Into the abyss
Published: 22 May 2015
Rod Macdonald is a man of many talents. For 30 years, he was a solicitor and still had time to dive into the deepest darkest waters to explore shipwrecks – and then write books about his adventures.
Then he turned 50 and decided to make his writing and diving career a full-time job. The Stonehaven resident has nine books under his belt, including Dive Truk Lagoon and Dive Scapa Flow, and now has another thing to celebrate: Being inducted into the prestigious Explorers Club of New York. He will join some of the world’s greatest explorers such as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Sir Edmund Hillary.
SO HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE AMONG SUCH GREAT NAMES?
I feel truly honoured to be part of this and I never dreamt that I would. It’s explorers from all different types of disciplines. So I do subsea stuff but there are mountaineers, Arctic explorers – James Cameron who directed Titanic, he is in it, he got the record for the deepest manned submersible dive – so it’s a stunning honour for “Rod from Stoney”.
TELL ME, WHAT IS A SHIPWRECK RESEARCHER?
There are 18,000 known shipwrecks around Scotland alone and the number including England is 60,000 shipwrecks so a lot of these are known about but a lot aren’t.
So a shipwreck researcher can identify ships when they see them on a seabed; I’ve got various techniques to identify them. I can measure the beam of the ship, the cylinder lids of the engine and you find out which ship it is. Then I have a blog and quite often I get contacted by crew that were on the ship when it sunk or even their relatives.
I write about my dives – so the Darkness Below is about one ship we found 14 miles north of Stonehaven in seven metres of water. So I published it and, lo and behold, a crewman from that ship got in touch, the last surviving crewman. He hadn’t seen the ship since the 1940s, he was the ex-radio officer. He lives in Bedford now, age 92, and he was very interested to see what his old ship looked like.
On our third dive, we came across the ship’s bell and normally we don’t take stuff from shipwrecks, however there was only one place this bell was going. So we lifted it, cleaned it, and one June morning we left here for an eight-hour drive down to Bedford and then ding-dong on his door, Hello Noel, we’ve got something for you. We presented him with the bell. So imagine after 70-odd years seeing that again! And then some relatives of crewmen got in touch.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SHIPWRECK DIVING?
Since 1982. I’ve always dived. When I was just a baby diver aged 23 or 24, there’s a wreck we knew at Slains Castle. At the bottom of the cliffs there, it’s a common novice dive, you can scramble down. There are steps cut into the cliff face which was where the staff from the castle would go down. There is a great big square pool cut out of the rock which is where they would keep their lobster and crabs. So we used to go down the steps and there is a smashed-up wreck down there.
At the time, I was living in Ellon and nobody knew the identity of this wreck so I did a bit of research and, lo and behold, in a journal from 1899 was a story about the SS Chicago which went straight into the cliffs while there was a ball going on at Slains Castle and all the gents in their tuxedos and the ladies in their ballgowns came out and stood at the top of the cliffs and looked down at this great big steam ship ploughed into the rocks down beneath. So that was the first wreck I ever identified and I got quite a buzz from it.
SO WHAT IS THE ATTRACTION?
When you start diving, you are in love with the sensation. It is like being in space – you are free and weightless and you can do what you want and see lobsters and see sharks when you go abroad. So it’s great for the first few years but then you think, they are just fish, they go nicely on a plate with some lemon. People go into different avenues so I went into shipwreck diving and research. Other people do underwater photography. So now every dive I do is on metal, I don’t like doing scenic dives, I don’t see the point.
It’s been a great era of exploration. There are so many people out there looking for answers. And the amount of people researching their families and the like. There is a group up in Peterhead that I am loosely tied to, Buchan Divers, they do exactly the same. There are 52 wrecks around the north-east up there alone so they have been out looking at all these, and between us, the amount of survivor contact we’ve had is amazing.
Relatives are blown away and you get nothing but positive feedback from these kind of things. It’s almost like I am helping people in a way. I like that side of things.
ARE THERE ANY SHIPWRECKS THAT YOU WOULD HAVE LOVED
TO EXPLORE BUT CAN’T ANYMORE?
There is a British battleship off the Lebanon from 1893 which buried into the seabed so she stands on her bow. You can go down the whole wreck. But I’ve never done that and Lebanon now ban diving the wreck so I probably won’t get to do it.