Brian Winstone – Founder of the University Underwater Club

I remember my brother Brian coming home and telling me that he had been talking to 2 others in the University café and that between them they had decided to call a meeting to see if there was enough support to make it worth setting up the club. This meeting was held and resulted in the formation of the club. Thus, whether my heading is totally correct, I am not sure but I know that Brian was very much a part of the set-up and the first few years of the club.

When Brian was fourteen our parents bought a yacht and we went away almost every weekend from October to May plus Christmas and Easter and any other holidays we could find. Then one weekend Mum invited the owners of the local wool shop to come away for the weekend and they introduced us to the underwater world.

This introduction was rather different from that which most of you would know, as there were no rubber suits and it was the norm to wear two or three woollen singlets and jerseys and take a couple of spoonfuls of glucose in the hope this would help you stay in the water longer. At this time I was ten and I was suitably decked out and an aqualung, consisting of two ex-World War II CO2 steel bottles with a Seibe-Gorman valve, was put on my back and I was then pushed out of the dingy into a heap of long kelp. If I ventured too close to the surface I was pushed down with an oar until I had become more venturesome and this was no longer needed. During the weekend Brain was given a more thorough introduction, being pushed out of the dingy and taken down to 30 or 40 feet and given a much wider view of the underwater world than I was and the net result was that he was hooked.

The next step was that our friends helped us to make hand spears and then a year or two later wooden handled spear guns with two rubbers, making them far superior to the guns many were using at this time. We also made lead belts using Mum’s gem iron tray as a mould for the weights.

We had a lot of fun and were greatly blessed in having the yacht, as we were able to dive in many places that were inaccessible to most people. Mind you the disadvantage with this was getting so used to diving in clear water that we didn’t really want to dive in murky places, which meant that we got too picky about where we went.

It wasn’t long before Brian lost interest in spearing fish as it was almost too easy back in the late 1950’s before fizz boats became widely used and more people were diving in isolated places. In fact it’s quite probable we were diving in many places that no one had dived in before. There was a great range of fish that weren’t particularly hard to spear and large crayfish were plentiful. (As an example of this I picked up 12 large crays in about 15 minutes off Tiri on the way home from Kawau one Sunday afternoon.) It was indeed a rare weekend when we didn’t have at least something to share when we got home.

Brian decided that he wanted to have a go at underwater photography and since there wasn’t really anything on the market he decided to build his own camera case to house his Box Brownie camera. He went to the kitchen cupboard and took Mum’s pressure cooker and set out to make a case for the camera. This cooker had two short handles and was quite deep making it very suitable for the project. In short order the bottom was cut out of it and replaced with a perspex window. Inside a frame was fixed in place to hold the camera and a rubber glove was used to seal the top of the cooker and enabled him to operate the camera. This all worked pretty well but had one major disadvantage in that it couldn’t be aimed accurately resulting in many photos of heads and tails of fish with the rest being cut off. Mind you he also got many really amazing photos and this kept him hooked.

In 1957 our sister returned from England bringing a good camera she had bought for herself and an aqualung valve, which Brian had ordered, with her. The valve was put to good use and her camera somehow disappeared only to reappear inside the case. The quality of the photos improved markedly particularly as Brian found a flash he could use underwater. However this required coming out of the water to replace the “one use only” bulbs and was almost more of a hassle than it was worth. I guess it was around 1960 he got a professionally made underwater case and his photography went up another level getting some really great shots. Later on proper underwater cameras became available and this resulted in another leap in the quality of his photos.

The diving scene changed considerably during this time with the CO2 bottles being banned as they had a nasty habit of exploding during filling and we got Atlas bottles which were larger but were still steel bottles and in the end they too were banned. Neoprene suits became the norm and we were able to stay in the water much longer. We stopped using snorkels with ping pong balls on the top as these had a nasty habit of catching in the weed. Home made spear guns were replaced with shop bought ones and the flippers became much larger and more comfortable to use.

Although I hesitate to say it as it’s too easy to talk of the “good old days” but we were really fortunate in being able to see the best of diving as we were able to get to out of the way places when few other people could do so. We had a wonderful time doing it and looking back while writing this has again reminded me of the amazing places we went to and wonderful times we enjoyed as we dived around most of the islands and many areas of the coast between Tauranga and North Cape. Unfortunately, it really came to an end at Easter 1971 when Brian fell overboard off the yacht some 20 miles out from Cape Brett, during a storm, and was drowned. We ended up selling the yacht the following year and I have rarely dived since.

Keith Winstone

(April 2009)