• Susannah Hart

My Dream Became a Nightmare

Warm water and big fish - the best type of diving!

The antipodean sun beats down and the warm breeze dries the water from Indian Ocean on my face leaving just salty sea crystals. Returning from the morning’s dive the boat suddenly slows as we spot a pod of humpback whales making their way down the coast. We don’t approach, but the whales gradually come closer, curious. Stopping so near I could reach out and touch their barnacle-covered skin. A pelagic stare down follows, I don’t want to tear my eyes away. I am mesmerised. In this moment I know what I want to do, how I want to live. I want to inhabit this world, teach people to dive, introduce them to the ocean and the creatures below the surface.

Getting very cold whilst on a course in February

Fast-forward ten years I am wet, cold and broke. Since those halcyon days on Ningaloo Reef I have realised my dream of running my own dive centre – sadly, not in one of the tropical coral filled corners of the globe, but on the South Coast of the UK.

The process was long – I didn’t want to be just a mediocre instructor, I wanted to give my students the best introduction to the underwater world that I could. Ultimately, I didn’t want another diver looking at someone I had taught and think, ‘who on earth taught them to dive?’ as I have with many over the years. I invested a great deal of time, effort and money in my own development to ensure that I was a knowledgeable instructor and diver that could be respected amongst peers and students alike.

Advancing my personal dive skills training on a rebreather at TekCamp

From the conception of the idea of my own dive centre to the day that the doors opened, I worked in a completely unrelated industry, forging a career. Always feeling like I was the proverbial round peg trying to squeeze myself into that square hole. Not feeling connected. I worked hard with some fantastic people and was lucky to be able to travel too, but it never really satisfied me. It had always been about experiences and adventures for me. Earning money to be able to do exciting things or travel to new places. I had a very naïve view that running my own dive centre would allow me to actually go diving in all those exotic technicolour locations. The reality was so very different.

Lucky to have met someone who shared my ambition we created Siren Diving. The ‘not mediocre’ ethos was applied to the standards that were set at the dive centre – everything had to be the best that we could offer.

Dive show stand
Exhibiting at the Dive Show ay the NEC

No corners were cut regarding student equipment, health and safety concerns or quality of instruction. The cost to set up and maintain this was immense, but we were unmovable. Scuba diving kit is a life support system; you are entering an environment where you depend on that equipment for survival. Literally having your student’s lives in your hands is an enormous responsibility and powerful motivator.

We invested everything we had; savings, earnings, time and energy. But it wasn’t enough. Although, the training took off and we had full courses, happy students and great feedback the overheads were crippling. Reality hit when my partner, now husband, Dave, was made redundant and we had no other source of income. The dive centre was not supporting itself let alone providing a living for us.

Being filmed for the local news at Siren Diving

After six months of us both working full time at Siren Diving the situation, although much better, hadn’t improved sufficiently and looking at the figures we couldn’t see a way forward.

Deciding to close the doors was hard. Seeing everything we had worked for broken down or sold off was heart rending – even though I knew it was the right decision. And it was a decision. It was one we made and not one that was made for us by banks or creditors. We came away from the adventure, and it was an adventure, with horrendous credit card balances and a debt of immense gratitude to Dave’s parents who had paid the rent on our flat for six months to allow us to focus and give the dive centre the best opportunity to succeed.

Jobs were not too hard to come by. Dave is a very experienced naval architect and found a good position quite quickly – he is still there now. I worked in two part time jobs whilst managing the closure – neither paid particularly well but allowed me the time and headspace to deal with the dive centre. It was definitely a period of transition.

The whole process, however, left its mark on me, one that I wasn’t really aware of at the time, but it became more apparent later. Anxiety. Especially where money was concerned. It wasn’t really not having any money; it was the credit card debt, more than six month’s worth of living with no income and substantial outgoings.

It occupied all my waking thoughts. I couldn’t plan anything, couldn’t book anything, couldn’t consciously make a decision to spend anything, such was my preoccupation with the debt. We were gradually chipping away at it, but it didn’t make a difference. Worst of all I didn’t really enjoy anything when we did do something – the anxiety over the money being spent was too great.

In the deep blue sea - amazing visibility

I didn’t realise quite how deely this anxiety had affected me until a couple of years later. I had seen a post on Facebook from a friend about the Cocos Keeling Islands. Years before I had had dinner with her and her husband and we had watched footage of their time diving on the atolls and coral islands that make up the small Australian territory.

The pristine underwater images, vibrant and colourful, stirred something in me then which inspired me to become a dive instructor myself. Seeing the post stirred something in me again – but this time it was the need to not feel the constant, crippling anxiety I felt on a day-to-day basis about money. An anxiety, which I realised, was sucking the life out of me and destroying my relationship; when you feel trapped and lost you make poor decisions, and do not look at anything from anyone else’s point of view.

On a boat somewhere.....

Over a decade earlier I had been carefree, full of hope and dreams, where no issue or obstacle was insurmountable. Now, I was paralysed by fear, I was tired and did not feel the joy that I used to. I wanted to be that girl again. I am thankful to my friend for reminding me of the girl I was. It was the reality check that I needed.

Two years later I will not lie and say I never think about money – it is still a preoccupation, but I am not as obsessive as I used to be. The anxiety is still present but it is tempered by a belief that whatever happens, it will be ok. It has been a long journey, which could possibly have been hastened if I had sort professional help, but I do feel that I am coming through the veil.

Sailing in the Solent
Having fun on the water

I feel joy everyday now, maybe not all day everyday, but everyday. I laugh and best of all I feel happiness for others, for their achievements and good fortune. And there are lots of adventures planned in, both large and small.

My once so cherished dream from long ago may have turned into a nightmare, from which it has taken years to fully awake, but I learnt so much. You can accomplish anything, no matter how out of reach it may appear, you just have to believe in yourself and make that first step.

Summer sunshine down at the beach in Bournemouth

I still have dreams, different dreams, and I am working towards them everyday

Do I regret setting up the dive centre knowing what I know now? Not at all. I am very proud of what we achieved, but more than that I know that I tried and I will never be left thinking ‘I wish I had…’ or ‘I wonder what would have been…’. I consider myself very lucky.

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