Launching the RIB in Hayle

I begin a season's serious UK diving with that itchy exploration feeling for some of Cornwall's out-of-the-way offshore granite reefs. I want something beyond all the out-of-season odds and ends, something new and something wild.

The Runnel Stone - I know it well. The same goes for Wolf Rock, Longships and all the small rocks such as Sharks Fin between Longships and the Brysons.

The Seven Stones helped to scratch the itch a few years ago and there is more to see. The Scilly Isles certainly scratched the itch last time I was there, but I crave novelty!

I suspect that anything and everything has been dived in the past, when commercial crawfish diving was rampant in the 1960s and early 70s and gave divers such a bad name among Cornish fishing villages. But that was then and this is now. I am sure that local divers visit all such places every now and then - I would.

So while something genuinely new is not realistic, Ill settle for something exciting thats new to me.

From the shelf beside my desk I pull out the chart for the area north of Cape Cornwall. Ten miles straight out from Pendeen Light, tiny blobs of blue on the otherwise white paper are marked as breaking in strong gales. Bann Shoal, rising from 50m-plus to 14m. Ive never heard of it, but it gets me thinking.

Theres nothing else in the area that comes that shallow, but working south-west from Bann Shoal there are other rocks coming up to twenty-something metres. Then, 6 miles from Cape Cornwall and 7 miles from Pendeen, there is the larger area of Cape Cornwall Bank, rising to 25m from a 40m seabed. I look carefully. Bank could mean sand, but the chart says R for rock.

I mention it to Ben Slater of Lands End Diving. I suspect that he will be up for it as he has earlier told me that his gills are drying out - too much time skippering the RIB and not enough time under water.

I think Ben will get back to me with: How about later in the season when the weather is more dependable

His gills must be parched. He gets back with: The tides should be OK Monday week.

Leading up to the dive, it blows violently from the north every day right through to Sunday night. Then it goes quiet. An early-morning text from Ben says were on. I cant believe that the weather gods are smiling on my first serious UK dive of the season.

Bens plans are thorough. Being at Hayle by 8am gives us an hour to launch into a descending tide, move out across the sandbank and make the 15-mile journey to drift Cape Cornwall Bank on the ebb tide.

Then off north we go to Bann Shoal, to laze about until slack water. The tide should be high enough to get back into Hayle late in the afternoon.

There are only four of us on the RIB; its less than half-full. With none of the usual diver faff, were away ahead of schedule, pottering out of the harbour by 8.30.

Wind chill

The throttle pushes forwards and we are soon up to 20 knots - about half-speed, but economical, comfortable and with not too much wind chill.

Even so, hats are pulled down across ears and thermal gloves worn. It may be a bright clear day, but it hasnt had a chance to warm up yet.

The RIB planes effortlessly across gentle waves from the west. Some 45 minutes later, Cape Cornwall Bank comes up clearly on the sounder. The feared groundswell just isnt there. One of the advantages of a north wind is that any sea that builds up doesnt have the whole Atlantic Ocean behind it. If the gales had been westerly, that would have been a different matter.

We track up and down, finding the ridgeline and the shallowest point, then drifting and using the GPS to gauge the current. It appears to be just 1 knot, and there are no signs of overfalls. The bad news: it looks grainy. The spring bloom has arrived, at least on the surface.

Ben and I roll in upcurrent from the ridge, descending fast. With near-perfect surface conditions, our plan is to hit the bottom and then assess whether to pop a delayed SMB and drift, or try to hold our own and leave the delayed SMB to the end of the dive.

There are also Bens bubbles for the RIB to follow, although none from me, as I am on a rebreather.

Its the sort of strategy that can work only with just the two of us diving. More than one pair of divers in the water, and surface cover from the RIB would be impossible.

As we descend, visibility clears to a grainy 6-7m and I can soon see the reef flowing by below. Its well over 1 knot and stronger than I can swim against, so the bottom current must be faster than at the surface. Ben and I glance at each other to synchronise, then each of us grabs hold of a crack running across the granite. Will this be a drift or a flagpole dive

The seabed consists of ledges of fractured granite between 30 and 36m, split by gullies of sand and the odd higher block of rock. We can work from shelter to shelter without losing too much ground to the current. Its diver telepathy in action - a smile and a nod, and we mutually agree to plan A.

Marine life consists of clumps of hydroids and dead mens fingers, small patches of jewel anemones and plenty of ross coral (a bryozoan). Its not a solid carpet but perhaps a healthy 50% coverage, with bare granite showing through in places.

Bendy arms

A rock provides enough shelter to free both my hands and allow me to start taking photographs. The shelter isnt only for me - I need enough to keep my camera strobes on bendy arms in position long enough for me to get a shot or two.

There is no room for Ben, so he has to find a nearby crack and hang on tight.

Our next stop is a shallow bowl, with just enough room to get down on the sand and below the current. We work round the edges of it, then make another cross-current dash to

get slightly shallower for the next scrap of shelter. Our plan is a no-stop dive, so 20 minutes later my delayed SMB is on its way up and we have a few minutes drifting before starting our ascent.

The line tugs awkwardly until 15m, when it goes slack and vertical. There is a shear in the current of perhaps 45 - it went unnoticed on the way down.

We arrive at Bann Shoal with a good 90 minutes to wait for the 1.30 slack. There are a couple of small fishing boats in the area, but no other divers. None of us are surprised.

We have time to potter about with the echo-sounder, eat sandwiches, enjoy the warming sunshine and unzip drysuits for that all-important use of the transom and A-frame.

Bann Shoal is only 6 miles from Cape Cornwall Bank, but as soon as we begin our descent it becomes obvious that visibility is quite a bit better than on our first dive, though still not perfect.

Its a classic Cornish offshore reef, an irregular stepped granite pyramid with jumps of 3-5m.

The drop point is perfect. I hover over a flat summit at 18m, then go over the edge to a wall of jewel anemones.

Wall-coverings vary. Round a corner, the psychedelic jewel anemones give way to hydroid flock. Then, around the next corner, its sponge-embossed.

Its a fitting theme for the charts hydrographic survey, dating from the 1970s. I count us lucky to benefit from modern data in the GPS/plotter/ sounders built in chart. A mile further east and the data is lead-line and sextant from 1878 or earlier.

Wrasse are teasing me, curious but not curious enough. I gaze across a ledge at a formation of big pollack lined up into the barely noticeable current. I loiter bubble-free, hoping to get among them, then, having wasted five minutes, eventually give up and settle for a tompot blenny.

The journey back in is gentle. We have plenty of time for a stop at Pendeen, where John takes Will for a shallow dive on the wreck of the Scheldt, a 707 ton steamship that ran ashore in 1890. Will is fairly new to diving and the two of them have been looking after the boat while Ben and I dive.

I bask in the spring sunshine, only slightly regretting that I havent joined them when John surfaces to report that all sorts of new bits have been uncovered by the storms.

Heading back to Hayle, its my turn to drive the RIB. Its a task I am least suited to when we get to the sandbar, and the tide has risen only just far enough for the RIB to cross. The course of the channel constantly changes, but Ben points me safely through the marks.

My itch is well and truly scratched. Cape Cornwall Bank was good, and Bann Shoal is up there with all the famous offshore reefs, only a little more exclusive.

But what's in a name? The stretch of the chart surveyed in 1977 from Bann Shoal to Cape Cornwall shows plenty more un-named rocks rising 10m, 20m and even 30m from the seabed. And Im sure the trend would continue further round, if only the survey was more recent than 1878.

Perhaps some of these rocks really have never been dived before.

Ross coral and dead men’s fingers at Cape Cornwall Bank
a sandy gully provides some shelter from the current
a sandy gully provides some shelter from the current
covering up with sunblock at mid-day
Anemones on the sides and hydroids on the top of a granite outcrop on Bann Shoal
A canyon through the reef provides enough shelter for a few clumps of dead mens fingers to hang on.


GETTING THERE: Follow the M5 to Exeter, then the A30 to Hayle. The slip is before the commercial quay by the harbour office. DIVING: Ben Slater, 01736 787567, WHEN TO GO: Bill Bowen runs a compressor on the pier at Penzance, 01736 752135. ACCOMMODATION: Ben can arrange accommodation with local B&Bs. There are also many camping and static caravan sites in the area. Contact Penzance Tourist Information for a list, 01736 362207.. FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1149, Pendeen to Trevose Head. Ordnance Survey Map 203, Lands End, The Lizard and The Isles of Scilly.