25 September 2019
Blesma Members take on the high seas in Florida Scuba activity
Corey Goodson is floating in a coral reef wonderland. It’s just over a year since the 19-year-old from Ipswich was left paraplegic after he was involved in a car accident during a week off from Phase Two training with the Royal Anglian Regiment.
But that’s not on his mind right now. Eighteen metres below the surface, floating through the crystal clear waters of the Florida Keys, he is marvelling at the rich marine life in front of his eyes.
“It was so good, so beautiful down there that I find it hard to explain. I saw stingrays, barracudas, lobsters, and so many fish. And being weightless was amazing. It’s fantastic moving around freely, and you don’t get tired. I can’t wait to go again.”
What Corey is describing is what you’ll hear from the vast majority of Members who participate in a Blesma scuba diving expedition. Underwater, many constraints that are brought about by limb loss or the loss of use of limbs suddenly disappear. Scuba diving can be a great leveller, and something almost anybody can learn to do. This particular scuba expedition, which saw Blesma take only wheelchair-using Members abroad for the very first time, was the perfect example.
Working closely with an American not-for-profit group called Diveheart, the 10-day trip proved that scuba is truly inclusive, regardless of fitness or mobility issues.
“They coped brilliantly with the fact that our guys use wheelchairs. We established what each person could and couldn’t do, and what might have stopped them from qualifying as a conventional scuba diver. Maybe they’d need two buddies underwater rather than one, for example. We worked out the parameters and made sure everyone was going to be safe, and then we got them to progress towards getting PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] qualified. Blesma is a big mix of different people, but to become a diver, you have to fulfil certain performance requirements. This was the perfect way of doing it.” explains Matt Goodwin, the Blesma Member and highly experienced dive leader who coordinated the trip.
“Diveheart is a great organisation because its ethos is that it can get anyone into the water, with as much support as they need, so there’s no reason for anyone to say: "I can’t do this”
Matt, who joined the Royal Marines in 1985 but left in 1991 after an ankle fracture eventually led to an amputation, credits scuba diving with playing a major part in his own recovery.
“I got involved with both Blesma and diving almost straight away after my amputation. Blesma has given me a lot of support and a real sense of belonging,” he says. “I went on a Blesma sailing event first in Antigua, which was great, and I’ve since become very passionate about our Association. “I started diving in 1992 and I loved it for the same reason that most amputees do – the weightlessness and freedom. I’ve since been diving all year round, all over the world. I’ve loved going to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Maldives, Egypt, and places like Scapa Flow in Scotland, where the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled after World War I. Diving those wrecks is absolutely fascinating, and you realise that not many people get to do this sort of stuff.”
Matt has since progressed through the instruction levels, becoming a British Sub Aqua Club dive leader in 1993, a PADI Dive Master in 1995, and is now a Master Scuba Diver Trainer.
“I enjoy the instructing side of it because I want people to feel the way that I feel when they get into scuba,” he says. “I like giving that to them – it’s all about taking off the shackles and increasing people’s confidence. You’re giving them the idea that they can progress if they work at something, that they should not be held back. You’re removing the stigma of disability.”
"Having an injury can be limiting, but you lose all of that underwater. You’re the same as anyone else."
Blesma’s dive trips have become a firm favourite on the calendar, something that Matt credits Philip ‘Bob’ Monkhouse with driving forward over the years. But what was different about this recent expedition was that it focused on a specific section of Blesma Members – those who use a wheelchair.
“It was good getting a number of people together who are in the same boat, if you’ll excuse the pun,” says Matt. “A trip like this is about diving, but even more than that it’s about learning, being positive, and getting people talking. We brought Wayne Rostron along with us, a Member with a spinal injury who is a very experienced diver. He was valuable in the water, but he was just as valuable afterwards, chatting to the other guys over dinner and showing them what they can achieve."
This activity can be seen as part of a growing trend within Blesma for Members to lead from within.
While BSO Steve Fraser attended to help out with the admin, the diving side was led entirely by Matt. “It’s great that our Members can get involved in organising trips,” says Steve. “Matt put this concept together and then delivered it. We couldn’t have asked for a better location or a better group of people to work with. It is all about that key aim of Members helping Members." "When I joined Blesma five years ago, I used to run the sailing trip, but in time I managed to back off and let a Member take control. That, in turn, meant 12 Members could go on the trip rather than 11. The more we can do this sort of thing, the better.” Matt agrees. “It’s great that Members can now help to organise and lead these trips. I see it as vitally important. It’s not about me, it’s about the Association giving a framework to other people. So, in the future, someone might start diving, progress through the qualifications, and take over this trip themselves.
"We’ve got a system in place to make that happen. Blesma’s aim is to enable the limbless and those with limb loss to live independent and fulfilling lives. This reflects that."
"The idea is for them to have a great time, but also to use that experience to get healthy and move forward with their lives”
The expedition to Florida saw three rookies make that first move. After several hours of classroom work, the Members moved into ‘confined water’
“A swimming pool,” laughs Matt, “so you can’t go drifting off into the distance, and things can’t swim up to you!”
Once they were confident and competent in that environment, the group moved off to the reefs of Key Largo.
“The thing that got me most was seeing a young lad like Corey, who is just 19, swim past me with his instructor. He was in a good position, really enjoying it. That’s what it’s all about – it was quite overwhelming. I could see that our Association was doing something to put people on the road to recovery. It’s really nice to be involved with that.”
Overall, everyone involved was happy with how the expedition had gone.
“The location was lovely, with lots of different places to eat, and the feedback about the diving was great – everyone thought that the pace was comfortable and the learning was graduated,” says Steve.
“Being transferred by hand from a wheelchair on a quayside into a boat was a big experience, a huge trust exercise – it was the same with going in and out of the water – but to see people who had never dived before being underwater was amazing. And it gave the Members the motivation to think they can do more of this kind of thing. It was a life-changing experience.”
That’s certainly the case for Corey, who is looking to dive again.
“I loved the diving and the fact that I could get about quite quickly using webbed gloves,” he says. “I ended the trip by getting my PADI open water ID card, and I’ve been recommending scuba to loads of people since I got back! The social side was great, too. It was very interesting talking to other people about their injuries and how they are coping. All of this has been really helpful with my rehab.”