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James Neal had to wait for 40 years to scuba dive – but now he loves every minute of it

All Areas > Sport > Scuba Diving

Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Sunday, 3rd September 2017, 09:00

James Neal loves to scuba dive James Neal loves to scuba dive

Rather like a footballer who can’t kick a ball or a golfer who can’t hit a ball, a scuba diver who doesn’t like the water isn’t going to be very good at it.

Fortunately that’s not the case with James Neal who has spent much of his life in the water, on the water or just by the water.

James has been scuba diving since 2011 although his is a story that is anything but straightforward and indeed is laced with some very tough times.

The 47-year-old told The Local Answer: “I first wanted to go diving when I was 18 or 19. I grew up watching and was fascinated by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau and I loved things like Robinson Crusoe.

“So I bought all the kit and went to my local diving centre in Wareham, Dorset only to be told that because I was asthmatic I wasn’t able to dive. That was the medical understanding back then.”

So what did he do with all the diving gear?

“I sold it all and bought a speedboat,” he laughed.

That satisfied his need to be in or around water, of course, and pretty soon James moved into the world of powerboat racing.

“I had a 10-year love affair with the sport,” he said. “I used to race 30ft Lamborghini-powered powerboats.

“We used to race at speeds of up to 100mph – although I must admit I did crash one or two!

“I’d always spent my life on the water. I was brought up in Somerset and spent all my time at Lyme Regis.”

Powerboating kept him occupied until his early 30s when his work took over for several years.

“I used to work 100-hour weeks,” the one-time University of Gloucestershire student said. “I was obsessed with it.”

As is so often the case it takes a good woman for a workaholic to see that there is more to life than earning money. And that good woman in James’ case is Dimple, whose parents hail from India.

“We got married in 2011 and we honeymooned in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “We picked the location pretty much at random. We knew there were palm trees and golden beaches but that was pretty much it. We just liked the look of it.”

And it turned out to be a great choice of venue because it’s where James was finally able to scuba dive for the first time.

“There was this chap by the pool at the hotel where we were staying,” recalls James, who lived in or around Cheltenham for 20 years before moving to Symonds Yat, next to the River Wye. “He was sitting by a diving cylinder and next to him was a board which said, ‘Learn to Scuba Dive’.

“As I walked past him I casually said that I’d love to dive but wasn’t allowed to because of my asthma.

“He asked me if my asthma was triggered by exercise and when I told him it was brought on by hay fever and pollen he said I was okay to dive as long as I wasn’t affected by cold water.

“The next thing I knew I was in the swimming pool learning the drills and before long I was throwing myself off boats into the Caribbean sea. It was fabulous, I had a whale of a time.

“Dimple was very happy on the beach and I was very happy doing something I’d always wanted to do.”

Scuba diving became James’ passion and for the next two years he dived every week before his life took a very serious and sudden turn for the worse.

“I had a brain haemorrhage,” said James. “It was Christmas 2013 and I remember waking up in Frenchay Hospital and all I could say was ‘Where am I?’ and ‘When can I scuba dive again?’”

The answer to the second question turned out to be eight months later and he’s now done more dives since the haemorrhage than before.

“It’s been the fundamental cornerstone of my recovery,” he said. “The things I suffer from are short-term memory loss and chronic fatigue.

“I can do things in short bursts which is ideal for scuba diving because you are obliged to have a surface interval to allow the residual nitrogen to exit your body.”

So what makes scuba diving so special?

“You can do it all over the world,” said James. “I’m scared of flying but I’ve been all over scuba diving. I’m attracted to shipwrecks and I’ve dived around the Thistlegorm wreck in the Red Sea off Egypt. It was bombed by the Germans in 1944 and when you dive down to it, it’s like going back in time.

“I’ve also dived the Salem Express in the Red Sea which is a notorious wreck because it was a passenger ferry and when it sunk in 1991 it took with it 2,000 people.”

While shipwrecks are his thing there are other areas that hold great fascination for James when he goes many fathoms below.

“I’ve dived in Silfra, Iceland,” he said. ”It’s where the earth’s tectonic plates are coming apart and it’s incredible because you can put your hands on two continents at the same time – Europe and America. It’s crystal clear glacial melt water and you can see further under the water than on land.

“It’s sensational and is on every diver’s bucket list.”

Closer to home James is an active member of Cheltenham Sub-Aqua Club which meet every Wednesday at Brockworth Swimming Club.

“They’re a fantastic club,” said James. “They have nearly 50 members and what I like about them is they are so inclusive.

“They’ve got the likes of me who have had a haemorrhage and Neal Breeden, who also survived a brain injury after he suffered a stroke nearly 10 years ago, and there is another member who lost an arm in a motorbike accident. The club are very supportive of all of us.”

Talk of Neal Breeden leads inevitably to the 24-hour underwater scubathon that the two of them have organised for the middle of this month, when they hope to raise in excess of £2,500 for Headway, a charity which helps people who have suffered a brain injury.

The dive will begin on Saturday 16th September and finish at midday on Sunday 17th September at the National Diving and Activity Centre in Chepstow.

Members of Cheltenham Sub-Aqua Club will work as a relay team to spend a full day under water led by James and Neal.

“I dive a great deal with Neal,” said James, “it’s a fantastic therapy for us both.”

James retains a huge appetite for life, especially when you could consider the cruel setbacks that have befallen him in recent years.

“A year to the day that I had my haemorrhage – 23rd December 2013 – my son Harrison was stillborn,” he said. “That was in 2012. I also lost my Siberian Husky, Shadow, a month earlier. They were tough times.”

That James is still able to live his life the way he does – he has a another husky by the name of Deco these days – is a huge credit to him and those around him. He deserves all the support he gets when he takes on his scubathon challenge.

For further information about Headway Gloucestershire, to make a donation to the charity, or to pledge your fundraising or voluntary support, visit www.headwaygloucestershire.org.uk

Other Images

Neal Breeden
James Neal had a brain haemorrhage in December 2013

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