Wave goodbye to any physical limits


Water is synonymous with freedom for many people with disabilities, writes LORNA SIGGINS

‘IF YOU develop a love for the water, you never lose it.” These are the words of Gary Allen, who has defied the concept of “confinement” in a wheelchair by qualifying as an open water scuba-diver.

In fact, not only has Allen secured his PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certificate, but he is also a proficient sailor. Coming from an inland county like Roscommon, he knows that is some achievement – but all the more so, given his physical disability.

However, water is synonymous with freedom for anyone in his situation, he explains. “It’s the medium where our physical constraints can be somewhat minimised by the lack of gravity,” he says. “However the sensation of absolute weightlessness which I experienced on my first scuba-dive is something that I don’t think I will ever forget.”

Allen was diagnosed with spina bifida as a child, and wore callipers and used crutches until he was about 12 years old. After that, he was in a wheelchair, but never felt it was an issue.

“It is all about your attitude,” he says. More than four years ago, he and his wife Linda heard about a “come and try it” weekend hosted by the Irish Disabled Sailing Association in Kinsale, Co Cork.

The couple travelled down from Co Galway, where they live, and Allen loved it – Kinsale having built a reputation for facilitating sailing for all abilities. Back home, he was introduced to PJ Mealy of Galway Bay Sailing Club, who urged him to continue his new found interest in the sport.

Allen and Mealy acquired a second-hand Challenger trimaran, designed for use by people with disabilities, and made it seaworthy. In 2007, Allen joined able-bodied trainees on his first Irish Sailing Association (ISA) dinghy training programme. Three years later, he is the club’s vice-commodore.

He had always been intrigued by scuba-diving, and attended a talk in Galway given by Scotsman Fraser Bathgate, who took up the activity after he was paralysed in a climbing accident at the age of 23. Bathgate subsequently qualified as the world’s first wheelchair user/diving instructor.

Also at the talk was Charlie Brehony of the Galway Dive School, who had invited Bathgate to train several members of the Galway Dive Club, associated with his school.

“When Charlie told me about his plans I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give it a go,” Allen says. His first test or “try” dive was in Leisureland swimming pool in January 2009, and there were several more before his first coastal descent in Galway Bay.

“It was quite funny at first because I’m pretty active, and so I have very big lung capacity,” Allen recalls. “It meant that they were working with all sorts of combinations of weights to get me to sink! For the first little while, I had to concentrate hard on breathing normally. When it came to making my way down to the deep end, the effort involved made me forget about the breathing – to the point where being underwater seemed completely natural.

“The guys even produced a frisbee which we started to throw around. The dive was to take two hours, and I really did think the clock had to be wrong when I saw that those two hours were nearly gone. I knew for sure then that diving was for me,” he says.

“Surprisingly enough, for me anyway, the skills you need to learn in scuba-diving are pretty much identical for everyone, no matter what your ability or disability. Some skills need a bit of tweaking but that’s about it.”

It had been a long time since Allen had been in the sea, and his first coastal dive was a revelation. “So much to see,” he says of the rich marine life in Galway Bay. “Never for a second did I think I’d have a little hermit crab crawling over my hand while I was in his neighbourhood!

“That is a point worth stressing. It really struck me while I was in the sea that I was in their territory now, and the fragility of that is so obvious when you see it up close. The marine environment is something we must respect and protect.”

Allen says Brehony’s instruction had much to do with his progress. “There was one sea dive where my mask filled up with water, but I knew that as long as I kept breathing I’d stay alive. That’s what the training does. Charlie took me up gradually, and it was no big deal. He’s got that sort of temperament.”

Brehony is equally enthusiastic about his student, who secured his PADI certificate just this autumn. “It was a two-way street for me, as I learned a lot in terms of adjusting details to help Gary reach his goal. I’ve enjoyed watching him progress from a complete novice to a qualified open water diver,” he says.

Brehony and Allen recently dove on Loo rock off the Co Clare coast. “There was a slight choppy surface with a moderate force three westerly breeze,” Brehony recalls of the trip from New Quay.

“We kitted up and dropped over the side of our dive boat, and after a few moments getting settled we descended down the anchor line to five or six metres – in water temperature of 15 degrees.”

Teeming with marine life, the sea floor off the rock is a bed of kelp- covered limestone ledges. The pair descended to 12m. “Gary was not happy when I told him it was time to turn around and head back to the anchor and ascend,” Brehony says.

Galway Dive School hopes to attract more people with disabilities to take up the pursuit, and Brehony is both a master scuba-dive trainer and an accredited instructor with Disabled Divers International (DDI – ddivers.org). The school can be contacted at divegalway.com, or e-mail galwaydiving@eircom.net.