Dive People: Alex Vassallo

Technical dive pioneer with a White Star Liner obsession

Author: Pat
2nd May 2012

He’s explored the Lusitania and White Star liners. Meet Alex Vassallo, an extraordinary deep wreck diver.

“Looming above was the giant hull of the wreck on its side… I was scootering along at a fair rate of knots, when PING! – my mask strap broke. Suddenly I’m alone on the bottom at 100ish metres, eyes tightly closed with no mask and no spare, and with no clear ascent to the surface.

“It was an interesting situation.”

That’s a modest appraisal, but then Alex Vassallo is a modest man. We meet at the office of Custom Divers, the business he runs from an industrial estate in Redhill. If it’s a modest building on the outside, the meeting room couldn’t be more different: today it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of top-drawer technical dive gear. He apologises for the mess, a hangover from the recent London Dive Show.

suddenly, it dawned on me I was a wreck diver

He’s travelled the world and ticked off a jaw-dropping list of wrecks, many of them iconic and all dangerously deep. Born in 1960 in Valletta, Malta, the ocean has always loomed large in his life, not least because the sea was just 300 yards from his front door. “It was my playground, we didn’t have grass parks,” he recalls fondly. As the son of a Chief Petty Officer, a certain self-reliance was distilled into him from the get-go. “I was taught to swim when I was four years old. It was a steep learning curve… he threw me in off a jetty.”

Valletta was (and remains) a busy port and as a youngster he became fascinated by the big ships in the harbour. His father’s job helped: “I got to go on every ship you can name in the early sixties. Aircraft carriers! … oh, these things were just huge, and to a small kid… well, you can imagine.” The family moved the UK when he was seven, where football took over as his main obsession.

Post-college, Alex joined BOC Gases as a design and development engineer, where he worked for 17 years. You might think you can see a link forming here, but he shakes his head. “I knew my way around gases and suchlike – liquid nitrogen and CO2. But I hadn’t associated it with diving in any way.”

While raising his young family in the late 1980s, an instructor friend encouraged Alex to try diving again – albeit down the more formal route of proper training. He was hooked. “It just bit me. Everything came flooding back – boy did it. I wanted to be in the water every minute I had spare. I did courses. I did the pretty fish stuff.”

“And suddenly, it dawned on me I was a wreck diver.”

The lure of touching metal was overwhelming and weekends were spent finding new wrecks in the English Channel. But the desire was to dive certain wrecks, ones at that time largely considered unobtainable. “There were a group of us buzzed up about White Star liners – not exclusively, but certainly ships of that era, and all their history. Find them, dive them – that was the goal.“

Depth wasn’t in itself the appeal – but it wasn’t an issue either. “If they’d have been in three metres, it would’ve been a lot easier,” he smiles, matter-of-factly. Unfortunately, they aren’t – many are 70, 80, even 100 metres or more.

Pushed to its limits, the equipment was found wanting. “It was a pioneering time. Much of it fell to bits or wasn’t right. Take a light – in essence it’s so simple. But at those depths inside a wreck, it implodes and spins you round… well you know, shit! So we made our own equipment. And as a tight-knit community [of deep water divers], people saw the things I had made, and asked me to make them one, too.”

“That was how Custom Divers started.”

The switch from hobby to business happened in 1993 and today Alex runs a successful company with a proven reputation for high quality innovative equipment for the sports and technical diving markets.  With sales broadly split between domestic and overseas, Custom Divers also supply bespoke designed equipment for militaries, police, and commercial divers worldwide.

Alex is particularly proud that Custom Divers equipment is being used by militaries and special forces.  What’s more, two of his products hold world records – Pascal Bernabé dived to 330 metres wearing a VBS, and Nina Preisner bagged the women’s deepest wreck dive (159m) on the Yolanda wearing a TCW.  Although he points out, this was “nothing to do with us, completely their own preference.”

So of the wrecks he’s dived, which were the highlights? “Oh my god…” he leans back in his chair. “Highlights… Hmm. I have to say, the Lusitania was fascinating. The Egypt. The wrecks in Ireland are just absolutely out of this world, Justicia, Tuscania… you’ve put me on the spot. There’s so many.” He’s in a happy place, suddenly.

Trips like these aren’t exactly strap-on-a-tank-and-go. They’re huge logistical exercises, big team efforts. So when you finally touch down on the seabed and look up at the wreck, what runs through your mind? “You’re seeing something that no-one’s ever seen before. Passenger liners especially, you see a lot of personal effects. Suitcases, shoes. You respect it as a resting place. It’s the history, it’s overwhelming.”

He’s not finished yet either. Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic is on his wishlist of future dives. Alex is also keen to visit the battleship HMS Victoria, accidentally sunk in 1893 off Tripoli. Remarkably, she rests vertically like a tower block, props towards the sky.

You can’t have the dive career Alex has without hairy moments. So what about that lost mask?

A wry smile. “Ah yes. Well there I was for what felt like a few days [turns out later it was a few minutes]. I knew my gas was ticking down.”

My throat is dry at this point.

Alex continues, “I decided to try and feel my way up the wreck, then make a free ascent listening to the alarms on my computer. There wasn’t much else I could do, so I got ready.”

“…and suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.”

He can laugh about it now. But it’s a lesson that even simple things can cause a problem. “I’ve had rebreathers fail on me, flooded lights, you name it… and this was a stupid mask strap.

“But I kept my nerve at the time and thought I was going to get out of it. You have to have that mental attitude, that this is not going to beat me – if you go in with any less than that, you should take up another sport.”

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