Doyle on a rebreather
GETTING THERE: Northlink ferries operates services from Scrabster to Stromness and Aberdeen to Kirkwall,, 0845 6000 449.
DIVING & AIR: Scapa Flow Charters operates the boats Jean Elaine and Sharon Rose. Air from on-board compressors is included and nitrox and trimix are available on board,, 01856 850879
ACCOMMODATION: Sleep on board or stay ashore in a local hotel or B&B. Orkney Islands Tourist Board, 01856 872856,
FURTHER INFORMATION:Admiralty Chart 35, Scapa Flow and Approaches. Ordnance Survey Map 6, Orkney - Mainland, Ordnance Survey Map 7, Orkney - Southern Isles. Dive Scapa Flow, by Rod Macdonald. The Wrecks of Scapa Flow, by David M Ferguson. The Naval Wrecks of Scapa Flow, by Peter L Smith. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles Vol 4, Scotland, by Richard & Bridget Larn. The Wrecks of Scapa Flow, by Lawson Wood.