Rod Macdonald Interview
BooksfromScotland.com: You’ve received much praise for The Darkness Below – it goes well beyond admiration for the content but to the quality of writing. Where do you feel this talent came from?
Rod Macdonald: Partly from 30 years working as a lawyer, partly from a lifetime of avid reading of all sorts of genres of books – and partly through a thorough knowledge from a lifetime’s diving, of the principles involved allied to a genuine interest in revealing the secrets of history lost in the depths. Words are really one of the main tools of a lawyer and you have to learn to use words to describe all sorts of situations in difficult scenarios; such as in court to a grumpy sheriff why your client committed the crime; why your client should be awarded certain damages or certain divorce settlements.
The first time you went out to dive from a boat was exciting to say the very least – your dive mentor got you through that though. Do you find yourself in the same position today when you help new divers out on their first dives?
Not any more. In my younger years I did mentor quite a few beginner/novice divers, but nowadays the thrust of my diving is about exploration of deep water shipwrecks at the edge of technical diving in depths way beyond the air diving range. This sort of diving requires specialist skills and experience - and complicated technical tools like closed circuit rebreathers as well as training in the use of mixed gases in place of air, which becomes narcotic at depth and more likely to bring on decompression sickness. I never encounter new divers on their first dives now.
Your first few dives really ignited a great sense of adventure and exploration for you. There’s obviously so much more to be discovered in the depths; what would be your ultimate lost wreck to find?
I don’t have any particular ultimate lost wreck in mind. To me, each wreck I find, from a small 125 foot long steam trawlers to a large 400 feet long steamship, has its own important story – often of hope, despair, loss or survival.
The Darkness Below is recommended not only for ‘dive junkies’, it might spark an interest in those who have not dived before – where can they pursue this new interest?
Diving is well structured nowadays and there is a commercial route you can follow to develop whichever skills you need. The starting point is your local dive shop or Sub Aqua Club. Often the best way to do it is with a dive shop for a simple Try Dive - where you get basic instruction and then are carefully taken on a try-dive in a pool or in a sheltered shallow site like an inland quarry or a shore dive in the sea. Once you’ve done that, if you feel diving is for you, then you can sign up for a Novice Diver course which will teach you the essentials to be let loose in shallow water. From there, there’s a whole raft of courses available that will improve your skills and allow you to do deeper, more adventuresome diving.
It’s interesting that you started with snorkelling in Florida and moved to the dark waters over here! Do you still prefer the excitement over the warm water and pretty fish?
UK diving is quite challenging – it’s dark, cold, sea conditions are often poor and there are difficult tides and currents to understand and deal with - and you have to master diving in a dry suit with its initially difficult buoyancy issues to contend with. If you can master UK diving then diving elsewhere in the world in clear, warm water in a wet suit becomes relatively easy. Warm water or cold water, it doesn’t bother me – I’m interested in what I’m diving to see – and it isn’t the pretty fish!
You provide a great mini history of diving as you’ve seen in develop; where do you think it’s going next?
There have been several quantum leaps in diving over the last 30 years whilst I’ve been diving. The introduction of warm drysuits and thinsulate undersuits, made it more comfortable. Single tanks gave way to twin sets and then to closed circuit rebreathers. Diving using compressed air, with its depth limitations and dangers gave way to safer diving to depth using helium and other mixed gases. Already there are technical divers pushing the envelope of what is possible with current equipment. 50 metres was for decades the absolute maximum depth that scuba divers would dive to – and that was pushing it at the time. Now technical divers are regularly diving to 100 metres – some as far as 160 metres – but these dives incur massive decompression stops on the ascent from the bottom – with divers taking 1,2 3 or even 5 hours to ascend. The next quantum leap will be a radical improvement in our rebreathers and our understanding of decompression, that will allow us to dive that deep more easily and shorten the decompression penalty.
What’s your next big dive?
We’ve a few undived “marks” offshore here on the north east to see if we can fit a dive in on before the end of the season. What will we find when we get down to them? As for next year, a few of the group I am with are heading up to Truk Lagoon, a speck of coral in the middle of the Pacific where the Japanese WWII merchant fleet was sunk as pay back fro Pearl Harbour in WWII.
Are you working on another book?
Yes – I’m proof reading the first edited Ms for a new coffee table style book, Great British Shipwrecks – A Personal Adventure which is due for release on 31 October – launch is the Scottish Sub Aqua Club’s Annual Conference at Eyemouth on 10 November. It covers around 40 of the most well known shipwrecks around the UK. Simultaneously I’m working on another book called Force Z Shipwrecks of the South China Sea – HMS Repulse & HMS Prince of Wales, which is due for release in March 2013. It covers the ill-fated sortie of Force Z from Singapore just before it fell in 1942. The brand new mighty battleships Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were both sunk by a fleet of 85 Japanese torpedo bombers – Churchill was stunned and Singapore, stripped of its naval cover, fell soon afterwards. It will be launched at OZtek in Sydney, the internationally acclaimed Australian Technical Diving Conference.
Thanks Rod and all the best with the launches of the forthcoming titles.