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Blind diver Robert is an inspiration


A blind man has conquered his disability to plunge into the underwater world of scuba diving.

Robert Ainsley-Raffel was born blind but that hasn’t stopped the have-a-go Geordie making a splash with the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC).

They have helped the 25-year-old from Hexham complete his training in a swimming pool with flying colours and now Robert is looking forward to his first open water dives and passing his Ocean Diver qualification.

Not that Robert, who lives with his parents on a remote farm in between Corbridge and Hexham, Northumberland, has ever let his disability stop him tackling a challenge.

Remarkably, he was educated at mainstream schools and attended agricultural college, where he obtained a national diploma as a land-based technician.

But it’s passing his dive theory with a 100 per cent pass mark and completing his confined water dives in a swimming pool, a necessary part of the Ocean Diver qualification, that has given Robert the biggest thrill.

He said: “I haven’t got a problem being blind – it’s other people that aren’t prepared to step outside the box and find a way around problems that I have the biggest trouble working with.

“That certainly wasn’t the case with the British Sub-Aqua Club’s (BSAC) Regional Coach Dave Lucas. Right from the start he was prepared to give it a go and train me.

“Dave put me onto Cormeton, a BSAC school. I spoke to them and they actually got Dave involved with my training.”

“Dave has been fantastic. Instead of putting up barriers he took the attitude that we had to find a way around problems instead of just giving up and saying it can‘t be done.

“We even used a white stick as a guide while diving in the pool, it stopped me banging my head!

“The Instructors from Cormeton and the Tegional Coaching team taught  me the theory side of things and I passed the exam with a 100 per cent pass mark. The pool sessions were magic and, although I might have taken a bit longer to get things worked out, I had no trouble getting everything sorted.”

Mary Tetley, the Chief Executive of BSAC, is hugely impressed with Robert’s can-do attitude.

She said: “Robert is a remarkable individual who is an inspiration to us all.

“We are absolutely delighted that we are helping him achieve his ambition of becoming a qualified Ocean Diver.”

Robert says he gets frustrated at the lack of work opportunities available to him as a blind person – but he’s hoping to qualify as a plumber.

He has already passed the first two sections of a City and Guilds plumbing course at college and in his spare time he trains and races a greyhound he, tongue in cheek, named Bright Eyes.

But he says his achievements don’t mean anything to him as he’s not a stereotypical blind person.

He said: “I was born blind. Basically I didn’t have any retinas in my eyes so that was that. Nowadays, things have moved on and if I was born today they might have been able to do something.

“However, all the nerves and stuff in my eyes have, basically, been absorbed back into my body so there’s no hope now. It really doesn’t bother me being blind anyway. 

According to BSAC Regional Coach Dave Lucas, teaching Robert has been a brilliant experience.

He said: “Cormeton,  a BSAC school, agreed to help Rob and take him through his Ocean Diver. I was asked to go along and work with the schools’ instructors to get Rob through his qualification.

“I did lots of Rob’s pool training with him which was challenging and fun. The traditional methods of demonstration obviously have to be adapted for a blind diver.

“The solution was often a good briefing followed by a session where Rob was moved into the required positions like a life-sized action man until he realised what was required.”

“He has successfully achieved all of his pool training including forward roll entries into the water! Training Rob has always been challenging, fun and rewarding.

“Everyone involved has learnt so much, luckily Rob is really gifted and he picks things up quickly and is eager to learn. He has a fantastic sense of humour and has to be admired for his courage in tackling such a sport considering his lack of any sight. He’s a real star!”

Robert added “I’m happiest diving and I can’t wait to finish my Ocean Diver certificate.

“The British Sub-Aqua Club and especially Dave Lucas have been terrific. It’s just magic when people are prepared to work around a little problem, such as blindness, to come up with a solution.

“I will never be put off by a challenge and don’t see why I can’t try anything I want to. I know someone will always bang on about health and safety but sometimes you just have to think outside the box and come up with a solution.”

To find out more about diving in your area, go to or call free on 0500 947 202.

About the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC):

BSAC trains and represents 35,000 active scuba divers and snorkellers. It is the UK National Governing Body and official voice of scuba and snorkelling, working with organisations like the Health and Safety Executive, the RNLI, Marine Coastguard Association (MCA), Marine Conservation Society, HM Treasury’s Receiver of Wrecks, DEFRA and other diving organisations. 

BSAC is the world’s largest diving club and has 1,000+ sociable, family-based local branches and more than 120 diving centres spread across the country and worldwide. From beginner to expert, BSAC provides extensive diver training and the resources and back-up divers need to keep skills sharp and to help them enjoy diving safely. It welcomes membership of divers trained by all other agencies.

Search launched for the families of “forgotten” D-Day heroes

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A search has been launched to find families of the “forgotten heroes” who perished on a D-Day landing craft which sank in the Solent.

The Southsea branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) who identified the wreck of the landing craft are hoping to organise a memorial service at sea.

They are keen to trace relatives or former comrades of the men who died so they can invite them to the service.

BSAC member Alison Mayor led the team who conducted the diving survey and historical research which located the LCT 427 in the Solent.

The LCT was cut in half and sank in a collision with a British battleship on the way back from the D-Day landings.

Alison wants to ensure the men who risked their lives taking tanks to the Normandy beaches and died in the tragic accident just four miles from home will never be forgotten.

The wreck lies in the main shipping channel approaching the busy ports of Portsmouth and Southampton, which is normally out of bounds for diving.

Special permission was given by the Queen’s Harbour Master Portsmouth to conduct the underwater survey with diving managed carefully around shipping movements.

The two sections of wreck are in remarkable condition at a depth of about 30m, several hundred metres apart, with anti-aircraft guns and ammunition boxes.

Alison said: “In all there were 13 men aboard LCT 427 and only one of them was recovered that night. Sadly, he died two days later and was officially buried.

“The wreck site is much more than an important historical site, it is the final resting place of 12 brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country , and in very tragic circumstances.

“We have therefore been extremely careful to treat the find with the dignity and respect it deserves.

“We believe it would be fitting to hold a memorial service for the 12 men who were officially listed as missing presumed killed.

“We very much want to contact any surviving family of the men, and old comrades, to take them to the location where we could hold a simple memorial service.”

The search has the full backing of Mary Tetley, the Chief Executive of the British Sub-Aqua Club.

She said: ” Southsea Sub-Aqua Club have done admirable work in locating the landing craft so that we can honour the brave crew members who perished so close to home.

“We hope that the memorial service will be an opportunity for their families and remaining comrades to have closure and pay homage to their sacrifice.”

Already one 86-year-old navy veteran who knew a sub-lieutenant on the landing craft has said he would love to attend the service and read a passage from the Bible in memory of former comrades.

As an 18-year-old Midshipman, Paul Butler, from Bledington, Chipping Norton, who was returning that night from the D-Day beaches in LCT 454, knew Sub-Lt Frank Freeman, whom he believes was second-in-command on the LCT 427.

Although he could not see it, Mr Butler believes it may have been the LCT 427 he dispatched a message to that night advising they were changing course because his signalman had spotted “a monster silhouette” far away but coming towards them. He heard the next day that there had been an accident and a landing craft had collided with a battleship.

Mr Butler said: “Those who were left behind must be first and foremost in our thoughts. I am sure a service would appeal to many and, as a practising Christian, I would love to read a passage from the Bible – something I do every day -  at any service, although I realise there may be others far more deserving than me.”

He had delivered a cargo of four tanks to the D Day beaches that night. “We came under fire but very modest fire compared with what happened later, because by midday the Germans had woken up to what we were doing.

“I was on watch with my signalman that night we returned and he spotted this monster silhouette coming towards us far away. As a result the only thing to do was to get the Hell out of the area as quick as we could. We sent a signal to the ship on our starboard side and I believe it could have been the 427, but I don’t know for sure.”

LCT 427 was in collision with the battleship HMS Rodney. Wireman Kenneth Sumner, 22, from Wilmslow, Cheshire, was the only crew member recovered from the sea that night but died two days later. His grave is at the Royal Naval Cemetery in Haslar, Gosport. The remaining crew were posted missing presumed killed.

The LST and Landing Craft Association, which has recently held its final meeting because of the advancing years of the members, was consulted about the dive and about the memorial service.

The Association’s archivist and historian, Tony Chapman, said: “It would be nice if we could have a memorial service, if we can trace the relatives of the men lost.

“I’m afraid in many respects they are the forgotten because many of the people who knew them, parents, brothers and sisters, will also be gone by now.

“I have to believe that someone out there knows something about these men and hopefully there are relatives left.

“I am sure there are a substantial number of veterans on the South coast who would want to attend a memorial service in honour of these men.”

Anyone who believes they are related to the missing crew listed below, or served with them, should contact  Alison on 07740873255 or through or the Association archivist Tony Chapman on 011629 20160.

Makeover breathes life into centre

Cartrefi Conwy 90 Minute Makeover at Tan Lan community centre, Old Colwyn. Pictured is Keira Brennan aged 4 giving a helping hand.

A community centre which has become established as the hub of activities on an Old Colwyn housing estate has been given a new lease of life.

 The premises on the Tan Lan estate underwent a “90-Minute Makeover” involving volunteers, tradesmen and staff of Cartrefi Conwy, the housing association now responsible for housing matters which formerly came under the local authority.

 It was officers of Cartrefi Conwy who organised the intensive session at the centre in response to a plea from the residents, led by Jenny Hughes and Sylvia Lavender. They are, respectively, secretary and chair of the busy Tenants and Residents’ Association, and both serve as tenants’ representatives on the Board of the association.

 The centre first opened about 25 years ago and the council later installed a mobile classroom from Ysgol y Creuddyn in Penrhyn Bay alongside. About five years ago a link was built between the two buildings.

 “The centre is very heavily used by all sorts of groups, so it is inevitable that it tends to get to look a bit shabby,” said Sylvia, who has lived in the 400-house estate for 35 years.

  “We asked Cartrefi Conwy to help us, and they immediately agreed to organise this 90-Minute Makeover. That is where we notice a big difference now that Cartrefi Conwy has taken over – they are much more approachable than the council used to be and listen to what we say,” she said.

 Christine Mockridge, the Cartrefi Conwy  Neighbourhood Co-ordinator responsible for Tan Lan, said Cartrefi Conwy undertake about two or three such makeovers each year throughout the county.

 “Apart from carrying out work which clearly needs to be done it brings people together and helps to foster the community spirit,” she said.

 At the Tan Lan centre volunteers from various groups were joined by Cartrefi Conwy staff and all donned white overalls to give the entire interior of the premises a new coat of paint in record time.

 The materials were all donated by ICI, with which the association works in partnership on many projects, and also on hand to offer advice were professional painters and decorators from the Bell Group UK, who recently won a contract to paint almost 800 of the association’s properties.

  Among the volunteers was Fflur Roberts, who holds sessions at the centre for Standing Start, a group which offers help and advice to parents on a range of subjects.

 “We have been coming here for about four years and so we felt that we should come along to help with the makeover. It will be brighter and more attractive for the users,” she said.